York University Students Write Open Letter to Dance Department About Issues of Social Justice, Equity and Inclusion

The letter has garnered nearly 200 signatures in less than a week By Grace Wells-Smith
  • Williams / Photo courtesy of Williams

On August 26, students from the dance department at York University posted an open letter to the department, urging it to move past shallow actions and re-evaluate the curriculum considering how white supremacy and colonialism are deeply embedded in pedagogy.

The letter was written by Shenel Williams and Emma Whitla, both third-year students, and has garnered nearly 200 hundred signatures from students, faculty and alumni. The letter was originally shared via Facebook.

“Specifically, we are imploring you to hold the dance department accountable for its minimal recognition of BIPOC dance forms. The dance world is entrenched in white supremacy, though we have often ignored it in order to maintain the status quo and protect white fragility and ‘tradition,’ ” the letter reads.

The letter also calls for more than one week to be spent on Afro-diasporic and BIPOC dance history and for styles outside of ballet and modern to “occupy the same academic space.”

In an email to The Dance Current, Susan Cash, the chair of the dance department, confirmed that the required courses for dance students are contemporary modern (including Limón and Graham technique) and “follows through with the expertise and forms that the teachers have.” She also said that students are required to take other forms that they are “able to offer at this time,” including contemporary ballet, African dance and music, Philippine dance, and breaking and hip hop.

“To promote diversity without equitable academic representation is hypocrisy,” reads the letter.

Recent events including the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are what inspired Williams to write this letter.

“The aftermath of their passing led to a lot of mass demonstrations for change, which inspired us to seek accountability and justice for BIPOC students particularly in the York University dance program,” she said. “We didn’t want to just passively address it; we wanted to stand firm and demand solid change.”

Williams, who said she comes from a self-taught background, equates her experience in the dance department so far to a roller coaster of emotions.

“It’s really been a shift not being able to explore the forms that you necessarily grew up with and would like to train in,” she said. “And I think that’s exactly why we’re penning this letter. To let York University know, and let other institutional dance programs know, that their structures do typically have an effect on individuals, particular BIPOC students, and we need to shed light on the emotional implications of that,” she said.

In an email to The Dance Current, Sarah Bay-Cheng, dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) at York University, outlined the steps that AMPD will take to address diversity, equity and justice issues.

These steps include a newly appointed action group in the dance department that will address the concerns of BIPOC students, chaired by Dr. Patrick Alcedo. AMPD will also be working on other initiatives with Rhonda Lenton, university president, and Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek, vice-president for equity, people and culture. She also confirmed that African dance and music will be offered in the fall and winter.

“As the dean of AMPD, I am inspired by the commitment and dedication of students such as Ms. Williams and Ms. Whitla, as well as our alumni, faculty and staff who continue to advance these important issues. I know that they will hold me accountable for the changes that are needed and I welcome these efforts,” Bay-Cheng said.

Building a more equitable curriculum is what Williams and Whitla are hoping for.

“It doesn’t need to be such a one-technique, or even two-technique, focused program,” Whitla said. “There are lots of structures within York, and all universities, that protect white supremacy, but we can do lots as students and faculty to help see some courses treated with respect and dignity and the seriousness of ‘technique classes.’ ”

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