Below is an account of my experience being canceled as a choreographer and guest artist at Wayne State University (WSU). I was so impressed with the department’s open-mindedness while I was on campus, only to be shocked by its intolerance once I had left.
Earlier this year, I read both Fahrenheit 451 and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Both works capture life under tyranny—the former focuses more on censorship and the latter on dehumanization in labor camps. The imagery in these books, along with the industry murals by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Art, inspired a choreography I created for WSU’s Dance Department.
The piece begins with a cluster of dancers drifting side to side to the flamenco rhythm of siguiriya (a style sung at funeral processions). As the piece progresses, some dancers escape the oppressive nature of the group, only to be symbolically laid to rest by the majority. After the other dancers work themselves “to death” through mechanized movement and a fall to the ground, the two that escaped the majority rise again and begin to lift the others. The last phrase has the majority facing one another, and finally the hopeful image of those dancers embracing someone across from them, recognizing their shared humanity.
No one will see this work publicly performed—at least not at WSU—and if the piece is performed elsewhere, it won’t be by the dancers who helped create the original manifestation. Why? Because I was canceled by the university after my political views did not appear to align with those of the majority. I practiced ‘wrongthink,’ and worse yet, I wasn’t afraid to hide it.
I received a text message from the faculty member who brought me to WSU with a link to my Twitter account—an account I rarely use. “Hey is this your twitter page?” the text read. I saw the message amid many others in the middle of a busy day, thought it was weird, and then moved on with whatever I was doing. A week later, the same faculty member asked me to call him as soon as possible. I did.
I learned that some students had been upset by something on my Instagram account and started to dig around the internet looking for me. They found my Twitter page (it’s not that hard to find). The university cannot be associated with someone like me, I was told. I was a bit shocked when I heard that if my opinions did not align with the majority at the institution, I could not be welcomed on campus.
I gathered that the disgruntled students had formed a sort of mob in support of a peer who is part of a demographic that one of my Tweets addresses, and that they were refusing to participate further in the choreographic work.
My initial reaction was to have a dialogue. I am happy to discuss my worldview and political opinions with anyone—I have nothing to hide. I agree that Tweets can be offensive, as all opinions are to someone, somewhere. That suggestion was shut down—apparently, the situation had moved far beyond that possibility. I was told that the students’ comfort had to be prioritized, and that one student felt unsafe due to my Tweets.
When I was at WSU in person, I think the students had a great experience working with me. Indeed, there was apparently significant doubt that the Twitter page was even mine, given their in-person impressions of and feelings toward me. I treat every student with respect. I want to see them grow and learn. I think they learned about flamenco culture and history working with me. I was impressed by their dancing, work ethic, attitudes, and openness to try new moves, and I was proud of the work that resulted.
But once I leave town, I’m much easier to cancel, especially when the accuser can remain anonymous and keep the offending material under wraps. I still don’t know what Tweet caused the uproar. It’s easy to reduce me to my Tweets and to label me, thereby forgetting the human experiences we shared in person. That’s the world in which we live. Yes, I should’ve been more aware of that fact so as not to be vulnerable to the mob mentality.
While I can understand, and respect, a student’s decision to not participate in a choreography by someone who holds an opposing worldview, it’s troubling that a dialogue was not an option. Although I can’t say for sure, I imagine that my Tweets about transgender ideology upset students. Perhaps it was simply the discovery that I was not a member of the so-called majority—my opinions align more with conservative politicians. I’m an independent voter, one who has volunteered for candidates on the Left and the Right, and I define my politics and art as that which seeks truth and reminds us of our shared humanity.
I admit that Tweets do nothing to further these lofty goals. If anything, they do quite the opposite. So yes, I feel ashamed for having said goals and yet using Twitter. At the same time, I feel no need to apologize for having an opinion that some people find offensive. My fiancé noted that I’m very opinionated, and that’s never going to change. He’s right—I’ve always been that way. He also pointed out how much I listen, how surprised he was by it at first, and how I even concede from time to time in our debates.
I love dialogue and debate (my parents are both lawyers—to me, debate around the dinner table is normal). I had a unique opportunity to debate with a very progressive liberal this summer in Spain. I wondered if we would have felt comfortable having that debate on U.S. soil. Neither of us changed our views, but I better understood his perspective—the debate humanized his opinions, and it helped me strengthen my own arguments and reasoning. We both expressed gratitude to speak to someone on the other side and to have intelligent, nuanced conversation on the most controversial issues. It was refreshing and invigorating to finally have a calm debate with someone holding opposing viewpoints.
I started using Twitter when I became a professor at Oberlin College. Immersed in hatred toward “red” America, I needed an outlet. After being laughed at for attending events in the surrounding rural communities, eating at restaurants that weren’t up to fellow professors’ elitist standards, and even dating someone local (gasp), I’d hop on Twitter. I needed to be surrounded by like-minded people so that I didn’t feel dehumanized and didn’t have to hide my opinions. I created a fake Twitter account where I could gleefully retweet conservative talking points. It was totally self-serving. It felt powerful to retweet conservative thoughts when they were as good as outlawed at Oberlin. The isolation and intolerance I experienced on campus led me to Twitter off campus. Had I been able to say to my colleagues, “Actually, I support the Trump admin’s policy on X because of Y … ,” I doubt I would’ve ended up on Twitter. But that’s not the world in which we live.
The professor who brought me to WSU basically said the same thing to me: I should’ve been more careful, I should’ve known better, this is the world we live in—where the comfort of the students is the primary concern, not the discomfort of engaging with ideologies different than our own. What I wish the Left realized is how their inability to dialogue further increases the divide in America. I honestly wouldn’t know about half of the conservative commentators I followed had I not felt so isolated in academia. I used to be a vehement centrist until I experienced over and over the intolerance of the Left and read more and more conservative thinkers.
I hid my political opinions well enough while at Oberlin, such that people shared their ideology very explicitly with me without an inkling that I would ever disagree. But after moving back into the dance field outside of academia, I decided it was silly to hide behind a fake Twitter account. So, I started using my real Twitter account on occasion. I suppose I knew I was taking a risk, and that at some point it would become a liability. But I want to live in a world where we can have opinions even if they are offensive, and even if we express those opinions in ways that are insensitive.
I’m on the fence about what to do moving forward. Do I let myself be silenced so that I can continue to choreograph for academia (e.g., delete my retweets, never share conservative satire)? Do I even want to be a part of the academic world that is so intolerant, that abhors open-mindedness?
The crux is that Twitter goes against my core beliefs—it does nothing to further truth or humanity if we don’t allow it to be a starting point for dialogue off the platform. And that’s where WSU has failed its students. Don’t perform the piece I choreographed. Erase me from your list of guest artists. But let’s have a conversation—I want to learn from the students, I want to listen to them, and I hope they would listen to me with an open mind, too. Otherwise, what exactly is academia about?
In my choreography, it’s not clear what reawakened the two characters who had been symbolically ‘put down’—an artistic deficit, certainly. Only once everyone else had fallen to the ground did they reawaken as the music shifted to calmness, and then they pulled the others back to life before the final embrace. I am still hopeful that we can embrace and recognize the humanity in someone whose worldview opposes our own. I think that is only possible through dialogue.