Stuyvesant Dance Organizations Host Cultural Dance Appreciation Panel

Tap Club, Stuy Squad, SING!, 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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Stuy Squad, SING!, Tap Club, and StuyArts hosted a cultural dance appreciation discussion panel on December 17, with guest speakers Eboné Vanityzo Johnson, Sangita Shresthova, and Jason Samuels Smith. The hour-and-a-half-long event was organized over Zoom and promoted through Facebook posts, school e-mails, and teachers, with around 120 students and teachers attending.

Early in the year, the Tap Club approached English teacher Lauren Stuzin with the idea to host a panel relating to dance and reached out to Stuy Squad leaders to collaborate. “As an advisor [of SING!], I got to see a lot of the behind-the-scenes work and love that go into SING!,” Stuzin said in an e-mail interview. “It was pretty spectacular to see students falling in love with creating art, teaching each other, learning from each other, and working together in such beautiful ways.”

Stuzin decided to host a panel on the history of dance upon observing its absence in Stuyvesant’s dance community. “I began to realize how disconnected our community’s passion for the arts and dance [is],” they said. With this interest in mind, they contacted Johnson, Shresthova, and Smith and arranged a date for the presentation.

According to Stuzin, the purpose of the panel was “to start a community conversation around 1. how can we understand the dynamics at play when we dance dances from cultures we do not know about and/or cultures that have been historically oppressed and marginalized, and 2. how can we as a community use this understanding to be better people in the world? How can we honor and support the people whose art we love?” they said.

While Stuy Squad was not part of the initial planning, they helped bring attention to the panel. “There is a really big dance community at Stuy,” junior and Stuy Squad President-in-Training Melody Lin said. “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 [them].”

The event began with each of the speakers introducing themselves and their respective dance styles. Eboné Vanityzo Johnson 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. Each speaker discussed the history of their dance style to provide students and teachers greater insight into dance in general. After the presentation, the panelists opened up the floor for students to ask questions.

The speakers brought up issues that plague the dance community, especially within certain genres and styles. “Despite there being so many cultures represented in [StuySquad] shows, we often forget that there exists a fine line between appropriation and appreciation,” senior and Stuy Squad director Katie Ng said in an e-mail interview.

Throughout the panel, students were able to learn about the topic of appropriation in dance. “It gave people a sense that different dancers from different dance traditions come to the question of appropriation differently,” Shresthova said. “I think it's important to remember that, and it actually points to a larger way of how we get our questions about how we are creative. Where does creativity come from? How many ways can our bodies move? And what does it mean? What does it mean to copy somebody versus to make it your own?”

Johnson shared her own experience as a woman of color in the dance industry. “The things that you see are sometimes not telling you the exact truth of what goes on behind the scenes. There is a lot of racism; there is a lot of separatism; there is a lot of colorism within the arts,” she said. “I feel proud to give my experiences and […] shed [light on] the negatives because people may think of Hollywood when they think of the industry; they think of glitz and glamor, and they don’t understand that there are some negative things that also trail behind that.”

Overall, the panelists were glad to have been able to participate in the event. “When it comes to topics of discussion like appropriation, things can get really complicated and especially personal and difficult to talk about quite easily,” Shresthova said. “I thought that the event was organized in a really friendly, open way and that it encouraged people to explore these topics [like appropriation] through specific practices without getting defensive or feeling antagonistic, but out of a genuine love for dance.”

The discussion panel was also an enriching and engaging experience for attendees. “Hands down, the event was really rich in history and discussion,” sophomore Ziying 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.”

Additionally, Jian commended the online aspect of the presentation. “The virtual medium was an advantage as speakers were able to present videos and images, enriching the discussion,” Jian said.

Vanityzo, Smith, and Shresthova encourage dancers and dance enthusiasts to take the time to learn the history and culture of dance before uptaking the practice. “I feel like if people like myself and other educators don’t push the envelope on learning about the culture, that it could end up being lost and a thing of the past,” Johnson said. “Learn all of the entirety, and don’t just learn what you want what you want to know because there [are] so many beautiful stories and so many beautiful people that are forgotten and died broke because they never got their dues.”

In the future, Stuzin aims to feature more guest speakers from other dance disciplines, as they have gotten requests from Stuy Squad Step and Latin to continue planning these events. “Some ideas we have are to host a Zoom talk circle to unpack the panel discussion, create a mutual partnership with another high school that has a dance program, and invite dance professionals to train us in dance,” Stuzin said.

The panel’s organizers hope to continue engaging Stuyvesant students in the history of dance. “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. “A huge portion of our hip-hop dancers are Asian American, […] but we often forget about the roots of hip-hop […] 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.”