StuySquad, SING!, Tap Club, and StuyArts Organizes Cultural Dance Appreciation Panel Featuring Guest Speakers Eboné Vanityzo Johnson, Jason Samuels Smith, and Sangita Shresthova

StuySquad, SING!, Tap Club, and StuyArts organized a cultural dance appreciation discussion panel featuring guest speakers Eboné Vanityzo Johnson, Jason Samuels Smith, and Sangita Shresthova.

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Bright lights, creativity, and expression—this is what dancers hope to see while performing. For dancers, being able to share their love for the arts is rewarding, whether that be through performances or panels. Stuysquad, SING!, Tap Club, and StuyArts hosted a cultural dance appreciation discussion panel, featuring a question and answer session, on December 17, with three distinguished guest speakers: Eboné Vanityzo Johnson, Jason Samuels Smith, and Sangita Shresthova. The hour and a half long event was organized over Zoom and promoted through Facebook group posts, school emails, and by teachers. The event proved to be successful with around 100 teachers and students showing up, who all got the opportunity to learn more about diverse dance forms and culture.

Tap Club was responsible for the majority of the planning for this event. They approached Mx. Stuzin with the idea earlier in the school year and reached out to the Stuy Squad board, which includes: Elizabeth Tang, Roshni Patel, Katie Ng, Athena Lam, Alec Shafran, and Melody Lin. Mx. Stuzin reached back to them on November 18th and gears started turning to plan this event. Mx. Stuzin first reached out to the three guest speakers and everything else fell into place.

The organizers of the panel were made up of Tap Club members. StuySquad was more involved in the later planning of the event in their interest to spread knowledge about the origins of dance. “There is a really big dance community at Stuy,” junior and Stuy Squad President in Training Melody Lin said in an (e-mail?) interview. “Many students are passionate about dance but not a lot of them know where the dance styles they are involved with are from and the background behind it.”

Dance plays a major role in the community at Stuyvesant with Stuy Squad and SING! being two major events our school hosts. This panel gave dancers and teachers alike, a better understanding of where their favorite dances come from. In an email interview with Katie Ng, one of the directors of Stuy Squad STEP, she says “the purpose of this panel was to provide students an opportunity to learn about and appreciate dance from a more historical perspective.”

The event began with each of the speakers introducing themselves and their respective dance styles. Eboné Vanityzo is a teacher and choreographer with a focus on hip hop dance. Jason Samuels Smith is a tap dancer who teaches, directs, and choreographs unique tap dances. Sangita Shresthova is a Bollywood dancer, as well as a scholar, speaker, educator, and choreographer.

The featured panelists have many years of professional dance experience, adding on to their established positions in the dance industry. Vanitzo, Smith, and Shresthova discussed the history of their dance styles and presented videos to provide students and teachers with more information. “The virtual medium was an advantage as speakers were able to present videos and images, enriching the discussion,” Sophomore Ziying Jian said. Afterward, the panelists opened up the floor for students to ask questions.

Through the panel, students were able to learn more about the culture of different styles of dance and how it differed from their own dance style and current-day thinking. “One of the things that they do in Bollywood is they copy the dance moves of the original creator and it's considered as a tribute to that creator,” Junior Flora Au said. “But in the dance community nowadays if you do that [the creator] would think you bit off their choreography and take it negatively.”

Within a community as large and popular as dance, it is possible for students to indulge themselves in the art of dancing without understanding the backgrounds behind those styles. The panel allowed for the guest speakers to bring light to their respective dance fields and educate young dancers who may not have otherwise known. Vanityzo, Smith, and Shresthova encourage dancers and enthusiasts of dance to take the time to learn the history and culture of dance before performing. They also brought up issues that plague the dance community, especially for certain genres and styles, for example, cultural appropriation. “Despite there being sos many cultures represented in [Stuy Squad] shows, we often forget that there exists a fine line between appropriation and appreciation,” Ng said. “A huge portion of our hip hop dancers are Asian American, which makes sense considering the demographics of our school community, but we often forget about the roots of hip hop. This issue stems from the disconnect between education and dance, where dance is perceived to be solely an extracurricular activity.” By fixing the gap between dance and education, the panelists hope to improve the appropriation in media.

Some students cited extra credit as their motivation for attending the event but sparked a new interest for students who were unfamiliar with the subject. “I learned about it from my teacher, Mx. Stuzin. They brought it up in class and was offering extra credit to attendees, which was a good perk,” Jian said. “I never had much interest in these topics, but you become absorbed when you’re in that environment with speakers giving their two cents.”

The panelists emphasized the importance of recognizing the history and culture behind dance, and many attendees saw this reflected in the presentation. “I think the message that [the panelists and organizers] wanted to send was that there is so much history behind the dance styles that we don’t see nowadays and it’s important that we understand where it came from because a lot of what [the panelists] said at the end was about how these [dance styles] originated from certain things but we don’t really know anything about it,” Au said.

The discussion panel was ultimately an enriching and engaging experience for both the audience and organizers. “Hands down, the event was really rich in history and discussion,” Jian said. “Each speaker was very knowledgeable on the history of each type of dance and, speaking for myself as well as others, we all learned a lot from this unique event.”

“I am grateful that [students] have taken the initiative to host these types of events to teach their peers about the history and context of a hobby that we all love,” Ng said. “I feel like dance at Stuyvesant has been diluted to just an extracurricular activity when, in reality, dance should mean so much more. This panel was just a baby step to sharing different perspectives regarding culture and hopefully, there will be more similar events to enrich our own perspectives and challenge what we already know.”