Any performative act is an act of self-definition, a statement of identity. How is it received if one’s body is clearly marked as “non-white”? How can another future be shaped, especially when working with or dancing in front of a young audience? The choreographer, dancer and author Nora Amin has devised a one-day conference on the issue of dance and racism together with TANZKOMPLIZEN. “The Other Body?” emerged from a series of interviews with non-white dance artists, conducted by TANZKOMPLIZEN in autumn 2019. It is an attempt to allow artists, educators and spectators speak out against the labeling, objectification and de-humanization of the dancing body while considering the transformations of socio-political identities and the perspective of decolonization. Central to the one-day conference is the analysis of the strategies of racism within the history of dance pedagogy and the aesthetic traditions of choreographed dance as well as critical interventions. At the event, Nora Amin is also the keynote speaker. In her artist’s voice which is partly documentary, and partly poetic, she recalls an empowering situation in one of her school projects.
Choreographer, dancer and author
I am standing in a room full of children. In a fantastic school. In my hometown, Berlin. It’s almost midday, and I am there with my colleagues, performing a tale for children. I am dancing and moving my body as I sing along to some Arabic traditional song. I am surrounded by love from my performance partners, but yet I am very alone. I stand out. I look around and to the front and across the huge room, and my loneliness expands. Am I the only one who looks like this?
Encountering the future
As I move my clearly foreign body, my loneliness and alienation grow, as if the movement makes them grow, makes them articulate. If I stood still I would be less visible, and my foreignness less apparent. If I closed my eyes I would not so much sense my loneliness. But here I am a performer. A performer who looks different from the other performers present and who emphasizes her difference by the kind of movement she demonstrates.
The room is full of eyes: curious eyes, passionate eyes, questioning eyes, sleepy eyes, and lost eyes. They are the eyes of the future. A future that is somehow looking with uncertainty at such non-conformist dance. Is it the future of Germany? Or is it the future of dance? Or both? And how can I speak to such a future and to such a spectatorship with this “other-ed” body that I am carrying? How can I communicate with my spectators and my fellow citizens as an apparent immigrant who dances her own dance? Should I forget my identity and stand still? Or copy other dances? Should I force my movement to be “integrated”? Or should I just be myself?
Any performative act is an act of self-definition. There is no standing vis-à-vis an audience without a statement of identity. Any performance is primarily founded on a principle of being. Therefore every performance is a performance of the self, and audience members’ observations are observations of selves toward other selves. Our colours, races, genders and ethnicities are performative components of what we present, no matter what we do. Histories of colonialism, racism, de-humanization and objectification have impact on every performance we see, on every gaze we encounter as performers.
A field of intense diversity
Yet it is a privilege being there in that huge room where the presence of the future fills the air, and the sense of open possibilities refresh the performance. Opposite to the almost general consensus that adult spectators might have while gazing at a performative act, children and youth offer a genuine field of intense diversity where each individual is on an open journey where many notions are not yet set nor defined. Their values, prejudices and norms are not yet fully complete, neither are they entirely in control of the perception. To perform for children is also to perform within a process of growth, self-exploration, questioning and definition of the self. A performance can fall right into that process, and hence become an aspect of shaping the pedagogy of that child/spectator, of that future adult citizen. Therefore my responsibility – as a performer who is profoundly involved with activism, pedagogy and de-colonization – is to honestly and fearlessly perform my self.
To be who we truly are on stage is also a statement. It is a statement against stereotypes and labeling, a statement against traditions of colonial performativities where the aesthetics and the so-called norms are set according to the choice and sensitivity of the colonizer, the supremacist, the dictator. To pursue our own inner voices of sensitivities, desires and pain, is also to pursue our own authenticity and self-liberation. To recognize a stage history of racism is also to admit that our world performance communities have bravely endured centuries of hierarchal thinking, of succumbing to artistic and aesthetic models that are created by a pedagogy of oppression and authority, and of being sometimes lured into becoming the puppets of the regime or of the institutionalized/institutionalizing art.
I am almost reaching the end of my performance. My arm movements do not follow any clear lines, they are drawing a kind of alien passion in the air. I am shaking my hips like a belly dancer, yet I am in full dignity. Some laughter escapes me, I am wondering who ever put hip shaking as opposite to dignity, and who ever defined belly dance as a practice of the enslaved. The applause announces the end of the encounter. While the children follow the strict orders of the teachers to clear the room, one black female child disobeys and therefore becomes visible to me and to everybody else. She approaches me, and in full dignity and power – as if she is shedding histories of endangered, stigmatized and other-ed identities – she says to me in Arabic: I am Egyptian.
Our other-ed bodies have become one.