I guess this has turned into an occasional blog — since I'm not exactly a prolific writer, I'll most likely continue writing whenever issues raise their heads (instead of daily/weekly/monthly...). So — I came upon a situation this past semester that was a new dilemma for me, after all these years, and I am still wondering how I could have handled it better, and how I can tweak my class projects in order to head off anything similar in the future...
In the past, at EOSA, I had given my Dance Production students very specific assignments for their final choreography projects for the spring concert (one year it was dance in the style of a dance ancestor, another was dance as a response to history or social issues, another was dance responding to words or text, etc.). This year, for my first Dance Production class at my new school, I reverted to the more open-ended system of my student-teaching mentor — each semester we had an "idea day" in which students presented their dance ideas to the class; then dancers signed up for dances they most wanted to perform, choreographers gave me lists of their needs for dancers, and I set casting accordingly.
This worked beautifully in the fall concert, with 11 choreographers presenting interesting pieces in widely varied styles. In the spring, we again had some intriguing ideas presented; but I also noticed a lot of choreographers talking more about the popular music they wanted to dance to than the dance itself. Of more concern were various references to "hardcore popping" or "burlesque-style" dance, as well as some of songs that were fairly offensive (in which bouncing, jiggling, and showing off your booty is the entire point) — the tone of the day felt to me as if some choreographers were competing for dancers by using popular and sexualized songs and movement. So I reconnoitered, told the choreographers to come back in a week with a written proposal including what they intended to communicate to the audience, and tried it again. The second idea day went better — most choreographers came back with complete proposals, with more well-thought-out movement ideas and nothing overtly unacceptable at least.
As we moved into rehearsals and in-progress showings, I could see there were still a couple of dances (or parts of dances) that made me uncomfortable as a director. The first was pretty simple: in a group dance about love, the very first movement looked to me like stereotypical "stripper dance" — dancers squatting on their heels opened their knees sharply in unison before slithering to standing level (a movement which undoubtedly appears in countless music videos, but in context seemed very suggestive). I talked to the choreographer about what she intended to convey to her audience, how the opening movement sets the tone for the whole dance, and that at least parts of her audience were likely to see her beginning as an allusion to striptease. She agreed that it might not be the most appropriate opening, and changed it so that each dancer (still in unison) sharply made his or her own dramatic, low-level shape — which turned out to be a much more interesting opening in any case.
The second instance was more difficult. This choreographer had originally proposed one of those "shake your body" songs; for her second proposal she changed to "Flawless" by Beyoncé. Ironically — given that the song includes a talk by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the importance of feminism, specifically deploring girls in our culture competing for the attention of men — her dance seemed to be permeated with subtly (or sometimes overtly) sexualized movement. After the first showings I asked her to tone down some parts of the dance, which she did (though reluctantly); but it remained problematic for me —not blatantly inappropriate enough to take it out of the concert, but still not what I wanted to showcase in my dance program.
The heart of my dilemma is that this choreographer's intention was to create a dance about "empowering women to love their own bodies" (as her dancers agreed). I think these young women genuinely believe they are conveying women's empowerment by performing movement that looks to me very reminiscent of striptease. I know this style of movement is very much a part of pop culture through music videos, and that burlesque and even pole-dancing are now popular recreational dance classes; yet I also know, in a historical context, how much this is still a product of a male-dominated culture in which women are objectified as sex objects. What I have been asking myself is: how do I expand my students' focus (or raise their consciousness, as we used to say) to understand how these movements they are drawn to are objectifying, decidedly un-empowering, and borderline offensive for some of us, without coming off sounding like an anti-sex prude? I worry that I am simply being too sensitive — but I do not want my (nearly all female) students learning to demean and objectify women, however inadvertently.
This, again, is a new problem for me — at my previous school, every student in my (small) Dance Production classes presented their choreography finals on stage, and somehow I never had to deal with movement I considered inappropriate.... So I wonder — has the culture changed that much? Is it something in the culture of this particular school? And how do I adjust my class to prevent the problem in the future — going back to specific assignments? Requiring instrumental music only? (both of which I am definitely toying with.) Or perhaps some readings in classic feminist literature...? Or do I just frankly talk to the new class about how sexualized movement objectifies women? I hope that these are just growing pains of a new program and that we will get over it as our culture of dance develops, but I do feel a need to address it proactively as the new school year starts.