dance, discipline, and the anarchic body; or, how do i get my body to let me take a dance class?

by a. charlie peters

photos by Ryszard Hunka

commissioned by the Young Lungs Dance Exchange for its 2015-2016 Research Series

how do i get my body to let me take a dance class? this sounds like i’m invested in the mind/body split. I’m not, but i slide into it as readily as the next person born after René Descartes started thinking he is because he thinks he is. some believe that Descartes’s famous seventeenth-century statement, “i think, therefore i am,” founded modernity. right up to the present day, many people regard the mind or brain as the boss of the body. dualisms such as mind/body, man/woman, adult/child, good/evil all feature one term that is privileged over the other term. in the mind/body pairing, the mind is usually the one on top. a friend of ours is writing a play about cryonics. in cryonics, they sometimes freeze whole bodies, but you can also get someone to cut off your head and freeze it after you die so it can get reattached to another body when they’ve figured out how to fix what killed you. that’s how much some people value their bodies, apparently. in my case, though, when it comes to taking dance classes, anyway, it feels like it’s my body that’s calling the shots. it feels like i have an anarchic body, one that doesn’t want a leader or a mind thinking that it’s the boss.

anarchy means “no leader”: this is the literal translation from the Greek. i’ve been in a university environment for much of my life, so i’m used to leaders and to having my mind disciplined by them. for many years, i’ve had professors, advisors, employers, and department chairs telling me what to do. i might not like the hierarchical, top-down structure of so many of our school and work environments, but where the life of the mind is concerned, at any rate, being directed is something i can handle, even enjoy. and my body comes along for the ride.

disciplining my body, though, is a bit different. there are limits to what it’ll put up with. for years, i attended yoga classes, but, with yoga class, you don’t have to be all that disciplined: you can go or not go. it’s not like you have to be at a particular class on a regular basis. and because i have this somewhat hypermobile, disorderly body, yoga teachers would tell me to do the opposite of what they were telling everyone else to do or to do what felt right in my body. so i wasn’t exactly getting bossed around in yoga class. plus, half the time yoga instructors are making exactly the same shapes at the same time as everyone else so it feels like you’re all in it together. and moving to music at home or in a club or in free-style dance classes such as the Isadora Duncan workshop that Jolene Bailie arranged are experiences that i really enjoy. (Isadora freed dance from many of its restrictions, and i learned about her contributions when i was really young, so participating in this workshop was really wonderful thing for me!) no, it wasn’t these experiences that tested my limits; it was when i tried to learn a classical Indian style of dance named Kathak with Ian Mozdzen that my body rebelled.

the Kathak teachers were awesome, the people at the India School of Dance were super nice, and Kathak is super beautiful and interesting, but however much i thought i wanted to learn Kathak, my body just didn’t want to go to the same place at the same time every week and be taught to move with the kind of precision required by a classical dance form. having to move my arms or legs up or down or in or out several inches so as to mimic these ancient postures—however beautiful and charming these postures are—ended up being the proverbial straw, in terms of my physical training. Ian continued with Kathak lessons; in fact, he will be moving to India at the end of summer to learn more about classical Indian dance. and me? i dropped out. and i really wanted to learn Kathak, too.

the Hunger Games series of books and films features Twelve Districts filled with poor people who supply the citizens in the wealthy Capital with all that the well-to-do citizens need to thrive. it’s a lot like the relationship between the body and the mind of a scholarly type person: the body is like the Twelve Districts: it supplies the food and circulates the blood and the oxygen and then it has to just sit there and keep working at supplying the whole body with stuff while the mind—which resembles the wealthy citizens of the Capital—satiates itself with books and films and lectures. in the Hunger Games, because a Thirteenth District had tried to overthrow this unjust system sometime in the past, each of the twelve remaining districts has two of its young people selected to fight to the death in the annual hunger games while the citizens of the Capital get “entertained” by this blood sport. importantly, in each annual hunger game, there is only one winner. eventually, the people in the Twelve Districts rebel, inspired by the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who refuses to kill all her opponents and become the sole winner of the games. trying to learn Kathak has taught me what i’d only suspected was true from all those years in yoga classes: that my body has a mind—many minds! entire districts!—of its own. perhaps a more egalitarian relationship among all these body-minds and my mind-mind (which no doubt has its own bodies, too) might make it possible for me to take a Kathak class sometime.

and this is precisely what anarchy is all about: egalitarian relationships. anarchy often gets a bad wrap. it’s frequently compared with chaos or nihilism, concepts which no doubt have their up sides, as well, although we seldom hear about them. in fact, Elise and Jasmine Allard, in their performance on January 16th, demonstrated that chaotic movement can be a safe and welcome expression of intense feeling if someone you love is there to catch you. i’ll talk about two separate moments from this performance: in the first, Jasmine holds Elise around the waist while Elise moves her arms and legs intensely; in this first instance, intense movement is enabled by Jasmine’s grasp. in the second of these two moments, Jasmine dances around like crazy until Elise can’t stand it any more and stops her. each sister is the ground that supports the other’s wildness. love both enables and disables chaotic movement.

researching this paper, i learned that contemporary theorists of anarchy embrace wildness and that they are concerned about oppression and the abuses of authority. authority tries to convince us that the few are more forceful than the many. no one in their right mind,—or maybe i should say “in their right body”! or, “in their right body-mind”!—would believe this for long, would they? Isabell Lorey is one of the scholars who is currently theorizing anarchy. Lorey writes about the 2011 Occupy Movement, the writings of philosopher Jacques Ranciére, and the idea that real democracy—by which Lorey means direct democracy, as opposed to representative democracy—is anarchic. what Lorey wants us to do is to practice democracy, real, anarchic democracy, all the time. she calls this “presentist democracy” (59). fill all of our presents, all of our nows, with real, egalitarian democracy, that’s what Lorey advises. And, if democracy is what we actually want, this recommendation makes a lot of sense, for, as literary theorist Jon Clay puts it, “the equality of beings is not imposed … [on us] from ‘above’ … but is rather … [our] own”; it “is assumed among … [ourselves]” (15).

image: Sasha Amaya

Lorey’s recommendation about being present involves having a different kind of relationship with the past and the future, a relationship that is perhaps more distanced, or more occasional. instead of thinking about the past or the future a lot, might we choose, instead, to think about them only when we really need to. rather than “intending” to do a given thing, might we “carry” an idea “with us,” instead? would this be a substantially different way of doing things? how do we “get out of” dwelling in our pasts or in our futures? i think that Brenda McLean and Brittany Thiessen demonstrated a way to do this in a sequence of movements accompanying an apology. during their rehearsal of “Dinner,” a vignette from Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, Brenda flippantly, insincerely apologizes to Brittany before following this up with a sincere, heartfelt apology. during the flippant apology, Brenda turns her back on Brittany and moves away from her. but during the sincere apology, Brenda wraps her entire body around Brittany, who is seated on the floor. apologizing addresses feelings of guilt, grief, or regret about an event that happened in the past. an insincere apology will keep this past event in play and maintain the distancing effects of estrangement. in contrast, a sincere apology can collapse this distance, assuage troubling emotions, and bring people together in the intimacy of a present moment of reconciliation. and Brenda’s and Brittany’s movements demonstrate how collapsing space collapses time, too. the direction and orientation of their bodies in space encode the temporal dynamics of the sincere and the insincere apology and bring to life the presentist politics recommended by Lorey .

these days politics has been largely reduced to policing people who are barely able to eke out a living (91). this perspective about contemporary politics is associated with thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben and Michel Foucault and it is a perspective that is also shared by a theorist named Mick Smith. while writing about how we might stop dominating what he calls “the more-than-human world,” Smith celebrates wildness. he calls wildness innocent, “ethically anarchic” (92), and “synonymous with creative freedom from social restraint” (94). Smith’s “more-than-human world” played a significant role in classes offered during the Young Lungs Research Series. on January 24th, facilitators Ali Robson, Janelle Hacault, and Sasha Amaya asked those who attended the classes to become sand, water, gulls, and trees! French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari see all earthlings as interconnected, as assemblages that are always becoming with the things that they—we!—come into contact with. this is true in the most basic and fundamental way. when we eat mushrooms, melons, or mango, we become these plants and they, in turn, become human beings. our interactions makes us assemblages of human and non-human parts. we breathe in what trees exhale—and vice versa! other kinds of becomings took place during these classes, as well. Sasha asked class participants to move around the dance floor with different body parts doing the leading—first the pelvis, then the ribs and the feet—people were even asked to let their bodies be led by more than one body part at once! in becoming-led by pelvis-minds, rib-minds, and feet-minds the leadership of the thinking head was disrupted, although it, too, was given its chance to take the lead! on another occasion, in a rehearsal exercise featuring one person mimicking another person’s everyday gestures, dancers Freya Olafson and Lise McMillan were asked by creator Treasure Waddell to become one another!

these types of exercise ask us to engage in a certain wildness, or in what Mick Smith calls “creative freedom from social restraint.” in this phrase, Smith celebrates freedom along with wildness. i would sure love to celebrate both of these ideas, too. but while celebrating wildness has many fans among anarchists, there are some thinkers, though, who argue, and very convincingly, too, that the concept of freedom is just another tool in the massive toolbox of those who police us. in fact, a theorist by the name of Nikolas Rose argues that governments invented freedom! as Rose explains it, governments convince us that certain behaviours are reasonable and normal. then governments convince us that we freely choose these very behaviours that they have conditioned us to adopt! Rose suggests that we think the way our governments want us to think, including and perhaps especially when we think that we are free. and thinking that we are free when, in fact, we are being highly disciplined and rigidly policed by those who govern us may be one of the biggest problems, in Rose’s point of view, that we moderns face.

Seeing Rachelle Bourget in rehearsal really brought home to me the visual dominance of the thinking head and its companion, the expressive face. for the first part of the rehearsal, i’m sure i spent as much time looking at Rachelle’s face and head as i did observing her dancing body. and even as i write this i realize: there i go, participating in the mind/body split again! i’ll start over. at first, i spent as much time watching the top eighth of Rachelle’s physical form in rehearsal as i did watching the other seven-eighths. then Rachelle wrapped a red scarf over her head and almost everything about my viewing of her movement changed. Rachelle’s head became another part of her moving body, an eighth of her body as opposed to the head of a body. lots of other interesting things became apparent, too: many of her movements were directed sideways; in other words, they were oriented towards the horizontal plane. (poststructural theorists, much like anarchists, are very interested in collapsing hierarchies, and they talk a lot about collapsing them by putting things side-by-side. poststructuralists are all about the horizontal, the lateral, the sideways.) to return to Rachelle’s dance: with her head covered, Rachelle’s limbs—pale in contrast with her black clothing and red scarf—came more into focus and the way she moved one arm as if to fit her elbow into the curve of her waist came to seem like an exercise in self-construction, something i might not have noticed had Rachelle not donned the mask. at the same time, Rachelle’s other arm was angled such that the space between this second arm and her core became a hole that drew my attention to the air within which she moved, air that was shared by everyone else in the place. also, Rachelle’s body made curves where one would not expect them and straight lines where i would never have thought them possible; for instance, at one time, Rachelle’s arm and shoulder were angled in such a way as to point straight down at the floor while the rest of her figure remained erect. i’ve put a slide of the “Russian feminist punk rock protest” (wiki) group Pussy Riot up on the screen because the effect of Rachelle’s dance, on me, anyway, was very political in a horizontal, egalitarian way. the other seven-eighths of our bodies offers so much!

in the introduction to his book Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement, André Lepecki explains that, “Rethinking … [what it means to be human] in terms of the body is precisely the task of [dance] choreography” (5). Lepecki has his criticisms of choreography, however, due to the “commanding voices” of its masters and the extensive discipline it requires of dancers who must nonetheless maintain a posture—and the imposture—of spontaneity (9). Lepecki goes on to talk about how dance is supposed to be all about movement. movement is the ontology or beingness of dance, as, since the Renaissance, at any rate, dance has been understood to be the art form that is all about uninterrupted, unceasing, rhythmic, flowing, movement. modernity, itself—that is to say, the period that stretches from the time of Descartes’s famous statement, “i think therefore i am,” all the way up to the present day—, is said to be all about movement, too, by some theorists; and Lepecki agrees.

but Lepecki is something of a rebel, as well. while he agrees with those who argue that modernity is all about movement and that dance, since the Renaissance, has been all about movement, he rebels against the idea that dance needs to be defined this way, preferring, instead, an expanded definition. Lepecki would have dance appreciated as a dynamic political force that embraces the body’s movement and its stillness, as well as the contributions of the philosophical, theorizing mind. now, what Lepecki says about dance being an art form that is predominantly about movement makes a lot of sense. i wonder, though, about his suggestion that movement is, as he puts it, “the kinetic project of modernity” (my emphasis 3). another way to look at it would be to think of modernity as being about people coming to terms with the fact that everything is always already in motion as well as the fact that the earth isn’t some still point at the centre of the universe, the way many Europeans apparently thought it was before Copernicus. dance, making use of both movement (and relative stillness), may be the art form that can help us the most as we come to terms with the fact that movement and change are the only constants, the only things that don’t change.

Mark Franko is another theorist who is interested in dance’s political contributions. for Franko, dance need not be the traditional, choreographic product of a student who mimics a teacher; it can also be the incorporation or becoming-embodied of the gift of dance. he makes this claim in “Given Moment: Dance and the Event,”a meditation about how dance, post 9/11, can help us come to term with events, especially traumatic events. Franko foregrounds the teaching methods of a Balinese dancer and teacher named Mario who transmits dance moves with his own body by “position[ing] himself behind his pupil whose arms and torso he manipulates into positions” (119). as one pupil puts it, the person being taught is like a tree whose branches are being arranged. Since the dance moves are not being “transmitted across a mediating space of observation and interpretation” (120), Franko characterizes this kind of teaching as a gift. this teaching is the giving of “self-force”; it is “the communication of dance as gift” (120).

The Young Lungs Dance Exchange Research Series has foregrounded the gift of dance and genuine spontaneity, too, particularly in the form of improvisation and collaboration. during her show, Treasure Waddell used improvisation to include the audience in the collaboration. the Research Series was itself an extensive network of collaboration. in fact, i wonder if the degree of collaboration during this Young Lungs Research Series might even address a criticism that some theorists make about gift economies. some theorists suggest gift-giving necessarily creates debt. if you give, there is the expectation that the person you give to will give something back, which is the debt part. in the Young Lungs Series, the creator of one show was a dancer in another and a dancer was also an administrator and on and on! so, in a situation with this degree of collaboration, where people are giving and getting all the time, finding someone who could be experiencing a lack of a reciprocity that could be called debt might actually be quite difficult! there is no doubt in my mind-body district that there were masters of dance involved in the processes of these past months, but the degree of reciprocity among the participants has made hierarchy virtually indiscernible.

collaboration may be another way to think about anarchy. if we (and our body parts) are always taking turns leading the way, are there still people whom we might characterize, in total, as leaders?

theorists of anarchy are frequently theorists of utopia, as well. and, like the word anarchy, the word utopia uses negation to make meaning. whereas anarchy means “no leader,” utopia means “no place.” put another way, the word utopia suggests that there is, in actuality, no fabulously wonderful place, no place in which we all might want to be and become together. but maybe, if we were to practice the kind of presentist democracy that Lorey recommends and if we were to have a revolving leadership such as the one demonstrated in this Research Series, we could have anarchy in both senses—in the dual sense of direct democracy and in the sense that there is no one person who is “the leader”—and maybe we could have utopia, too, here, in this place where we live. which would mean we’d need to coin a new word, a word for utopia achieved. how about the Cree word “ōmatowihk,” which means “in this place”? we could say—here’s a sample sentence—the Young Lungs style of dancing and dance-making is “ōmatowihk,” or the state-formerly-known-as-utopia achieved “in this place.”

oh, and i think i’ve learned a way to get my body to let me take a dance class! maybe i need to stop disciplining my mind quite so much; maybe this way my body can handle a little more discipline!

Co-founder Natasha Torres-Garner introduces a. charlie peters.

Works Cited and Referenced

Franko, Mark. “Given Movement: Dance and the Event.” Of the Presence of the Body: Essays on Dance and Performance Theory. Ed. André Lepecki. Middeltown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2004. Print.

Lepecki, André. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement. New York: Rutledge, 2006. University of Winnipeg eBook. 21 Nov. 2014.

Lorey, Isabell. “The 2011 Occupy Movements: Ranciére and the Crisis of Democracy.” Trans. Aileen

Derieg. Theory Culture and Society 31.7/8 (2014): 43-65. SAGE. Web. 22 December 2015, Rose, Nikolas. Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Smith, Mick. “Primitivism: Anarchy, Politics, and the State of Nature.” Against Ecological Soveriegnty: Ethics, Biopolitics, and Saving the Natural World.