A dance choreographed and performed by a Columbia High School student last month has become a potent topic of discussion after a handful of faculty members complained about the dance and the student’s response subsequently went viral.
Special Dance Company member and CHS senior Kendi Whitaker choreographed the dance “Four Score and Seven Years Ago” and set it to the music of “Strange Fruit,” an iconic 1939 song about lynching. Helped by samples of audio recordings, the dance explored slavery, lynching, police brutality and what Whitaker described as the “discomfort that black people feel every single day.”
The dance was performed in May at the Special Dance Company recitals and at two student-run assemblies addressing race and privilege (view the dance here or scroll down).
Reports arose that a few CHS faculty members were made uncomfortable by the dance and filed a complaint, but a district spokeswoman said she could not comment on those reports and that, as far as she knew, no complaint had been filed with the Office of Civil Rights.
Whitaker addressed that faculty response in public comments she made at the June 15 South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting.
“I sit before you all today to discuss something that has been covered up, ignored, and denied for far too long simply because of the belief that our town is ‘woke, stigma free, and according to some people, colorless,’” said Whitaker.
Whitaker questioned the professionalism and maturity of the response by faculty members. “After seeing the performance, white faculty and staff, mostly from the physical education department as well as one black faculty member, who identifies himself as British, felt uncomfortable and afraid,” Whitaker said. “One faculty member even said she was ‘checking for the exits because she feared for her life.’”
(Read Whitaker’s full response here.)
Whitaker’s Special Dance colleagues were on hand at the June 15 Board of Education meeting to speak in support of her work.
“To be frank, the topics covered within the dance were not meant to be comfortable or pleasing to the audience,” said Hannah Silver, a sophomore at CHS. “The dance’s purpose was to bring awareness and share the hardships and fear the black community faces every day. It highlighted a shameful part in America’s history, as well as racist aspects that remain in modern society.”
In her comments, Whitaker also criticized the faculty members for not bringing their concerns directly to Kandice N. Point-Du- Jour, Special Dance’s faculty advisor.
“Instead of carrying themselves like adults and expressing their ‘concerns’ to our dance director Kandice N. Point-Du-Jour, who is in their department, they all gathered in a room to gossip like middle schoolers in her absence and discuss their opinions which were both ignorant and blatantly racist.”
When Village Green asked how many faculty members lodged a complaint with the administration about the piece, South Orange-Maplewood District Director of Strategic Communication Suzanne Turner said that the district could not comment. While rumors have been circulating that an OCR (Office of Civil Rights) complaint was being filed, Turner replied, “No official complaint was lodged, and we are not aware of an OCR complaint about this.”
Community members expressed frustration with this response which they said lacked transparency.
“When students asked the administration what was happening, the administration just said how wonderful the show was and wouldn’t answer their questions,” said the parent of a Special Dance Company student who wished to remain anonymous. “It was also suggested that the dancers make a video to explain what the dance meant to be shown to the teachers. Senior students, who have just put a huge amount of time to prepare and perform, and needed to get back to school work, were now being asked to make a video?”
Silver believes the responsibility to further understand the dance should not rest on the shoulders of the dancers. “If certain people were offended by a four-minute piece, but never by the injustice black Americans face every day for their entire lives, consider that maybe the problem falls not with the piece, but with them,” she said.
Turner said that steps had been taken to address the fallout from the dance piece.
“In an effort to create mutual understanding, we had Dr. [Khyati] Joshi meet with everyone directly involved to provide an opportunity for different perspectives to be heard. Unfortunately, this has not had the healing effect for which we had hoped.” Turner added, “There are no other specific steps planned before the school year ends.”
In response to Village Green’s email, Superintendent Dr. John J. Ramos, Sr., offered an unequivocally supportive statement about the dance:
“Art is often intentionally challenging. This particular piece spoke to the plight of being black in America over time,” he said. “The performance was well done – it was instructive, emotionally jolting, and beautifully performed. It undoubtedly provoked different emotional reactions for audience members, some of which may have been intense.” Ramos did not directly link his comment to the faculty members in question.
Ramos’s statement continued, “The piece was part of a larger program featuring multiple dances, and dancers who had worked hard all year in their efforts to prepare for this culminating performance.” The Superintendent also voiced ongoing support for the dance program: “Special Dance has a long history and tradition and the district continues to be supportive of its work, under the expert direction of teacher Kandice N. Point-Du-Jour.”
Whitaker insisted that a direct response from the teachers is necessary. “Something has to be done,” she said. “This can no longer be ignored. These teachers teach your children and my peers every single day. We are supposed to feel safe as soon as we step into the school building but how can we feel safe when the very same teachers that are supposed to educate us, won’t even take time out of their day to educate themselves? If they will not educate themselves, it is the district’s responsibility to make sure they get the necessary training to stand in front of children of color, or remove them from doing harm to black children.”
While the district has not provided a timeline on next steps, Turner said the situation highlights “the essential work which the district needs to continue to do to ensure that all members of our school community feel safe to express their points of view, and that our communications with each other always reflect our commitment to inclusivity and cultural competence.”