A Taiwanese American, 5’2, and stylish woman, Cynthia Ling Lee, Assistant Professor of Dance in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, has a dynamic approach to teaching cultural competence in the classroom. Her loving approach to pedagogy introduces different dance forms unfamiliar to students in an engaging way. She emphasizes how her subject matter can relate to the lives of the students and current affairs, and provokes thoughtful discussion. I saw this displayed in her dance studies course, “World Dance Traditions.” Cynthia Ling Lee, dance professor, spends time and effort, teaching, demonstrating, and acknowledging the historical and political systems of power, colonization, gender, cultural identity, nationalism, government censorship, and the lived challenges of a multiracial and multi-religious society. This course examines these types of systems of power and others. On this particular day, she taught a studio dance class and exposed her diverse students to Kathak, a classical dance form from the Indian subcontinent.
Making a tight knit circle within the hot and sticky studio which usually breeds claustrophobia, conversely bred intimacy this particular Monday afternoon. Professor Lee pulled at the cotton material of her top and slowly tied bells around her ankles, talking through the significance of Kathak. She moved her baggy pants–salwar–explaining that these pants are usually even baggier, as they are gender non-specific.
Later, her voice rang out, reciting the bols, or the rhythmic syllables of the taal, or metrical cycle. Her voice directed the students to place their arms up, bent, in the fixed starting position. The students, eyes closed, listened, and withstood the pull of gravity in this hard, tiring position for the few minutes until she was done. This is only a small and humble glimpse into the historical legacy of dancing Kathak. The students moved into various aspects of Kathak nritta, or abstract rhythmic dance, including rhythmic footwork, and turns along with Professor Lee.
That class ended with the enthused students gathered around a screen, viewing video of Professor Lee’s guru, Bandana Sen, performing the storytelling art of Kathak Abhinaya. Wednesday’s session was spent in a classroom discussing historical context and engaging in a discourse around Kathak dance and gender identity. While the students were US American black and white, and the professor Taiwanese American, the course content focusing on North Indian Kathak–when viewed through a lens of cultural appreciation–opened the conversation, as Professor Lee states, “to talk about systems of power.”
UNCG students come from 78 countries and 48 states as well as the District of Columbia, with 43% of students identifying as members of ethnic minority groups. You will find Chinese bible studies, the African Student Union, and Iranian social groups all on this beautiful, scenic campus. With this many different, eclectic identities it is important to teach cultural awareness and sensitivities. The jargon for this mindset is recognized as cultural competence. This teaching focus helps facilitate a peaceful campus, in which learning can happen both in and out of the classroom.
Quoting the National Education Association (NEA) website, “As NEA President Dennis Van Roekel has noted, ‘Educators with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to value the diversity among students will contribute to an educational system designed to serve all students well,’ ” echoing an ethos of UNCG and the School of Music, Theatre and Dance. The NEA further defines cultural competence as “having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms….”
In unpacking her teaching, Professor Lee points out that there are two levels of cultural competency with which we work. The first is equipping teachers to deliver content beyond their background of values, beliefs, and norms. The second is asking students to open up and explore differences of other values, beliefs, and norms. Professor Lee remarks, “Students might not be exposed to this level of content if it were not part of the curriculum to value world histories.”
She adds, “It makes you a better human being when you think outside of your usual way of viewing the world, for example, in terms of race, power, and privilege. I want to challenge my students to think about different ways of being in the world and to have a deep understanding and appreciation that makes our lives richer and more layered. And yes, it can be uncomfortable. However, the point is not to traumatize students, but to be honest about looking at your paradigm. And to me, that is delightful and fun.”
Cultural competence is taught in the dance classroom to help foster engaged citizenship.
In finding out why cultural competence is important to Professor Lee, I would like to add my own voice to the conversation as both a UNCG student and a citizen in our community: I believe that we have to teach these concepts of cultural competence because we all operate through conscious and subconscious biases. Whether explicit (conscious) or implicit (unconscious), we all operate through these lenses of bias. By teaching cultural competence, tools are learned to help interrupt those biases. If we take a look into our world today, the constructed social categories, such as race, are often used in divisive ways that negatively impact people’s lives. For example, “Black Lives Matter” is a movement highlighting how the race of a person determines how easily it is to dismiss their value. This movement is highlighting how this sentiment engrained in different US systems of power separates political leaders, religious groups, law enforcement, pedestrians, and so many more because we say, “Everyone matters,” but our actions tell a different story. And the work of aligning our actions with our words highlights the importance of bringing this real life lesson into the classroom to help examine these systems of power.
Professor Lee is dedicated to these types of life lessons in the classroom. Her teaching of dance within the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, emphasizes and explores cultural competence in the classroom. Her welcoming approach to teaching allows for different dance forms to be explored that may be new to her students. Her emphasis on historical and current events and cultural sensitivity facilitates respectful discussions and thoughtful group projects. I get to see her interact with her students as a teaching assistant. I saw her pedagogy brought into the spotlight through her discussion of and interactive demonstration of Kathak dance and philosophies. Her ability to connect dance history to individual experiences challenges our biased lenses. Through class discussions students get to hear different interpretations of the same piece, and these interpretations are often different from each other. Because students are validated in their opinion, when they hear a different opinion, their biases are perhaps exposed and then, the fun can begin.