When I first toyed with the idea of writing an article centering the Asian American Pacific Islander (APPI) experience in dance, there seemed to be a lot of reasons not to. Speaking to this topic sensitively, directly, and knowledgeably was of particular concern, along with the litany of missteps I hoped to avoid in the process – unwittingly offending or excluding anyone, laying claim to or speaking on behalf of entire race(s) of people, failing to explicitly acknowledge every ethnicity under the AAPI umbrella, appearing to capitalize on a moment in time - all while holding integrity for the current sociopolitical climate of our country and the multitude of diverse voices that are rising up in demand of change. Ironically, I realized that this inclination to effectively not rock the boat was likely a symptom of the exact experience I was seeking to address. So I decided to address it.

Generally speaking, we are not a loud people. This perception stems from shared cultural values amongst many Asian populations that emphasize modesty, deference, and conflict avoidance. We are, however, the fastest growing people. The Asian American population in the United States is widely reported to have had the highest growth rate of any major racial or ethnic group in the first two decades of the 21st century and is projected to continue growing. The term Asian American emerged in 1968 as a vehicle for pan-Asian unification, empowerment and increased visibility in response to the civil rights movement and presently refers to all people with origins in the East, Southeast and Indian subcontinent of Asia, as well as the Pacific Islands. Omissions from history curriculums and narrow views that lump Asian races into a monolith discount the large disparities of income and education existing amongst Asian populations and contribute to their exclusion from diversity initiatives. Moreover, damaging misconceptions that stem from the model minority myth thwart progress and pit Asian Americans against other marginalized groups in an effort to uphold a society reeling from colonialism. While there is a seeming lack of awareness about the multitude of ethnicities that comprise the AAPI community and their long histories of discrimination, this past year’s challenges with Covid-19 and the overtly anti-Asian racist rhetoric and violence that subsequently emerged has put the Asian American experience into sharp focus.

Jessica Wu laughing and holding a poster "celebrate asian joy"
Jessica Wu - photo: Rebecca J Michaelson

“I think what happens to us a lot is that we get lumped into one big monolith and that is a form of discrimination in and of itself” - Jessica Wu

As a first generation, biracial Asian American of Japanese and Irish descent, I have witnessed firsthand how the legacy of legislative inequities and exclusions designed to oppress the AAPI community is reflected in societal systems today, and the world of dance is no exception. Common objectives for equity, increased representation and the amplification of our voices remain at the fore, yet it feels like the first time that attention is being paid to our precarious positioning as an overlooked minority. It felt important to contribute to the current dialogue concerning these enduring labors and answer the question - What does it mean to be an Asian American in the dance field today? I reached out to four artists to discuss their personal experiences navigating the dance landscape, how their heritage manifests in their work (if at all) and any actionable steps they are taking to provide a more equitable future for AAPI artists. What I discovered in conversation resonated deeply with thoughts I am still struggling to articulate for myself.

My understanding of my Japanese heritage is rooted heavily in childhood. My mother grew up in a Buddhist temple in the rural countryside of southern Japan and immigrated to the United States to marry my Irish-Catholic father after a brief transcontinental affair. Although Japan was oceans away, its culture was firmly felt in our household. We ate traditional Japanese cuisine, took regular trips to San Francisco’s Japan Town for anpan and taiyaki treats, cherished our Hello Kitty paraphernalia and heard the sweet buzzing of the language in the background, of which we had integrated fragments into our daily vocabulary. I loved these aspects of our heritage, but deeply resented my inability to successfully barter a seaweed-wrapped rice ball with its pickled plum center for the sweet and savory taste of schoolyard acceptance that accompanied a Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwich. Beyond one racially explicit comment from a classmate in elementary school and a month during fifth grade in which we read Farewell to Manzanar, I did not notice nor interact with my Asian heritage outside the confines of family life. Due in large part to my ethnically ambiguous, white-passing appearance, Anglo-Saxon surname and the pervasively white surroundings of my upbringing, I had the privilege of oscillating between these worlds at will. Though the nature of this duality was inherently disorienting. Seeking acceptance in one world meant rejecting the other, despite the inescapable reality that I would likely never belong to either. I questioned the impact this subconscious separation of identities in my formative years had in relation to artistic leanings later in life, having never specifically examined the Japanese culture in my creative work. Perhaps I didn’t yet have the cognitive tools to explore it. Perhaps I had never given myself permission to do so. Perhaps I had presumed that making a work about being Japanese meant it had to somehow look Japanese - that I had to look more Japanese. Perhaps it was easier to ignore than to explain, especially when no one was asking questions in the first place.

I turned to a former professor of mine, Gerald Casel, to see how these impressions would compare. Casel emigrated from the Philippines with his family when he was eight years old and though his cultural roots remained present, he did not have a deep understanding of where he came from. “I knew the foods and I knew the characters in some of the stories but no one really tells you the history of colonization and oppression, or why we are immigrating. Those questions were not really at the kitchen table.” Executive Artistic Director of GERALDCASELDANCE, Provost of Porter College and Associate Professor of Dance at the University of California Santa Cruz, Casel’s choreographic research and teachings center racial (in)equities and confront systemic power structures. He spoke to me about the prevalence of cultural erasure in immigrant households in service of assimilation and how that perpetuates the “ideal aesthetics of whiteness” in damaging ways. To that end, Casel has opted to collaborate exclusively with BIPOC dance artists in his current creative work, also founding the community engagement initiative, Dancing Around Race, designed to facilitate dialogue between members of the dance community surrounding intersectionality and equity metrics. In an effort to distance himself from the legacy of white dance forms for which he is most closely associated from his illustrious performing career, Casel turned to his Filipino roots in a more intentional way - discovering that even the national dance of his mother country was rooted in colonialism. In looking ahead, Casel is committed to deconstructing, critiquing and unpatterning the existing dance curriculum, turning to spaces like nature to reshape the collective consciousness and create anew, “One that is decolonial, one that is anti-racist, one that is inclusive and one that sees the whole world and not just the universal, neutralized body in post-modern somatics.”

Former Broadway dancer turned writer, lyricist and educator, Jessica Wu, offered another perspective, “My experience in the commercial theater world has been a lot of dancing in the chorus of The King and I, dancing in the chorus of Miss Saigon, dancing in the chorus of [Asian show], or being the token Asian in the chorus. And that’s a very real thing that I did a lot of - I’m here and I am checking a box.” Wu’s parents emigrated from Hong Kong to Canada, making Wu a first generation Canadian before ultimately immigrating to the U.S. in pursuit of a performing career. After many years of submitting to her designated role as the token Asian on stage, she felt called to contribute to the canon of existing works that primarily told stories of “Asian pain and Asian trauma from a white perspective.” Noting that while tokenism may provide opportunities that would not otherwise exist for people of color, it is a band-aid for a larger systemic issue. She also emphasizes the importance of resisting the external pressures placed on AAPI artists to represent the entirety of their race and is instead focused on sharing her specific perspective as a contemporary Chinese American woman, “I think what happens to us a lot is that we get lumped into one big monolith and that is a form of discrimination in and of itself, it’s a form of silencing in and of itself, so the more specific we can be and the more varied we can be and the more we can represent the immense swath of our Asian American experience - the good and the bad - I think that’s really important.”

Peter Cheng in a dance pose in black and white
Peter Cheng - photo: Theik Smith Photography

“Let’s bring more visibility. I don’t care what my works are about - they could be a totally different concept, they could be about “othering,” they could be about specific topics as is related to being Asian American - or it could just be gorgeous dancing” Peter Cheng

Peter Cheng, Artistic Director of New York City-based contemporary dance company, Peter & Co., is similarly dedicated to advancing the diversity of thought and aesthetics within the dance field. He observes that there is a binary system in place reinforcing the notion that Asian representation in dance is satisfied by the presence of a single Asian body on stage or explicitly relating to traditional cultural dance works. As a first generation Taiwanese American, Cheng rejects this restrictive view, instead envisioning a more expansive outlook on inclusivity, “Let’s bring more visibility. I don’t care what my works are about - they could be a totally different concept, they could be about “othering,” they could be about specific topics as is related to being Asian American - or it could just be gorgeous dancing, or a gorgeous dance film, that features two Asian artists and that is enough.” The expectation that Asian work must directly expound upon cultural dance is narrow and reductive, and for Asian dancers such as Cheng who never studied traditional Taiwanese dance, raises problematic questions surrounding appropriation. Cheng is also a staunch advocate for louder vocalization within the AAPI communities against injustices and in contradiction to harmful stereotypes of passivity and “propping up Asian excellence.”

Meanwhile, Kendra Portier finds herself asking – what is white culture? White-presenting and of French Canadian and Dutch-Indonesian descent, Portier grew up in a diverse community in Ohio and did not experience a white majority until becoming an active member of the dance community. Formerly of David Dorfman Dance and current Director of BANDPortier and Assistant Professor at University of Maryland College Park, she says, “I’m unpacking what white culture is. Acknowledging the different ways that it isn’t in each of our bodies would be really helpful in giving other people space to recognize their own nuance so that no race or visual presenting identity is a monolith.” Portier has long struggled with the internalized conflict of longing for increased connection to her culture and shying away from claiming her Asianness too loudly out of respect for other BIPOC artists who have not benefited from the same privileges that her light skin and blue eyes provide. Portier’s heritage shows up in her artistry through personalized “durational vibrational spirit practices” that she has coined “the vital studies” - an organic manifestation of physicality resonating closely with movement traditions present in Javanese culture. While she continues to navigate the ways in which she can appropriately take up space and contribute to the advancement of the AAPI community, Portier considers the lineages of imagery and form that are passed down and suggests a more accessible approach, “The way I want my movement to feel is less like a line and more like it’s trying to be a color.”

while tokenism may provide opportunities that would not otherwise exist for people of color, it is a band-aid for a larger systemic issue

Though each artist describes their experience through a unique lens, commonalities in sentiment, observations and lived experiences persist throughout, ultimately reinforcing a shared perspective that has only recently been invited to take center stage. How do we subvert external expectations, overturn harmful narratives, reconcile the fractured parts of our identities and unapologetically demand systemic change? There is a lot of work to be done, but it starts with doing the work. We can reject performative mechanisms of representation - extending beyond bodies on stage - and work towards penetrating the deeper levels of curation, funding and executive leadership. We can be in conversation with each other and those around us. We can stand in solidarity with the AAPI community while also delineating the uniqueness of each culture. We can deconstruct and unpattern existing systems of oppression. We can make ourselves known and our voices heard - as Cheng states perfectly, “How can we speak up for ourselves if we don’t speak up for ourselves?” We can refuse to accept our portrayal as the minority group who doesn’t count. We can rock the boat.

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