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Inclusive Teaching & Cultural Competency

Culture, Ability, Diversity

"Culture, it turns out, is the way every brain makes sense of the world," education activist and writer Zaretta Hammond notes. Our learning capacities in the mind and body are hooked into multi-faceted aspects of the culture in which we are raised. This is a concept that American university systems, and Western forms of education in general, are still trying to grasp: how to make space for, how to utilize the cultural tools offered by the culturally diverse groups of students in America today. In addition: how to de-center the European colonialism that is Western education's inheritance? And how to invite students of all ability into the dance classroom?

These questions have been a huge part of my own learning and teaching throughout my career, as I have worked with, and been part of, different populations of students. At Long Island University in Brooklyn, I taught dance history and contemporary technique to predominantly African American students, as one of the few white persons in the room. I grappled with frustrating textbooks that relegated a history of Black contemporary dance and ballet to one chapter. This plain evidence of inequity changed my teaching. It opened my eyes to how a "traditional" presentation of an American history of dance has often been non-inclusive, and how I as a teacher had the responsibility to shift, open, decolonize that narrative, for my students.

Later, at the University of Vermont, with an overwhelmingly white student population, my role was different. Here I attended to all, but particularly to students of color who worked harder, who faced daily obstacles, to simply be in the room, but whose perspectives offered a much-needed correlative to the majority of students.

My recent work in Dance for Parkinson's Disease has opened up a new window of population in the dance classroom, and led me to re-think how to teach a dance class entirely, specifically tailored for the needs, abilities, and strengths of individuals moving with PD. I have thought much about how a dance classroom is not only a place to get but to give: the mutual support, social interaction, sharing that goes on in Dance for PD classes is as important as the physical therapy.

In my role as "teacher" I am actually as a facilitator of information, inviting the various cultural and physical perspectives of the classroom into discussion. I find it extremely helpful for students to experience what I am facilitating — whether it be ballet, improvisation, contemporary dance, African diasporic forms, or Butoh — within an understanding of its cultural, political, and social agency. Dance is, of its very nature, a cultural and kinesthetic activity, with manifestations in dance studios, on stages, in community centers, in religious practice, in celebrations, and on the streets.

American university systems are faced with huge challenges in championing diversity, equity, and inclusion in today's social and political realities. My goals, in the midst of such challenges, is to continue to facilitate support, resiliency, and transformation, as we celebrate the plurality of experience in our student populations.

Making space for all moving bodies: diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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