In regard to Riddim’s history: Give it back

By Niyafa Boucher

In her recent email, President Patton urged non-Black members of this community to be “true allies in developing deeper knowledge about racism, inequality and the way oppression operates within our culture, within our institutions and within ourselves.” White supremacy works not only by constantly placing White people in positions of power, but also by diminishing the contributions of Black people to our society.  I want to bring your attention to a group on our campus that has been dishonoring the legacy of Black and Brown students.

Jamaican women founded the Riddim World Dance Troupe in 1998 with the purpose to, “provide the Middlebury College Community with an outlet of expression through diverse dance styles, such as hip-hop, jazz, samba, reggae, calypso, merengue, modern, and African dance forms.” The Riddim that performs in Wilson Hall today does not reflect the original purpose put forth in 1998. Instead, it emphasizes Eurocentric dance forms and erases the many forms that were originally meant to be featured. In fact, I was told as an incoming first year that Riddim was the White dance group mainly for technically trained dancers. There was no mention anywhere of the origin of the troupe.

Over the years, this shift has not only been in this group’s informal reputation — it is also reflected in their updated constitution. The constitution posted on the 2009 website states, “The purpose of Riddim is as follows: Section 1: To explore and provide awareness to the Middlebury College community on Caribbean, African and Hispanic, European etc., cultures through the participation of dance.” The policy that allows for constitutional changes to student organizations has made it possible for Riddim’s successors to white wash the history of this organization.

The 2019-2020 Riddim Constitution states, “Article II Purpose: The purpose of RIDDIM World Dance Troupe is as follows: 1. To provide an outlet for dancers who come from all backgrounds, training, and styles from around the world to learn from each other by choreographing and teaching.” Instead of starting a new group or working harder to honor Afro-Caribbean and Afro-latinx styles of dance, they kept the name and the prestige while changing everything that it initially represented. Other dance groups, namely Evolution Dance Crew, have come to fruition to occupy the void that Riddim used to fill.

In light of recent circumstances, it is imperative now more than ever that the Middlebury community show greater respect for the legacy of Black and Brown students. This troupe benefits from its years of existence, despite the fact that the execution has clearly strayed from the original vision of the group. European was once last on the list of styles, but now Euro-centric dance has displaced cultural dance forms like samba or reggae that have little representation on our campus.

The name itself “Riddim” is a patois word taken directly from Carribean culture.  I can attest as the child of two Caribbean immigrants that members of our community do not pronounce the word correctly or show any reverence for its heritage. Performance titles such as “Riddim Goes to Werk” and “Riddim Throws It Back” reference Black vernacular and Black dance forms that aren’t represented in their shows.

In a 2020 Middlebury Campus article, a member described Riddim as, “shifting towards a contemporary, modern, more ballet-based [style]”, which showcases the disconnect between its name and the dances they choreograph. Furthermore, Riddim leaders routinely reach out to Black- or Latinx- majority cultural organizations to co-host their after parties. All of these actions produce the illusion that Riddim is aligned with the POC community at Middlebury, when in reality, that has not been the case. They continue to reap the benefits of a POC cultural orientation while doing no work to preserve the culture itself. Riddim went from being a statement that Black and Brown cultures matter to  a statement that all cultures matter. “All,” of course,  meaning just the white ones.

This is unacceptable.

I recognize that Riddim as it stands today is a fully functioning and respectable dance organization; however, what the group has become is not representative of the name or its history. If this group wishes to keep their name, they must be required to honor the legacy of the Riddim founders by meaningfully representing the original dance styles in practice and in their constitution. If they cannot meet these requirements, the leaders need to start a new group with a more appropriate name.

While this may be a tall order, the root of the issue is that many students of color don’t join Riddim because their culture is no longer represented.  These students of color will not feel safe in joining this group and choreographing culturally-rooted dances until its leaders make radical changes. In this time of deep societal unrest, Riddim publicly acknowledged its problematic history for effectively the first time. Vague statements of diversity and inclusion are not the same as being anti-racist and pro-Black. Instagram posts are not enough to undo the damage. Riddim needs to be led by a new group of students who are dedicated to upholding the legacy of this remarkable student organization.

It is an expectation that groups will evolve over time. However, the evolution of Riddim continues a larger societal trend of White people co-opting and erasing the humanity of people of color. In the United States,  you will rarely see a predominantly White group becoming predominantly Black, but time and time again we see predominantly Black groups and cultures get appropriated by a White majority. While Riddim’s current members may not have intended to perpetuate injustices against Middlebury’s students of color, that has been the undeniable result. This is the time for the Middlebury community to take a stand with their students of color and against accepted modes of systematic oppression.