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As a Navy brat, I grew up with the old adage: Choose your battles, or you will loose them all. I don’t know how confident I would feel applying this in a context actually related to militarily affairs. But I find deploying this bit of cheesey wisdom pretty helpful in my life. Consequently, there are a few things that I stick to my guns for: 1) eggplant, 2) art, and 3) inclusion. Eggplant because I love eggplant. But this is a post on arts education, inclusion, and an experience I had teaching my dance class this past week in Zhuhai.

Because I moved a lot as a kid, ballet was a large part of my childhood. In every new location, ballet became the home that moved with me. I find so much of how I approach anything still comes from how I learned to see the world while studying ballet. I’m so grateful for the ways that ballet and all of my teachers in every new home enriched my life.

Dance gave me a way to express myself. That’s a phrase we use too often when we talk about the value of arts education– what that really means to me is that art provides an avenue to bring what I see and feel in my head to life for other people to see. This is the essence of communication. Thus, dance has a great power to make someone feel heard or seen in a way that would be impossible without art. I believe art has the potential to expand what we think we can express and ultimately what we think we can accomplish as people. Ballet gave me a feeling of control when I had no control over other parts of my life. In class I had control over how I pointed my feet, how I straighten my knees, how high I jumped, how fast I could change directions, and how expressive I could be. Being on stage felt like pure magic. Even today, sometimes my stage is just my central apartment or between the stacks in Perkins Library, when I’m pretty sure no one else is watching. For this reason, I remain passionate about everyone being able to try dancing before they just assume that they are not a dancer. I regard the time that anyone will take to try something new, especially something that so requires your full personhood, like dance to be fragile and precious. I really honor when people try dance for the first time. I strive to give them the best experience possible.

This past Wednesday, in my extra-curricular class, I introduced a slower and easier version of the dance we will be doing for our final performance in a few weeks. I was trying to accommodate the varying levels of experience of students in our class and compensate for the fact that we only have about 6 classes left. Some of the girls were displeased because they thought it was too easy for them. One girl, especially, kept saying that our dance was, “so slow that she would simply die!” I didn’t understand everything she was saying in Chinese, but she kept interrupting while other students were dancing, to ask if we could go back to last week’s version.

I got so frustrated at the possibility that she was making the other people in her class feel like they were lesser members just because they hadn’t had the opportunity to take dance classes outside of school. I said in my flustered Chinese, “It seems like you don’t really want to be in this dance. If that’s the case, you don’t have to be.” I immediately regretted what I said. She’s just a middle schooler! I felt so ashamed and frustrated at my inability to freely express myself and teach this girl to be nicer to her classmates without scolding her.

The rest of the little girls could see that I was becoming frustrated and started to chastise the girl who was complaining. I felt even worse. That’s also not what I wanted either! I couldn’t even really understand what they were saying so I don’t know if they were speaking for me in a ways that weren’t representative of I how I really felt.

At the end of class they bowed to me and said in Chinese, “Thank you, Teacher. Teacher, good bye.” I felt terrible. I so did not deserve the title, ‘Teacher’ that day. There were about a billion ways I could have handled that situation better. More than ever, I wished that I worked harder on my Chinese while back at Duke.

I’m really thankful for my Duke Engage teammates who let me talk out my problems in our office after. I think it was a hot and frustrating day for a lot of us. Talking to them put me in a headspace where I was able to think about why things happened the way they did and what I could better for next class.

The next day, I had Professor Hsiao Mei translate for me that there would be opportunities later in our dance for solos and special parts for small groups, but first we had to look good as a group. So we should work hard to dance altogether and help each other.

The class went so much better! The kids worked really hard! They reviewed by themselves! They helped each other!!!

While I’m thankful for all of the ways that ballet and moving have shaped my life, I also see ways that…Well, I really understand that girl who needed the other people in her class to know that this dance was beneath her. While growing up in my studio, I would have never wanted to take a dance class taught at school. My studio was very strict and my teacher used to tell us that all other schools where kids just had fun dancing were ‘dollydinkle’ and brought shame to the dance world. I realize now that while her intention might have been to inspire pride in our own work and to make the sacrifice of other activities seem worth it, what she said portrayed an elitist and exclusionary way to view dance. I think forms like Ballet and Chinese Dance, while lovely, are also more prone to having this darker side.

Moving around as a military kid, I’ve watched a few circles close in front of me in the forms of lunch tables, dodgeball teams, and birthday parties. I’m definitely not saying those people were wrong! It always feels good to be with the people you are comfortable with! And I’m definitely not saying that I always make everyone feel super included. That would be an awesome super power! I’m merely saying that, from my experience, inclusion is opening the circle. It can make a magnificent difference between the malice or magic someone feels from an encounter. It means loosening your grip on your place in the palpable power circle that comes with belonging, and withholding judgment on someone you may not know very well just yet.

Duke Engage is a wonderful opportunity for lessons on inclusion because those well experienced in being in a foreign place, are usually the most practiced at attenting to the needs of others experiencing the discomfort of being or doing something unfamiliar. It is the power to be good to others, some of whom you might even call a ‘stranger’.

It is my wish for art to be a medium that brings people into a circle of inclusion and gives them a way to feel good, and beautiful, and powerful, and valued. This is one of the things I have decided to fight for within my lifetime. But I have to remember lessons from my last blog post as well. I cannot care so much that my emotions and caring get in the way of the job that I have come to do.

I’m looking forward to our next classes 🙂