A Spirit of Competition By Elise M. Edwards


Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida.  She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining how they inform and shape each other and express the commitments of their communities.

“You should watch this.  It’s inspiring,” my sister said to me about Born to Dance: Laurieann Gibson, the dance competition show on BET.  So I watched. And I loved it.  I can’t remember watching any other reality show–especially a competition-based one- that left me with such a sense of the spirituality of its star.

Laurieann Gibson fulfills many roles on Born to Dance: host, mentor, judge, and executive producer.  Laurieann is a respected dancer and choreographer.  TV viewers may remember her from MTV’s Making the Band franchise, in which she trained members of Dannity Kane in dance and sometimes clashed with P. Diddy, the star and producer of that show.  In this show that features her name, we learn more about her approach to dance and to life.  On Born to Dance, we see the same drive and demanding ethic that she displayed in other shows, but we also see her spirituality.  She says grace before eating dinner with the contestants.  She speaks of God and gifts.  And most surprisingly, she prays in Jesus’ name before very elimination.   These prayers are for the contestants that will be eliminated, that they may continue to grow in confidence and belief in their dreams to become dancers, and that they may have many opportunities and paths in the future to do so.    

In this show her role as mentor is also more evident, and it’s encouraging to watch.  In each episode, Laurieann and her assistant choreographers teach young women skills and techniques that they will need to become professional dancers.  One of the twenty finalists will win $50,000 to support her in starting a dance career.  The winner will likely get opportunities to dance with Laurieann’s professional dance company.  As such, she seems really invested in using the competition challenges to prepare the dancers for their future.  Obviously, she instructs them in dance, giving them choreography in diverse styles and teaching them to respect unique features of each.  When she speaks about respecting the traditions and techniques of ballet, she also thanks God for Alvin Ailey and Dance Theater of Harlem for demonstrating that black people, whose body types did not conform to the dominant standards in ballet can perform this type of dance masterfully.  It’s one example of what makes her a great motivator.  While encouraging her protégés to adopt the discipline and craft of her field, she also encourages them to be individuals and to adopt confidence live and dance as each was uniquely created to do.

I came into this show a couple episodes into the season, but I watched two episodes I had on TiVo and then the current one that aired on Tuesday night.  The great thing about watching multiple episodes of a reality show back-to-back (besides moving quickly from one elimination to the next week’s challenges) is that the patterns of the show and its tone become evident more clearly.  I marveled that the show attempts to nurture the artistry of its contestants, affirming their passion and skill for dance as a gift.  After all, these women were born to dance. The show seems more about exposing the discipline, fortitude, risk, hope and belief that it takes to become a professional dancer than exposing the drama that comes from competition.   All reality competitions seem to have at least one participant who claims, “I’m not here to make friends.  I’m here to win.”  There are those characters on this show, too.  Well, there were. They got eliminated.  How refreshing!

Lexi, one of the first finalists to get cut – or “to move on [to other opportunities]” as Laurieann phrases it – was very experienced in the competitive dance world.  This does not give Lexi the edge she expects, but instead, it hinders her expressiveness.  Laurieann tells her that the artificial veneer of perfection that her coaches instilled in her is holding her back.  She wants each dancer to dance her dream, to dance her journey.  Another contestant, Kaleila, does not make friends with the other dancers, and her attitude of superiority (which likely covers insecurity) prevents her from giving her all in a television performance.  Being one’s authentic self – and being confident, not arrogant in that – is an ethic that is affirmed repeatedly.  If the show is more about artistry than competition, this makes sense.  I believe that becoming a good artist requires a willingness to know who you are and to expose that to other people.  Good art invites a connection between the artist and the audience through whatever medium is employed.  My own background in the arts, my participation in a church and supportive community for artists, and instruction in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way leads me to discern a connection between spirituality and artistry that the show’s producers may not have intended.   Born to Dance shows us an ethic of authenticity derived from the belief that artists have a specific, divine calling and that pursuing this calling is just as important as other paths to which people are called.

Before Born to Dance, Laurieann hosted a similar competition (The Dance Scene) on another network.  I didn’t watch the show, so don’t know if that show expressed the same spirituality, but I suspect it didn’t.  Born to Dance airs on BET, Black Entertainment Television, which has another successful show in which spirituality and competition take center stage – Sunday Best, a competition to find the next gospel music star.  I think the network’s willingness to show Laurieann’s prayers and other aspects of her spirituality comes from an assumption that its primary audience (black viewers) will appreciate her Christian sensibilities, or at the very least be familiar enough with them to stay on the channel.  This assumption of normative Christianity is problematic, and I readily admit that her prayers will raise most feminist scholars’ critical sensibilities with its exclusive use of masculine imagery for God and exclusion of other faith perspectives.  Yet as a black feminist, a religion scholar, a confessed Christian and reality-TV consumer, I enjoy having an image before me of a black woman who takes her art seriously, pursues it as a calling and gift from the divine, and mentors younger women with both confidence and humility.  My sister was right.  It does inspire me.



Categories: Art, Black Feminism, Spirituality

Tags: , , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. I love the idea that my art is a calling just as important as anyone else’s calling–whether it be a different type of art or a science or something extremely practical and logical like…accounting. So many people still view art as a hobby or a side job rather than a calling. I think this is where a lot of the artist “angst” comes from. Also, if we don’t view art as a calling, then it takes some of the spirituality out of it: it seems less inevitable if it’s just something we choose because it’s fun.

    The world needs more artist mentors (especially women), like Laurie (love her!) to guide budding artists and blocked artists in this calling. But this is difficult since, for many artists, art is such an isolating or private thing. I find this is especially true of writers. That may also speak to the nature of competition vs. community, an idea you briefly touch on here with the contestants of the show.

    I look forward to reading more from Elise, and I’m so glad to discover this entire blog.

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    • Amanda – I wish I had a reminder every day to consider my artmaking as a calling or vocation. Remembering that it is spiritual and that it is a part of who I am as I was born to be (in the moments when I believe in destiny or divine plan) or that artmaking is a part of what I do when I am at my best (when I need something aspirational to motivate me) would engender feelings of courage and responsibility. I do it because I should do it and the world needs it and it reaches somebody.

      It would be even better if that reminder were a mentor – an actual person instead of a quote on the wall or vision board or whatever. Your comment about artist mentors made me realize that I never really had an artist mentor who was invested in my spiritual life as well. I’ve certainly had (and have) women and men who model the skill, craft, artistry, and professionalism that it takes to be an architect, an author, or an educator. I’ve also had (and have) women who have mentored me in my spiritual life. But I’ve only had peers, like you, who do both. That kind of community is irreplaceable to me. I would be nice, though, if we had someone who’d gone down this road to help us!

      Art can be a private and isolating thing. I think it can be that way in all disciplines. Obviously, dance – in a company like on the show- requires more community because you have to dance with others. You have to relate and open up to them. Also you perform your art in front of people and you need to relate to them, whereas the relational aspect in writing occurs over an elapsed time. Blogging perhaps shortens that time lag in community building, but how would you do it in writing a longer piece like a novel? Or even a short piece that requires a lot of time to put together?

      You’ve raised so many questions in my mind! Thanks!

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  2. Elise–I think you’d like Maureen O’Connell’s work. She’s at Fordham (theology), and like you works in ethics and aesthetics. A big project lately has been the community murals in Philadelphia. Check out http://www.fordham.edu/campus_resources/enewsroom/inside_fordham/may_4_2007/in_focus_faculty_and/on_art_and_theology__25887.asp She’s on the board of the Society for the Arts in Religious and Theological Study (SARTS), which is a neat organization that I hope you’ve already discovered! Will you be at AAR? SARTS has their annual meeting there.

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    • Colleen – yes, I met Maureen O’Connell a couple years ago at the Society of Christian Ethics annual meeting where she was presenting work on the community murals, and she game me some great sources and also told me about SARTS, which is supporting me with some funding and publishing an article I have in their upcoming online journal. So I do have to thank her for that. I will be at AAR and at the SARTS meeting.

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  3. Thanks Elise. The Alvin Ailey Dance Co was definitely part of my spiritual worldview when I was a young woman living in NYC. I especially loved to watch Judith Jamison dance, because like me she was a really tall tall woman.

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  4. Elise–Hope to meet you at AAR/SARTS! And so glad to hear that you got one of their fellowships. I first heard about them from Maureen, and they supported my work on Emily Carr a few years back. Love their journal–looking forward to your essay.

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  5. This is a wonderful post!
    You say, “If the show is more about artistry than competition, this [emphasis on authentic self] makes sense.” As a former pro athlete and current positive psychology doctoral student studying competition, I would argue that true competition and authentic artistry are not at all incompatible.
    Your lovely description of the show perfectly captures “competition” in the original sense of the word – com petere, striving together. Some people view competition as very self- and identity-centered — a way to demonstrate superiority, to create “winners” and “losers”. Our reality TV culture does indeed feed that drama. But that is not the only way people approach it. The beauty and spiritual quest of competing is in the competitors striving together for excellence. The fact that competitions are bounded in place and time, playing for all the marbles, focuses the attention and makes it more beautiful and meaningful than just the daily grind of training and practicing.
    Winning in this framework is not about controlling and undercutting others, but instead requires humility, submission to something larger than yourself, connecting with the divine, and grace/luck. As Laurieann demonstrates in her prayers for those eliminated, losers never lose – to submit and to be on the path is to gain.
    Great post, elegantly written – thank you for your thoughts!

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    • Thank you! I agree with you that artistry and competition are compatible. I was going to say something like that in my response to Amanda’s comment, but I had already written quite a bit! I have to admit I’m not an athletic person, but I’ve always that team sports or even sports where an athlete trains with others can bring out one’s best while in a competitive setting. It should work that way in performing arts, like dance, too. When you are with people who elevate their game and perform withe excellence, it inspires you to do the same.

      I love how you describe “the beauty and spiritual quest of competing” and your last line that “losers never lose – to submit and to be on the path is to gain.” That is so powerful!

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  6. Elise,
    Just catching up with post, etc. I very much appreciate your contribution on a reality show that offers a new take on competition as well as honing your craft through discipline. While not a dancer (I love watching, so afraid to actually take lessons) I marvel at what the human form is capable of, its beauty, strength, and grace.

    In reading your post I was struck with similarities between life as an academic and that of the artist. Years ago I was a professional costume designer. I reflect back on that time in my life as formative for the life I am carving out now as an academic. With each production I found myself challenged by, on the one hand, the vision of the director, and on the other, my own. At times the tussle between the two forced me into a space whereby I had to defend my vision. In the beginning I would always take the lead of the director, but with each show I found myself gathering confidence on what worked and did not work on stage, which is to say, I had my fair share of failures. But because I was in a supportive environment, those failures gave way to something meaningful within me. As I expanded as an artist, my spiritual self also began to emerge, feeding my confidence and creativity.

    I’m finding that same relationship with my educational pursuits. Research and writing distill the same dualistic nature in me. I can be elated with the process or relegated to the under world of inertia. More so lately, the darkness of doctoral studies feels like it’s in charge. But the muscle memory of risk, giving way to creativity infused with the One Who Accompanies, sustains me in this new craft. Thank you for such a beautiful, well-written post.

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