I have heard you say over and over again that you want to keep politics out of dance. That you’re upset that dancers you’ve admired speak up against racism, against discrimination, against a system that continually attacks and subjugates black and brown bodies.
I’ve heard you ask, “Why do you have to make it political?”
I’ve heard you say, “Dance is dance, and politics is politics.”
I’ve heard you say that your favorite performers should just “shut up and dance.”
But I am here to tell you that you are wrong. Dance is political. For centuries, for millennia, dance has been political.
And I will also tell you that there was a time that I used to think that I, too, should not be political.
I used to think that if I spoke up against injustice that I would lose followers and students. That it would affect my financial bottom line. Late-stage capitalism is insidious that way, perpetuating itself by telling us that dance—art itself—is something superficial to be consumed without regarding or crediting the bodies who have suffered and struggled so that we can learn those dances… embodying their movement in our own physical selves. Dance is merely “entertainment,” as though our other entertainments are not also political.
But you wish to keep dance in a theater, in a literal box, where you are the spectator, the consumer, and the dancers are there for your amusement and entertainment. Your ideal dancer has no physical agency of their own, but instead is there for your enjoyment. And when the dance is no longer within the confines of the theater walls—on the street, on public transit, in the park, on your sidewalk—then you cannot resist the need to contain it by complaining about how the dancers are disturbing your peace.
When you take a dance class, you are not interested in what it feels like to do the movements created by another body but instead you’d rather take those movements to express and sell them as your own.
You are not interested in feeling what it’s like to be a marginalized body in this colonial, market-driven, white-dominated culture. The very thought of doing so scares you. Because then you would have to admit some very dangerous truths about the society in which you live, where you believe that justice is real, and that if people just worked harder they’d be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, even when they don’t have any damn boots. To admit that unsettling reality would crack open an impending and haunting existential crisis that somehow you’ve been lied to about fairness in this world… and that maybe any advantage you have hasn’t been because of your own work ethic but because you won the melanin genetic lottery.
You are scared of facing your own privilege head-on, of acknowledging that you have benefitted from centuries of colonialism and modernism where the white and light-skinned body is prioritized over all others, not just on the proscenium stage, but on the movie screen, the newsroom, and the beauty magazine. Where you are not afraid of being pulled over by the police because you know you can bat your eyes and get away with a warning. Your body is safe.
You have never examined your place in this system, this economy. You assume, like many humans, that your personal experience is universal, and when you are shown time after time after time after TV show after film after make-up advertisement after fitness commercial that your color is the dominant one why would you even question it? You never have to ask, “Where is the face that looks like mine?” It’s there every day, so much so that you hardly even see it anymore.
Now here’s the best part. You believe that belly dance, a primarily Arab dance form, can somehow be stripped of its ethnicity and color so that you can feel beautiful and indulge in a self-serving fantasy. And somehow this dance form, which has explicit roots in sub-Saharan African movement, and here in the United States brushes asymmetrical shoulders with jazz and black and queer street dance, in your body ignores the struggles of the peoples who have fought and clawed and clamored just for the right to exist? And have expressed that struggle through dance? And you have the nerve to tell your “favorite” dancers that they shouldn’t be political?
From Vogue to B-boying to Lindy Hop to Strut to the zar to raqs sharqi itself, bodily expression is a rebellion against the status quo that would rather the dances and the people who do them disappear because they make the powers that be feel uncomfortable in their own bodies. Because they remind those with political and social control that they have disconnected from their physical selves. That they have felt corporeal shame that they are not yet ready to grapple with, and that same shame I think you feel too. Which is why you’re not ready to admit that even your own participation in a dance class is political too.
Of course you just want to dance. Because if you admitted that to dance is to embody the struggles, pain, and resistance of those whose corporeality you consume, then you would have to heal the pain, bigotry, and hatred in and for your own physical self. And you would have to admit that you have made mistakes, that you have committed your own acts of existential violence, that you have caused others pain. And that you’ll need to take responsibility for yourself and your actions and navigate an ambiguous future where there is no binary of right and wrong, but only of what is the most equitable, just, and ethical decision you can make with the resources you have… and believe me, there are so many resources, so you better start reading, listening, and watching.
And I get it. Once you have awakened to the reality of injustice in the body, in dance, in art, in every thing and body you consume, you will be exhausted. Good. If you’re doing the work, the self-examination, the critique, and expanding your awareness, you’re going to get tired. And you will also need to dance.
Now, I am not saying I am perfect. I am not saying that I don’t have work to do. I have made my errors and I continue to make them.
But I will not stop being “political” to make you comfortable.
Dance is a radical act.
A cultural somatic reader on whiteness, trauma, and allyship (includes free webinar) from Selfish Activist (A bodily approach to healing)
“Politics and the Dancing Body.” Library of Congress. (Note: Mostly about US concert dance.)
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