Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation? A debatable question for Dance

Recently I have been increasingly curious about the expression ‘Cultural Appropriation’. This term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017 and is defined as “… the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.” I have been seeing this term a lot, mainly related to Halloween costumes; I have read many articles and posts online berating people about dressing up as Pocahontas or Cleopatra, for example. I am going to be completely honest and admit that my first (ignorant) reaction was an exasperated sigh. I felt at first like this was political correctness gone mad, after all, people were not dressing up with the purpose of offending anyone. But then it made me think about a conversation/debate I had recently with friends about “how far is too far when it comes to comedy?”. It pushed me to consider the view that intent isn’t always the point, but it’s the way that something is received that is important.

So I started to do a little research, read different perspectives on the matter and try to educate myself more. What I found was eye-opening. In Leila Fadel’s article “Cultural Appropriation, A Perennial Issue On Halloween”,  she highlights the way that wearing costumes, such as Native American dress, can minimize a cultural identity into a damaging stereotype. She also points out that many of the styles of costume are actually representative of a very violent time in Native American history. Valeria Lo Iacono Symonds identifies another issue, in relation to dance. She says “There have been claims of appropriation, and concerns that the true essence of Egyptian belly dancing is being lost to commercialisation.” She discusses the fear that using cultural dance for entertainment purposes could misrepresent the culture and that some perspectives are that certain dances should only be performed by the people within that culture.

This led me to thinking about my current Grade 10 unit ‘Cultural dance from around the world’. In the unit, I teach a range of cultural dance styles such as American hip hop, Korean Hip hop, Bornean Magunatip, African Gumboot dancing and so on. The purpose of the unit is to explore the concepts of relationships and perspectives through the context of personal and cultural expression. It also ties in with our Global Exploration Trips in Grade 10, where the students will travel to places such as Borneo, Thailand and Fiji for the week. 

However, it did pose the question – is this dance unit cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? Although our intent is not to offend anyone by learning about and trying out these dance styles, would it be received positively by people from those cultures?

Having read around the subject more, I realised that there are other aspects that must be considered, before answering this question. Are individuals benefiting financially, has the dance has been stripped of meaning and significance, has the origin and historical context of the dance been forgotten? Are we trying to represent this dance as part of our own culture? In the case of my dance unit, the answer to those questions is no. Some key inclusions in the unit are:

  • Actively learning about the origin and stories behind all of the dances we explore, including both positive and negative histories 
  • Encouraging the students to view the world from different perspectives that they may not have considered before
  • Developing intercultural understanding and applying it to interpret the dances and other aspects of the culture

I have also now added an activity in the unit in which students will debate this specific question. I think it is a great learning opportunity and a chance to open their eyes to a real-life topic; and it will stimulate some interesting discussions in the classroom. 

Valeria Lo Iacono Symonds says, it is important to “value a dance’s cultural roots” and, because of the way we are teaching the unit and the message we are trying to deliver, I believe that this unit demonstrates cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation. I hope that this is a great way to introduce our students to the complex and pertinent issue of cultural appropriation, at the same time as appreciating dance in a respectful way and improving intercultural understanding.



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