The Act of Making; Dance as Aesthetic Activism
Sherry B. Shapiro
The world around us reminds us that this is tumultuous time – from Cairo to Syria, from
Greece to the Ukraine – we see a global crisis. These global struggles put before us the
questions of how human beings live together in community. And in this regard, nothing
could be more important than the arts - that is the way that we, human beings, give
meaning to our lives and represent the moral purpose of societies.
James MacDonald, a man who cared deeply about the direction of education,
asked two specific and related questions that I encountered in my doctoral studies; “What
does it mean to be human?” and “How shall we live together in the world?” These
questions take us beyond arts education in the narrow sense, recognizing the moral and
political connections that accompany any act of education. It is an act of transcendence
reminding us that education, any education, must engage the life-world of our students in
all of their different narratives that are shaped by ethnicity, harnessed by social class and
textured by culture. To know ourselves is to understand the way our thoughts, ideas, and
desires are always bound up with the way of being that comes from the lives that emerge
out of both our local situations and the matrix of global influences.
With all of this in mind I must say I have come to feel, like bell hooks (the social
critic), that any education worth its name must illicit the passion, the intellectual
curiosity, the moral conviction and the spiritual sensitivity of students. We are
embodied beings through which we express and feel all that there is to experience as
human beings – pain, love, community, connection, passion and justice. (Pause)
We, who think more of education, must always assert that education can be a
process to bring about more thoughtful, sensitive, knowledgeable and integrated human
beings. There can be little doubt that the arts have a primary responsibility for nurturing
and developing human beings sensitivity, imagination and moral concerns necessary for
such a process.
Dance in particular, helps us connect to our embodied selves. For all cultures,
embodied expression has been a central means by which people come to know
themselves, celebrate their sense of connection and community, and express their deepest
hopes, fears and dreams. But in a more direct sense, I ask what does dance have to do
with the struggles, demands, and complexities of our everyday lives?
I have spent the last twenty years of my professional career trying to address these
questions as a dance educator. The answers have shaped all my work in dance as a
teacher, as a choreographer, as a scholar and as a researcher.
The study of dance has in part included understanding that cultural traditions have
been passed down through dance. We have learned to read dance as a text and come to
value how this reading can provide insights into a specific, and often “-Other” culture’s
values, attitudes and beliefs. Whether looking at issues of gender, patriarchy, sexual
orientation, relationships, or other representations of human identity, dance has provided
us with an important avenue for making sense of, and understanding, the global culture.
Understanding the power of dance to document this kind of historical, geographic and
specific information about culture must lead us to think carefully about the erasure,
homogenization, or commodification of such forms of knowledge through our access
through global media.
Taking care not to diminish the importance of difference, I nonetheless want to
draw attention to how we might understand human existence through our commonalities.
Perhaps it is seeing the fear, suspicion and hate that is so rampant in the world today that
makes me want to search for, and affirm, our common human attributes. It is, I believe,
the commonalities of our bodies that offer ways of valuing those shared biological,
emotional and expressive human characteristics necessary for a more humane world. To
address the importance of a common humanity is to understand that the struggle for
human rights and human liberation are indispensable in a globalized world.
There is a compelling need to see the commonalities of human life as central to
our quest for purpose and meaning. More than anything, I believe, the body, our bodies,
is what grounds our commonalities. It is hard to see how one can make the case for
greater freedom, for greater justice, for the end to violence, for greater human rights,
without an appeal to the notion of a common humanity.
Carved by the social order, designated as a representation of one's culture, the
body has come to be understood as the aesthetic realm where meaning is made, life is
experienced, and truth is understood as partial and relational. Accepting the body as the
aesthetic realm, aesthetics necessarily becomes concerned with issues of power, justice,
and the ethics of relationships.
Here the body is central to all my work- that is the body/subject, the
body/situated, and embodied knowing. Specifically, I am interested in how we come to
know through our bodies; how we come to embody cultural messages whether
oppressive or liberatory; how we become complicit in our own subordination; and how,
critical awareness of our embodied knowledge can be a vehicle for the process of both
self and social change. And, perhaps most importantly it is through our recognition of
the commonality of the human body that embodiedness is our common human fate and
the condition of life itself which we may recognize that what we share, is much more
than what divides us.
Clearly, only a relatively coherent self can consider notions of self or social
transformation. This is the starting point of my project in critical pedagogy; that is, a
philosophy of praxis concerned with emancipation and committed to a process that
connects self-reflection and understanding to a knowledge that makes transformation of
the social conditions we live possible. It begins by making it possible for the silenced
experiences of students to speak in the classroom about their own concerns, desires, and
needs. It remakes the curriculum into dialectic between their particular hermeneutic of
the lived world and the explanatory narrative of a critical theoretical framework. My
own choreographic/pedagogic process reflects these concerns. The example I will share
briefly today is from my recent work as a Fulbright scholar in South Africa.
The project is titled, “Hair South Africa.” This educational approach, I engage,
challenges the dominance of a tradition that has been exclusively focused on rational and
intellectual forms of knowing. This process, which I call a “critical
choreographic\pedagogic project,” is based in my work as a dance educator at a small,
southern, private liberal-arts college for women in the United States. (Pause)
The emergence of the body as a focus for the study of culture, power, and
resistance is demonstrated in the abundant writing on the subject currently in circulation.
What is rarely found in such work is pedagogy where the body/subject as a lived medium
becomes part of the curriculum. It is precisely this concern that is central to my work.
The curriculum is one that explores, through the modality of modern dance, the way in
which student’s voices, and therefore choices, are circumscribed by the culture.
Providing this description is important in order to give some real sense of what a critical
pedagogy of the body might look like.
“WHO do you think you are?”
“Who do you think YOU are?”
“Who do you think you are?”
I saw this question as part of a new BBC series on television while I was staying in Cape
Town and working on my Fulbright project. This, I thought, was one way to explain the
project I had been working on with the dancers over the past 3 months. We in this case,
were some of the University Cape Town dance students and some of the Jikeleza dance
students. All female. Jikeleza is a community dance project serving one of the many
townships in the Western Cape. As part of my Fulbright Research, I wanted to explore
some similar issues that I research in the States; that is the shaping of female identity and
As both a Professor of Dance and Director of a Women’s Studies Program, I have
focused my choreographic work on developing a process that engages the dancer in
thinking about, and learning how, their own gender identity is shaped by the culture in
which they live. Here, in this process, “the body” is turned from something objectified in
dance and in culture, to a body/subject - that is a body that knows something about their
world through their own lived experiences. What I mean by this is that in dance bodies
are often “used” simply as an instrument of the choreographer and not as a body full of
experiences or body memories. And, in South Africa, just as in the United States and in
so many other countries, girls and women are often valued by their physical appearance,
as an object. The focus of the project, to explore the body as a vehicle for self-knowing
and cultural awareness, came together around critical themes such as, questions of
gender, consumerism, and problems of difference in a democratic society. (Pause)
I teach out of the recognition, as Ely Wiesel says
“Every question possesses a power that does not lie in the answer”.
Part of my work, has been to educate women about women’s history, but even
more so, about their own lives; what shapes how they think and feel about themselves as
girls and women; can they imagine themselves as thinking feeling beings not just for
what they appear to others. Can they find their sense of selfhood determining what they
think is “right” and “true” to who they are and dream to be? So I try to help them
experience their own bodies as subjects of their world, not simply objects to be seen or
used. I value their voice, their embodied knowledge.
Bodies, something which has carried so much significance in defining how
women are seen and valued, becomes the site where knowledge can be gained about
cultural identity. The focus of this project was hair (on one’s head). Hair served as the
medium to investigate how female identity, and particularly, African female identity, has
been shaped by the culture and how those perceptions of what is the “right” hair is
changing. All we have to think of is the hours we spend, cutting, curling, straightening,
coloring, shaving, trying to grow, weaving, combing, shampooing, and this tells us that
hair, as a physical sign, plays a significant role in how we think about, feel about, and
present ourselves. Color of hair can determine our race; texture our ethnicity; condition
our social class; and style our gender.
In our time together, the dancers and I laughed at ourselves talking about “our
hair” and we understood each other. We touched each other’s hair, and we learned from
each other. Hair, our hair, is something that labels us, can give us pleasure and strife. It
is something that we struggle with most everyday and it often determines how we feel
about ourselves. “Bad hair” days have become a commonly understood expression
occurring across cultures denoting our mood, our sense of agency and our attractiveness.
Each movement in the dance was created from the reflections written by the
students. Each movement is a memory lived; a narrative of female identity reflecting
South Africa today. While I have chosen the larger issue, in this case, how hair becomes a
signifier for race, class, gender, ideals of beauty, the direction of our discussions came
from the dancers’ stories, from the experiences of their own lives. It is the dancers who
give a narrative concreteness to the abstracted question. The two groups of dancers,
coming from very affluent to low-social economic backgrounds, for the first time worked
together to develop a story of their shared community. I asked them questions over a
three-month period. First, non-challenging questions, such as “How do you experience
your hair?” and later more difficult questions that uncovered the social construct of hair
were asked. Questions included “Where does the “voice in your head” come from that
tells you that your hair looks good or bad, is okay or not? Whose voice is it? Why does it
matter whether or not your hair looks a certain way? Why does it make a difference (if it
does)? How does hair connect to the idea of the “feminine?” What is your idea of beauty
and how does that relate to how beauty is determined on South Africa?
Each week the younger black students came in with new hairdos, extensions,
braids, and colors. While they laughed cautiously as they spoke about the many hours
they sat to have their hair braded, chemically treated for straightening, or how they never
put their head under water while swimming (as I learned this would burn their chemically
treated hair), they came to understand that all of this attention, money and time spent on
hair was not just too look good or cool but rather it was a way of making a statement, or a
way of trying to fitting in, or a way of presenting yourself in some culturally acceptable
way. As one of the young black women talked about how dreadlocks kept her from
getting a job, as her dreadlocks represented people who “smoked ganja weed”. The
dancers with blond hair talked about how they had been discriminated against through the
new Black Economic Empowerment program put in place by the government. They felt
their blonde hair and fair skin kept them from getting jobs. Hair was determined to be an
economic issue. We discussed the image of Beyoncé found on the front cover of a South
African fashion magazine. Some students said she was white, some determined she was
black and others said she was colored; a term used in the Western Cape to identify those
who are not considered white, black or Indian. The confusion was her hair. It was
straight and flowing.
As our time grew together students began to share more openly their own
experiences. Their ideas of who they are, who others are, and how that has been shaped
by their culture, began to shape the dance. I read to them Alice Walker from a talk she
gave called “Oppressed Hair Puts a Ceiling on My Brain” where she talks about the
oppression she felt trying to get her hair to “behave” in a socially acceptable way; and her
liberation when she gave way to “letting it be.” We, the dancers and I, talked about what
it might mean to liberate our hair knowing full well that this was much more than just
changing hair-styles. It meant challenging stereotypical racial images of beauty and
desirability. It meant standing out, speaking up, changing who has power. Students
used their journal writings to retrieve words or phrases that best captured what they
wanted to express. They put these into movements, and I, as the choreographed selected
movements, ordered and created patterns. The dancer who created the phrase taught it to
the other dancers. And as they learned each other’s movements they learned what each
other felt, experienced, and lived in their own life, in their shared culture. They called the
sections by name – Pinky, Mandy, Kate, Tumi, Shimone, Tuli, Robin, Marilyn, Selina,
Seugnét, Catherine, Lindsey, and Jo-Ann.
We ended our work together with an interview where students talked about what
they had learned about themselves, others and their culture. We also ended with a
twenty-three minute dance performance that was performed for the larger community and
this was followed by a discussion with the audience. This extended the dialogue to the
community. Some of the same challenges we faced in the dance studio were again
brought out in the dialogue with the audience; “How could a white person feel
discriminated against in this culture?” “Did the young black women consider shaving
their heads as a way of liberating themselves?” “It has been taboo for white women to
touch the hair of young black women.” This and much more ended my work with the
students. It was a time together that changed who we are. We will never again think
about hair in the same way without some consciousness to all that it carries in cultural
These kinds of pedagogic practices that draw upon the body and aesthetic
processes through dance provide ways of understanding the world and ourselves
intellectually, sensually, mentally, and emotionally are all but non-existent in traditional
educational texts, teacher education programs, classroom practices, or dance studios.
All of this speaks to a vision of aesthetic education that the great philosopher and
social theorist, Herbert Marcuse, referred to as “offering a language of critique and a
language of possibility.” Like nothing else in the education of our children, art offers
ways to transcend a consciousness that fixes our world as if it is something that is
unchangeable. Art allow us to see what is in our world and to imagine what might be.
My hope is that from these kinds of experiences the students who I work with
have learned how to use their own critical lens to educate themselves about who they
are, how they came to be that person, and become responsible to either accept how things
are, or reject oppressive attitudes, labels or laws and act for change. Marianne
Williamson, author and spiritual teacher says,
In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal.
In every heart, there is the power to do it.
It has been my work as an artist to mirror the world we experience, and at times, imagine