Inclusive dancing

A still from former Associate Professor of Theater Arts Gerald Casel’s latest ensemble piece, Not About Race Dance, which he describes on his website as “a collaborative, choreographic response to the unacknowledged racial politics in U.S. postmodern dance.” In this photograph of two of the ensemble’s five BIPOC members, which includes Casel, undergraduate Audrey Johnson dances in front of a live video backdrop of Styles Alexander. “I make dances that celebrate and affirm folks who have been historically excluded,” said Casel. Credit: Robbie Sweeny, with permission, courtesy of Gerald Casel.

On September 20, 2018, some 50 Bay Area dance artists, choreographers, educators, funders, and administrators gathered in Oakland for a “long-table discussion.” On the table? A social justice issue still unacknowledged by most in dance—racial inequity. The Oakland public forum, the first of many around the country, kick-started Dancing Around Race, a community engagement project sponsored by Hope Mohr Dance, a dance organization dedicated to “creating and supporting embodied art and social change.”

At the center of the conversations stood their lead organizer, Gerald Casel, a person whose lived experience gives him first-hand knowledge of dance’s racialized issues and the skills and drive to do something about it. Casel wears many hats: queer, Filipino immigrant, first-gen college graduate, highly accomplished dance artist, award-winning performance maker, cultural and community activist. Casel, formerly an associate professor of theater arts, recently left UCSC to become chair of the Dance Department at Rutgers University.

Insights from Dancing Around Race now extend into workshops Casel is piloting, as well as teaching modules for higher education and K–12 performing arts curricula, all directed at facilitating candid discussions in brave spaces. “It’s the system that’s racist, not necessarily the people,” Casel said. “There’s a lot of potentially problematic issues around appropriation, tokenism, and cultural mismatch—we want to unpack all that and talk about it rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.”

—Katie Brown