When Does Appreciation Become Appropriation?

A big topic of discussion in the music education community right now is being sensitive in our song selection and recognizing the need for change. Becoming a culturally responsive teacher is important and several blog posts have been written on this topic and you can check those out here and here, but I wanted to lend my perspective as a Hispanic, female, music educator.

Recently on TikTok there has been a viral dance to the song 35 by Ka Hao featuring Rob Ruha. This song is recorded by a youth choir from New Zealand, and it is about State Highway 35, a well-known road in New Zealand that brings natives nothing but fond memories when they reflect on their homeland. The song is gorgeous, has a beautiful message, and invokes feelings of joy and happiness in the listener. The song went viral on TikTok because a Māori creator choreographed a dance that went viral. Several users then went on to do this dance trend because that is how you TikTok. Well, other creators went about posting videos using the audio, but wrote text on the screen about being afraid to hurt someone’s feelings or appropriate a culture by doing the dance, to which the Māori people responded with love and gratitude and invited all to do the dance and enjoy the song, that this is the way of their people. (To learn more about the Māori culture you can go here).

@itibunda_ on TikTok
Original dance creator
@simba_reborn on TikTok

This viral sensation made me think about how we dance folk dance in our classrooms all the time and we are all different cultures. We teach and dance those dances as a form of teaching appreciation of music from different cultures. I wouldn’t think twice about teaching a Māori dance in my classroom, it would just be another form of appreciation.

So, when does appreciation cross the line to appropriation? Let’s think about the teacher in the Native American head-dress chanting SohCahToa and emulating what she believed to be Native American movements around her classroom. Whether or not the teacher is Native American or not, this crossed the line to appropriation. According to Oxford Languages the definition of appreciation is “recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something” such as the beauty of a Māori style dance to a Māori artist song on TikTok. The definition of appropriation is “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission” as it pertains to culture, “happens when another culture borrows any of the cultural elements, typically without asking permission or crediting the source culture and often has some misuse of cultural elements.” An example being a non-Native American chanting SohCahToa in her math classroom.

The Māori dance is appreciation because it is done as recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of the Māori culture, dance, dress, and expressions and is in no way being done as a mockery of the culture. If I, a Hispanic person, were to put on traditional Māori dress, do the dance, and give credit to the culture, it is still appreciation. This happens when non-Hispanic people learn to dance folklórico. They wear the traditional dress, they style their hair in a traditional style, wear the traditional footwear, dance the traditional gender roles, and portray an appreciation of the culture. If I were to teach my elementary students a few dance movements from the folklórico tradition, it would not be appropriation. I would be sure to include the study mariachi, the instruments, rhythms, grito (or call) and show respect to the culture in addition to teaching the dance.

When do we cross a line to appropriation? Appropriation would be if I lumped all Mexican and Spanish dance styles together, like flamenco and folklórico, dressed up the kids, served Mexican food and held a “Hispanic Heritage” night without educating the audience or being specific with our intent. If you do not show respect to the different cultures, cuisines, and dress, then you are not being sensitive and have crossed the line to appropriation.

I say, teach the dance, learn about the cuisine, and culture, and find the beauty in music around the world. However, do not emulate the facial expressions of the Māori people outside of the dance or the grito of the mariachi and cross the line. When we take something that isn’t ours and make a mockery of it or use it in a manner that it isn’t intended for, that’s when we are no longer being culturally sensitive.

Sing! Say! Dance! Play! Care!


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