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Dancer Valerie Ebuwa: Critics must avoid generalisations when reviewing dancers of colour

Valerie Ebuwa in Placebo by Clod Ensemble. Photo Manuel Vason
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As a dancer and occasional critic, I have experienced theatre from both sides of the stage lights. I am from east London, of Nigerian descent, and graduated from London Contemporary Dance School in 2014. I have performed with companies including Eddie Peake, Vincent Dance Theatre and Clod Ensemble. I also write for I Am Hip-Hop Magazine about hip hop culture.

The more I’ve experienced both sides, the more I’ve noticed a problem with the way reviewers talk about dancers of colour. When writing about brown bodies, many critics – who are overwhelmingly white – lose the power of informed criticism and use lazy generalisations.

I have been subjected to this kind of misinterpretation more than once and it is time we had an honest discussion of the issue to change how our work is talked about.

Sometimes critics seem to find it hard to contextualise contemporary dancers of colour if they are performing in classical or traditional roles. Often their reviews are reduced to merely reflecting a dancer’s ethnic origins. Of course, a performer’s roots are important, but presuming someone’s background and how they approach a work by the colour of their skin is highly problematic. Ethnicity comes through in a dancer’s movement – how we move is guided by our social and cultural background – but why, when critics write about a black body, is the lens coloured by misinformation about tradition while a white body is seen as the default?

This lack of knowledge and research means certain words are applied to contemporary dancers of colour, such as ‘urban’ or ‘sassy’. These terms are reserved for dancers of colour, regardless of their training or experience, which might have been in classical forms.

This has led to critics making up dance styles, my favourite of which is ‘African Dancehall’. First, dancehall is from Jamaica and second, Africa is a big continent with lots of different dance styles and cultures.

This may be laughable, but such language directly affects the performers and communities it refers to. It diminishes the skill and artistry of the performers. If performers are described using incorrect and fabricated terminology, adding compliments in the same review helps to solidify false, stereotypical mainstream ideas.

The choice of language when reviewing a performer of colour can be more insidious. It could be as subtle as using the word “routine” instead of “choreographic phase”, which lessens the value of the art when written in print.

This can, and has, led to artists of colour not wanting to be part of contemporary dance conversations through fear of misrepresentation. Contemporary dance is evolving quicker than ever, so why is that not reflected in the writing?

There need to be more reviewers of colour writing for these publications, as well as further contemporary perspectives and conversations, to bring about understanding and change.

Existing reviewers need to widen their perspectives on dancers of colour and become more informed, to reflect more accurately what takes place on stage.

Valerie Ebuwa is a dancer and critic

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