“Because of tradition”: Disagreements and changes in Princeton’s dance group hierarchy

Princeton’s student-led dance community has more than 15 ensembles, each with unique styles, traditions and requirements. These bands are known for their professional-caliber performances and near-professional time commitments.

Amid the pandemic, student concerns about social hierarchy, elitism and prejudice towards Western dance styles within the dance community prompted policy shifts – in particular, the disbanding of a coalition known as the G4. Now, in the first in-person year since the change, dance groups and their members are still adapting. New logistics surrounding performance and reduced restrictions on membership solved some problems while creating new ones, and in practice, student leaders did not unequivocally embrace the changes.

Until summer 2020, four dance groups — Disiac, Black Arts Dance Company (BAC), expressionsand BodyHype — formed a coalition known as G4, designed to limit students to participating in just one of four groups. G4 bands have historically attracted particularly large volumes of auditionees and have often faced issues with dancers trying out for more than one band, leading to conflicts in the admissions and rehearsal processes. In turn, the competition to attract talented dancers has intensified.

But that summer, following concerns from student dancers about inequality in the dance community, G4 members voted to disband the coalition. Thus, the rule that students could only join one of the four groups was no longer in effect.

The Performing Arts Council (CAP) is the legislative body—under which the G4 Coalition has operated—that governs arts administration for a wide range of student arts groups at Princeton.

In the opinion of PAC Chair Emeritus Sophie Blue ’21, G4 has promoted a culture of inequity among dance groups due to the unequal distribution of rehearsal and performance dates, times and locations. PAC allocates performance and rehearsal spaces; G4 companies received preferable gear, Blue said, at the expense of other dance ensembles.

“We’ve had many conversations within the arts community about how governments and structures can support those who don’t have the same representation or resources,” Blue said. “There was an uneven distribution of these resources built into PAC’s operating system.”

This policy change did not have a substantial effect on the following school year, which was online for the first semester and partially in-person for the second semester. But this academic year, fewer COVID-19 restrictions on campus have allowed in-person auditions and dance performances — highlighting the growing difficulties of the new policy.

The elimination of G4 brought a multitude of structural changes. Previously, per PAC policy, G4 was guaranteed two shows a year at the Frist Campus Center. Now every dance group is guaranteed a show on the first stage, and whether or not a group gets a second show is decided by lottery. Performance spaces for second shows are also determined by lottery.

“Now every group — regardless of size, how long they’ve been around, or how much money they have in the bank — all have equal opportunity to use the school’s performance spaces,” Blue said.

Molly Gibbons ’22 is a member of BodyHype and Princeton University Ballet. She was the former vice-president of the PAC, before the elections this semester. Gibbons was not on the PAC board when the new policies were implemented, but explained his understanding of the change.

“The redistribution of shows was done so that no one would receive special shows, or special moments that they had before, because of tradition,” Gibbons said.

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Gibbons also discussed PAC’s goal of giving student dancers more freedom by removing the constraint of which groups they could join.

“There was a feeling of letting people make their own choices about their engagements. For some people and the dance styles they do, it didn’t make sense why you couldn’t join another group” Gibbons said, “G4 was making sure that hip-hop dancers couldn’t join, say, BAC and BodyHype, or BAC and Disiac, if they wanted to.”

Gibbons noted that disbanding G4 was important not only in terms of logistics but also for the relationships between the dance groups.

“There was sometimes so much animosity between the dance groups and it wasn’t productive,” she said. “It was like maybe this system [G4] no longer served us. There was also perceived pressure from PAC and perceived pressure from ODUS at that time to make changes.

Gibbons also noted that regardless of politics, she’s grateful the dance scene is back.

“To me, everyone is putting on shows — coming out of COVID feels like a win,” Gibbons said.

Ben Reinkemeyer ’23 is a member of Disiac and was part of PAC when G4 disbanded. He felt that the change in policy helped eliminate preference for dance styles that were widely practiced and available to white and wealthy students.

“Abolition of the G4 was a great start for students from all backgrounds to feel included in the Princeton dance community,” Reinkemeyer said. “It’s important to continue to recognize the inherent bias in Western dance styles on campus, so that all students can feel their art and experiences add value.”

For similar reasons, Emma Wang ’23, former president of dance company Disiac, was happy to see G4 disbanded.

“G4 was dumb and elitist,” she said. “I think it was a necessary change.”

But despite her general support for the change, Wang argued that it had caused a stir among former G4 groups and the college dance community as a whole, particularly over what she saw as a lack of clarity at both from PAC and ODUS.

“People are unhappy with the way this has been handled. It was really hard to navigate. [They didn’t] describe how it would affect [dancers] or what the new policies were,” Wang said.

Every officer who implemented the policy changes has since graduated or is no longer part of the PAC. According to Wang, this lack of continuity has been one of the sources of difficulty.

“It’s been months. There were no PCB meetings. We need new policies and guidelines to operate, and we’re not getting them. So we have to ask and push, and [the new leadership] don’t know what’s going on. Getting it to go… Sophie Blue, who pioneered this initiative, was difficult,” Wang said.

Additionally, overlapping memberships between what were previously G4 groups has not always been a welcome result of PAC policy changes. Wang talked about her experiences with dancers who chose to accept spots on both BodyHype and Disiac.

“It’s difficult because there was overlapping rehearsals,” Wang said. “What’s the point of being in a band if you’re going to be inactive for most of it? BodyHype and Disiac are so similar. They are different communities, but the dance is the same.

Although officially the groups could not prevent students from joining other groups, these difficulties led to the informal emergence of “G2” between Disiac and BodyHype. The management of each company strongly encourages dancers to join only one of these two groups.

According to Wang in a message to the Daily Princetonian, “most knew where they wanted to be”, so the choice was never too difficult. But Blue, who firmly believes the G4 should be disbanded, said she was disappointed with the development.

“[Disiac and BodyHype] didn’t even give him a full semester on campus,” Blue said. “This social hierarchy, which the dance groups originally wanted to abolish, is exacerbated by the G2.”

Conversations around inequities in Princeton’s dance community are ongoing, but in the meantime, Blue encouraged current leaders to consider the potential benefits of embracing a new system.

“Change is hard, but if you don’t try, you won’t see what’s possible,” Blue said.

Katherine Brubaker is a feature contributor. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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