Dancing through Dark Times

What can dance contribute to the contemporary politics of resistance? If politics is about movement—uprising, oppression, resistance, setback, advance ...

What can dance contribute to the contemporary politics of resistance? If politics is about movement—uprising, oppression, resistance, setback, advance, retreat—then what can dance, the art of movement, teach us today? A trio of books from dance practitioners and scholars urge that, until we learn how to be bodies in the 21st century—and, in particular, bodies moving in relation to space, time, and other humans—we cannot access avenues to personal healing, community cohesion, and social equity.

“It’s astounding the first time you realize that a stranger has a body—the realization that he has a body makes him a stranger,” James Baldwin wrote in If Beale Street Could Talk. “It means that you have a body, too.” There are so many ways to feel like a stranger, and be made into a stranger, based on the body’s particularities. Yet being and using a body can also be grounds for commonality. Recent books by Susan Leigh Foster, Ann Cooper Albright, and Anna Halprin emphasize a deeply physical understanding of resistance while highlighting dance as essential to its repertoire. Rather than positioning us on the frontlines of a police barricade or in the halls of Congress, these books put us among our neighbors, seeking movement in common.

“Resist!” The one-word slogan has galvanized a range of anti-Trump forces. When we think of the arts of resistance, we think of music as well as of elements of visual culture like graffiti, posters, murals, patches, and buttons. They evoke flashpoints of creativity during the 1960s and 1970s; for instance, the South African anti-apartheid movement, the British punk rebellion, and the anti-war and civil rights movements of the United States. Never dormant, cultural forms of resistance have ignited in the US once again, with the election of President Donald Trump. “Resist!” The word evokes movement—and movement repelled.

Foster, Albright, and Halprin take up the paradox of embodiment that Baldwin articulated. This paradox—the body is “both unique and common to us all,” in Halprin’s phrase—inspires these studies of movement in dark times. Their authors examine how the vocabularies of calamity and even violence might be turned on their head, with all the embodied action that metaphor suggests—how to turn a knockdown into a body roll, a jab into a jam, imperilment into improvisation.

Foster poses the question that connects these disparate dance studies: “How do the acts of giving, accepting, and reciprocating dance become justified in the name of causes, whether social, political, or aesthetic?” Put another way, how can the vocabularies of dance be used in, or how might they offer insight into, the world well beyond the studio?

While Foster examines the values that dance accrues in particular contexts of exchange, including those in which actors attempt to resist power and survive turmoil, Albright and Halprin more specifically focus on how to mobilize dance for social, political, and personal change. They offer manuals for placing dance in contexts of exchange that produce resilience—another keyword of our times. What are the movement vocabularies that can cultivate resilience not as the act of bouncing back (yet another movement metaphor) but as the practice of being open, paying attention, shifting directions, and using touch and strength to create community?

What is dance? Why do people continue to dance? And what changes about it when media like music videos and platforms like YouTube allow for the mass distribution of dance? These huge questions animate Foster’s Valuing Dance, which approaches them through commodity and gift theories; brief histories of hip-hop, Native American powwows, and competitive dance in private US studios; and profiles of innovators in “the giving of dance.” Foster, a choreographer and scholar of contemporary dance, offers a framework for understanding dance’s value that provides useful context for the specific movement practices detailed in the writings of Albright and Halprin. Most importantly, Foster urges us to value dance because of the value it brings to society at large.


Saboteurs in the Modern Academy

By Sophia Booth Magnone

Dance, like storytelling, is an activity that connects present-day humans to their prehistoric predecessors and that countless cultures around the world have developed for spiritual and aesthetic purposes. According to Foster’s account, most of these early forms of dance had value within gift exchange. She surveys the work of notable gift theorists in the disciplines of anthropology and philosophy—notably Marcel Mauss, Kōjin Karatani, and Maurice Godelier—and applies their ideas to dance. Fundamentally, gifts create networks of indebtedness that bind people within a society and across different societies. Value is essential to understanding how gifts function socially because the kind and degree of indebtedness will depend on what a group holds meaningful or perceives as good and purposeful.

It’s no easy task to assign the meaning, goodness, and purpose of dance writ large. But Foster endeavors to do so with this thesis: dance is “resource-full,” that is, it has capacities in much the same way as, to use her analogy, trees have the capacity to generate oxygen. Dance has the capacity to bring things into relation, expend and generate bodily energy, and adapt to social and physical environments. When dance enters commodity exchange, these capacities are standardized through dance vocabularies and grammars; spectacularized through displays of virtuosity, exoticism, and/or sex appeal; and subject to promotion and dissemination.

Valuing Dance maintains this duality of dance—between gift function and commodity exchange—by showing that most dance forms flicker between commodity and gift and are not wholly subsumed by one value system.

Though one of Foster’s aims is to offer a general theory of dance value, her insistence on this flicker, as well as her contextualizing account of the present-day service economy, reveals the anxiety motivating her project: that commodification could be the sole future of American dance. That is, a future in which the answer to “why dance?”—the title of her final chapter—could end up being: only for cash, or for likes on Instagram and YouTube. If dance endures only as a commodity, its forms will be further standardized for commercial consumption and become static, instead of dance remaining an art composed of vital, living forms that mutate through relation with other bodies and arts.

In advocating for dance-as-gift, Valuing Dance is not being nostalgic or Pollyannaish; rather, it strives to identify and preserve the dynamism of dance. To do so is urgent, Foster argues, because it’s only as gift that dance “function[s] to stabilize a society and to affirm continuity and strength in the face of loss, impermanence, and change.”

In Foster’s estimation, dance-as-gift can be “a strategy or action that can be adopted so that one may respond to adverse circumstances.” And circumstances are, indeed, adverse, according to Albright’s How to Land. We have lost our ground—or the ground is slipping out from under us—due to chronic disease, climate change, global economic turmoil, terrorist violence, mass shootings, and the paradox of excess digital connection and profound social isolation. These conditions produce anxiety and uncertainty that make life seem unlivable and result in despair.

Dance, for Albright, cultivates the flexible agency essential for resilience.

We need to find our ground. How to Land offers specific movement practices to physically ground individuals facing adverse circumstances, with the goal of producing resilience, conferring a sense of agency, and fostering connection with others. These virtues of resilience, agency, and connection “provide an important balance to the social, political, and economic unpredictability that surrounds us these days” and are requisite for political resistance.

Albright is not proposing that a few ronds de jambe at the ballet barre or standing contractions in a modern dance class will change the world. Instead, she moves the theory and techniques of contact improvisation into everyday life. Contact improv emerged in the 1970s and expanded, especially through college dance programs, in the 1980s and 1990s. Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith, whose movement philosophy inspires How to Land, innovated a form that emphasizes attunement to space, moving with others spontaneously and in response to touch, and working with—rather than against—gravity, through rolls, falls, and rebounds. Unlike a dance form such as ballet or Kathakali, the vocabulary and grammar for movement in contact improv are not strictly prescribed.

Yet contact improv does have movement values, and these appear throughout How to Land, beginning with the chapter titles: “Falling,” “Disorientation,” “Suspension,” “Gravity,” “Resilience,” and “Connection.” For Albright, the first four modes of embodiment yield the latter two states of being. To fall is to confront fear and release rigid expectations; to fall intentionally is to recuperate this action from its associations with failure or passivity. Being disoriented transforms ambiguity into a catalyst for (often demoted) forms of perception such as touch, peripheral vision, and proprioception, or the sense of our body’s position in space. Suspension encourages us to “dwell in the conditional tense,” in the time and space bodies occupy, and in the moment of not knowing exactly what to do. Gravity, so essential to falling, also counters the dislocations produced by digital lifestyles, by awakening awareness of “the material reality of the earth.”

Albright theorizes why this suite of actions is important to resilience and connection, but the book is also a pedagogical journal and a manual of exercises. It describes how she cultivates falling, disorientation, suspension, and gravity in the studio and how students react; it then provides detailed instructions readers can follow to perform the exercises. These techniques invite a paradoxical form of agency: being both active and passive, willing something to happen and being “willing to experience the world as it is happening.” Dance, for Albright, cultivates this flexible agency essential for resilience.

Albright recognizes that some notions of resilience perpetuate oppression and differentiates her program from them. However, this recognition, and the acknowledgements of her class and racial privilege that are sprinkled throughout the book, can feel inadequate. It’s hard not to take this as a program for privileged liberals whose social position—while admittedly fraught with feelings of isolation, anxiety, disconnection, and disembodiment—is far more secure than that of the black man who graces the book’s cover.

The cover photograph, from Denis Darzacq’s La Chute series, seems to show a man being shot and evokes, for me, the epidemic of police brutality against black men and women. Albright, by contrast, reads the photograph as a “graceful second … signifying a moment of possibility that just might shift the conditions of [the subject’s] descent.” To read the image thus requires rose-colored glasses that Albright can too often don, even as she writes about conditions of oppression and degradation.

This disconnect is amplified by her acknowledged devotion to literary critic Parul Sehgal’s question: “Why rise from the ashes without asking why you had to burn?” Surely there are many, including the man on the cover, who might desire not to be forced to ask this question. The most urgent query—how to extinguish the sparks that started the fire in the first place—fall outside the repertoires of fall, breath, and touch detailed in How to Land.

Halprin, a luminary of contemporary dance and dance pedagogy for over 60 years, diagnoses, like Albright, a general condition of isolation, disembodiment, and planetary and somatic sickness. In response, Making Dances That Matter, cowritten with art therapist Rachel Kaplan, seeks creative expression that “connects us with others and that … helps to create a community with the collective power to enact change.” The route to this destination is both longer and more intricate than the contact improv movements Albright prescribes.

Halprin precisely documents community dances—or “rituals”—that she first created in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles. This initial community dance, Ceremony of Us, brought together a group of white dancers from San Francisco with a group of black dancers from LA to attempt “to communicate with one another across racial lines” and work through, rather than fight through or repress, racial tensions. Out of that initial investigation into how dance can heal communities and produce shared identities, Halprin continued producing templates for “community creativity” that she and fellow travelers have since enacted in response to crises such as nuclear proliferation, HIV/AIDS, and global warming.

There’s a truth to these three authors’ conviction that we must learn how to be bodies in order to survive and resist.

Halprin’s philosophy is that the needs of a community in times of stress are best addressed by inviting all bodies—those technically trained, surely, but also, and more often, those not—to express their life experiences, in conjunction with others and in response to specific environments. The intended product of the choreographer is demoted in favor of processes of “collective creativity,” whose content depends on the quotidian movements dancers invent in response to prompts and interactions with fellow dancers and witnesses.

Making Dances That Matter walks readers—day by day and component by component—through the process of generating two such dances: Circle the Earth: Dancing with Life on the Line, which has been performed under different names and by diverse communities around the globe since 1980; and Planetary Dance, an excerpt from Circle the Earth that has been performed for peace and healing since 1987. With such detailed breakdowns of the performance templates for the community dances, Halprin’s book may speak most to those seeking to replicate these templates (or “scores,” which are gorgeous works of design in their own right) or those curious about the intricacies of the communal choreographic process.

We can think of these dances as containers for the unique yet everyday movements bodies produce in relation to others. These containers are shaped by dance rituals practiced by indigenous groups residing in the US, Bali, the Andaman Islands, and the Peruvian Andes, among others. The vocabulary Halprin uses to designate participants’ roles—for example, “ancestors of the dance,” for leaders—evidences her respect for and indebtedness to indigenous epistemologies and practices.

While her sincerity is unimpeachable, these borrowings can feel appropriative, and suggest an equivalence between indigeneity and authentic expression or pacificity. This is just one of the ways Halprin’s rhetoric sparked my skepticism toward quests for authenticity. The pursuit of universals—while still championing difference—was another way. Phrases like human nature, authentic, life force, and mystery of the universe, and the belief that we can “check our cultural biases at the door,” suggest a naiveté incommensurate with the challenge of effecting social change in the face of war, racism, and health and wealth disparity.

I got snow in my pockets

Went down again head first

Laced drill bits to my pointe shoes

Pirouette through the hardwood to pay dirt

—Dessa, “Good Grief” on Chime (2018)

To be clear, though, Foster’s dance-as-gift, Albright’s falling with grace, and Halprin’s community creativity aren’t meant as panaceas. To riff on Dessa’s lines, there is no pirouette that will bring us to sociopolitical pay dirt. But there might be moves we can make when we find ourselves “down again head first.”

Foster, Albright, and Halprin envision such moves. They insert dance into the canon of expressive forms rising to meet the troubles of disease, degradation, and deprivation. There’s a truth to their conviction that we must learn how to be bodies in order to survive and resist, a truth that shines through my skepticism of the books’ moments of excessive optimism or naiveté. This truth makes these studies provocative for resistance art.


Shadow-Dancing with Zadie Smith

By Ana Isabel Keilson

As Foster puts it, “Dancing is not unique in its capacity to collect and connect people. … Still, dancing summons people and places people in specific locales and configurations in ways that are distinct to dancing itself because of its focus on bodily movement and on the capacity of that movement to articulate relationality.”

While there are dangers to the universalizing conceptions of the body that lurk in the books of Albright and Halprin, to think collectively about our shared and differing forms of embodiment, and then to render that thinking kinetic, is an urgent task, one that these three books explore across the boundaries between theory and practice.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Compagnia Artedanza Trento performing Terra, choroegraphed by Fabrizio Bernardini (2008). Photograph by fsiddi / Flickr