Shades of Gray

A minor controversy erupted last week as a member of the dance community, one who had been publicly expressing her opinion for some time, distributed an email that included some harsh criticisms of performances at the US Open. Those who were criticized, as well as their friends and supporters, spoke out against this person, attacking both her opinions and her character.

I don’t agree with what this person said, and I certainly don’t condone the way she said it. But the voracity with which people responded to her criticisms gave me pause. Yes, we need to state our opinions – whether popular or not (and especially if not) – with respect, humility, and an open mind to other viewpoints, but at the same time, whether we like them or not, I believe we should also exhibit tolerance and acceptance and allow dissenting or unpopular opinions.

The fact is that we are a community of diverse people, and with that goes diverse experiences, diverse perspectives, and diverse opinions. At the same time, we are a community of people who are often passionate about what we do, which means we often have strong opinions. And there are many who in part or in full depend on what we do for a living, which means we are sometimes prone to taking things personally. In the end, though, it’s this diversity of opinions, and the associated passionate discussions that we share about our craft, that keeps this community vibrant and alive and healthy.

I think it’s important to recognize, too, that we are a community built around an art form, and that means that most everything is subjective and there rarely if ever is an absolute right or wrong. I do my best to keep that in mind whenever I teach, and whenever I write these blog posts, and I try to foster an open forum where all opinions are welcome, as long as they are expressed nicely, with respect and an open mind. It’s particularly on my mind when I try to raise hot-button issues like swing content, as I did in my last post.

In our community we have some “experts” or “authorities”: people whose opinions are highly valued. For my part, I greatly respect those who have dedicated their lives to dance and our community, and who have won competitions and earned well-deserved admiration. I think they have a wealth of knowledge and perspective that can grow and enhance our craft, and therefore they deserve to be considered authorities. After all, if a person has been in the community long enough and had enough experiences, it gives that person a stronger foundation on which to build conclusions, and thus tested and validated opinions. But I also think there’s a danger to blindly accepting the opinion of any one expert as the only and absolute truth, especially at the exclusion of differing or even contradictory opinions. What seems right to you does not necessarily make other opinions wrong. (Of course, even the authorities disagree, so how does one choose “the right one” in the first place?) In fact, I find that oftentimes the differing opinions of the experts either complement one another or else are the same idea wrapped in different language.

At the same time, there’s something to be said for people who have some experience, but not so much that they have lost a more objective perspective. We’ve most likely heard the expression “We need a fresh set of eyes” at one point or another. This is a great attitude – a recognition that those who are immersed in something can lose perspective or objectivity – but it is also an attitude which is sometimes adopted up until that “fresh set of eyes” proposes an unpopular idea, at which point it’s easy to say that the person doesn’t have enough experience.

Thinking of our own community, we don’t all have to agree, but I believe we should hear out and respect others’ opinions, no matter what they are or where they come from. We should also present our ideas with respect for others, recognition that there are others who have been around longer and know more, and an open mind that acknowledges that the content of our discussions is frequently if not always subjective.

What do you think? Do you think all opinions are equally valid or are some more valid than others? Do you agree that winning awards makes someone an expert? Are there other ways of becoming an authority? Are there ways to ensure that we do a better job of being open and respectful? What can we do to resolve differences in a more civil manner?

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