Surviving at The Crossroads: production and performance of a dancer’s body

Issue #05: Body Social. Body Political.

From stage to living room, art to everyday as a dancer moves, his/her being finds meaning only at the intersections where the social body, the political body and the cultural body meet to produce a body of now.

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First stamp your right foot counting one; then stamp on the left with the second count. count three as you stamp the right again followed by four on the left. Then repeat the routine and keep repeating until you get it correct.

This is the first dance step I learnt some twentyfive years ago. Ever since then I have repeated it innumerable times, recalled it on several occasions while practicing, performing or teaching. Every time I repeat the step, I recall the experience of learning it as well. Remembrance of the step has always been accompanied by the memory of the ‘process of its learning’; the process and the step has become one. The overpowering enigma of this process which takes the virtuosic name of ‘training’ is a must to produce a dancer. If such has been the overpowering forces of my training in shaping my dancer’s identity, then can I ever come out of it? Is there any need to come out of it?

To become a dancer it takes rigorous and regular practice of movements; a repetitive doing of several routines prescribed by the teacher or the choreographer in the course of a training. Training imbibes within a dancer definite skills, i.e. certain specific knowledge and abilities, which aids his/her dancing capabilities. Moreover by the virtue of possessing these skills can h/she differentiate himself/herself from another dancer. The fact that Gene Kelly excelled as a tap dancer not only attests to his skills in producing sounds and rhythm with his boots but it also distinguishes him from the russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who possessed a different set of skills. Evidently then ‘skill’ associates itself with the notion of capacity as well as identity. Greater the skill, stronger are the dancer’s abilities, closer one gets towards the (dance) form and after a point h/she inhabits the form; subsequently earning the identity of a performer of ‘that’ particular form. Undoubtedly a good training is imperative as much as the skill is integral. But training also contains ‘regulatory’ aspects besides the productive facets which makes it problematic in various ways. This has been discussed by several dance scholars who have adopted Michel Foucault’s formulations on docile bodies and training, articulated in his ground breaking work Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison.

From stage to living room, art to everyday as a dancer moves, his/her being finds meaning only at the intersections where the social body, the political body and the cultural body meet to produce a body of now.

As S M Gardner remarks what often gets obscured is ‘the role of training in both producing and limiting what the dancer and thus, indirectly, the choreographer can do and be.”(Gardner 2011, 152) She notes that, “It is important to recognize that there is a close historical parallel between the phenomenon of training as part of what Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish (1977), calls the disciplinary regimes of modernity and the development of classical ballet.” (Gardner 2011, 152) Taking cues from Foucault she indicates how the juridical aspects of training which aims in producing ideal dancing bodies, able of performing certain skills is built through simultaneous elimination of certain other skills. Allsopp and Lepecki emphasises upon the ways a dancer subjugates herself to the given commands to become the ideal body in a choreographic process. His/her movements along with when and how h/she is permitted to move within the choreography become questions of geo-political and bio-political concerns. (Allsop and Lepecki, 2008, 1-3)

When a body is layered with multiple disciplining, like that of a dancer, it yields intriguing consequences. The socio-cultural forces (family tradition/community rituals/class position/ racial affiliations etc) act upon the dancer’s body shaping his/ her behavioral patterns and gestures. Gender identity that is but a performative accomplishment (See butler 1988) is also enforced and engendered through those socio-cultural forces. Dance training adds on another layer of disciplining, harnessing the body to produce means to other ends. Interestingly each disciplining doesn’t just overlap but is in a constant tussle with the other which only heightens the continuous switching in between roles. For example the femininity that is expected of me is conditioned by my social positioning as a woman. ‘Indianhood’ arising from other affiliations further fabricates this role, adding on elements (such as traditionalism, timidity, spirituality among others) which are associated with the notion of a typical Indian woman. My dance training on the other hand calls for a complete unleashing of the ‘containment’ that characterises this typical Indian womanhood, thus perhaps jeopardising my entire being. The display of my body during a performance with its expressions and movements, i.e. the particular skill I have learned from my dance training, opposes the limitations imposed by the feminine role playing the society otherwise calls forth. In such performance situations my disciplined dancing woman’s body offers resistance to my other woman’s body produced through other socio- political disciplining.

If all disciplinary regimes are geared towards pedagogically and biologically producing useful bodies able of performing tasks, then the docile (dancer’s) body develops certain counter tasks that challenge the disciplining; ironically the seeds of this counter-play is sown within the disciplinary regimes themselves. One particular training surface the weaknesses of the other and in doing so gives meaning to itself, identifies itself. The violence of subjection initiated by a particular disciplining is retaliated by the volition to subjugate oneself to the other. Coming out of a training thus becomes a conscious distancing, not a disavowal. This distancing helps develop a critical eye towards one’s own training(s) and in turn creates awareness of the forces that are at work in the production of the different bodies. It facilitates continuous travelling of the disciplined body (ies) across different regimes and thus of the multiple selves emerging thereof. It makes problematic any act of naming, keeping alive the performative aspect of our everyday life (see Goffman, 1959). From stage to living room, art to everyday as a dancer moves, his/her being finds meaning only at the intersections where the social body, the political body and the cultural body meet to produce a body of now.

Read More:
Allsopp Ric and Andre Lepecki‘Editorial on choreography’, Performance Research, Vol 13, No 1, pp. 1-4, 2008.
Butler Judith‘Performative Acts and Gender constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist theory’, Theatre Journal, Vol 40, No 4, Dec 1988, pp. 519-53.
Foucault Michel Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison, Knopf Doubleday Publishing group, 2012.
Gardner S M ‘From training to artisanal practice: rethinking choreographic relationships in modern dance’, Theatre Dance and Performance Training, Vol 2, Issue 2, pp 151-165, 2011.
Goffman Erving The presentation of self in everyday life, Double day anchor books, 1959.
Huxley Michael and Noel Witts The 20th century Performance Studies Reader, 2nd Edition, routledge, 1996.