With over 130 members, Dance Club is one of the largest student organizations on the St. Mary’s College of Maryland campus. The club, formed to fill the void of f opportunities for dancers, recently changed its constitution in response to student concerns regarding instances of racial bias.
On Feb. 6, 2018, Leah Woody, ‘18, and Lakeshia Ferebee, ‘18, attended a student speak-out at the Student Government Association (SGA) meeting. Black Student Union President Demilade Adebayo also attended the speak-out in support of Ferebee and Woody.
Dance Club President Lauren Comeaux, ‘18, was quick to respond. After a club conduct hearing which followed the student speak out, she and the other members of the Dance Club Executive Board drafted a new club constitution to address concerns of racial injustice in the auditioning protocol, as well as formalizing other aspects of the routine semester-long audition, rehearsal and performance cycle.
Woody and Ferebee were excited to audition as choreographers for Dance Club this semester. However, they were surprised when their partial chair dance was rejected for being too sexual. They pointed out that Dance Club has staged chair dances in the past. “Other dances in Dance Club have been done with chairs before, and other dances are sexual in nature. Why was ours different?” inquired Ferebee. “It’s okay for petite white dancers to do these kinds of dances, but thicker black women can’t,” Woody added.
Woody recalled a dance from last semester about a one-night stand, in which the dancers wore oversized shirts and performed a “walk of shame.” “We were just confused about where the line is drawn for being too sexual,” Woody said. “Also, that dance choreographer was white. The hypersexualization of black women in America is very common, and that was something we wanted to touch on when we were refuting this case against Dance Club.”
Ferebee added concern that the criteria by which their dance was judged was unclear, saying “Being too sexual is subjective, who gets to decide what is too sexual and how can you objectify me and tell me I’m being too sexual, but when other people are sexual it’s deemed okay?”
Woody said via email that the Exec[utive] Board had not expressed that they were toning down “the sexual nature of this semester’s show until the [c]onduct [b]oard meeting.” She continued to say that a change in the acceptable levels of sexual content was not noted in the dancer choreographer audition emails nor any of the editions. Woody says that that toning down the sexual nature of the show was in response to attendance is “offensive because it seems as if they’re trying to defend their racial and sizeism bias rather than take responsibility of their actions and move forward.”
Comeaux stated that the Dance Club Executive Board is working to decide how to move forward with dances of sexual nature. She stated that the Dance Club Executive Board has begun having conversations with their advisor, Kelly Schroeder, and the student conduct board about the evolving audience. “With the club growing, there’s been a shift in the audience in attendance … We’re going to work at the end of this semester with our new Exec[utive] Board and with our advisors to try to come up with a more objective way of figuring out what is appropriate … we’re trying to figure out how to make that transition while still having it be a college dance show where choreographers can show their creative abilities — we’re finding a balance there.”
Ferebee and Woody also spoke of their concerns regarding how the genres of music are defined, saying that in the past, pop music and corresponding dances have been labeled as hip hop, a misrepresentation of African American culture.
In response to this, Comeaux stated that Executive Board members are “going to … get a better background with that and then have an information session with people who are planning to choreograph to explain the different styles of dance so they have a better understanding, and then their dancers will have a better understanding as a result … Exec[utive] Board will try to do some diversity training as well.” She said that the newly elected Executive Board will also participate in these diversity trainings.
Another concern Woody expressed was that Dance Club Executive Board members pick experienced dancers for their own lyrical dances and tend to put less experienced dancers into hip hop dances. In other cases, hip hop dances are declined for being “too hard,” another subjective criterion left unclear to potential choreographers. Ferebee notes that since practices run all semester, being in the club should be a learning experience, but that “a lot of the time, if [Executive Board members] think hip hop movements are too hard they will reject the dance completely.”
In response to these concerns, Comeaux stated that “it’s a lot of work to place over 100 dancers in dances,” and that, “dance is a subjective thing, but just having clearer guidelines for what needs to be provided at auditions, what kind of things we’re looking for, how we make our decisions, that kind of stuff- to make it more even across the board.”
The Dance Club Executive Board have revised their constitution to include a draft method of placing dancers. The new policy states that “Each choreographer will be randomly assigned a number for the draft order. The draft method will allow choreographers to go in a circle to choose dancers based on the number they pick, and choreographers must respect scheduling conflicts when choosing their dancers. Choreographers will be allowed to decide which dances they would like to be in, but choreographers should not make up more than 25 percent of the minimum number of dancers for each dance.”
A final concern addressed in the Club Conduct hearing was racially insensitive costuming. Woody recalled a dance from the spring 2017 show where a hip hop dance was performed by mostly white students, “and one was dressed in a gorilla or monkey costume. Being an African American, the history of people comparing African Americans to gorillas or monkeys is very offensive, something that’s very derogatory.” Ferebee added that “the costumes had nothing to do with the songs … it looked like a zoo.” She said that members of Executive Board “have to think about everything that comes into play, it might not be intentional, but you have to realize … every detail is a reflection of how you view certain issues.”
In response to these concerns, the club added a new clause to their constitution wherein choreographers must have their ideas approved by the Executive Board. While Comeaux said she couldn’t know the choreographers intentions, the idea was presented to the Executive Board as different themed costumes every night for the senior spotlights, one night was neon night, another night they wore onesies- the detail of animal costumes was not on the Executive Board’s radar as senior spotlights were previously less structured.
Students concerned about instances of prejudice on campus are encouraged to reach out to student conduct board. Ferebee spoke to this, saying, “we see a racial bias incident, and gender and sizeism, we see all these ‘isms’ and biases and because we care about [Dance Club] and we are in it and so many first-years want to do it, we want to make a change for everyone else,” to which Woody added, “As leaders on campus, we can’t just let this slip by.”
Ferebee and Woody emphasized that they are excited for senior spotlight dances at the end of the semester and would have considered being dancers in the regular portion of the show if they weren’t busy with their St. Mary’s Projects. Ferebee said of the student speak out, “We felt like Dance Club needs to be more diverse, and truly diverse — not just for the sake of having black choreographers, but also allowing them to showcase their culture and teach the culture correctly … We just wanted to make Dance Club inclusive for everyone.”
Comeaux also noted that “while the club makes the transitions sanctioned by club conduct board, [Dance Club] Executive Board is very interested in feedback from the club because we’re only six people, so we don’t have the perspective of the 130 members.” She also states that “a lot of positive changes have come out of this and as an Executive Board, even though most of us are graduating, we are looking forward to seeing how these changes are going to improve the club because that’s ultimately our goal: to make the club better every year and more inclusive and a place that people enjoy being.“
This semester’s Dance Club performances will be in St. Mary’s Hall. The four shows will run April 26-28; times have not yet been announced.