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Appreciation or Appropriation??

In all my years of dancing, many of my favourite performances have been fusions. Dances that are undeniably from a particular genre, marrying seamlessly with elements of another. Dancers slipping in and out of movements from different genres like quick-change artists, leaving you with an element of surprise, asking, “Wait! Did they just….?”

Do you know how there are phrases in your native language that are so appropriate for a situation that using them in conversation enhances the meaning of what is being said? No other phrase fits quite as well as “that” one, and its meaning would be lost in translation. That’s how these fusion dances felt to me.

There is however, an ever-raging debate on the propriety of fusion in cultural dances. Is it Appreciation or Appropriation? Should we aim to preserve and protect, or evolve and improve? Are the two objectives mutually exclusive? Here are some thoughts-

The only constant is change!

To evolve is to change, and as with any evolutionary process, only the beneficial changes survive.

Let’s take Salsa for example. Salsa dancing is an amalgamation of centuries of cultural influences ranging from African folklore, to Cuban dances, to the American swing dances.

It is danced around the world in different ways, some more popular than others. The evolution of salsa into this worldwide phenomenon is largely because of the acceptance of the various influences it encountered on its journey. Syncretism was the basis of this culture and codification is the catalyst to its growth.

Follow the journey of any dance form and you are bound to find similar evolutions and adaptations.

The ability to accept new information and run with it is essential to the survival of an art form.

True artists are inventive.

Practitioners of an art form learn and follow rules. They evolve into artists when they learn to break the rules and create something unique. We like to emulate and follow the maverick artists, until one of us transcends and creates something new, thus becoming a maverick oneself. Such is the life cycle of art.

Without the constant inspiration provided by the inventiveness of artists, art itself wouldn’t survive.

The flip side.

While I am a strong proponent of the necessity of inventiveness, I also believe there are some caveats.

Everything in the kitchen sink, does not a fusion make!

Fusions must be made with a sense of purpose. Something only qualifies as fusion if it is a deliberate attempt at melding two objects, with a clear objective behind doing so.

An arbitrary mix of things created for the sake of seeming original doesn’t count even if it is aesthetically pleasing.

Technical mastery of the elements.

The dancer must first and foremost have a profound understanding of the technique of the different forms that they are blending. Fusion cannot exist without mastery of all the elements that form it. Anything short of that makes the fusion look half baked and forced.

Appreciation and not Appropriation.

Appreciation of an art form involves developing an understanding of not only the technical aspects of the form but also its roots, and the journey it has taken to reach its present form. It involves striving to give back to the community whose culture you’re borrowing from and advancing the culture further. It requires you to adopt the role of a student, and to be an active participant in the development of the art form.

Appropriation is to sample, stereotype, take, and alter a culture or art for one’s own profit. It is to borrow without acknowledgement or respect for the practitioners of an art or culture.

Fusion can only be legitimized if it is born out of appreciation and not appropriation.

Ultimately , I feel like, as an artist, you can only tell your own story. So, do what you will with your art, but always examine your own intentions, methods and processes to make sure that you’re not doing anything detrimental to its growth.

You might have a taste for the traditional, or an appetite for the avant garde, but neither can flourish without the other. Ultimately, change is a vehicle for tradition to carry on.

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