When dancing is political

As times change, so do the drugs we take and the ways we commune. Karl Marx once said religion is the opium of the masses. If Marx were alive today, he would probably call ethnic nationalism the crystal meth of the electorate. Instead of sedating the masses, political pushers now cook up some country coke, stimulate the aggressive paranoia of the privileged few, and offer mass exclusion as a cure for the hangover.

From Trump’s family separation policy, to Europe’s rightwing swing against refugees, Brexit, India’s national registers, Israel’s declaration of Jewish primacy, Australia’s use of Nauru; political dealers are pushing more and more addictive doses of ethnic exclusion. In doing so, they make more evolved ideals like universal humanity and multi-cultural inclusion look both frighteningly psychedelic and terribly passé.

This messy, dated idea of inclusion still matters to me however, because I am a community dance artist. This means I bring people together to creatively collaborate, to enjoy the communal creative process, and to value locally-inspired cultural products. To do this, I work in all sorts of locations, from refugee camps in the West Bank to urban slums in Asia, usually with people who find themselves ‘outed’ by policies and practices of exclusion. The exclusion they experience may be overt, through national laws that distinguish levels of citizenship; like Palestinians living in fourth generation refugee camps in Lebanon, where their sub-citizen status is as enshrined in law as the 1705 Virginia slave codes. The exclusion can also be more insidious; social, economic and cultural practices that sneakily delegitimise a person’s sense of worth and belonging, like in northern Australia where elderly women are hidden by a culture that predominantly worships youth and masculinity.

To create dances that are locally significant, my work first involves lots of sharing of stories among the participants, leading into improvisations and compositions of dances. They extend upon philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt’s idea that political freedom is most acutely experienced when one’s own creative ideas are responded to, in pluralistic ways. Through making dance films in urban landscapes, the people I work with explore meanings of a ‘public’ space, and find ways of making their creative ideas, and thereby themselves, more visible and valued. This often challenges the cultural status quo, and frightens local neo-liberal imaginings of how urban spaces might become more privatised or marketised. 

These practical, creative experiences influence my work as a dance historian, critically investigating arts in community contexts. While often promoted as benign, for centuries the arts have been used to advance colonial hegemony and justify cultural appropriation. This can be seen continuing through cross-cultural arts exchanges, under the guise of ‘cultural diplomacy’. While filled with the goodwill of 18th century missionaries, the hegemonic use of the arts to establish hierarchies of cultural power can lead to a devaluing of local arts activities. So I sift through archives and gather oral histories to research the ways in which the arts have been used to include or exclude people in different societies and regions over time.

I am particularly inspired by grassroots arts organisations that have managed to sustain community dance practices during difficult periods, like Phare in Cambodia, El-Funoun in Palestine, TracksDance in northern Australia. The art produced by these organisations does not often get reviewed, as ‘community arts’ has generally been marginalised by mainstream art histories. Colonial and national views of the arts instead canonise stale, folk dances as the token nod towards collective creative endeavor, while fetishising the elite, ‘creative genius’ of (usually white, male) individuals. This is unfortunate, because pluralism, and the value of multi-cultural societies, relies on innovative narratives that can only emerge when divergent and complex perspectives are woven together into a work of art that is broadly appreciated.

Weaving such work can take much time and listening, but remarkably creative work can emerge from an inclusive process that values diverse stories and contrasting perspectives. Stories and perspectives that reveal the complexity and commonality of humanity. Stories that need to be heard if we are to celebrate differences, and a life lived amongst a community of strangers.

Dr Rowe is talking about his research in Dancing on a wire: stories from the field at Raising the Bar, the University of Auckland’s night of free public lectures in city bars and pubs on Tuesday August 28. Dr Rowe is talking in Snickel Lane, 23 Customs St, at 8pm and free tickets are available here.

Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.

Become a Supporter


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.