Category Archives: politics

The Hardest Thing In the World

In 1930 Martha Graham was a young dancer transitioning between the comfortable institution of Denishawn into the risks of a choreoraphic career in New York. Léonide Massine, star choreographer of the Ballet Russe, invited her to take time away from her burgeoning company to dance the role of the “Chosen Maiden” in his version of Sacre Du Printemps [Rite of Spring]. Influences from this piece can be seen in many of Graham’s later works: claw-footed intensity, archetypical femininity, choric ritual, and yet for Graham the main lesson she took away was one she shared almost immediately with her own dancers in rehearsal, which I may be paraphrasing from poor memory and lack of sources: “I have learned the hardest thing in the world, I have learned to stand still. And now I will teach you.

As I write this I am cruising at an altitude of 35,000 ft., travelling somewhere between five and six-hundred miles an hour (thank you Shelly Voegl, United airlines) – I am doing the very opposite of standing still. I am flying between concert and social dance, teaching and conferences. I have moved through Columbus Day to World Mental Health Day to International Coming Out Day, and I am looking forward to a hike in the mountains.

I wonder, sometimes, why dancers have such  a propensity to liberal activism. Many of us have, in pursuing the fine arts as a career, eschewed some of the central tenants of capitalist society, but that doesn’t explain why the trend exists in social dancers too, even among those in the upper echelons of the economic spectrum. Maybe as people whose lives are literally lived in touch with one another we are more attentive to the responsibility and precarity of human care, and the strange shapes that sometimes has to take.

On the other hand, I have been exploring the notion recently that dancers are often activists because we deeply and viscerally understand the idea that stillness is a choice. Standing inert is not a neutral action, and choosing not to act is as inherently politically weighted as any other movement you can make. Standing still indicates a decision, a perspective, an opposition to doing anything other than occupying a position and, perhaps, observing.

In a dance class stillness can be time to attend to and care for one’s self – to listen to breath and heartbeat, to ground and settle, to allow movement to come from a more connected place. In social dancing stillness is a play, a responsiveness to music, a test of partnership and connection. On stage stillness can indicate anything from a benevolent presence, to resolve, to a complete lack of capacity. Each stillness occupied is different, and that difference holds meaning. Stillness never fails to signify, and as dancers we develop our ability to choose our own messages – we are never still by accident.

If you beg a human to help you, and they remain still, a choice has been made.

If you ask people to let you in, and they refuse to move, you have your answer.

If people shout for change, and you remain inert, you have made your refusal.

In the current political climate it is not uncommon to hear that stillness is a position of privilege: that only those who are comfortable, secure, and supported can afford to remain where they are. It is not uncommon to hear in reply that stillness indicates a lack of information, indecision, a place of too many contradicting options, or not enough – being trapped. Is it possible for audiences to distinguish the stillness of “wait,” and “help,” from the stillness of “never?” How could we move to resolve that crisis?

To an audience asking for movement, stillness looks like opposition. To a population demanding answers there is little functional difference between being ignored, the composition of a complex response, and the breath before speech. That is not to say that sometimes stillness is not powerful or needed – to obstruct, to block, to insist upon the reality of your presence, to resist the momentum around you is a powerful choice. It should always be one that you have chosen to make.

Imagine that you are a teenager, who has just come out to your parents. They stand, still, silent. You know from the internet and the experiences of your friends that the responses may run the gamut of loving acceptance, passive aggressive guilt tripping, pathologisation, denial, homelessness, violence, and death. You have moved yourself from a position of safety you occupied through silence into a position of risk facilitated by speech and movement. Your parents stand still and silent. You are afraid. Each moment the stillness stretches out ratchets up the churning in your guts, the tension, the fear. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt, to anticipate their answer, but in the light of all you know might – is likely – to happen, that seems impossible. What will they do?

Imagine you are a child on the playground and a boy has just hit you. He says you deserve it, and you go to the teacher. What lessons are learned from the teacher supporting one side, or the other? What if they say “well I can’t possibly know the truth,” or “well you’re both mature enough to sort it out for yourselves, stop making a fuss?” Having learned those lessons, what happens if he hits you again?

Martha Graham understood that stillness was hard perhaps because it is much more difficult to preserve integrity in stillness than in action. When we are prevented from moving or speaking by any kind of artistic or social choreography it is incredibly difficult to communicate who we are, what we mean, and why we have made our choices. When we are asked to act, or speak, and do not, we are asking those around us to interpret on the evidence of our non-action. That might be deliberate, and a choice you make for all kinds of reasons – to start off, it is much easier to discus and debate and potentially conflict with the thing someone did, rather than the infinite myriad of things they didn’t do. It is easier to defend an internal movement that no-one can see than the external evidence of that thought process.

If we look at the situation with dancer’s eyes, however, we become aware of stillness as a choice that serves a purpose, and that holds meaning. We are not maidens shocked into immobility by awareness of our immanent sacrificial demise, we are not deaf to the music of the world around us that asks us to respond. Take time to be learn how to be still with integrity, breathe, ground, listen, but be aware that nothing can stop and wait while you do. Your stillness is seen. What does that mean in a world where you have been asked to move?

 

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How to Be Mad

Friends, it’s almost a month later. How are you doing? Are you safe?

If you’re anything like me, you’re doing a delicate dance* between trying to carry on with your life, activism, and a new phenomenon that I call Trump Fatigue, where you collapse under a blanket absolutely paralysed and despairing because you still can’t believe this is happening. Sound about right?

I see laws coming through the pipeline that massively affect me, that massively affect my friends, that massively affect the country. I’m seeing a lot more violence. I’m seeing division in communities as we desperately fight to protect a life’s worth of causes on limited resources. So here, for our benefit is my guide to the hardest part of post-Trump life: how to be mad.

mad (măd) adj. Angry; resentful. See Synonyms: angry.**

A lot of us have worked very hard not to be mad, it’s kind of a frowned-upon emotion in liberal circles. But we’re not in rational times any more, and trying to pretend you’re not mad at Trump could get you in more trouble than you’re in now, and could literally get people killed. So once again: how to be mad.

  1. Get mad about all the things, and focus on some of them. You do not have the energy to be as mad as Trump’s work deserves. This is why he’s been so successful. Across a broad ranging platform of policies he has wreaked such destruction that we can’t channel our energy enough to fight back. Be mad about that! And then pick the places where you and your anger can do the work of fighting back.
  2. Do not get mad at other people’s mad. Women’s March, I am looking at YOU. Because of step one, you’re going to have a lot of people around you with different mad to you. Some of them will be mad at you. Some of them will be ignoring your mad. These people are your allies – listen to them. You have the same reasons to be mad, why are your expressions of that mad different? Does your mad need changing? Are you aware of the ways your mad might be making extra work for other people? What can you do about that?
  3. Remind yourself why you are mad. You’re probably getting really tired right about now. Maybe you switched off from the news, or facebook, and you wish that the mad around would just be over. Stop! Remember why you are mad, and the worth of that response in the face of what’s going on in the world. If you are prepared to accept what’s going on in order to be comfortable, that is a choice. But others out there can’t, and if you can’t accept Trump, you’re going to feel mad.
  4. Be your own kind of mad. Not everyone is a protestor. Not everyone can call senators. Your mad might be loud, or quiet, or based entirely online. It might cry, and it might scream. Make it work for you. You do not need to be anyone else’s mad.
  5. But be mad in good ways! There are good and bad kinds of mad. There is the mad that allows people to get mad alongside you, and there is the mad that turns you into a threat. If you are smashing tables because you don’t like what someone has to say about your anti-abortion bill? That’s the bad kind of mad. Punching Nazi’s… ok I’m not so sure about the Nazi punching. I absolutely think physical violence is to be avoided, but if that Nazi came for me, I would want someone to punch that Nazi. But those of you saying you’d “bang” Melania Trump just to see the look on her father’s face? You are part of the problem, and I am mad at you too. You are the reason we can’t have nice things…. Like female presidents! Who aren’t Trump! Be the kind of mad that sees the world now, and sees the world better, and gets angry as the distance.
  6. Take breaks from being mad. Hormones and chemicals and tremors oh my! Mad is physically exhausting. Take time out to give yourself a break from being mad. Take care of yourself. But also remember that the people still being mad might need your support more than you need support for taking a break. Take your space to recover. Let them have space to be mad. And when you come back, bring cookies, or something.
  7. Let people see that you are mad. This is a bit contradictory, which is why I left it until after the funny cat video. There’s a lot of pressure on certain groups of people to stop being mad. Or to say they aren’t mad. They’re having to choose between being mad, and serious threat to themselves and their families. So if you can afford to be visibly mad, be mad! Be mad for yourself, and be mad for others. Say “I am so angry about what is being done to you.” Punch holes in the walls that say only some anger is valid.
  8. Make space for other people’s mad. This is the flip side of that advice: your mad might not be the most important mad in the room. You getting mad about something in the abstract might be getting in the way of someone with a quieter mad, who’s actually living it. If you silence your mad, you’re probably silencing theirs as well, but don’t get mad so loudly that they can’t be heard. Practice the balance of being mad together.
  9. Get educated. You are going to be called out and asked to justify your mad. You are going to be asked what you want to be done. You are going to be fed a lot of information about why your mad really doesn’t matter. Resist. Read books, watch documentaries, select carefully from the internet. Seek out sources from people who’ve done the research, especially people who’ve done the research who don’t live like you. If someone tells you to look at something, look at it. Have the discussion. Put a whetstone to the edge of your mad and hone it until it can cut through anything. Know, also, the risks of being mad.
  10. Direct your mad. Mad can only do so much good between four walls. Use your private spaces to grow and nurture your mad into a force, but don’t neglect using that force in the world. Let it drive you to do the things you’d otherwise be too tired, sad or scared to do. Find out, as I have, that mad can make you teach, and mad can make you learn, and often, and the best way I have found of being mad in the world?

Is kindness.

* Yes I shoehorned that in to justify publishing this on my dance blog.
** Colloquially, mad can also be a derogatory term related to mental illness. I’m also finding it really useful as a term right now. I absolutely and only mean it according to the definition, but that’s why I’ve been careful not to say “madness” anywhere in this post.

….and what now?

…for the dancers in my life who are struggling to dance.

I can already see the theory we’ll be reading in a couple of years time – Traumatised Nation: Dancing in Post-Trump America. Things will change in light of this election, and like everyone else, dancers and artists are going to have to decide how they will move on and live in the face of the unimaginable. I’m sure I am not the only one who has doubted the significance of my choice to dance in the face of these huge socio-political events. I’m also sure I’m not the only one who’s looking for ways to do something productive. This post is about doing both.

I’ve been talking to a number of my colleagues about “breaking the movement barrier.” How do we dance now? How do we teach other people to dance now? Choreography is one thing, but how can we go through the motions of a day-to-day class leaving space for where we are, while still doing our practice the service it deserves? How can we get other people to do that with us?

I got lucky. I had to teach a ballet class at 8:30am the morning after the election. My students came to class and told me they wanted to dance. That they needed to dance. That the classroom felt safe… what could I do but oblige? When I get stuck, and I still get stuck, I remember that at least for those people in that room dancing was a way to make the world feel better, and then I can move again.

What can dance do right now? Well you can choreograph. Some people already have. If the statement you have to make is one you want to make with your body, do it. Even if that statement is confused, or personal, or you don’t know what you’re allowed to say. Watch the choreography people have already made and look at how other people are thinking.

Dance can look after you. I’ve seen so many tears since the election. So many people not knowing what to do, or how to carry on. Sometimes what you need is a reminder that you know how to breathe, you know how to move through space, and take up space, and those capabilities have not gone away. Your body is still there, and the tools you have to live in the world are still there for you as soon as you decide what to do with them.

Dance is an escape. I went to a fantastic lecture last year about tactful stuplicity – sinking into the stream of the internet and opting out of a world where too much is wrong. Right now the internet is a pretty toxic place, but can we sink into music, and clear instructions, and scripts of behaviour we understand in order to give us more energy to navigate the complicated outside the door?

Dance can build community. Under the rule of hatred, love is a radical act. In a state that polices bodies, touching each other is a radical act. At a time when words are tearing us apart, moving our bodies together in silence is a radical act. And one where we can possibly come to understand each other better. I have tried since Tuesday to keep my doors open and to offer spaces for people to gather and care for each other. The people who have come have been dancers.

Dance can protest. Dance can stamp, shout, scream and tear its hair. Dance can insist on the magnificence of its own beauty. Dance can mobilize the songs we fear to sing, and the actions we fear to take. Dance can be a space to work things out. Our dance does not have to be public: there is a powerful rebellion in turning the music up loud and moving by yourself behind your bedroom door, in full-bodied acknowledgement that things are not ok. That something went wrong, and that something has to change. In dancing, we can commit to that need for change.

As artists, we are not obligated to be political activists. We are not obligated to be leftists. There is no correct response to our new president-elect, and not everyone can do the same kind of work. I think it’s important to recognise that there are lots of very valid ways of going forward now, and we can find routes for ourselves in the practices we have spent so much of our lives building. Or we may find that we need to do things differently in order to shape the world we want to live in.

There is a sentiment going around at the moment that our protests are powerless, that our activisms are superficial, that we failed, and that we cannot do enough. We did not win the election. We will have to live for four years under whatever shape the new regime takes. But we cannot let our failures, or the incompleteness of our work, prevent us from working at all. We can keep going. We can do better. We can listen. We can speak. We can make spaces. We can work stuff out.

We can dance.

Photograph by Mike Will Art