Dance Is A Radical Act

furious_dancing2One of my colleagues at Mills College wore a tank top emblazoned in bold letters: “Dance is a Radical Act.” I admit that at first, I did not understand what she or the shirt meant. Dance is art. Why should it be radical?

As I continued my study of dance history and theory, I realized… of course dance is radical. Dance expresses independence of body, thought, and expression. Dance has been a vehicle for protest and dissent (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “Exodus”). Dance critiques warmongerers (Kurt Jooss: The Green Table). Dance exposes the heartbreak of marginalized communities (Kyle Abraham: Pavement). Dance challenges preconceived notions of itself (Yvonne Rainer: Trio A). Dance can satirize itself and critique the fetishization of marginalized peoples (Keith Hennessy: Bear/Skin). Dance can bring together disparate cultures and celebrate beauty and love (Mark Morris: Layla and Majnun). Dance allows the disenfranchised a physical and corporeal voice.

And within each of our bodies is incontrovertible truth. Even if we are denied truth through biased news outlets, corrupt politicians, and even from members of our own families, we still have our bodies. When deprived of political and social power, we still have our bodies. Oppressive governments, regimes, and political climates have tried to suppress dance for centuries. Look to the exile of the ghawazi by Pasha Muhammad Ali, the outlawing of hula under missionary rule in Hawai’i, the banning of the Plains Indians’ Sun Dance by both the United States and Canada, and many more. Dance is, indeed, a radical act.

For me, my worldview and dance are intrinsically linked. When I dance, I am expressing my physical and personal power. We make art that reflects what we value. I value truth, justice, kindness, compassion, cross-cultural understanding, inquiry, self-reflection, corporeal independence, and the pursuit of embodied knowledge. I believe that there are facts, and that the existence of facts is not and should not be controversial. Indeed, when I wrote the Salimpour Compendium, I sought to dispel many of the myths that surround belly dance, hoping to nip them in the bud, and provide a sound foundation for those new to the dance form who also wish to dig beyond the “wishtory.”

In these troubling times that might pit you against your fellow countrymen, neighbors, or family members, I hope that you reflect on what you truly value. Does your dancing embody those values? Do your everyday actions? What about who you vote for? Does your art align with your politics? If it doesn’t, how can these defining aspects of yourself be reconciled?

Dances need not always be political. But for those of us who are afforded the freedom to move, to take studio classes, to perform for each other or on stages, we must remember that dance is a fundamental act that has phenomenal power to both express and shape humanity.

I hope that you dance not only for yourself, but for all humankind.

 

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An open letter to the administration at Mills College

Recent proposed curriculum changes at the small, private, women-only, liberal arts institution Mills College, which sits in the Oakland hills in the San Francisco Bay Area has threatened the Dance Department there. Mills’ Dance Department is one of the oldest of its kind in the nation, and it happens to be where I am currently earning my Master of Arts in Dance. The MA program has revolutionized dance, and how I think about dance.

Here’s what I wrote in response to the proposed cuts, and the power that I believe dance has for all bodies, particularly in the 21st century.

Sign the petition to save the undergraduate major at Mills College!

Dance is not just movement. Dance allows us agency over the one thing we all have: a body.

What’s in a body? Our selves, our being, our identity. Our family histories. Our presence. Every place we have ever been, seen, heard, and walked through. Everything we have ever done.

Dance is not an activity relegated to the elites of society, the super-bendy, the strong, or even those with four limbs. Dance is for anyone with a body.

Dance has been the realm of the subaltern, the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the activist, the protester, the visionary. Take away everything else, and we still have our bodies. With our bodies we express our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations… our fears, our pain, our sorrow, our anger, and our joy. We are rebels, yes, and our cause is justice.

Dancers are some of the most mindful, community-oriented, well-rounded people I know.

Dancers in higher education must be leaders, exceptional team players, fast learners, and problem solvers. We are motivated. We are always striving to improve ourselves and those around us. We are interdisciplinary. We work with lighting designers, set designers, costumers, seamstresses, musicians, visual artists, writers, historians, social scientists, psychologists, politicians, programmers, biologists, chemists, and physicists. Some of us are these things. Dance teachers are a hybrid of instructor, psychologist, physical therapist, body-worker, analyst, scientist, and community leader. And even though we are the most underpaid, underfunded, and under-appreciated art, we are very much equipped for life in the 21st century, thankyouverymuch.

So what happens when we as a society start chipping away at dance in higher education? We eliminate the one discipline that allows humans agency over their bodies, themselves, their identity, their very essence. You take away the voices of the marginailized, the disadvantaged, the minorities. Dance is one of the few disciplines not dominated by cis-white-hetero men.

You can’t take our bodies away from us, and we will fight for dance as long as we have agency over our bodies.

You might see this as “just” eliminating the Dance Major. But we see it as an affront to our entire art form. Centuries of struggle, expression, and fighting for social justice. We see it as an affront to our very bodies.

Do you dare take dance away from us?

Sincerely,
Abigail Keyes


The Ego, Ethics, and Dance

Let’s talk about the Ego.

I admit that I don’t have a background in psychology or even a strong background in philosophy… so if I get little nuances in definitions wrong, I suspect someone with more knowledge than I will call me out, and that’s ok.

Ego, Ethics, and Dance blog post by Abigail Keyes

The Ego Separates You from Me

Ego, in the strictest sense of the word means “I” in Latin. It is our sense of self. I am not you, and you are not me. It delineates each of us from one another.

In a contemporary context, however, Ego has taken on a larger and often more pejorative meaning. When we talk about someone having a “big Ego,” we mean that they are full of themselves, that they are self-centered, and that they are willing to make self-centered decisions at the expense of others. This contemporary interpretation is slightly different than the Freudian original, which included the psychological counterparts of the Id (primal drives) and the Superego (internalization of cultural and societal norms). For this blog post, I wish to use the more contemporary idea of Ego as a force that drives our need for recognition, praise, and attention.

Using Our Ego for Better Performance

In a performance context, the Ego can get the better of us. Dancers are notorious for wanting to please, to get the praise and approval of our teachers and peers, and to be on stage. We want to be seen and recognized. A friend of mine who is studying childhood development and dance said that we dancers are “Praise Junkies.”

The Ego, the self-driven aspect of each of us, is not entirely bad. The Ego allows us the confidence to take the stage without fear. It allows us to feel good about what we’re doing. It drives that dopamine rush to the head, that the Id then laps up like a thirsty dog. But the Ego is a trickster, a nasty beast that we must keep on a very short leash.

And I don’t think there are many other dance forms out there that placate and pander to practitioners’ Egos as much as American belly dance.

Focus on Performance and Appearance

So many of our festivals have been based on wanting to perform. Performance is an essential part of being a belly dancer; it is a performing art. But I think we must ask ourselves why we want to perform. Because we want our audience to tell us that we’re good? To show off our skills? Are we seeking validation? Are we hoping to be hired as an instructor at next year’s festival? To perform means, roughly, to do something with the intent of it being seen by others. We might seek validation from our peers that we are Enough, because, perhaps we are not Enough in other aspects of our lives.

So much of the business of belly dance is based on wanting to look good, whatever that means. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on costuming, photography, jewelry, and the costs required to attend the festivals that give us opportunities to perform, including lodging, transportation, and food. Even our workshop attendance fees feed our Ego. We take workshops that offer us quick and easy tricks that we can instantly incorporate into our own performances so that an audience will ooh and aah over us during that short 3-5 minutes that we are allowed on stage. Our performance times get shorter and shorter as festivals want to give more opportunities for dancers to perform… because the demand is there.

The Ego Influences Our Decisions

Our Ego, as it feeds our Id, blurs our vision. We are willing to make decisions that contradict our own ethics, because we want to look good and we want people to praise us. Maybe we don’t even examine how our Ego is affecting our choices.

This is why some belly dancers want to perform professionally and teach well before they’re ready. This is why many belly dancers often spend more time and money on costuming, travel to/from events in which they are performing, and one-off workshops than they do on deep and consistent training. This is why some belly dancers wish to take workshops with famous instructors, hoping that somehow that fame will rub off on them, that that famous instructor will ask them on stage with them, and somehow transform the student into a superstar.

The Ego drives these decisions. Every decision is a choice. Every choice we make determines our personal code of Ethics. Philosopher and psychologist William James aptly called this the “ethics of choice”: “What he shall become is fixed by the conduct of this moment.” (James, Consciousness and Freedom, 41.) Basically everything we do today affects our tomorrow.

But what if we let our Ethics drive our choices, rather than our Ego?

Self-Reflection as Antidote to Big Egos

Self-reflection is paramount in the realm of Ethics. And self-reflection requires humility, and humility requires that the Ego take a back seat.

Take a moment and write out your answers to these questions: What do you stand for? What do you believe in?  To whom will you give your money? What are you willing to put up with as a student, a practitioner, a customer, a consumer? (A recent blogger wrote “What’s your Shit Sandwich,” i.e., what are you just not willing to put up with?) What are the values of the people, businesses, entities to which you give your time and money? What is your limit? Do you have one?

Are you going along with a crowd to look good, or because you truly believe in their cause? Are you defending someone only because they have something to offer your Ego? Are your decisions hurting others? How could you minimize that pain? Are you asking questions not only of others but of yourself?

Everything you do is a choice. Make those choices worth it.