How To Decolonize The Body Through Dance
Many people have asked me what this “Decolonizing the Body Through Dance” research is about- “so it’s a dance class? How does it work? What led you to start it? Why decolonization? What does it actually mean to decolonize the body through dance?”
Truth be told, I am still figuring out answers to many of these questions. Here’s what I do know, and what I have discovered in holding the “Decolonizing the Body Through Dance: Choreo Lab & Showing” event at Pieter Performance Space last weekend.
These workshops began out of instinct. A deep and clear desire to want to piece together the varying parts of myself that feel so disparate and make better sense of them/myself as a whole. To fight against the constant sense of fragmentation that I feel for being so many diverse things at once (which, I remind myself, we all are in our own way). I am a dancer of African Diasporic and white/Western dance practices, a Brazilian-born person based in the US who travels the world, a light-skinned latina who constantly navigates murky racial waters, an artivista with a commitment to using dance & performance as intervention and tools for social change… you get the picture.
It occurred to me that most, if not all, of these categories and borders (literal and metaphorical) only exist within a colonial construct. It was colonialism that brought us notions of Western & non-Western, white & non-white, along with the inherent hierarchy and power imbalance associated with these categories. Colonial forces literally drew arbitrary lines on the ground to divide and claim territory, thereby separating families and instilling ideas of borders, foreigners, and immigrants.
Deep down, in my essence, I am whole. I know this.
But everyday systems of power make me feel otherwise. Capitalism makes me pick between being an artist and making money. Racism makes me read as white and strips me of my history and culture one second, and the next as brown, “other”, exotic, two-dimensional, stereotypical, all the while encouraging me to fear and deny my black and brown brothers and sisters. Xenophobia makes me resistant to fully embracing the term “immigrant”, even though I am one, and patriarchy makes me undermine my agency as a woman and distrust my own body and sexuality.
These unwanted lessons are deeply embodied in me. They’re deeply embodied in all of us differently. So it only makes sense that a collective response would be in that same language- through the body.
The “Decolonizing the Body Through Dance: Choreo Lab & Showing” event I held last weekend was... moving. Eye-opening. Provoking. Affirming. Inspiring. It was the first time I held it in that format, and it proved to me I have so much further to go with this research.
The basic premise of the workshop is based on the belief that decolonization is a future-oriented process of reclaiming and reinventing tradition. In my view, decolonization absolutely involves a looking to the past – remembering, recovering and preserving parts of us that might have been lost, coerced, hidden and/or forgotten due to (the above-mentioned) systems of power and colonialism. But I also believe that an effective and useful process of decolonization necessarily involves a looking to the future, a re-contextualizing of these things to understand why/how they are relevant to us today. Or as Zeca Ligiéro aptly states in his book Corpo A Corpo: Estudos das Performances Brasileiras (Body to Body: Studies of Brazilian Performances), “maintaining tradition by transforming it”.
This process happens gradually and over time, like the peeling of layers and layers of an onion. Or as one workshop participant shared last weekend, a process of “digging”. One way of digging is individual.
Each and every person has their own unique voice and expression, their way of looking at the world, of embodying and interpreting these principles of decolonization. Augusto Boal, the prolific Brazilian theater director who codified and co-created the world-renowned Theater of the Oppressed methodology, said that part of the objective of T.O. was to de-mechanize the body which has been conditioned and made to forget its inherent and limitless ability to be creative. In line with this theory, part of the objective in my dance workshops is to provide tools and a nurturing yet provoking space to catalyze people’s own unique expression.
This part of the workshop involves a lot of improvisation, and is about inward-listening, cultivating and trusting instincts, taking risks and being honest with yourself about your choices. How can we bring the entirety of who we are into our movement- pulling from our many dance languages and our everyday idiosyncrasies? Am I doing this movement out of habit and/or previous training? Am I doing this movement as an attempt to impress others around me? Am I doing this movement out of fear, as a compromise for a riskier and less safe choice? Am I being honest with myself in this moment?
If individual investigation is one level in which decolonizing the body happens, then another equally crucial one is collective investigation. How do we move in space together? How can I see, truly see, another person? How can we learn from one another? What are the collective stories we come from? What does home look, feel, smell, taste, sound like? What are the cultural and familial histories each of us come from? What traditions and practices are associated with those histories?
As a Brazilian person with deep connections to Afro-Latin dance, this part of the workshop for me is about developing a shared movement language that honors and embodies five fundamental principles of African Diasporic dance practices: intimate relationship with the ground, mobile spine, playful improvisation, dynamic (off) balance, and circularity in individual movement and collective participation. I establish these principles as core aesthetic values, while valuing each individual dancer's unique expression and innate ability to embody the principles in creative and generative ways.
Here, I am not that interested in teaching traditional Afro-derived dances and rhythms, firstly because I don’t think I am in a position to do so. My traditional Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban dance teachers have dedicated their lives to studying these complex forms, and complex they are. To teach them with any less commitment than this would be a disservice and an insult to the form.
Secondly, because I think it is unfair and part of the colonial legacy that we only see white/Western dance practices as “contemporary” forms, while everything else that doesn’t fit that narrow perspective gets shoved into the “world dance” or “traditional dance” category, which, let’s be honest, is really code for “colored people dance”. The most wide and diverse spectrum of practices gets thrown in there, everything from Hip Hop and Salsa to Bharata Natyam and West African dance (I am reminded that this is not unlike the racist paradigm that lumps together Brazilians, Puerto Ricans, Indians, and Nigerians and all kinds of diverse people as “non-white”). Yes, an aspect of these dances is traditional and, no, that is not inherently a derogatory term. The issue is when they are confined to “traditional” and “traditional” is seen as something static, non-evolving, of the past.
What if we allowed these dances to be as complex and full of multiplicity as any other dance- to be both traditional and contemporary? What if we saw these dance languages as creative and relevant to our times? What kind of dance and performance would we be creating and experiencing? Possibly (and I would argue, definitely), a more diverse, cutting edge, inclusive, provoking and equitable kind.
This is not a finished thesis, but rather a launch of an on-going investigation. So, here are some of the many questions that emerged from our Choreo Lab & Showing that will continue to guide future iterations of this research:
- If we do engage in diverse dance practices in creative ways, don’t we risk cultural appropriation, a major and toxic form of modern-day colonialism? Is there such a thing as appropriately appropriating something? Or is that an oxymoron in and of itself?
- Is there such a thing as ownership? Do cultural practices really ever belong to anyone? Who gets to say if they do or don’t?
- If decolonization inherently implies an acknowledgement of and a response to colonization, doesn’t there need to be a clear definition and understanding of colonization? WHAT IS COLONIZATION?
- Is decolonization a destination or a never-ending process? Is it/can it be both? If it is a destination, what is on the other side?
- What would decolonization look like as a sustainable, long-term practice? Something that goes beyond a 2-hr or 7-hr workshop?
- How do we acknowledge and navigate both the colonizer and colonized sides of us?
And because celebrating what we do know is just as important as question-asking, I leave you here with a collective poem about decolonization by the workshop participants.
Decolonize the body Decolonize… the body? The soul? The brain? Where does it happen? In a house, in our homes, here in this studio? Decolonization requires an acknowledgement of colonization. Decolonize… Can it be done? Is it radical? Innate? Learned? It makes me think of different parts of the body. Exploring each part as a part and seeing all that it does. But what about the body as a whole? Body. Whole.
Family Things I see Food, taste, smell Use food as celebration Hugging and kissing Having dinner with others Home. Where my mother is. No filter. Honesty. Respect. Care. The dense earth, wet, rich trees.
Like when my uncle would hide matzah Or when my fiancé makes breakfast, elaborate raspberry pancakes Rani’s horn, a big deep sound The smell of a loved one’s skin Succulents Rain
I wish I knew more about my dad. I consistently scour my history through dance We do that like how trees help each other I tap into myself. In my body Safe Making home in people But were they gypsies? They deny and sanitize our history.
Cuidadora. Cidadã. Do mundo, del mundo, do mundo, del mundo. I am nowhere and everywhere at once. I am born here but live there, never belonged anywhere. A global dislocation? Aren’t we all from everywhere? Some part of ourselves, a string of pearls, one from each ocean, an open opening, wrapping, draping, connecting, adorning, adopting, adapting…