Letter to the Editor: An open response to D.S. Knowlton’s 'A love note to choreographers from the guy sitting in section C, row 13, on the aisle'

Upon reading Mr. Knowlton’s recent article published on See Chicago Dance, I was immediately inspired to respond to this writer’s impassioned exposition. While I believe this writer when he says that he loves the arts and enjoys attending performances of varied genres including dance, I find the article to be a jumbled and harmful blurb of ideas culminating in a threat to artists. For those of us who attend therapy regularly, one can’t help but identify the elephant in the room here: Using threats in an attempt to control your partner’s behavior isn’t love, it’s abuse.

Rather than focusing on the numerous uninformed, simplistic and mansplained ideas about what contemporary dance should be from a self-professed non-authority, I will focus on the two most troubling parts of Mr. Knowlton’s article. I will address the latter portion of this article first as it is the most troubling, in my estimation. In the last paragraph, Knowlton uses threats as a tactic to get choreographers to incorporate more entertainment value in their work.

“If you cannot bring yourself to show love for your audience, then perhaps it is an admission to yourself that you just don’t need us. Perhaps, then, it’s time for a breakup. It would be a breakup that I find painful; but if you do not feel that pain, then I only can wish you the best of luck as your audience continues to dwindle and you perform only for yourself in the mirror of your insular and silent studios.”

What I see in these two sentences is an admonition to artists. The author is saying, "consider your audience (by bringing more entertainment value to the stage). If you don’t we’re all going to leave you, and good luck surviving without us." While there may be a point in there somewhere about alienating one’s audience, this author also employs textbook patterns abusers use when trying to reach a goal. I don’t see where this type of oratory has any place in our community, much less the larger artistic community as a whole. Perhaps those who have published and circulated this article will reconsider that choice.

Bypassing the assertions made by Mr. Knowlton about various artistic values, including his opinions about musicality, technology in dance and how to approach the use of unison movement in choreography, I think there’s something rather dire we must examine. In his article, Mr. Knowlton clumsily attempts to address issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, systemic racism and white supremacist ideologies in one paragraph of his text and then moves on without addressing the complexities of his statement. I simply find this irresponsible. In the article Knowlton says this: “I encourage you to consider that to believe that ballet is 'the' fundamental basis of all meaningful technique is inherently an act of cultural exclusion. It defies diversity and equity. It is a view born in imperialism. Show us diversity of technique and fundamental training more broadly on your stages. As a starting point, I suggest you consider integrating the fundamentals of Cuban dance, such as those found in bembé or guaguanco, for example. Doing so will better appeal to a wider audience and deepen the substance of your art, as a broader base of fundamentals and techniques will diversify the look and feel of modern dance.”

Of course Mr. Knowlton is correct. Ballet is not the center of all dance. Western dance forms are not more valuable than other dance forms. There historically has not been enough (or perhaps any genuine) representation on the concert dance stage of non-Western dance forms. And indeed, Western dance is rooted in imperialism and white supremacist ideologies. I affirm all of these ideas. While the author’s attempt to discuss this matter is virtuous, there is one blaring issue here: the audience he addresses consists of independent choreographers. This matter, however, is a systemic issue in our community. Those responsible for the necessary reparative work include theater presenters, administrators, artistic directors and many more, yet this is not to whom Mr. Knowlton appeals. The danger here is that Knowlton urges independent choreographers to consider incorporating cultural dance in their works to “better appeal to a wider audience” and to “diversify the look and feel of modern dance.” In my understanding and opinion, the author needs to understand that to incorporate cultural movement into a dance work, the choreographer should only include cultural movements that connect to a culture or heritage of which they are a part or to which they belong.

As an example, Mr. Knowlton suggests that choreographers incorporate bembé or guaguanco in an effort to diversify their dance works, but does not articulate that this suggestion should only be for choreographers of a Cuban background or even perhaps choreographers who have spent a considerable amount of time in Cuba fully immersed in this culture. It would be folly to suggest that choreographers appropriate culture that is not their own in their dance works simply to better entertain audiences, and in my estimation, that is the very idea Mr. Knowlton suggests. It is vital that Mr. Knowlton understand that cultural appropriation only deepens the systemic issues we (as a dance community) face around diversity, equity and inclusion. The publishers of this article should also be thoughtful about what voice they’re amplifying at this time. It is my assertion that an unexamined, misguided and abusive opinion is not what we need. Rather, we need thoughtful, kind and well-informed writing to support our progress as humans and as a community. Further, I admonish See Chicago Dance for narrowing their focus to this kind of writing in their publication.


Wade Schaaf (they/them) is a full time artist, choreographer and artistic director living and working in Chicago. They are an amateur but impassioned writer and overall concerned community member.