Learning the Difference between Appreciation and Appropriation from Michelle Heffner Hayes

Photo: KU Student dancers perform Michelle Heffner Hayes’s ‘Lo que queda/That which remains’ in 2016. Credit: Brett Pruitt

I was introduced to the work of Michelle Heffner Hayes last year in an article in Dance Magazine. Dr. Hayes is a professor and artist-scholar in the Department of Theatre & Dance at the University of Kansas and she has spent years studying the legacy of cultural appropriation in dance as part of her work. Her interest stems in part from thinking about her own role as a white, queer American woman who was drawn to practice and write academically about flamenco, African diaspora and Latin popular dances.

The article was titled “At What Point does Appreciation become Appropriation?”. I was struck by Dr.Hayes’s definition of cultural appropriation as “taking the external trappings of cultural traditions and using them as decorations on your own history without developing mutually supporting relationships in the community that you’re taking from.”

She has both personal experience and academic study to back up her assertion. Dr. Hayes received her Ph.D. in Critical Dance Studies from University of California, Riverside. She teaches modern dance, improvisation, choreography, critical dance studies, arts administration and Flamenco. Dr. Hayes has performed as a flamenco choreographer and soloist at the Kennedy Center in Palos Nuevos: The Jazz Flamenco Project. In addition, she is the author of Flamenco: Conflicting Histories of the Dance, and wrote a chapter on contemporary flamenco in Flamenco on the Global Stage: Historical, Critical and Theoretical Perspectives, which she co-edited with K. Meira Goldberg and Ninotchka Bennahum.

As you will read in this exchange, Dr. Hayes further explained that the cornerstone of equity, diversity and inclusion in the arts is “to care about the people who created the culture” and the need for “cultural reparations” (in additional to financial and judicial). She defined “cultural reparations” as the recognition of the injustice of historical erasure and the need to show respect to the generations of marginalized artistic communities, past and present. This statement was born of study, lessons and reflections from her experience as a white dancer entering and participating in multicultural dance spaces.

I wanted to share the perspective of Michelle Heffner Hayes with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections because her insights are critical to the discourse about cultural appropriation and her perspective is both insightful and unique.

Donna: How did you begin your work?

 Michelle Heffner Hayes: I was raised in rural Kansas where we did not have art classes or programs in the public schools. But I had always been engaged in the arts, my whole life. My earliest memory was of drawing on things I wasn’t supposed to draw on—you know, books and phone books. I was a visual artist and I would draw.

We did not have a dance studio within commuting, you know, reasonable commuting distance for working parents. So, dance didn’t become my lifelong love until I was a teenager, a high school student, when I was 17. I had a job and had saved up enough money to drive to Topeka, which was the big city. I plopped my money down and said, “I want to take a dance class!”

My artistic sensibilities shifted when I got the opportunity to study dance. I started late; I felt like I was always catching up. I just immersed myself whenever possible—I majored in dance and that was my entry point into the world of the arts.

As a college student, I had an hourly job working as an assistant to Jacqueline Davis, who founded the Lied Center, Kansas University’s performing arts venue. She later became the head of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Jackie just threw me into the middle of things—grants, fundraising, performances, publicity. She helped me learn some best practices in those experiences. Eventually, she gave me more responsibilities. I got to organize a national education residency for the tour of Bill T. Jones’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/Promised Land,” to share knowledge among different presenters. I received this amazing, hands-on education.

When I was a starving artist in graduate school at U.C. Riverside, I was able to support myself doing freelance arts administration—writing grants and lots of publicity campaigns—whatever needed to be done. I could make more money doing that work on a project basis than I could waiting tables. Even teaching was not earning me enough to stay in graduate school. So, I was teaching, I was dancing, and I was doing freelance arts administration. And that kind of launched my career. I spent many years in arts administration before I became a full-time professor teaching dance and choreography.

 Donna: Wow! I know your background provides your students with lots of benefits and helps them prepare for the real world of the arts; that’s what gives them the muscles to be successful.

 Michelle: Actually, now I offer a career preparation in the arts course where the students learn some very basic skills. They talk to people who are now working in the field, and these people share their experiences. It’s a way of helping them understand what they’re stepping into—they learn about the day-to-day lives of artists right now, who are working independently or working with arts organizations. This gives them the knowledge base and lets them determine how and where they want to invest their time.

 Donna: How did you become involved with issues related to cultural appropriation and social justice?

 Michelle: I can remember being a little girl and watching public television, because we only got three channels out in the country. Sesame Street introduced me to Spanish and Puerto Rican culture. Something in me came alive. There was no practical reason why I should want to learn Spanish, but I wanted to learn it. Now I’m more fluent and I have worked very hard to acquire and maintain my ability to speak the language. One of the first things an “outsider” should do when they study the art of another culture is to learn the language. It means you have to be vulnerable and study deeply and recognize what it feels like not to be a part of the “dominant” group.

I got a scholarship to study at the American Dance Festival, and like so many people, I studied with the late Dr. Baba Chuck Davis, a teacher of West African Dance. And then, in the 90s, I got to work with him again, and also with Rennie Harris, Urban Bush Women and Bill T. Jones. I was embroiled in all of it—the anti-racism work, the feminist work, the anti-homophobia work—through the arts. I tried to make myself useful, to contribute my labor when it was needed: driving, doing logistical work, writing press releases or final reports for grants. When you support cultural representation for marginalized voices, you erode cultural appropriation.

I didn’t know a lot about white privilege at that time; the language was more rooted in the the Civil Rights movement. I just knew that my interests, especially working with Baba Chuck, were passionate. I was supporting artists of color, trying to create opportunities and becoming more proactive. I also was learning how to be respectful; how to step back when I wasn’t invited “to the barbecue.”

There are some spaces where my presence is not helpful. That is an important lesson for white folks (or other people of privilege) about cultural appropriation, learning to respect spaces that need to be “safe” for marginalized voices. Even if you are an “ally,” you may not be welcome in every space. That is part of the recognition of privilege, and the undoing of cultural appropriation.

Donna: What was the turning point for you in terms of the trajectory of your work?

Michelle: I got a fellowship to study Flamenco dance in Southern California. I was the only Anglo-American in the group. I was called out—they said, “Why are you here? What makes you think you have a right to be here?” And I replied: “I am really confused. Please, with respect, none of us are from Spain, I really want to learn this dance.”

They explained that in Southern California, the dance was an issue of cultural identification; cultural symbolism, linked with the Southwest and Chicanx identity through its connection with the Roma, another marginalized people. I appreciated being made aware of those tensions, which spurred me to study harder. I stuck around and did my best to be respectful. Eventually, people began to see me less as an interloper and more as a part of that community.

In Spain, it was different, there are specific tensions in every cultural community. To avoid appropriation, you have to weather a lot of resistance to your presence and earn trust. It takes years, and there are some spaces to which you will never have access. That is appropriate, not appropriation.

Donna: What did you learn from those experiences?

Michelle: I learned that if I have the privilege of participating, then I have the responsibility to not merely take advantage of the beauty of the art forms but also to be an advocate for social justice. You have to care about the people who created the culture. It is my responsibility, by virtue of my privilege, to address the issues of inequality and engage in dialogues about systemic issues of injustice.

Too often, that labor falls on people of color or other marginalized people. White people (or other people of privilege) need to take on that labor and talk to other white people about things like cultural reparations, to change policies that exclude and divide. Of course, you have to do this work in community.

Sometimes it isn’t appropriate to speak, and sometimes it is imperative to speak or act. You have to take your cue from your colleagues. Sometimes it is just a glance from a person of color in the room that says “Not again. Don’t make me be the voice of my race. I am so tired.” Or sometimes, it means pausing and asking out loud: “Shall I take this response?” and you either get the nod, or they indicate that it would be better for them to speak.

Believe me, I still get it wrong. I don’t think you can be involved in this work without making mistakes, because everyone makes assumptions, or we can feel compelled to move too quickly. You have to be able to honor that discomfort, own your mistakes, and move forward.

 Donna: Where have you experienced success?

 Michelle: We both know arts and cultural organizations who have been doing this work for years, usually culturally-specific organizations deeply embedded in communities. You, Donna Walker-Kuhne, do this work, and I am grateful to you. So, people can start there, by supporting those organizations and their work. Attend events, get involved, listen to the conversations, contribute where you can: money, labor, services. I believe that arts organizations represent an important part of cultural reparations. Those community networks pervade business, health care, education and government.

As we serve across those areas, issues of social justice become a priority. As a habit, we start asking ourselves, how does this policy or decision affect marginalized people? The answer to that question determines the structure and implementation of an initiative.

One example of success I can recall is an initiative from when I was with Miami Dade College, Cultural Affairs. We presented an artist named Sekou Sundiata (may he rest in peace) in a solo theatre work called “blessing the boats.” Using spoken word poetry, Sundiata recounted his own experience with a kidney transplant. The work addressed the challenges of negotiating health care, and the stigma of organ donation among communities of color. We worked for months with community-based health care centers and the organ donation network, as well as the Miami Dade College Medical Campus, local spoken word groups and activist organizations. Together, we scheduled regular events that combined access to the arts and free health care screenings, building interest in the performance of “blessing the boats,” but also awareness of the chronic health issues that disproportionately affect communities of color, like diabetes and heart disease. For some people, it was about building trust in their community health center so that a person could visit regularly to monitor and treat chronic illness before it became life-threatening. For others, it was important that the artist was a Black man attesting to his experience in a way that was compelling, funny and heart-rending, something that mirrored their own experience. That recognition addressed some of the fears underlying cultural stigmas about organ donation.

Donna: How do we move forward on this issue?

 Michelle: Moving forward means increasing cultural representation and access at many levels. Beyond calling out cultural appropriation, those moments are an opportunity for transformation. There are many forums for public dialogue, from arts, business, education and health care to city, state and national government. Arts and cultural organizations are at the forefront of best practices in cultural participation. I would love to see more concerted efforts to create equity and inclusion where policy change was anchored in the work of arts and culture.

Donna: Thank you, Michelle, for your time and insights.

I found my conversation with Michelle refreshing, conscious and woke! As always, I’m interested in knowing what you think. Please share your comments below.

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