When I texted a friend from home a video of a Synchrony dance I’m in, she immediately wrote back, “WHY IS EVERYTHING SO SEXUAL?” I stumbled over explanations—that undulation on all fours like a crazed hypercaffeinated yoga teacher doing cat-and-cow pose is a time-honored traditional move known as the synchrony crawl! The dance style for my group is “I’ll bring the awkward, you bring the sexy!”—and ended on, “I guess it’s just the tradition?”
Which is only half-true. When this dance performance was first put on in 1973, it was a troupe of black students who called themselves Ebony II, performing as a part of Black History Month. And the fact that this tradition has morphed into one of the “whitest groups on campus,” as Kenneth Laster not unfairly termed it in a recent Carletonian cartoon, should give us pause.
If we want to dance in what used to be Ebony II in a way that doesn’t conform to an ugly tradition of mocking blackness and black sexuality, we need to confront how its evolution from a black cultural event to a predominantly white comedic one could be interpreted that way.
A brief, incomplete history: after the hit 1973 performance, Ebony II (whose name, according to founder Debra R. Hard-McCray ’76, “meant hard, heavy, dark, and durable”) expanded to include some black students from St. Olaf. The troupe continued to grow over the years and became more involved with the community, touring and performing for benefits and eventually hosting concerts to raise money for the Northfield ABC (A Better Chance) organization supporting at-risk youth.
It expanded in the next two decades to become what 1989 Ebony II director Ann Watanabe ’90 described as “one of the most diverse” groups on campus, open to “anyone regardless of race, gender, body build, experience, or ability,” and featuring dances ranging from tap to hula to a Ghanian welcoming dance. The emphasis, according to Watanabe, was on all-campus (and even all-community) inclusivity.
The charity aspect of the dance seems to have faded since then, but dances on occasion still dealt with serious subject matter, like intimate partner violence. It wasn’t until 2013 that an Ebony director observed that unlike previous years, “every dance was mildly sexual.”
And that has been transformed into the fun, weird, definitely-not-mildly sexual performance we’ll have this Friday. Steps have been taken to recognize this transformation—the group changed its name to Synchrony II in acknowledgement of the changes it’s undergone, and Synchrony directors now read a statement on the history of Ebony/Synchrony—but these changes in themselves don’t sufficiently confront this complicated history. We need more than recognition, we need conversation.
Why did Ebony II evolve into Synchrony II, and why has the profile of its participants shifted so dramatically? What does it mean that a celebration of Black history and culture, over generations of college students and efforts to maximize inclusivity, has morphed into a predominantly white, intentionally ludicrous, over-the-top exhibition? Can Synchrony make light of a rigid system of sexuality where only conventionally attractive, able-bodied heterosexuals are allowed to be sexual at all, without also making light of its origins as Ebony?
To be clear: I’ve loved my time in Synchrony. I made one of my best friends here dancing to Love Shack. I’ve become comfortable with my body in new ways performing moves I never thought I’d do in the middle of Sayles-Hill Campus Center. But that only happened because I felt comfortable in Synchrony’s space.
As a queer person, celebrating sexuality unseriously is liberating. As a white person, it’s easy for me to overlook the ways it could be hurtful and appropriative.
And while for me these dances represent a way to break down the typical gendering of roles in dance (instead of “the guy” or “the girl,” partners in my dance are “the Jade” or “the Ineke” according to which of the (female) choreographers we follow), I could also see how these dance moves could feel uncomfortable or exclusionary to others whose sexuality does not fit into conventional heterosexual norms, like some members of the disability community or the queer community.
Again: conversation. If we want to preserve the space of world-turned-upside-down, of weird absurd expressions of sexuality and shiny star stickers and goofy dance that Synchrony is for some of us, and to make that space inclusive to a wider population on campus, we need to think about what’s behind Synchrony II. We need to examine the dance group without taking any part of it for granted as “just tradition.” And we need to talk about it.