The Innovator, The Preserver, The Imitator and The Impostor - cultural appropriation in dance

I wrote this text in August 2015 during a time when there was a lot of talk about cultural appropriation on social media. I wanted to share it here again as I believe it has some valid points in regards to any style of dance:

In all forms of dance there are preservers and there are innovators. Both are what they are because of the thing they are interested in, or what they are passionate about.

The Preserver

The Preserver is passionate about keeping tradition alive. That does not mean it is their tradition, but they are keen on not diffusing things, so that traditional dances, origins, histories are not lost. For something that is as ephemeral as dance this is so incredibly important. My locking teacher Jimmy Williams is an excellent example of a preserver, having learnt straight from the source (Don Cambell) he wishes to preserve locking as an art by passing it on. His intention is to keep the legacy alive.

The Innovator

The Innovator has no real interest in preserving the tradition. The Innovator wants to find connections, and find pathways between one discipline and another and create a hybrid form. This does not mean just using one dance and combining with another, that is a basic idea of fusion. It could mean using a philosophic principle and applying that to dance. That's how contemporary dance naturally grew out of ballet. Both Innovator and Preserver are important people. People like Carolena Nericcio and Rachel Brice were excellent examples of Innovators. However, I believe that both Carolena and Rachel have now become Preservers of their own innovation. So the idea of the Innovator and the Preserver is interchangeable, depending on how the needs of the artist and their art change over time.

The Imitator and The Impostor

But then there is also the Imitator. This person is someone not (yet) interested in preserving OR innovating. This person does this dance for fun and has less time invested than the previous two. This person often eventually turns into a Preserver or an Innovator, but when they don't: they either leave on to the next thing or they continue to practice for their own benefit, without regards to the culture of where this comes from. I think only then, it could become a problem, and it depends on what this person does: do they continue to just take classes here and there or do they decide to teach/perform/... Then it becomes problematic, because then to the public they become ambassadors of this dance, so they made the transition into the Impostor: advertising themselves to be an Innovator or a Preserver when they have literally no interest in investing in either qualities of these characters. They are for their own gain: money, fame, ego. They will most likely create more Imitators that turn into Impostors.

The Innovator still needs to respect the origins in order not to be an Impostor. But does not need to know every tiny little detail: that is the job of the Preserver.

The Preserver needs to not judge the Innovator as the Innovator keeps the form evolving, ever growing, creates new interest in the form as an innovation and potentially also tradition, as a newfound interest in a dance will lead to more research in its origins.

The Preserver and Innovator need to not judge the Imitator. They probably were an Imitator at some point in their life also, unless they were born into a dance culture. The Imitator is an important factor as it reminds both Innovator and Preserver of how the dance is experienced from new eyes.

The Imitator needs to be aware of Impostors. They need to search for Innovators and Preservers if they wish to learn something new that has a sense of quality.

Cultural appropriation in dance

With regards to the term cultural appropriation: I think this term can be linked both to the Imitator and to the Impostor. But I personally don't see the problem with culturally appropriating in regards to the Imitator, however it could become a problem in future. The Imposter however is culturally appropriating in a problematic way. It is problematic as they are taking without any respect for its origins, culture, ... And purely for their own gain. Beware of Impostors but don't put Imitators in that same category. We all need to start somewhere.

‘Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture. Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial, as the use of elements of a minority culture by a cultural majority are seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity or intellectual property rights. Cultural appropriation may eventually lead to the imitating group being seen as the new face of said cultural practices.’