The Legacy of the Fear of Dance

Naomi M. Jackson, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre at Arizona State University. Her books include: Dance, Human Rights, and Social Justice: Dignity in Motion (co-edited with Toni Shapiro-Phim, Scarecrow Press), Right to Dance: Dancing for Rights(Banff Centre Press), and Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y (Wesleyan University Press). She has spearheaded two international conferences, including one on dance and human rights, and one on dance and Jewishness. Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, she now enjoys the Arizona sun.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a virtual lecture by Dr. Naomi Jackson as part of my course, Jewish and Israeli Dance Histories. Dr. Jackson’s lecture was centered at the intersection of dance, human rights, and social justice. One of the main points that Dr. Jackson made was that “dance is a natural and normal human behavior,” but historically, it has been controlled and banned by religious and political leaders throughout many different cultures. She also posed the question: is dance a human right? 

Dr. Jackson sited examples of how dance has been banned or policed throughout history: 

  • The Catholic Church’s Council of Laodicea in 363AD which barred Catholics from joining in wedding dances, and the Third Council of Toledo in 589AD which denounced dancing in celebrations surrounding Saints’ feast days.
  • The US Colonial Bans in the late 19th century included the Indian Act of 1876 which prohibited dance in the ritual and cultural ceremonies of Native Americans.
  • In 2014, 6 Iranians were arrested for appearing in a video dancing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”

Dr. Jackson used the term “choreophobia” to describe the fear of dance, and it is that fear which has led to these and other numerous bans and censoring of dance throughout history. One that really stuck out to me was the 1926 Cabaret Law in New York City. This law made dancing illegal in any publicly accessible space without a license. Thinking historically, it’s not hard to see that this law was designed to discriminate against black-owned jazz clubs during the time of Prohibition. It’s also not hard to imagine that this law was then continually used to discriminate against other disenfranchised populations like the LGBT community (think Stonewall). 

Another thing I learned was that social dance is not protected by the US Constitution. Theatrical dance, or dance performance, is protected as free speech, as is all music. However, social dancing is considered a conduct. One question Dr. Jackson posed was, “How is social dancing expressive like free speech?” I would answer that social dance is an act of self-expression and an embodiment of self-identification. The kind of movement expressed in social dancing allows one to convey sexuality, cultural identity, and even political ideals. Due to the mostly impromptu, improvised, and experiential nature of social dancing, I would argue that is one of the purest expressions of one’s being and self; something that is worth protecting.

One of my favorite quotes by Dr. Jackson was, “Dance is not good or evil, it depends on how it is deployed.” Dance can be used in a variety of ways:

  •  In performance, dance can be used to tell the stories of people who have experienced oppression.
  • Dance can be used as a form of protest in a fight for social justice.
  •  Dance can also be a form of therapy, as utilized in the practice of Dance and Movement Therapy.

 However, dance can also be deployed in forms of human atrocity:

  • Forced dancing, like when Nazi soldiers made prisoners in Concentration camps dance for their amusement
  • Dance can be used a propaganda 
  • Dance can be used to celebrate war and the massacring of political enemies. 

The intention of dance matters.

In my own work I am exploring how queerness and sexuality are performed in dance. The histories of the policing of bodies through the ban of dance is something that I feel speaks to experience of queer people. From banning trans people from the military, to police raids on gay bars like Stonewall, there is a long history of hate crimes committed by the government and its agencies against the queer community. In my own work I hope to explore how the performance of queerness can act as a form of protest, and in turn, discover how the experience of queer people can be used to tell the story of American social justice. 

The legalities of protecting social dance as a human right is something that resonates with my curiosity around the performance of sexuality in dance. It was the fear of sexual deviance, interracial mingling, and misguided ideas of moral corruptness that led to establishing laws banning dancing. I would argue though, that the freedoms afforded to us in the Constitution protect and allow for our expression of sexuality and right to gather with people of any race, ethnicity, and class. By articulating our sexuality through dance we are signaling deep parts of our personal identity. While sexuality is not the sole identifier of a person’s being, it is something deeply personal and resonates on a primal level in relation to who we are. 

Questions to ponder:

  • Do the rights in the First Amendment protect expression of sexuality? Do any of the amendments?
  • How can performing queerness be an act of protest for social justice?
  • How does the intention behind a dance affect how it is accepted in culture/Culture? 

Menghang Wu, a 1st year PhD student at OSU and member of my cohort, also has a blog post about this lecture. It’s a wonderful summary of Dr. Jackson’s presentation and I encourage you to check it out here.

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