MAKING SPACE: BROWNNESS, MOVEMENT PEDAGOGY AND EMBODIED RESEARCH
Labanarium Symposium, 6th January 2017, GSA & University of Surrey
I summarise below the key components from my keynote speech at the symposium dedicated to ‘Thinking in Terms of Movement: Teaching and Researching Movement and Dance in University and Conservatoire Settings’
My presentation entitled ‘Making Space: Brownness, Movement Pedagogy and Embodied Research’ is a call for decolonising movement and dance curriculum at British universities by making space for both the study of practices, philosophies and critical concepts beyond the predominantly pervasive European and US-based canon, and the inclusion and acknowledgement of voices and experiences of people of colour who practice, study, teach or write about dance. My emphasis on brownness in this context stems from the fact, that at the heart of my experience of dancing, teaching, watching and writing about dance is my phenomenological experience of being brown, and being seen as brown. To ignore this is to ignore the experience of living in my skin.
My provocation unfolds in three stages:
- I begin by contemplating the idea of making space as a decolonising action. An action that is not just about generating new and additional space for less valued perspectives, but about rearranging the space already available by displacing some hegemonic perspectives that occupy it, with alternative narratives that have hitherto not been valued or considered vial. This action also and inevitably involves a critique of these hitherto dominant narratives themselves as legacies of colonialism and post-imperialism. If space in dance scholarship and education has historically belonged to the privileged domain of white, European and US scholars and practices, then the making of space to accommodate alternative and parallel histories, experiences, practices and people, requires significant and destabilising shifts in the field. These can at times feel threatening, especially since space in any given context, is finite. Therefore, in order to accommodate alternative narratives, some components of hitherto dominant dance narratives have to be rearranged, reordered, even displaced. Making space is therefore not so much about generating new and more space, but about reorganising the space that is available to accommodate narratives that you may have consciously or subconsciously considered less valuable or important.
- I then go on to exemplify through my teaching practices, how making space may manifest as a form of decolonised movement pedagogy. For example drawing on my own classical Indian dance training in kathak, but not in any way training my students in the form itself, I encourage students to explore relationships between speed and stillness, the geometric alignment of the body, the highly expressive possibilities that characterise the use of hands and feet. I value rigour, discipline and utter commitment to training but without the complete and unquestionable deference to me as their teacher. I share with them the importance of gestural codes of abhinaya as sign-posting for storytelling for the audience, but I allow these gestures to be discovered by the students from their own everyday realities. As my students discover what these principles might mean for their own practice, they create new knowledge in and through them. By introducing principles which challenge them to think differently about movement, while simultaneously making space and opportunities for students to embody new discoveries in their own practice, I believe I am slowly decolonising our predominantly white and Western theatre curriculum, without exoticising kathak in the process.
- And finally, I examine how, through my embodied research, I am committed to making space for brown bodies and South Asian dramaturgies and philosophies within dance studies, which remains predominantly white, European and/or US-centric in scope and focus. This is despite some recent and wonderful interventions from scholars of colour, who have written about artists of colour and non –Western practices. But these voices are still few and far between. This commitment stems from a simple urge: I want to see dance scholarship about more people like myself. I also want to read more dance scholarship about people like myself by people like myself. I want us to speak of our own embodied experiences in and through our scholarship. And perhaps most importantly, I want our embodied realities to be both the source and subject of our scholarship.
I conclude my talk with questions I feel we all collectively need to consider and work through if we want our field to continue to expand and thrive, with equality at its very heart:
- How can we engender the practice of making space, not with tokenism but with sincerity, for alternative narratives, perspectives and people in our journal editorial boards, in our university management structures, in our peer review systems, in our curricula design, in our editorial responsibilities for book anthologies, in our calls for conferences, and most importantly in our classroom pedagogies?
- Are we all interested in, committed to, and appreciate the value of making space? If not, why not? What threatens us about the proposed idea? If yes, what might each of you be willing to forego of what you consider vital in your teaching of dance practices and histories in order to make space for equally important but hitherto not considered narratives?
- What resource implications must be considered to make space in our curriculum and in our scholarship? Closely tied into this, how can we enable our students of colour to identify with more faculty of colour in order to build a critical mass of future generations of scholars and educators of colour in our field?
- If we for a moment consider conference events such as these as not only opportunities to share our individual research but also as events that can organize us collectively into action, then what can today’s symposium do as a way of taking forward the work we have to do, collectively, in order to make space?
- And finally, if as per the mission statement about who can join the Labanarium community, ‘the only requirement for joining is an interest in human movement and an openness to the breadth and diversity of approaches which explore it’, then what would, what could, this community truly look like if this mission statement were to be really, really, actioned with sincerity and resilience.
I thank this symposium for making space for my voice here today and can only hope, that in time, this platform will belong to many, many others like myself, because then and only then we will have collectively endeavoured and succeeded to make space for us in the field.