The Berkeley High School (BHS) African Diaspora Dance Department changed its name in 2020 from the Afro-Haitian Dance Department in order to encompass “all the countries where African Black people have been in this world,” Dr. Dawn Williams, instructor and executive director of the program, explained. The name change was important in better connecting to the cultural history of the dances the department teaches, allowing the program to extend its global reach.
Dance has been an incredible physical and creative outlet for people since the beginning of humanity, but racist standards festering within dance programs often undermine dancers’ self image, confidence, and careers.
The expectations for how dancers should use their bodies in many dance forms can create pressure to look a certain way, especially for dancers of color, who are often told they don’t have the “right body” for the art form. “It really depends on the type of dance you’re doing. … Sometimes you see [slim dancers] and the instructor is constantly putting them in a position in the front. … It can make you self conscious, specifically in ballet,” Aiyala Scott, an African Diaspora dancer, said.
“That’s really the racism [in dance]. It’s not really the color … it’s the body shaming. The image of what you think you’re supposed to look like,” said Tanzia “Ms. Shorty” Mucker, an instructor and artistic director of the BHS African Diaspora Dance Program.
The toxic environment in some dance programs can be difficult to overcome, according to Ashley Gayle, a professional dancer, board member for ShawlAnderson Dance Center, and co-director of Visceral Roots Dance Company. As a biracial dancer, going to class was difficult in Gayle’s youth. “I’ve seen good friends of mine, beautiful dancers, who’ve had to leave the art form [ballet] because they just mentally and emotionally couldn’t handle the pressures.”
Additionally, as Gayle stated, “There’s a lot of dance history that has gotten lost … hidden, and … commercialized or whitewashed” through the persistence of creative theft and lack of cultural knowledge within the dance community.
Although dance can historically be a place of impossible standards, African Diaspora dance at BHS offers supportive community.
“We have … every different shape and size in this class … that’s also part of the beauty of what we bring as African Diaspora dance. In the motherland, in Africa, there is no rigid way of looking at who’s gonna be able to dance. Everybody gets to dance!” said Dr. Williams.
African Diaspora dance doesn’t just teach dance steps, but different meanings and history of each dance and song, and the unique cultures that created them. “I’d never really seen a performance for [African Diaspora Dance] before … I get to Berkeley High [and] … I’m just like ‘Woah, hey, I have a culture here, that’s part of my historical background!” said Scott.
Ms. Shorty said, “We teach the peace. We teach the harmony, we teach the unity. We teach community, we teach family.”