Music is dance AND dance is music!

“Music is dance AND dance is music!” exclaimed a first grader today. This declaration made me critically analyze and reflect on my own understanding of music and dance. Here are a few thoughts I have:

The forced division of music and dance into separate disciplines that do not interact is colonization at work. There is nothing that dictates the separation of the two aside from the colonization of our minds.

The lived intersection of music and dance is critical to multiple cultures of the global majority. The intersections vary for each culture – all of which should be amplified in the arts. 

Music and dance simply do not exist separately. In certain societies, no general terms exist for music and dance. 

Start your research at the indigenous music and dance of Papua New Guinea, Suyá, and Blackfoot peoples. This is a non-comprehensive list and simply a suggestion for a starting point.

The convergence of music and dance is not monolithic and cannot be applied universally to all cultures. Generalizing will only lead to erasure of individual voices in each culture.

Take critical care in understanding the nuances of music and dance in cultures of the global majority. We must always care deeply for BBIA peoples, their individual realities, and their collective experiences as practitioners of music and dance.

Upon reading and researching, decolonize your understanding of music and dance as separate art forms. Arrive at new understandings of music and dance as you continue to learn.

Authentically envision arts in your community to include the bold and unified intersection of music and dance. Once again, there is nothing that dictates us to uphold the status quo of white supremacy aside from the colonization of our minds.

Empower musicians and dancers to critique and redefine the narratives shared when music and dance come together. Actively critique and redefine the narratives as the convergence of music and dance renews itself through each musician, dancer, and arts practitioner. 

Then keep going. 

I “am”

It is a privilege that I only first experienced overt, daily racism from walking down the street because of my Asian skin due to COVID-19.

I (currently) do not walk outside with as much fear as I did in March, April, and early May. I am not completely stressed by the idea of running errands alone, nor do not feel like I need to have my two medium-sized dogs with me when I am out. The fear still exists, but I suppose not quite at the same level. Now I can, with privilege, negotiate what is more terrifying again: COVID-19 or anti-Asianness.

Don’t get me wrong – anti-Asian sentiment is still unfortunately alive and well in the “United” States. I am reminded by it whenever I see the “kung-flu” headline that seems to keep resurfacing in tweets, public statements, “news” reports, and presidential rallies. The videos of the Asian woman who was burned with acid outside her home in Brooklyn, NYC and the elderly Asian man being attacked in San Francisco will forever be stamped in my mind. And so many more. I will never unsee the horrors of this reality.

Then the end of May came with white womxn weaponizing Blackness, Black lives continuing to be killed on American screens with the world’s eyes watching, and very literally, NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. 

As AAPI month came to an end, solidarity with Black folx was of necessary and immediate urgency. I almost laughed at all my own “issues” I’ve had the past few months because really, my personal confrontations with racism felt like uncooked pieces of rice in a larger bowl of atrocity noodle soup.

I am an Asian American music educator teaching Black and Brown children in New York City. I’ve founded the music program at my school. I’ve seen my children grow up. But most importantly, I will never truly understand what it means to be a Black and/or Brown person. Never. I also know that for some readers, racist judgements (#urban #titleone #poor #lowincome #badneighborhood #unsafe #achievementgap are a few) were made upon reading the first sentence because you are already trying to envision who I am, and who my kids are. I’m no savior. I refuse to be, and I will never be.

My elementary school students and I talked about the anti-Asian hate openly. My students didn’t understand why it was happening, but yet, some blamed the bats that people supposedly ate. As the only Asian-identifying educator in their schooling thus far, I constantly feel the responsibility to share who I am and my AAPI identity with my kids. “I do not eat bats”, I shared, “and not everything you see or read may be true”. 

After the killing of George Floyd amongst many others, my first 8:00AM Orchestra class online included the following questions and statements from students:

This was not a time for me to teach them ANYTHING about “Orchestra”. These statements didn’t just last for that hour. They came up again and again in the days and weeks afterwards, all the way through the end of the school year. I was and continue to be the learner because We Obtain Knowledge Everyday.

Who am I to SPEAK OUT?

I recently attended a professional development entitled “Empathy, EQUITY, and Excellence; Inviting Diverse Perspectives on Repertoire and Responsiveness”. My immediate reaction to any workshop on equity is one filled with hesitation, caution, and skepticism – especially because of how loaded the term “equity” can be, and how often it unfortunately can be misused (especially when equity is interchangeably used with equality). I quickly felt grateful, however, for a person of color as a keynote speaker – especially having sat through so many workshops where a white person would colorfully use the buzzwords of “equity,” “equality,” “diversity”, “justice”, and “inclusion” (to just name a few) to almost fill their quota of saying the words loud and proud.

Keynote speaker Dr. Danielle A. Brown, founder of My People Tell Stories, helped me feel less apprehensive upon defining equity, diversity, and inclusion as separate entities that must cohesively exist in our teaching. Dr. Brown then continued to discuss a concept of “universality” – specifically universality and the music educator:

“There are two ways that the concept of universality will work against you as a music educator:

  1. you believe in the concept that ‘music is universal’
  2. you believe that you have overcome the ‘music is universal’ concept

(Brown, 2019)

I felt guilty right away. I have definitely uttered those words “music is universal” with nothing but good intent that we could all “speak the language of music” – but good intentions are not good enough, and I know that good intentions do not mean the actions are free from harm or wrongdoing. Then this slide came up on the screen:

Universality of Dominant Culture

Be careful that your use of the word ‘universal’ is not merely a euphemism for ‘superior’ or dominant culture.”

(Brown, 2019)

My mind was blown! Music was and is not universal. Music is not universally understood, and how music functions in each community, culture, and society varies. It made sense, but I could only focus on the number of times I have personally labeled the music I have taught as being “a way for all people to communicate”, even though I do not represent all people, all cultures, all ideas.


When our workshop separated into smaller group work with fellow educators, we were first asked to create playlists that represented our own identities. That seemed fine, harmless even because we were speaking our individual selves ONLY.

It was as if I was almost waiting to be triggered in this work when we were then tasked with creating playlists of repertoire selections. After putting up my selections of “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera (for legato, tone, and self-empowerment), “Own It” by Black Eyed Peas (for harmony, articulation changes, and self empowerment), and “Duke’s Place” by Duke Ellington (for unison playing, and jazz to be included in the traditional orchestra setting), the following selections came up for me to write on our chart paper from my fellow orchestra teachers:

  • “African Adventure” by Robert Sheldon with this description:
    • “When it comes time to celebrate the musical colors of Africa, combine forces with your string group and percussion ensemble on this stylish concert work for the developing ensemble. Repetitive rhythms and a catchy melodic hook propel the piece forward as it develops momentum and dramatic flair. Substitute Orff instruments for the melodic percussion for an even more authentic timbre. A guaranteed favorite!” (J.W. Pepper).

  • “Hanukkah Habenera by Tim McCarrick:
    • “‘Carmen’ meets Hanukkah in this remarkably clever combination of The Dreidel Song; Hanukkah, O Hanukkah and Bizet’s famous Habanera from his most famous opera! It all works amazingly well, with shifts from minor to major, a seamless bass line, and lots of tongue-in-cheek humor! What a hoot! Highly recommended! (J.W. Pepper).

  • “Dragon Dance” by Michael Story:

I could feel my hand begrudgingly writing these especially horrid selections up, as if there was some permanence and upholding of the racist status quo that I committed by even charting them up. It seemed as though my fellow orchestra teachers felt proud of their answers, and “inclusion” of repertoire they believed to be representative of their students.

Dr. Brown warned,

“Don’t assume students will always identify with their cultural heritage.” (Brown, 2019).

Is it really “inclusion” if each piece was written by a white man?

It is really “diversity” if the only allusion made to culture was in the title and then peppered into the description as if it were seasoning on a dish?

What killed me the most, though, was when one teacher eagerly stated,

“I teach ‘Dragon Dance’ because I think my Chinese kids like it.”

There’s nothing like something hitting you personally, and that hit me really hard. If I was that Chinese kid in your class, did you even ask me? Did you even find out more about what dragons symbolize in my culture? Did you ask me if I, or my Chinese peers, identified with Chinese culture? Did you even WANT to know all these things, or were you just giving yourself a pat on your back for being “inclusive”?

I grappled with this catastrophe – of teachers who lived under this false pretense of “doing good”, perhaps even with that good intention, but actually perpetuating harm to their students. I wanted so very badly in that moment to speak out, but felt so silenced by the overpowering whiteness that permeated in that room which would have made me out to be “that one girl of color who is a young teacher and just angry.” (And yes, I say girl because unfortunately my word often continues to be degraded due to my age). Yet, I myself have been that person who at first “taught hip hop” because I thought black kids could “relate” to it – without even asking. Who was I to say that someone was wrong? Who am I to SPEAK OUT?

At the end of this small group work, I could only bring myself to cross out that line I charted that “Dragon Dance” was “representative of Chinese kids”. I re-wrote:

“representative” of Chinese kids.


I continue to wonder what would have been the right move in that moment. I can’t help but feel simultaneously guilty to have upheld the status quo, but also continue to feel protective of who I am and what I share, and my own growth in understanding this important, necessary work.

To my fellow music educators, and educators at large – consider the following as a first step:

  1. Ask. Ask your students first about who they are, what they identify with, and what they perceive to be part of their identifiers. It isn’t always race, ethnicity, and gender, and don’t assume their answers because it is DANGEROUS to assume. Perhaps more importantly, listen to what your students say. Don’t just ask for the sake of asking.

After all of this, I could only conclude that music really isn’t universal. Do not blanket what you perceive to be music that is cultural OVER me as if it is some protective shield through which we can connect under.

“Safe Space”

So often, educators throw out this sentence to students, colleagues, families, and other stakeholders in education:

“You are in a safe space.”

What IS a “safe space”?

What does it mean to be in a “safe space”?

According to Crockett (2016), the history of the term “safe space” stems from the LGBTQ+ community:

“A ‘safe space’ is a place where LGBTQ people don’t have to think twice about whether they can show affection for their partners — and whether they can just be themselves.

It’s the same basic idea for other groups, like women and people of color, who tend to be less well-represented or well-respected by society at large. People whose voices are quite literally heard less than those of white men, since white men still tend to dominate conversations in mediaclassroomsboardroomspolitics, and everyday life.”

When I first started my teaching career, I thought a safe space was a place where students felt safe to learn – physically. As long as no one was hurting each other, and all students were able to sit quietly, listen to me when I spoke or gave directions, then we must have been in a safe space.

“You are in a safe space, and you are safe to take risks.”

After a few years, I started to learn about “feeling safe to take risks”. How could I encourage this in my classroom? Maybe if I just narrated “do not be afraid of mistakes; mistakes are part of the process”, students would feel safer. According to Harvard Politics, this attempt could be labeled as working towards an “academic safe space”:

“The idea of an academic safe space stresses the end goal of encouraging individuals to speak. In this type of space, people are still made to feel uncomfortable, yet it’s ‘safe’ to take intellectual risks and explore any line of thought. Here, ‘safety’ protects your right to make others uncomfortable with ideas and rational arguments. It’s important to note that in this setting, free speech is the end goal. This type of safety is commonly emphasized in classrooms and discussion groups, where open dialogue is particularly valuable.” (Ho, 2017).

So I adjusted my narration. I encouraged students to have what I thought were critical discussion points, and to explore disagreements in music and the music-making processes – all while respecting each other’s opinion by having politically correct and careful conversations. One student could express their thought, and as long as another student responded by starting with “I disagree because” in a mild-mannered, polite way, students could express their free speech and meet that specific end goal of having valuable, open dialogue. I was convinced that this was enough for intellectual safety because with this shift in my narration, students could be in a physically AND intellectually safe space.

“You are in a safe space, and you are safe to take risks and express your emotions.”

Just because my students were “nicely” (read: calmly, tracking the speaker, not being disruptive) disagreeing, does not mean they were able to express their emotions behind their words. According to the New York Times,

“In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions… so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity.” (Shulevitz, 2015).

So my next adjustment was to ensure that students would agree to a set of behavioral norms in order to have productive conversation. Upon reflection, perhaps it was even less of an adjustment and more of a restatement of being politically correct in order to avoid discomfort.

Thus emerged a tension between academic and emotional “safety”. Ho (2017) wrote,

People begin to have bloated and unclear understandings of how academic spaces should be considered “safe”. A new iteration of the concept has emerged—some students advocate to expand emotional safe spaces to encompass the campus as a whole. This new space is a false extrapolation of the originals, mistakenly operating under the unshakable credo that in an academic setting, people should feel emotionally secure.

A problem arises in this case. There exists a tension between emotional safety and academic safety. If the goal of an academic setting is to keep people comfortable, then the acceptability of speech will be determined by how objectionable it is. And if arguments are limited based on how offensive they seem, people are expected to adhere to an implicit set of polite ideological norms. Speech is allowed so long it doesn’t appear to conflict with the socially accepted opinions on certain touchy topics. In this way, new safe spaces become less about respecting and empowering individuals than sanctifying certain ideas. Provocative speech is censored, which has pernicious effects on the academic tradition.

Most people understand the value of protecting disagreeable ideas in a classroom, and they appreciate the existence of cultural groups and organizations… But in a dorm or house, what should be the priority—courteousness or freedom of discussion?

In a recent discussion with Juliet Hess, Hess named that she did not believe there could be a truly safe space; rather the question is:

“How can we be as safe as possible?”

We can NEVER assume the space we are in safe, and it is up to each of us to ensure that the space is made as safe as possible by those of us within the space. As we continue to walk the fine line of encouraging safety while also upholding the norms we (ideally collaboratively with stakeholders) may set in order to have discussions that are productive, can a “safe space” truly be inclusive of the physical, intellectual, AND emotional? Are we taking on too much with this one term? Is this term meant to take on so much?

In our continued attempts to define what a “safe space” in our work, with our peers, our families, and everyone else we interact with in life is, I wonder how many of us can/will/reject the following questions:

“When I say “you are in a safe space”, what does that mean to you?”

“What should be the priority—courteousness or freedom of discussion?” (Ho, 2017).

“How can I help create space a space as safe as possible for us both?”

“What do you need in order for the space to be as safe as possible?”

Some words of advice from #44:

“You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. … So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.” (Obama, 2016).

Crockett (2016) concluded,

“Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes.”

I can learn from my mistakes, but can I truly create a safe space? Can you?

Pronouncing Names RIGHT, Not “White”

I wrote the following excerpts in Fall 2011 as part of two blog posts for Generasian, an Asian American interest then-blog-and-publication (now multimedia platform) at New York University.

My American name is Alice Ann Tsui, and the only thing about my name that makes it “Asian” is my last name. My Chinese name is 徐晓兰 (Xu Xiao Lan in Pinyin) – which, at one point in time, Google Translate interpreted as “Dawn of the Orchid.” That translation sounds quite epic, but does an exotic meaning exist behind every Asian name?

In an 8asians article contemplating this question, Koji Steven writes:

When [people] ask what [my son’s name] means, they want to hear something more fortune cookie. Something like, “Wind blows down the north face of Mount Fuji.” I have no idea what the heck that means but it sounds pretty darn exotic doesn’t it?

I have come across this experience myself quite a few times. Questions such as “what does your Chinese name mean” often imply that the inquiring person expects a unique meaning dissimilar to any possible story of the Western name. However, Steven continues:

I wonder if people with more traditional Western names are asked what their names mean. I’ve never wondered what John meant or what Lisa means…

According to this site, John means “God is gracious.” And Lisa… means “God’s promise.” Maybe because the names are so common, I’m surprised to find out that they have such deep meanings. I wonder if Johns and Lisas know.

My parents never explained my Chinese name to me as “Dawn of the Orchid.” To this day, the actual meaning of my Chinese name is quite lost in translation and I only know that my mother and I share the same character of “orchid.” As for my American first name, I have never gotten any further explanation than hearing from my parents that they liked the name Alice because they thought it was “nice sounding.” My middle name Ann was given to me as a suggestion from a nurse present at my birth.

Using the same site Steven used, Alice means “noble,” and Ann means “He (God) has favored me.” I am quite sure my parents do not know that the combination of Alice Ann has this prescribed meaning, just as I do not understand my own Chinese name.

While the etymology of names in English may reveal more than what is apparent to the naked eye, the same goes for names in Asian languages and, in fact, names in all languages worldwide. Common names simply get a bypass on the question, although the truth is that each and every name is unique. Every name has a unique story behind it, and while etymology may be fun to research, we define what our names mean through our life stories. It’s not “West versus East,” but rather “Common versus Uncommon,” respectively. (Tsui, The ‘Exotic’ Asian Name)


When I was in elementary school, I had a very diverse class setting but Asians were still the minority. While I consider my elementary school experience as a happy and great one, there were moments of bullying that I will never forget. My first instance I remember was when non-Asian students would ask me how to pronounce my last name: Tsui. I would phonetically say it slowly: “TSOY, like the t and the s are blended together.” But that response was merely followed by remarks including:

Soy? Like soy sauce?!

Tee-soy? Haha!

Suey… suey suey suey!

Tissue!

(Tsui, Asian Kids are the Most Bullied)


The excerpts I have included continue to resonate with me deeply today, 8 years after I have originally written them. I was reminded of these experiences by Hasan Minhaj, the political comedian and host of Patriot Act, in his recent videos discussing his experiences with pronunciations of his name. Most notably to me, Minhaj recounts a time when he was auditioning and his name was mispronounced – and he himself reiterated that it did not matter.

Within the first minute of another video, Desi-American kids and Hasan Minhaj start off by naming how their name is actually pronounced, but then pronounce it the “White” way.

Why are names still being mispronounced and colonized (also read as: appropriated) today?

Why is there a “White” way to pronounce names with roots in non-English languages? 

As an educator, I have seen and heard other educators mispronounce butcher and Whiten names for convenience sake. What is “convenient” for the educator is inflicting harm on a child’s identity. Too often, we have learned that as long as we try our best to say it, that’s all we can do. NO! We MUST do better and get it right – right not in the way of how we may know to pronounce it from a prior experience teaching a student with the same name, but right in the way that we are saying a specific child’s name exactly the way the specific child wants us to say their name.

In fact, let’s forget the educator perspective for a moment. What is “convenient” for another person to say, is HURTFUL to the person whose name it is. Equally if not more  appalling is when I hear people anglicize names – such as from “Juan” to “John”, or when my mom was given an “American” (read: White) name (that by the way sounded NOTHING like her Chinese name) because her Chinese name was “too hard” for her coworkers to pronounce correctly.

My name DOES matter, and who I am, does matter. (Minhaj, 2019).

My parents chose my name “Alice” not because of its meaning in the baby book dictionaries (I doubt they even looked in those), but rather because it was “easy to pronounce”. Somehow, prior to my birth, my parents already internalized the idea that having a non-English first name would make my life more difficult, or perhaps even their lives more difficult as non-native English speakers. This “easier” first name seemed to be defeated, however, by my “impossible-to-pronounce” last name.

Since I had a last name that was “difficult to pronounce” for most English-speakers, I started to believe that the accurate pronunciation (by my account) of my last name was insignificant. It took a long time for me to become somewhat comfortable with correcting people with how to pronounce my name, and to this day I still sometimes give up after 2 or 3 tries and the other person does not say it properly. These messages of my name having exotic (read: interesting for the story, not for the actual transliteration or pronunciation of the name itself) meanings while simultaneously being unpronounceable were communicated to me as a kid, and people with exoticized and/or mispronounced names should not feel the need to shed their cultural skin for a more colonized one. There is NO such thing as a name that is too difficult to pronounce. There is NO such thing as a name that does not matter.

My name matters. As I wrote 8 years ago,

we define what our names mean through our life stories (Tsui, 2011).

Tell your life story with how YOU want your name pronounced.

Take the time to make sure another person’s name matters as well.