Dance must fall

Last month, our colleague and friend Sita Balani wrote about her experiences of attending Literature Must Fall, a literary festival held in Birmingham on 28 September 2019. Aimed not at celebrating literature but ‘challenging it head-on’, the festival as Balani describes it has me dreaming about similar gatherings in the field of contemporary dance.

Balani writes:

I took the train to Birmingham for Literature Must Fall, [small in scale] but conceptually ambitious, aiming to dismantle literature rather than hold it up for admiration. […] As co-founder Imandeep Kaur wryly explained, they just get on with doing things, like providing childcare and prayer space, that other people like to theorise about but rarely put into practice.

[…]

The festival itself was unlike any mainstream literary event I’ve ever encountered. There was little distinction between speaker and audience, and the majority of participants were women of colour. Looking at the programme, it seemed to be for people who were critical about the white publishing industry, but just as skeptical about the diversity initiatives that sought to include us. If the implicit rationale of most literature festival turns on the civilizing potential of art, Literature Must Fall asked how writing could help to bring down what passes for civilization. The conversations were expansive and ballsy. There was no grandstanding, no celebrity-worship. Some of the familiar tropes got an airing (the white gaze, exoticisation etc) but even these ideas were given new life in an atmosphere that allowed for genuine disagreement without rancor.

[…]

The day pushed back on the identity talk that characterises much of the diversity discourse, including its intersectional offshoots. Instead, people hunted for new paradigms and thought collectively about the limitations of postcolonial theory, confessional literature, folk stories, narrating our experiences, trauma, and the written word itself.

Sita Balani, ‘Gather’, 26 September 2019, https://medium.com/@balani.sita/gather-cf2c825ac022

Two questions are on my mind:

1. Where in our daily work as artists, producers, scholars, workers in the field of contemporary dance could we take more chances to dismantle dance rather than hold it up for admiration?

2. What kind of festival formats are necessary for swerving the moribund work of diversity initiatives but instead creating the conditions for people to reflect collectively on the limitations of dance as a mode of anti-racist action but also to ask: ‘how dance could help bring down what passes for civilisation’?

Accomplices, not allies

Royona, Simon and I talk often about ally-ship. That issue’s been on my mind a lot lately and especially since Royona’s blog post – ‘Anti-Racist Research’ – on 25 August. In this post, she wrote:

Anti-Racism research teams should take care to ensure they are comprised of more than one person of colour (PoC) when working with white collaborators. The burden I have felt as the only PoC on this project, and how this burden has at times debilitated me from actually moving forward with the work, is difficult to put into words.

As Royona’s collaborator and also her friend, I felt a tight feeling in my chest when I read these words. Her burden was something we had spoken slowly and haltingly about through our work together, in team meetings and in private conversations. And I think my chest’s tight feeling came from my knowing that I couldn’t fathom this burden my friend was carrying until she told me about it – and even then only barely. (Not to mention that the act of telling, and having to tell all the time, is a heavy burden itself.)

In this kind of work done by people of colour and white people together, I’m learning that being an ally, someone who offers solidarity and support and who has their friend’s back, is not enough.

Accomplices, not allies, is the message delivered in a call to arms published in 2014 by Indigenous Action Media. I cite from this text below and then follow up with some questions for those who wonder about white allies in contemporary dance.

ac.com.plice

1. a person who helps another commit a crime

The risks of an ally who provides support or solidarity (usually on a temporary basis) in a fight are much different from that of an accomplice. When we fight back or forward, together, becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation, we are accomplices. […]

Understand that it is not our responsibility to hold your hand through a process to be an accomplice. […]

Accomplices are realized through mutual consent and build trust. They don’t just have our backs, they are at our side, or in their own spaces confronting and unsettling colonialism.  […]

Don’t wait around for anyone to proclaim you to be an accomplice, you certainly cannot proclaim it yourself. You just are or you are not. The lines of oppression are already drawn. 

Direct action is really the best and may be the only way to learn what it is to be an accomplice. We’re in a fight, so be ready for confrontation and consequence.

— Indigenous Action Media, ‘Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing The Ally Industrial Complex’, Version 2 – (2014), http://www.indigenousaction.org/accomplices-not-allies-abolishing-the-ally-industrial-complex/

Some questions for contemporary dance:

If an accomplice in anti-racist struggle is a white person who helps people of colour commit crimes so they can survive and transform the racist spaces they’re forced to live in, then what do we do about contemporary dance as one of those racist spaces? Some more pointed questions below.

  1. what kinds of actions and attitudes have been ‘criminalised’ by the white liberal cultures of contemporary dance?
  2. which of these actions and attitudes are ‘criminalised’ implicitly so as to fortify white dominance in the field?
  3. what work have people of colour been doing that transgresses contemporary dance’s laws of operation, that agitates the field’s whiteness?
  4. how can white people be accomplice to those transgressions and agitations, even and especially if they are vilified or punished as a result? (the latter because people of colour are subject to punishment for such transgressions but cannot exist in the context of whiteness without transgressing, and so white people cannot hesitate at those same risks without operating on a double standard. “We’re in a fight, so be ready for confrontation and consequence.”)
  5. how can, and how should the transgression of contemporary dance’s racist (soft) laws work in alliance with the transgression of the racist (hard) laws that legitimise state violence in the UK? The crimes to which Indigenous Action Media refer when they write about decolonial struggle are defined as such by white settler/white supremacist legislation and policed by the very real consequences of the criminal justice system.
  6. how can we white people who work in the field of contemporary dance act as accomplices to those who confront and face the consequences of racist criminalisation? Here are some places to start when looking for answers in the British context…

Migrants in Culture

AAA Radio Live: A Series of Uncomfortable Conversations #4 Art and Activism

performing borders

Anti-Racist Research

In How to be an Anti-Racist Ibram X. Kendi puts forward five tips to become an anti-racist: 1) acknowledge your own racism; 2) confess your racist ideas; 3) define racism and anti-racism ; 4) identify racist systems; and finally 5) work to change racist systems.

When we designed this research project for our grant application, we really did not think through the implications, in embodied terms, of what we were taking on. We did not think through the extent to which every aspect of our proposed research methods are tied into colonial / racist power asymmetries. We saw ourselves as anti-racist, but did not acknowledge to what extent our scholarly and artistic practices perpetuate the systems we are critiquing. We did not think through the implications of centring whiteness within a project that commits itself to anti-racist work. We did not consider that, in fact, it is contemporary dance’s anti-blackness that we should have signalled more forcefully through our project title.

Now, half-way through our project, we are encountering all kinds of resistances from within and without that we have been digging deeper to learn from. Here are some of the thinking that has been occupying my thoughts lately:

  1. Anti-Racism research teams should take care to ensure they are comprised of more than one person of colour (PoC) when working with white collaborators. The burden I have felt as the only PoC on this project, and how this burden has at times debilitated me from actually moving forward with the work, is difficult to put into words.
  2. The requirements of research grants by way of acceptable modes of dissemination, research methods etc are fundamentally bound up in colonial modalities and structurally racist mechanisms. Doing anti-racist work through racist research mechanisms is counter-productive. We urgently need to re-invent our own tools.
  3. Contemporary dance in the UK is a dance of white fragility. An industry and a sector that attempts to address its exclusionary guilt by purporting to diversity and inclusion, without addressing the structural racism that is foundational to its operations. Including artists of colour into a sector that is defined by white ideologies does not address its inherent racism. It masks it by wielding its power through a performance of fragility
  4. Addressing racism in the dance sector is intrinsically linked to addressing racism in the dance academy. One feeds and upholds the other in a permanent sealed dance of white power. Our project has not even scratched the surface of the role of dance studies and university/conservatoire based dance training in perpetuating racism in the dance sector.

Despite challenging circumstances, our collaborative research dynamic continues to be generative, caring and brutally honest. This is truly meaningful because, despite the very different stakes the three of us have in the project, what remains constant is our commitment to learning, relearning and unlearning together.

“Difference Must Not Merely be Tolerated” – Audre Lorde

In her essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House’ Audre Lorde writes:

“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must not merely be tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. “

Lorde’s words are equally applicable to contemporary dance at large. If the contemporary dance industry merely tolerates difference through the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, what it fails to do is to fundamentally acknowledge difference as necessary for creativity to thrive in, through and as a process of dialectic.

What then does contemporary dance as a field of practice find threatening about the potential of interdependency between points of differences?

Is it the threat of such interdependency that maintains the anti-blackness of contemporary dance?

How will universities, organisations and conservertoires invested in dance training move from the rhetoric of tolerance that keeps such anti-blackness in place to actively investing in creative training that rests on dialectic between different realities and perspectives ?

Integrity and disintegrations

During our conversations over the past five months, we often find ourselves returning to two interrelated problems. The first is the need to understand racism as an economic formation dependent on an unequal distribution of financial wealth and material resources. The second is the issue of widespread and often well-meaning institutional agendas that pursue racial diversity and inclusion without attempting to undo the unequal distribution of wealth on which the integrity of that institution basically depends.

The thing, I think, that is at stake when these two problems are taken together in the case of the topic of our research project, goes like this:

how to make changes to fields and institutions structured through whiteness (like contemporary dance) without engaging in surface-deep inclusion exercises that merely dress the windows of a structure still dependent on and securing its racist foundations?

A brilliant formulation of this issue, and one that deepens the window-dressing metaphor, is shared by Gargi Bhattacharyya in her book Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival (2018).

What follows is a long excerpt worth reading.

Imagine a house with many storeys—an attic and a cellar, several annexes that have no direct connections, main rooms filled with comfort and a maze of unmappable corridors leading to all sorts of barely remembered wings, snugs and the occasional route outside to a seemingly isolated out-house. There are people in each part of the house and sometimes some of them meet. But mostly their movements are shaped by the place in which they find themselves, and who they see and who they can be is delimited by the strange geography of the house. Racial capitalism is this kind of story. It is a story about imagining economic formations as demarcating the relations and walls between different groups of human beings. It is also a story about imaging who enters which rooms and how. One kind of narrative suggests that everyone will get into the living room eventually—they may take different journeys and come at different paces, but all the convoluted routes will lead to the living room in the end.

Others might suggest that the house will grow other new and different living rooms—separate from the original geography of the house but providing a similar experience of comfort and safety for the populations in those wings of the building.

Both accounts—and I would say that these have been the dominant accounts for some time—assume that occupation of the/a living room is achievable by all and is a marker of progress and enhanced material wellbeing.

This work begins from the belief that much of the world has never and will never enter that particular form of living room comfort and that this exclusion or expulsion is no accident. The integrity of the building demands that different groups remain in their separate wings and such differentiations are important for the maintenance of the building and its lovely main living room.


Gargi Bhattacharyya. Rethinking Racial Capitalism : Questions of Reproduction and Survival (New York and London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), pp. 1-2.

What if the ‘building’ (with its structural integrity) to which Bhattacharyya refers were re-conceived as the field of contemporary dance? What sorts of disintegrations of our field are necessary for its institutions to move beyond diversity agendas that leave ‘its lovely main living room’, with all its exclusions and expulsions, intact?

Sticking points: on the meanings of ‘race’

Our research for this project has in no small part consisted of encounters with sticking points and stickiness of various kinds: methodological, conceptual, political, ethical.

One of those areas in which we keep getting helpfully stuck, as a project team and in the many rich conversations we’ve been having with our research participants, is the vexed terrain of terminology. How to define ideas such as ‘race’, ‘racism’ and ‘whiteness’ across and between terminological cultures so that necessary and difficult conversations about those ideas can begin? The concepts and social formations central to our research have been defined over and again (by activists, artists and researchers) in conflicting ways that stake out positions, declare allegiances, (re)configure power relations and that make certain kinds of thought/action (im)possible.  

The definitions we’ve been thinking through are too numerous to list within this blog post. But here’s one reflection on the problems of defining ‘race’ that has been on our minds lately. Academic and poet Chris Chen includes this Addendum on Terminology in his 2013 article ‘The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality’.

ADDENDUM: ON TERMINOLOGY

“Race” has been variously described as an illusion, a social construction, a cultural identity, a biological fiction but social fact, and an evolving complex of social meanings. Throughout this article, “race” appears in quotation marks in order to avoid attributing independent causal properties to objects defined by ascriptive processes. Simply put, “race” is the consequence and not the cause of racial ascription or racialisation processes which justify historically asymmetrical power relationships through reference to phenotypical characteristics and ancestry: “Substituted for racism, race transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of the object.”5

I have also enclosed “race” in quotation marks in order to suggest three overlapping dimensions of the term: as an index of varieties of material inequality, as a bundle of ideologies and processes which create a racially stratified social order, and as an evolving history of struggle against racism and racial domination — a history which has often risked reifying “race” by revaluing imposed identities, or reifying “racelessness” by affirming liberal fictions of atomistically isolated individuality. The intertwining of racial domination with the class relation holds out the hope of systematically dismantling “race” as an indicator of unequal structural relations of power. “Race” can thus be imagined as an emancipatory category not from the point of view of its affirmation, but through its abolition.

Footnote (5): Barbara J. Fields, ‘Whiteness, racism, and identity’, International Labor and Working Class History 60 (Fall 2001), 48-56.

(emphases in the original)

To read the full essay:

Chris Chen, ‘The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality: Notes Towards an Abolitionist Antiracism’, endnotes 3 (September 2013), https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3/en/chris-chen-the-limit-point-of-capitalist-equality

Ruby Sales – “a spiritual crisis in white America”

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s brilliant show Séancers (2017) summons the words of several ‘sacred texts’: the work of Black feminist thinkers, artists and activists with whom Olawale Kosoko performs a political-paranormal communion. One such text is a radio interview with theologian and social activist Ruby Sales, who speaks about whiteness in terms of spiritual crisis.

Ruby Sales, 2016:

And we’ve got a — there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning. And I don’t hear — we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology. I want a theology that speaks to Appalachia. I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them, rather than call upon them — the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European-American; that’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.

And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk, if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.

You can listen to and a read a transcript of the full interview here.

You can follow Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s work in performance and education here.

Sisters of Resistance, Left of Brown and Jenny Rodriguez on Whiteness, Self-Accountability and Vulnerability

In their incisive piece of writing ‘Is Decolonizing the New Black?‘ the Sisters of Resistance, Left of Brown and Jenny Rodriguez write: “Decolonising has entered consumers’ imaginations, and with it, a new kind of consumer has emerged: one that is politically astute and critical of Whiteness, but also firmly entrenched in conservative market forces that reproduce value through competitive means.”

If as project members we are to imagine ourselves at this new consumer, endevouring to critique the predominant Whiteness of contemporary dance, we need to be really mindful of our potential to be ‘firmly entrenched in conservative market forces’. How do we ensure that we wield our critique of contemporary dance’s Whiteness without perpetuating the market forces that (re)produce the powers that drive the industry?

The piece warns us of the appropriative and cooptive pitfalls of such projects, by providing clear guidance on the ethics of what needs prioritising in our enquires:

Engaging with Whiteness with a sense of responsibility and self-accountability while acknowledging that for centuries people of colour have been denied their role in producing and shaping intellectual ideas and knowledge, even about themselves. […]

Re-narrating institutional histories so that narratives of racism and imperialism are not forgotten and are instead used in ongoing work that looks to reform universities, in ways that significantly make them antiracist, anti-imperialist spaces. […]

Developing, applying and regularly reviewing organizing principles as a way of translating anti-racist and decolonizing ethics into applied and measurable methodologies.  […]

Working against intersectional racist structures so young people of colour can step into positions of power.  […]

Organising within their own institutions to challenge racist practices and processes, including stepping back and giving up privileges, earned or unearned, as well as not continuing to hurt, violate or reduce the participation of people of colour in institutional spaces and processes  […]

Making oneself vulnerable in the act of political struggle with White capitalist patriarchy. Decolonising ethics involve a consistent de-centering of the self as well as encountering Whiteness in structures, arrangements and relationships, where personal desire, intentions and underlying assumptions should be brought under sustained scrutiny.  […]

Embracing solidarity as a radical act of self-effacement, where the Other determines the strength and quality of a relation […]

What an enormous responsibility we have taken on! The question that remains for me key to ask constantly of ourselves is : how vulnerable are we willing to make ourselves in this act of political struggle for the field?