After 24 years, the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) dance troupe “Sisters in Step” has changed its name to “Wildcat Dance Crew.” This decision comes after the recent discovery of the group’s history of cultural appropriation.
Sisters in Step was founded in 1997 by six women of color as a creative outlet for women of color on a predominantly white campus. The group dance style focused on hip-hop and traditional African American step dance. “Stepping” is a percussive dance in which the “body becomes an instrument, using footsteps, claps and spoken word” to produce complex rhythms and sounds. “Sisters in Step” has its own unique group step dance.
Co-captains of Wildcat Dance Crew, Taylor Nygren and Emily Clickner, have both been involved in competitive dance since they were kids and were welcomed into the dance troupe as freshmen in the same auditioning class. However, they weren’t aware of Sisters in Step’s history as a group created by and for women of color until after becoming captains.
“OClickner and I] were able to be in those positions of power [as captains], we decided that enough is enough. We’re not contributing to this anymore,” said Nygren.
The dance troupe decided to reach out to the Beauregard Center to help navigate the name-changing process.
They also issued an apology on their Instagram page and offered support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in July 2020.
“The original mission of the group was to create art while also creating awareness about the lack of diversity on UNH’s campus. Since our founding 23 years ago, we have strayed from this mission. We acknowledge and apologize for our lack of action in the past,” the post stated. “Our current leadership is dedicated to creating an inclusive environment and understanding the origin of step as well as taking serious action in order to ensure this occurs.”
Nygren and Clickner said the process started before this summer, but the protests did “accelerate” them releasing an official statement.
“We wanted to put a statement out there so that people saw that we were in the process of working on fixing our board,” said Clickner.
“We also didn’t want to put out too many statements because I think too often blank statements are put out by organizations that aren’t followed up with actual action. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t just empty words,” Nygren added.
This isn’t the first time Sisters in Step has considered a name change. In 2017, a Cinco de Mayo party at UNH received national attention for its use of Mexican imagery and stereotypes. Sisters in Step became part of the larger conversation about cultural appropriation the event sparked. Many pointed to Sisters in Step’s predominately white membership and use of traditional African-American step dance as cultural appropriation.
“It hurts me to the very core of my being that they have taken something that literally, and I’m sorry I’m gonna cry here, that literally almost saved my life because I was at my wits-end being at UNH,” said Chandra Craven, one of the founders of Sisters in Step, in a 2017 NHPR interview.
However, when Sisters in Step members reached out, Memorial Union Building (MUB) leadership at the time didn’t “recommend” a name change and the conversation ended, according to Nygren.
Since then, there has been increased community education about cultural appropriation. UNH also established Unity Day, as of this year Unity Week, to promote community service and togetherness.
“I think just generally as a community we’re working towards educating folks [about] the importance of diversity, the importance of understanding cultures that are different than your own, and where the line is between appreciation and appropriation,” said Lu Butterfeild-Ferrell, Beauregard Center associate director and coordinator of LGBTQA+ initiatives.
In addition to the name change, Wildcat Dance Crew is also partnering with the Beauregard Center to create a “time capsule” for Sisters in Step on the center’s website. Its purpose is to preserve Sisters in Step’s history in case BIPOC UNH students wish to re-establish the group in the future.
The time capsule will include information about the group’s founding, previous constitutions, and a timeline of the organizations’ past actions. Nygren and Clickner are also creating a video of the step dance they learned as freshmen for future Sisters in Step members. Wildcat Dance Crew will not be using step dance moving forward.
“We are very glad that we were able to finally make this change after finding out all of the information about how [Sisters in Step] had evolved,” said Clickner. “And finally take that step to stop the cultural appropriation that we had been partaking in.”
“I feel confident that we’re leading the team off in a better position than when we started on the team. And so that gives me some closure that we maybe made a long-term change,” said Nygren.
Photo courtesy of Wildcat Dance Crew.