Questioning Dancefest: An In-depth Look Into a Colgate Tradition

April Bailey

I love dance; it’s fun, empowering, helps to keep me in tune with my body, and gives me an artistic voice. I also think that dance, and Dancefest in particular, potentially reproduces some of the existing social problems in our culture, including racism (a systematic power hierarchy according to racial identity), sexism (a systematic power hierarchy according to gender identity), and heteronormativity (invisibility of queer individuals and relationships). However, Dancefest seems to avoid scrutiny. 

I researched Dancefest for my Women’s Studies senior seminar to get a better handle on how dancers and audience members experience it, and to see if my intuition about some of its problems has any backing. I surveyed 61 audience members and 54 dancers. Dance groups included: Ballet, Ballroom, Belly Dance, CSA, DDT, FUSE, Groove, KPOP’D, Kuumba, Shock, Tahitian, and Wolfpack. I also conducted qualitative group interviews with 10 participants.

First, I considered the content of Dancefest. Though often perceived positively, 40 percent percent of the audience disliked the way their gender identity was portrayed, often as over-sexualized, and 31 percent disliked the way their racial identity was portrayed, often as culturally-appropriated or exoticized. There was a moderate, positive correlation between identifying as a person of color and being dissatisfied with racialized portrayals. This could be for a variety of reasons including: portrayals of people of color were more problematic than that of white individuals, white individuals do not consider themselves to have a racial identity and thereby do not notice racialized portrayals of whiteness, and individuals of color are more often subjected to racial microaggressions and therefore are more attuned to noticing them.

On other content issues, audience members seemed overly generous. Most thought that Dancefest portrayed diverse sexual orientations. But of the dance groups surveyed, only one indicated that they use queer couplings. There was a moderate positive correlation between identifying as queer, and indicating that Dancefest does not display diverse sexual orientations. Minority status might give audience members heightened awareness of being further underrepresented.

This brings up the difficult question: which is more important, the intent behind a work or its impact on perceivers? Often dancer intentions were very different from any negative perceptions. One dancer expressed feeling empowerment and confidence in their body because of a piece. Audience members discussed the same work as objectifying. They explained why they plan to avoid Dancefest this semester by noting how dancers are transformed into sexual objects through catcalls and spandex clothing. Though dancers’ and choreographers’ experiences of their own work is important, the event would not exist without an audience and as such audience perceptions should not be ignored.

Secondly, I considered who dances and in what group. Dancefest groups are 84 percent women. Our culture considers women to be the more attractive gender and puts them on display. This history has created an association between femininity and dance, making it a somewhat inhospitable space for men, especially straight men. The men in Dancefest have navigated this constraint through a variety of devices: joining groups dominated by women anyway, creating a group for men, dancing masculine parts in groups including men and women, or creating more gender-neutral choreography, performed by all. The group interviews drew attention to additional ways gender exclusion is reinforced through Colgate’s social culture; female-dominated groups will “mix” with all-male groups on campus. This mixing culture assumes that all attendees are straight, and makes it uncomfortable for men in female-dominated groups to participate. Three dancers stated that their group is gender exclusive. Two indicated that they would “probably” allow a transgender person with the matching gender-identification to join, but one indicated that they were “unsure.”

Concerning race, 75 percent of audience members thought that Dancefest was racially representative. It appears to be. Groups are 64 percent white compared to all of Colgate which is 68 percent white. (Colgate derives this statistic by including International Students as a separate “racial” category, which is a little misleading.) However, 86 percent of audience members did not think that Dancefest was racially integrated; this also seems to be the case. Only three groups reported racial compositions comparable to Colgate’s. As with gender, there are deep historical reasons for this, one being that certain types of movement become racialized by association with the communities in which they developed. This affects what types of dance are available in people’s home communities before they come to Colgate. Class plays a role, as certain training can be very expensive. This dynamic is further complicated by the fact that some dance groups are tied to a cultural group on campus, though none of these cultural dance groups are as racially homogenous as three 90 percent white groups.

In the interviews, we discussed steps towards improving some of these issues. It was important to dancers to be able to maintain artistic control over their work, despite unintended impacts. One idea was to expand the information in the program allowing choreographers to include a sentence about their work, thereby bridging between dancer intent and impact on audience. New SGA policy requires that all groups are explicitly racially and gender inclusive. We discussed ways to break down implicit barriers. We thought that groups that are homogenously white tend to use music by white artists, and the inverse for groups that include proportionally more people of color. We suggested using music to subvert exclusion. We suggested further ensuring that the opening number song, movement, and formations are equally welcoming and representative of diverse bodies since this piece includes all dance groups. We also suggested increased transparency to avoid confusion among dancers within a group, or among potential dancers at the Activities Fair, about whom that group allows.

I love Dancefest. My goal with this article is to encourage people to attend. Enjoy it! Consider joining dance groups. But also, notice how Dancefest can be improved so that rather than reproducing some of the problems at Colgate and in our culture more broadly, Dancefest does even more to actively subvert them.