It's Sunday, and the fourth time in as many years that I've come to this dance recital in Santa Monica. It's a family obligation--my husband's 12-year-old niece has been part of this dance school more than half her life --but it's also an obligation I don't mind. I love dance. I love the synergy of music and movement, even if it's not professionally done. I did the dance-school thing myself as a little girl, a version of it--weekly classes at a public park, nothing my parents had to pay for, and in Inglewood, not Santa Monica. Here, the costumes are elaborate, and the parents man booths outside the auditorium that do brisk business selling studio photos of the dancers, bottled water, post-performance bouquets. It's impressive, if overindulgent.
But I love dance, and these recitals always give me something to take away in terms of inspired moments. Something that makes the all the Westside trappings of the event irrelevant and the talent of a particular kid onstage the only thing that matters at all. I look forward to those moments. My husband's niece provided more than one such moment on Sunday, which made the trip worthwhile.
And yet the recital is...well, bizarre. Over the years the hip-hop component has grown to be roughly half of recital performances. Maybe it's a third. But what looms so large is how out of context it feels. White kids (yes, I'm the only black person in the room, including everybody on the dance staff), from teenagers on down to the six-year-olds, wearing big t-shirts and sneakers, gyrating and pelvic-thrusting to "urban" sounds that probably shock the grandmas who've come to see ballet excerpts and the like. Raw, sinewy beat and lyrics that include "rollin' with my homies," "do it on the flo' (that's 'floor' for the unititated)" and "push it real good" backing groups of children who thrust away, yet who smile as if they really are in a ballet excerpt or a crowd-pleasing Broadway number.
They kids are proficient, kind of. Hitting the marks and all that. But it's empty. It doesn't look like dance. There's no synergy of music and movement, no understanding on the part of the kids of what they're moving to, other than recognition of the fact that hip-hop has become a de rigueur form in private dance academies, and the province of all hip young Americans, whatever their color. It's required.
I get that. But there's so much that hip young Americans don't get. Black stuff going mainstream is old hat, but the tensions and unexamined questions that always raises feel new. Too new. What's supposed to be cultural exchange is more like cultural appropriation, with that American patina of liberation and equality that theoretically makes everything we do okay. It isn't. There are many, many steps we have yet to learn.