Posted on March 28, 2019

Avoiding Pitfalls of Cultural Appropriation in Dance

Rick Hellman, University of Kansas, March 11, 2019

From the time she was a young dancer just starting to learn Spain’s flamenco tradition, future University of Kansas Professor Michelle Heffner Hayes was concerned about the issue of improper cultural appropriation.

“It’s even more highly charged in the current political environment when Black Lives Matter and Native American groups draw our attention to insensitive cultural appropriation as a typically American practice that needs to be recognized as such,” she said.

The issue forms an organizing thread in her latest scholarly article, “Lo que queda/That which remains: Dancing Bodies, Historical Erasure and Cultural Transmission.” It’s part of the new book titled “The Body, The Dance, the Text: Essays on Performance and the Margins of History,” (McFarland & Co., 2019) edited by Brynn Shiovitz.

The essay takes on notions of cultural appropriation in the actual performance of dances as well as in the process of documenting and preserving the choreography of such other-than-classical forms as flamenco, hip-hop and Latin popular dances. {snip}

She explains that she conceived the dance in response to a 2014 album titled “Razón de Son” by musician and anthropologist Raúl Rodríguez. He describes the album as “an imaginary folklore” that incorporates the varied intercultural dialogue that eventually became flamenco.

That includes, Heffner Hayes said, an Afro-Caribbean influence that made its way back to Spain during the Atlantic slave trade.


But when she tried to reinvent it with a group of college students whose bodies were trained in ballet or hip-hop or other contemporary forms, she admits it was a struggle, both physically and mentally.


And even if the physical challenges could be overcome in rehearsal, what about the social issues?

“Again, I wondered if I was simply perpetuating cultural appropriation by creating a dance with students who were not steeped in these traditions,” Heffner Hayes wrote.

In the end, she concludes that the opposite was true: “I realized that by not teaching these forms to the best of my ability, I was complicit in their exclusion from curriculum.”

“{snip} It’s not that white people can’t learn tap or hip-hop, but it’s the fact that the people who invented these dances got no credit or money that’s the problem. We have to contextualize these forms in the present moment and give credit just the way you would when you cite another author’s work when you write. These acts are part of a larger dialogue in cultural reparation.”