University News

"Dancing Metaphors: Creative Self-Construction and Liberal Arts Education"
Dr. C. S'thembile West, Ph.D.

(The 11th annual College of Arts and Sciences John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture, Sept. 4, 2013)

Good evening Western Illinois campus community, supporters and friends. First, I want to thank Dr. Aimee Shouse who officially nominated me for this honor and Dr. Holly Stovall who, I suspect, put that thought into the universe.

A hardy thank you as well to Sharon Knight who judiciously and pleasantly assisted me with all aspects of the presentation, Prof. Bob Johnson, who created the graphics for the poster, and Andrea Jenkins, tech-extraordinaire who helped me to coordinate the visuals. Konnie Wells, an exceptionally gifted student transferred “Episodes,” a dance from which you will see excerpts later, from VHS to dvd. Without all of them this presentation would be less polished.


First, I will share a few personal notes to demonstrate how lived experiences contributed to my self-construction, then move into the meat of this afternoon’s/evening’s presentation: Dancing Metaphors: Creative Self-Construction and Liberal Arts Education.a look at how the arts and sciences help to facilitate creative self-construction.

Something mysterious and magical about the stories that the old folks told, while sitting on aging stoops, sparked a sense of excitement and wonder, when I was a little girl in Harlem. The seemingly non-stop, Friday evening conversations, after grocery shopping, gave neighborhood kids time to jump one more cycle of double-dutch or play that last game of lodies or stickball. Work weary mothers conversed over shopping carts overflowing with groceries. The square, concrete stoop, a poor person’s porch, was the final interlude of a prolonged day, before climbing five tall flights of hard-tiled stairs, lugging food and wining children, who still wanted to play, well into the twilight portion of the week.

Sometimes the stories continued as we unpacked the cart. Grandma’s eyes lite-up not when she talked about cleaning houses in Forest Hills, NY, but when she told me about dancing at the Savoy, an uptown ballroom that rocked and swayed with the vocal rhythms of Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Pops aka Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington’s band. As I sat around sipping diluted gin highballs, mimicking what I thought was sophisticated elegance in pint-size nuggets, stretching my three and a half-feet frame to ground the faulty steps I took in mama’s three inch heels, the stage was set for the kind of self-construction that I now recognize and appreciate. Told with conviction and sincerity, the lived experiences that I listened to helped me to imagine life outside the narrow venues in which I performed: elementary school, the tenement apartment and the local playground.

Bearing witness to the conversations, watching and listening as my family and the neighborhood women held court, if you will – on the concrete stoop of the tenement where I grew up, I learned fearlessness along with playfulness, community and a zest for life, a fire fueled by tenacity and imagination that will emerge over and over and over again, if WE give ourselves permission to live fully, deeply, completely. That was the beginning of my liberal arts education: the art of popular culture and the science of daily living.

Liberal Arts Education

In the inaugural Liberal Arts Lecture delivered September, 2003, Dr. John Hallwas addressed the importance of a liberal arts education that includes the humanities and the sciences – arts and science – and underscored the value of such a pursuit. At a time when increasingly more students venture into university settings to “get a job,” rather than to focus on engaging eclectic, academic offerings, conversations that emphasize the value of liberal arts education are both timely and necessary. With the rapid acceleration of technologies – smart phones, i-phones, i-pads, i-pods, Skype – that facilitate fast, efficient modes of communication, but do not necessarily deepen human contact or diverse understandings of culturally specific priorities, liberal arts education remains in the forefront of pedagogical or teaching priorities. Moreover, corporate executives and business leaders repeatedly emphasize the difficulty they have finding innovative thinkers, creative mavericks and team players, whose communication skills demonstrate both verbal and written as well as technological savvy. As such, the humanities and the sciences – English as well as Information Systems – are critical foundations for success in the twenty-first century.

Let me take a moment here to define what I mean by success. For me, success is moving comfortably across class, ethnic and gender boundaries. Success is being able to experience intergenerational wisdoms and to use them in the creative construction of daily life. Finally, success is being part of a loving, caring community of people who can appreciate and celebrate me. This is the kind of success that the arts have facilitated for me. I believe that the arts also offer these possibilities for every person seated here this afternoon/evening.

Perhaps, some of you are in a quandary about how you can engage diverse human perspectives in disciplines like math, biology, physics or even history, sociology, anthropology. I’m not an artist! You might exclaim!

Creative Self-Construction

One of the goals of the liberal arts is to facilitate personal development – to nurture people in ways that will not only enhance them in the context of their disciplines, but also prepare them to engage in conversations across the human community. Ultimately, shaping people who are aware of other people, especially the social conditions that pervade their lives, is one of the greatest achievements of liberal arts education. However, to prepare ourselves for cross-cultural, cross-continent interpersonal social and professional relations, each of us must explore and interrogate our own humanity – Who am I? Where am I from? What values do I hold? Do these values lift people up? Do my actions create a climate of compassion, respect and love? In short, do my actions contribute to the development of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated as the “beloved community”?

Anne Frank noted that “We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.” I agree. Human beings have much more in common than the jobs we do. Identities are crafted as much by the socialization we each experience as by the formal skills we acquire. It’s the humanity of the person – kindness, cordiality, engagement – that potentially connects with the humanity of the stranger. Hence, the stranger may become the friend, but at the very least, I hope that each encounter contributes to and deepens efforts to creatively construct a personal identity and humanitarian perspective, thereby helping to profoundly shape a caring community.

People who understand their own humanity and through diverse disciplines – like sociology, philosophy, anthropology – begin to understand what it means to be in community with diversity. Ultimately, the liberal arts help us to develop and expand our capacity to respect, emphathize with, have compassion for diverse peoples and worldviews. To understand the meaning of life in varying cultures mandates that we stand firmly on the ground of our own humanity: values, goals, dreams. When the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso was asked, “What is the meaning of life? he emphasized, “ To be happy and useful.” Hence, we would do well to inquire if, indeed, the work that we aspire to do, the field that we plan to enter makes us happy! Happiness is an extremely useful utensil for each of us to carry in the “tool box” for living fully each day.

So, as students in the room select from the varied smorgasbord of courses, I trust they you will move beyond financial concerns, to experiment with trying on new skins, new identities, and engaging unfamiliar subjects. Seek internships to determine, if, indeed, you will be HAPPY and enjoy the daily work routines of your chosen field. 10-20-30-40 years passes quickly when you’re doing what you love! And it certainly keeps you young, if not physically, certainly intellectually and emotionally!


I love the arts. I often refer to myself as an arts junkie. Art is how I get my fix. It is my passion. Throughout my career in the NYC public schools as well as at Western and other institutions, students often ask me if I’m high ! I offer this in rebuttal: Isn’t it possible to be passionate about life and living without drugs?

Numerous studies have shown that people who are emotionally healthy, have learned to balance diverse life arenas – work, family, friendships OR in the case of traditional college students – course load, family, friendships, extra-curricular activities. Happy, engaged people rarely miss work or fail to fulfill responsibilities. Studies have also shown that happy people tend to be more productive and less likely to get sick. Fortunately, I can place myself in that category – not bad for someone your granny’s age!

Now, I want to talk about the poster images.

Dancers – Poster Explanations - PowerPoint

The lives of the performers on the poster for this presentation model the kind of spirit and self-constructed identities that not only facilitate enhancement of the human spirit and community, but also provide models of what it means to “live fully”: enjoying the day-to-day experiences of human interactions and the long term goals of shaping community.

Historic Figures:

First, in 1934, Asadata Dafora Horton created “Ostrich,” the dance depicted on the poster. Asadata was the first to demonstrate the eloquence and majesty of African culture on stage. The popularity of his work proved that African culture was not only valid in its own right, but also marketable for U.S. audiences, circa 1929, New York City.

Second, William “Bojangles” Robinson’s hoofing style portrayed an elegance and grace that were commonly absent from social depictions of African Americans during the early decades of the twentieth century.

Lastly, anthropologist, writer, choreographer and dancer, Katherine Dunham, studied Caribbean culture in depth. A student of Melville Herskovits, Dunham made dances to visually reflect traditional dances and practices in Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Tobago as well as African America.

The legacies of Asadata, Robinson and Dunham, in dance and music alike, have enriched thousands of people around the globe. In the process of creative self-construction , they used their talents and expertise to change attitudes and assumptions about people of African descent. Their legacies demonstrate the richness of African-derived cultures and an aesthetic foundation that honors vital aliveness as well as unique “ energy signatures ” (Chopra 2013) that resonate in every human being.

My goal today is to demonstrate how this aesthetic quality, vital aliveness , undergirds not only creative expression and self-construction, but also the very tenor of daily life, especially if one is determined to “live fully,” expansively.

Dancing Metaphors – Vital Aliveness

Mahatma Gandhi noted: “We must be the change that we want to see in the world.” As a dancer and scholar, I question: How can we be the change, if we’re DEAD to the energies within our very selves? How can we BE change, if we’re unable to tap the vital life force that has the potential to change how we perceive, engage and interact in the world!

Vital aliveness , a cornerstone of an African aesthetic that is grounded in philosophy, emotions, social relations, story telling, dance and music constructions, constitutes a canon of fine form . From an African traditional perspective, fine form is not restricted to art production, but serves as a model for daily life. In fact, within an African aesthetic, social values, like truth, justice, beauty and balance are critical components of daily life. The aesthetic qualities function in the service of everyday life. Each human being is meant to embody the concepts of the aesthetic and, thereby, able to manifest these qualities associated with ma’at – truth, justice, beauty and balance – in daily life.

Art historian and Yoruba practitioner, Robert Farris Thompson articulated the importance of vital aliveness in African Art in Motion, 1971. A canon of fine form in African art, vital aliveness is not commonly understood as a critical foundation for character development, attitude and behaviors.

For example, vital aliveness is evident in the bent knees and slanted torsos of dancers as they move seamlessly from shape to shape. It is also explicit in the curved lines of sculpture and painting that not only suggest movement and flow, but also cause you to linger on a particular spot or peruse the canvass slowly or quickly. Vital aliveness captures the ongoing energy of daily life: incessant, steady, unpredictable.


Clapping – 2 groups different rhythms
Group 1: 16th notes – 2 phrases of 4 =8 counts
Group 2: quarter notes – 4 counts, 2 8th notes + 3 quarter notes = 8 counts

Group 3: Stand-up-2-3-4, then Sit down-6-7-8,
Group 4: Sit-down-2-3-4, turnaround-6-7-8

DW ululate

Just like the dancers, who must be prepared for quick changes in direction, an unexpected sound or mishap during stage productions, average citizens must adapt to specific events – like you just adjusted to the rhythmic directions that I gave you. Liberal arts education, the humanities and the sciences, provide us with skills to shift gears efficiently and effectively. At its best, liberal arts education promotes adaptability.

Facility with the written word is comparable to physical acumen in the dance. Dancers need technique, flexibility and stamina. Similarly, visual acuity and command of diverse strokes are critical necessities for painters. Mathematicians and engineers need accurate formulas to construct authentic meaning and sound buildings.

I want you to be aware that vital aliveness is activated not only in the creation of an art object or product, but also constitutes a necessary component in self-construction. Vital aliveness heightens enthusiasm, enlivens the process of creation and significantly changes viewer perspective. I would argue that the vital aliveness, reflected in the pace, rhythm, music and insinuation of the dance, is the magical quality that sucks-you-into-the-vortex or center of a performance. The signature energy of vital aliveness keeps people going back to diverse artistic expressions: African and European classical music and dance forms, hip-hop, rhythm and blues and jazz genres.

Similarly, the vital aliveness evident in the pulse and rhythms of our varying relationships – speech, nuance, habits (even the ones that annoy us!), expressions of love, concern, care – enhance daily life. Moreover, it is this vitally alive energy that creates a memorable, vibrant impression that each of us can feel and, hopefully, match in daily life.

Artists, like each person in this audience, need sustained creative drive and ideas to propel them forward. Liberal arts education can serve as the repository for that drive and energy. With expertise in the liberal arts and sciences you can create a life shaped by your passion.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the vital aliveness demonstrated in the rhythmic nuances of a few dances.



In sum, you have heard about how the stories of my elders and ancestors first gave me a sense of liberal arts education and daily living. You have spent a few moments in the vortex of the energy created collectively by this community of which you are each an integral part and, lastly, you have witnessed how vital aliveness can be manifested on stage.

As you leave here this afternoon/evening, I trust that you will not only take a bit of the energy you experienced and viewed with you, but also think about how you might create lives that vibrate with the vital energy that is within each of you. On that note, I want to leave you with a few inspirational quotes:

Extraordinary Jazz vocalist, known as the “First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald (b. 25th Apr. 1917 – 15th Jun. 1996) stressed: “It isn’t where you come from; it’s where you’re going that counts.

Former Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir (3rd May 1898 – 8th Dec. 1978) asserted: “Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.

African-Caribbean U.S. poet, essayist and novelist, Audre Lorde (18th Feb. 1934 – 17th Nov. 1992) emphasized: “Once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy.

German-born, Swiss poet, novelist and painter, Hermann Hesse (2nd Jul. 1877 – 9th Aug. 1962) declared: “It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is.

And lastly, contemporary African American children’s rights advocate, Marian Wright Edelman adamantly insists: “You’re not obligated to win. You’re obligated to keep trying to do the best you can every day.”

Thank you for listening.