Dancing Towards Justice: How Dance Can and Will Change The World

To begin, we must be critical of what we see. We must not assume we are seeing something, but rather, really look at what we are seeing. We must be acutely aware of what are bodies are doing, and thus what are bodies are saying. This is especially crucial to understanding dance as an act of social justice.

The second caveat to deconstruct before proceeding further in this argument is to understand that there is a difference between political dance and dance towards justice. Although these terms are used interchangeably throughout this piece, what we hope to achieve is dance towards justice and not just political dancing. The difference is subtle, but key. A work may have a political theme, yet this political work can still be private, paid, and in concert or entertainment form. Social justice dance engages the community and represents real people and situations. This is much harder. This has an ethnographic element to it. Often this type of work is interpreted and critiqued as a ghettoized form of dance or art, and is disregarded because it is assumed the piece is constructed this way due to the incapability of being able to meet the expected standard of dance technique and story. But whether the dance does not meet your expectations, or the intended audience, or effects, it has important, very important, implications within the community.

Moreover, these traditionally expected forms of dance represent a very small fraction of global dance histories, styles, values. By assuming that dance must adhere to a very narrowly framed  form, style, or story we miss the opportunity to explore other means of artful expression towards social justice. The naivety to see dance in only one form (typically a Eurocentric and white) and one purpose (to entertain) is rampant throughout popular culture and opinion. This type of dance is fine, and is valued (I, myself am trained in ballet, and love a romping musical theatre or twisted fairytale piece); however, to understand dance towards justice we must realize that often issues towards justice will not include White people, and that this form of dance thus cannot be the voice for these issues. Whichever form of dance you prefer, you must look for and unpack the power hierarchies of that form. For example, often in ballet we notice beautiful partnering that shows couples bodies working together in innovative and graceful ways. But typical of this dance interaction we notice that men appear to manipulate the women's bodies (despite the insider knowledge that each lift, movement, and pose is engaging the women's core just as equally or sometimes more so depending on the pose), yet to an audience member the female partner appears completely dependent upon her male counterpart’s strength. This is a simple and striking way to illustrate existing heteronormativity and gender hierarchies within classical dance. Dance is not a neutral activity. Dance is inherently political, just like any other social or performative act. So how can we create both beautiful and politically progressive and subversive pieces of art? We can start by rejecting the notion that dance (or any art form) is just fluff, just entertainment, and just a neutral activity. Art’s modality and justification of expression should not be built upon these assumptions. We need to realize that dance, or any other art form is beautiful but also conveys specific messages.

A dance’s message does not require necessarily clarity in a piece, and especially does not require linearity or chronology of thought behind the moves and storytelling of the piece. Meaning does not evolve from a single origin, but is germinated and manifested in manifold ways; thus, choreography can create powerful, subversive, and meaningful moments and energies that may be minimalistic, simple, or vastly complicated and layered. A piece does not need to engage in traditional storytelling techniques to convey deep, impactful moments. These moments may occur through the mere physicality, actions and energies of the performers for example.

The physicality of dance itself is a key quality of why this art form should be a top contender in pushing social movements. The phrase social movement itself contains the emphasis on the actual physical transformation necessary for change to occur. When you place your foot down on the floor, how often do you really experience your body interacting with time, space, and your environment? Even when the issues themselves receive limited light or attention, the dance's physicality in that moment is an act of assertion, and an act of hope. Dance's power is in that movement despite the resistance that movement's message may receive on other platforms and more conventional modes. 

This assertion illuminates dance as a methodology of hope. Dancing has the potential to train us as cultural activists, and social justice warriors. To be an activist, you require certain acts and knowledges of knowing and doing. It is a process of reasoning and placing us in a position to self transform, and carry that transformation into the public sphere. This is a similar process to undergoing and truly embodying dance. Dance's daily rigour and practice is also a process of reasoning, of gaining and transforming knowledge, and this translates directly into the rigour and planning of social change.

You can also use these physical forms to call attention to the problematic form itself (such as the ballet example, or other traditional disempowering movements). Using forms that call to attention the problematic form itself, or the movement or vocabulary places the movement itself in a transition, and a new discourse of movement, expectations, form, language, and meaning.  Being acutely aware of your physicality during a dance is crucial. For example, you can read your own body language and examine how it perpetuates your privileges. By doing this you realize nuances between a privileged body and a marginalized body, and create a more  'authentic' (I use that term with great trepidation) and meaningful political or social message.

Dancing requires an immediacy of action, necessitates breath, and a shared understanding of space, time and a knowledge of presence, and energy. Dance is a relationship. It is a relationship between mode and meaning, performer and audience, performer and meaning, and performer and mode. This makes dance a necessary platform to materialize ideas, and movement of body, thought, and spirituality. Marginalized audiences can provide support in meaningful ways through the experiential medium of dance. Dance does not need to be seen as merely a performance with a passive audience. The audience can be invited to engage in a conversation about the dance, the experience, and life. Not only should the audience and performer enter a conversation, but they can engage on a spiritual and emotional level; moreover, experiencing the two-way relationship of energy and idea exchange between each other. Once intellectual, spiritual, and emotional exchange has occurred, a physical exchange can occur, between either performer or audience or between one of the parties and the broader world and community. This type of exchange is invaluable for using dance as a key platform for social change.

As mentioned beforehand, dance is popularly seen as merely entertainment, and appropriations of beauty, rather than creating social change. But there can and should be a connection to meaning and purpose through art. You can argue that dance, and other forms of art has no accountability for a directly causing social policy change, but art does not work this way. Art works through a shifting framework that is situated in ideals, in thoughts, in impressions, and creations of new perspective and ideas. This fluidity and subjectivity does not retract from the argument that art creates social change, but in fact strengthens it and offers a unique and peculiar form of social change that should be valued and cherished as a gem in our political landscape. This also serves as a powerful context for the performers as well. For example dance language is metaphoric. It is not literal. It makes it a safer space. It is a way to dictate your story without feeling the immediate danger of doing so. In this way performers as well as audiences are empowered to share their story in seemingly masked, but realistically direct and impactful ways.

Such forms of social change are also invaluable because intellectual and cultural goods are not finite goods, they can be created and recreated throughout time and audiences. Ideas and art are abundant, and oppose the scarcity and competition ideals of the modern capitalist structure. Is that why we are so scared of this immensely powerful act? We share. We perform, with often only an intangible reward; a reward of experience, sensation, and embodiment. We experience energies and transfigurations that our language fails to capture these knowledges and truths; which contributes to the power of dance and art as a mode of social change, but also to the popular opposition to take these embodied (performer) and disembodied (audience) experiences as concrete arguments and political acts.

This resistance to our capitalist modes of daily performance strengthen the argument that dance is a key platform for social justice. Global capital's restructuring of space snuffs out conventional places of protest. But dance can work within this problematic restructuring of space, and manipulate spaces constrained by capital and privatization. It does this by using 'private' spaces, and spaces regulated by capital to host the performance. Yet you can't buy the dance. You can't buy that moment. Dance (should) work outside the frame of capitalism, and that is a beautiful thing. 

This framework allows dance to flourish as a subversive political act, but also creates specific challenges in the practicality of making these political dance movements occur. For example, a challenge may be that often dancing towards justice, often is associated with an ethic of volunteerism, and it may be expected that you can dance for free. This presents a complicated problem for professional dancers who wish to make a living based on their art, and also promote social change that may not fit under the umbrella of more ‘traditional,’ well-paid or funded forms of art. This problem is exasperated by the under resourcing of dancing in general, and thus more viciously in dance towards social justice. In addition, dancing towards justice may often include intended audiences who will be the most under resourced, the most marginalized, and it is hard to find the balance between that voice, that funding, and economic sustainability. Already there are abundant disparities between the arts and mainstream politics; and between marginalized audiences/performers and the mainstream funding/support.

Works can achieve this dance to social justice through intensive collaborations and communication between performers. By doing this, the dancer's movement becomes a clear intent that all others are aware of. This creates cohesive, or intentionally disruptive group movements that do convey meaning and can aid to the overall mission of social change. By using this method of choreography and dance methodology you can create dance towards social justice. If we address these challenges and proposed methods of collaboration, and communication amongst performers and audiences, unpack dance's physicality, power dynamics, and form, and fully realize its' potential for incredible change in social activism and movements, than we can create a better world through dance and art in general.

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© Miss Lauren Kyle
Maira Gall