The Reason I Write About Dance
Sabine Sörgel, author of Contemporary African Dance Theatre: Phenomenology, Whiteness, and the Gaze, reflects on the importance of writing about dance, and her own motivations for doing so.
Why is it important to write about dance? Writing about dance is a tremendous and daunting task, as we try to capture some of that numinous experience of time and space and movement as a matter of words on a page. This is difficult, more difficult as we summon dances of the past, dances of another culture, dances imagined and reimagined before our own eyes. The reason I write about dance is the experience it helps me make on behalf of myself and the others dancing. I sit there, quietly in the theatre auditorium, and watch a story told to me in movement and rhythm. The dance does not expect anything from me, but meditative contemplation. Breathing in, breathing out. I rest in silence and let the movement act upon me. Kinaesthetic empathy is a neurophysiological response given without taking anything much. It’s the affect that causes sensation in me, the wish to remain silent, moved or unmoved.
Move me, please, is what I will say though. I want to be moved by dance and what I will give in return is a promise to move as well. A chain reaction of change. The action I take away from dance is that I often want to know more about it. Although I often feel that I don’t know anything about dance, or never enough, there is all to experience about dance, all the time, for that same reason. Such is the mysterious sharing of moving bodies, which create a radical openness, breathing together in time. Sometimes, holding our breath.
In light of recent political events, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the urgent demands to address climate change, there’s suddenly a global realization that we all need and depend so much on the same air to survive and lean on each other through each and every day, every breath at a time. Our ability to breathe together is heightened by the notion of time-share on this planet, and the fact that our individual lives are uniquely present in each moment. Dance moves me, because of this awareness of our common aliveness together.
Writing about the dances I encountered as part of the research for my book Contemporary African Dance Theatre: Phenomenology, Whiteness, and the Gaze, I was challenged to put a unifying name to these dances of diverse and multiple origins, and tap into the long and brutal history of writing and discourses on dance situated in the narratives of empire and colonialism. From this perspective dance is not simply breath made visible, although it is that as well, but it carries the burden of histories of violence and colonialist crime under the white gaze.
I wanted to focus and emphasise the experiential impact of dance by pointing out the way dance makes me feel and relate to these histories through a heightened encounter and questioning of my own lived complicity with whiteness – a process George Yancy so pointedly identified as “un-suturing” in his philosophical work on anti-racism and the politics of race and the gaze.
Western theatre has a long history of institutionalizing whiteness visually in the same way our contemporary media often do. Yet these dances, I write about, push me a necessary step further to address the silent violence of embodied whiteness, a habitus white people are all too often complicit about, even as we proclaim loudly that black lives matter and feel so sincere in our expressed solidarity and protest.
When I watched Edward Colston’s statue thrown of its pedestal and over the railing into the waters in Bristol, only a few weeks ago, I knew that the time had come to be silent no more and that writing about dance had taught me that much already years before. I hope that readers of my book will engage with these dances in similar ways and seek them out in live theatre venues, once again, as it is my sincere hope that all crises may ultimately point to transformational systemic change for the good of us all.
Sabine Sörgel was Senior Lecturer in Dance and Theatre at University of Surrey, UK, from 2013 until 2019 and she now works as an independent scholar, writer, and dramaturg. Her previous publications include Dancing Postcolonialism: The National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (2007) and Dance and The Body in Western Theatre: 1948 to the Present (2015). Contemporary African Dance Theatre: Phenomenology, Whiteness, and the Gaze is available now.