Let Me Re-Introduce Myself: Letter to the NYC Street/Club Dance Community

Dear NYC Street/Club Dance Community,

Peace and blessings to each of you. My name is Quilan Arnold, I go by Cue. I’m an Afro-Panamanian-American, an embodiment of black/brown culture, and a fourth year guest/ally in the NYC street/club dance scene. I’m writing this letter because I feel the need to re-introduce myself to the community.

Recently, I have received a lot of heat in the midst of our biological and social pandemics (covid, BLM, etc.). This season has offered an opportunity to sit back, reflect, and feel the feelings. Amongst our black/brown community, we have emboldened ourselves to call out injustice and anything/anyone that we don’t completely trust. My life in our street/club dance community has settled in the crosshairs of skepticism, which I’m admittedly hurt by but not mad at- skin folk don’t mean kin folk. I’ve been advised by my elder, Cebo Carr (who has been a blessing to me since I’ve arrived in NYC), to respond to this skepticism with this letter and so below are items I desire to address:

  1. I say certain things that I receive from practitioners who know more than me without giving them credit.
  2. 2017 blog post “How Black Creations Lose their Black Face”
  3. I’m impatient and I move too quickly. 
  4. I’m hyper critical of things I don’t see happening when they are happening. My hyper critical nature speaks to my ignorance about what’s going on, and to my impatience regarding the work I do know about.
  5. There are views I have around black/brown cultural identity and philosophy that are disagreeable to many in the community, and so me representing the community in any leadership capacity is problematic.

There may be more, but these are themes that have stuck with me from my conversations with trusted elders and peers within the community. I’ll attempt to address them all now:

1. I apologize for if/when I have verbally plagiarized other practitioners. I have yet to understand what is communal knowledge and what is personal knowledge that should be given credit to a specific person. I humbly ask for the community’s help in my discernment going forward. Regardless, I have been and will continue to be more conscious about shouting out the people I get knowledge from as I’m sharing it with others. 

2-4. One of my introductory acts to the community was in 2017 when I wrote an opinionated blog post about our generational gap that offended many. I apologize for how I introduced myself. It was not courteous, polite, nor considerate as a guest should be when entering a new environment. This act, in my opinion, is a great example of my hyper critical nature, my impatience, and my impulsivity. I wrote the blog post after a year of participating in the community. I was disappointed that I could not find elders who would take me in to teach me their views on our culture. I thought I had seen enough and heard enough in order to make an accurate assessment. Two years later, I recognize that was a privileged and impatient mindset. Although I do think my blog post has strong validity, it was not my place as a newcomer to abrasively and publicly criticize the community. I am working to show my care for our people before I care to show my criticism. 

I want you all to know that, from the beginning, I have cared. My hyper criticism and impatience may be a contrary way to show it- and I’ll continue to work on that- but it’s a part of who I am. I am naturally an observer and thinker. God has created me with an analytical characteristic that breaks down the things I care about to their quintessential components. I’ve also been created with a fiery passion to improve myself/my community in whatever it is that I/we do. The combination of the two leads me to assess the strengths and weaknesses of our our culture, and to help it in any way that I can.  My big brother, Sekou Heru, has told me multiple times “it ain’t broke.” I’m still chewing on this statement myself, but I do believe many in the community share the same sentiment- it ain’t broke so there’s nothing to be fixed.

As a follower of Jesus Christ (thoughts on how this negotiates with the belief systems of black/brown practitioners in our community later) I believe that we all are significantly broken. I also believe that there’s no need to fix us because Jesus already gave us a way to do that. I think the glory of God has been, and continues to be, shown in the magnificent light of the NYC street/club dance community. We are a community that is filled with innovation, healing, drive, spirit, knowledge, movement (philosophically and kinesthetically), strength, beauty, elegance, intelligence, and more. We are these things in the midst of our society- and I speak mainly to my black/brown brothers and sisters here- telling us that we are none of these things. Wow, what power! I’m so attracted to our creations because it reminds me of the perfectly loving light that resides in me- in all of us- in the midst of my brokenness. 

I have no problem admitting that I’m broken. I’m not sure if that’s something that is shared amidst our community. However, I know that my offending the very community that I want to be a part of so dearly shows my shortcomings. And I have personally experienced the shortcomings of others in our community as well. 

Sekou has encouraged me to speak from my own experience and so I’ll use that as an example- the way I’ve been treated during this “checking process” is a testament to how we, as a community, are broken. People are spreading false rumors about me, people are talking behind my back while silent in my face, people are negatively criticizing me and my work when they haven’t invested in either, and there’s little care from those people about how their negativity is affecting my emotional, psychological, and financial livelihood. Although God is using it for good, I would say those are acts of broken people. I forgive anyone and everyone who has shot me down in any way, as I hope you can forgive me for the ways I’ve messed up as well. I hope the people who have issues with me can directly express themselves with a heart to reconcile because, ultimately, I want to move through our brokenness together. I like to believe this is much of what the clubs are about, what the music is about, what the dance is about. I believe we can replicate and transfer our ideology in those environments to contexts such as these.

5. Me believing in Jesus Christ and believing that we’re all broken are a couple of ways that may be contrary to the belief systems of many in our community. I have also had conversations with some about black/brown identity that rubbed them the wrong way. My spiritual belief will not be something that changes, and I am, admittedly, rooted in ideologies that may be problematic to you; however, I am always a student who is curious about our people and the collective consciousness that has gotten us this far. I live for dialogue about who we are and how that helps us navigate in this world. We may be surprised where we synchronize, and like in a dance battle, our difference in perspectives can help us all elevate and open our minds; thus, uplifting our culture and community as well. 

As a fourth-year guest to NYC street/club dance, I do not believe I hold authority to state an opinion on what allows one to be in a leadership position or not. Currently, the leadership roles I hold are pedagogical ones: teaching at Hunter College and Peridance Capezio Center. In my short experience, I have not been privy to much communal conversation centered around the qualifications/standards needed to teach a street/club dance form. It seems that opinions vary significantly in this regard, but I think I can gain clarity from a couple things: actively seeking members’ guidance/opinions (which I commit to from here-on-out), and members finding more of a common ground.

I have been privileged and entitled in taking roles as a teacher. I have seen innumerous others, much less qualified, teaching street/club dance classes that are damaging to the culture. As a black/brown body in this society who has academic letters by his name- and truly cares for the preservation/elevation of our community- I felt an obligation to serve in those spaces (i.e: contemporary studios, competition studios, academia). I have been cognizant and cautious about what and who I teach considering my skill level and historical/cultural knowledge. I have focused on the vocabulary and techniques of hip-hop party and viral dances because I believe they have been the greatest intersection between history, rigor, fun, codification, and pop-culture relevancy for novice-beginning students. Am I an expert in the form? I don’t know. In ways, I am. In ways, I’m not. To many, I am. To our community, I’m not. What I do know is that I have currently done 6 years of work in both the academy and the street to establish a strong technical/cultural/historical foundation that pays homage to the hip-hop dance community and uses it to help elevate and challenge the students’ humanity. 

I acknowledge that my verbally plagiarizing whilst teaching (the first point I addressed) is unacceptable as it places me as a centralized figure of this knowledge when I am not. Furthering that false centrality has been my habit of being the only one to teach the class that I’ve been given. I am committed to making a shift here by articulating my position as “guest-in-the-community” to students, quoting practitioners, and teaching-by-committee more often so that I can foreground the people and the knowledge to the best of my abilities. 

To end, I thank you for investing your time seeking to know me. I understand this is not at all about me, but about us and the culture we all love, and so it humbles me that you have taken your valuable resources and focused them here. Whether you agree/disagree with, or are offended/inspired by, any aspect of this letter I invite you to converse with me- on or off the dance floor- it would mean a lot. One thing I strongly believe in, barring a crisis, is that I’m not going anywhere for a while so you’ll have plenty of opportunity! 

Thank you God, my family, my ancestors, my elders, my friends, and the street/club dance culture for supporting me through this entire journey including the writing of this letter. I wouldn’t/couldn’t be who I am without you.

Love and Light,
Quilan

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