Features EssaysPerformance Published 17 June 2015

SWAGGA: Dance, Dissent, Diversity

Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small of Project O talk about SWAGGA, a dance performed by fat activists Dr Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt, the presence of bodies in public and social spaces, the role of dance and dissent and the politics of visibility.
Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small

Jamila: I have never seen ‘myself’ anywhere else but in the mirror, and I wouldn’t want to. This lack of visibility has taught me about my own self, has given me my own self, maybe at times in a mortifyingly self-conscious way – being eleven in a school of 1000 kids and 10 of them black and my twisted hair giving me the name Medusa (or, thinking about it, maybe it was actually my look of disdain) but call that a training in self-awareness. I can’t imagine what it might feel like to be drowning in a sea of similarities.

And yet the realisation that my experiences are not general, that my body carries a history and meaning not related to what I think of as ‘me’ is a painful realisation of difference. At the same time this realisation, the impersonal way that my marked skin sets me apart from the ‘normative’ and pushes me into the ‘marginalised’ category, also becomes a recognition of solidarity with all the humans who wake up, look around, speak and are not heard, are recognised as only their Otherness and not really seen. In this space, we become brothers and sisters in a family made by imperialism. We become one. This is such a fucking odd experience.

Alexandrina: I want to see people who look like me.  I wish that I had given a barbie or a doll who had my features instead of the same features as the white counterparts but with skin spray-painted brown. There was something creepily amiss about my black barbie with glossy straight hair rather than a barbie with my softsometimesdry kinks. At such an early age, I was being suggested to – over and over – that my hair would need an inordinate amount of taming and maintaining. Once I moved from Kenya to London, media – that glorious mirror for societies twisted ideals, which seeps into the subconscious – was also suggesting that I was not the person they were speaking to.

Skip forward twentysomething years to being a freelance dance artist and (re)presentations of female mixed race experiences within my field are complex and gargantuan failures.

The issue of race still seems startlingly absent from mainstream dance discourses and women of colour are under-represented. As a quick-dip demonstration, there are no women of colour of African origin in the either the current Sadler’s Wells associate artists or The Place workplace artists. This is startlingly in your face and everyday and obvious and slippery that even though I knew this, I had to re-notice it to bring this feeling of bewilderment to my surface. Please let me have got my facts wrong. Am I wrong?

I often wonder, what form conversations about race and diversity take in frequently disproportionately white spaces – programming meetings, marketing meetings, dance classes, fundraiser events, patron gatherings. What is the approach, the tones of voice even?

Jamila: Our ‘issues’ which are only everyone’s issues – living in a hateful racist and misogynist society and trying to figure out how to deal with that – being present in the work rather than being the elephant sat front row, seem to move us out of more conventional dance spaces.

One of the most hideously awkward emotional experiences relating to my experiences of alienation due to race in a contemporary dance space was watching Siobhan Davies and David Hinton’s All These Things Can Happen at Dance Umbrella in 2012. An extract from my review:

“I don’t know if it was all along or all of a sudden but I felt horribly aware of the silvered heads of the people sat around me, the almost entirely Caucasian audience – what the hell was I doing there? I felt excluded and I did not know if that was because I was excluding myself, not wanting to participate or because I was an imposter, am an imposter in a world, a scene, that is not my own. The potential duplicity of my position began to undo me in the most exhausted and exhausting way; I am black and I am English. I desperately don’t want to talk about this here. It begins to feel like using my racial heritage as something that grants me distance, allowing me to be in a position of judgment whilst at the same time using my nationality to allow me to discuss something without the supposed objectivity of the outsider. My position fractures further and, in watching, in considering, I feel myself falling apart.”

Alexandrina: It is hard to feel that if mine and other brown bodies weren’t in a space, the issues our bodies seem to bring wouldn’t be spoken about. It is hard to be told – as we have been once – that we have bought the ‘race question’ to a festival. The race question is everybody’s question. It is ludicrous – as well as isolating and accusatory – to think that only brown people “bring it”, and that in this bringing – and subsequent responsibility to speak for a whole issue – our subjectivities are erased.

So there is something important about meeting these tide of absences with the question, How can the many narratives, concerns, humour, experience, humanity of being a particular type of brown body be made visible? Answering this is relentless, unending and at times exhausting. But so is our lack of visibility so I carry on.

Jamila: For these reasons visibility is important. For these reasons, visibility is a quest of solidarity. I do think it is important to put my butt naked body in front of people, as mad arrogant as that sounds. Because visibility is not about representation, it is about being seen, really seen – subjective and not the object – disrupting the space where assumptions and stereotypes usually fill in the gaps and join the dots to make the picture of what is supposedly You. I think the corporeality of the body can disrupt this, I think taboos surrounding bodies (marginalised or othered bodies in particular) can be tools for subversion, places where it becomes possible to catch the audience without an already decided response – to actually meet. And then maybe we can get on with the actual stuff of the work.


Project O began with us asking ourselves how we could make visible our experiences as marginalised bodies and how we might share these narratives to a mostly white middle class contemporary dance audience and be seen, heard and felt in human solidarity.

We started working with Kay Hyatt and Charlotte Cooper after they had seen our debut dance duet O. Charlotte felt moved to write a blogpost expressing fears about the validity of her and other fat bodies in a dance context and we, upon reading this, felt moved to invite her and Kay into the studio with us to work on continuing to explore bodies whose visibility and agency has been marginalised.

SWAGGA is the first time we have worked with bodies that are not our own. We were in the position of introducing Kay and Charlotte to contemporary dance practices, conventions and spaces as well as working with them and their dancing to create a choreographic score and we were wary of the choreographer-performer dynamic and power relations that if uninterrogated can result in a dance work by performers with little agency. We have spent the time trying to choreograph a space for consent, for dissent, for the visibility of the multiple subjectivities housed in all of our bodies.

Jamila: This question of, or conversation about, agency has been central to our process and our practice in general. Agency is a constant work for those not in power – for me, for us – and we use choreographic space to encourage this work, practicing increased awareness, making choices inline with subjective desire and a sense of the present. The work is a place/space for claiming this agency.

Alexandrina: What cultural and social spaces (the stage, the television, the magazine, the novel, the zine, the blog, the museum, the bar)  can our bodies occupy and which of those spaces do we have any agency over? This issue around space is an issue for all bodies othered in one way or another by an imperialist capitalist white supremacist western patriarchy.

Our bodies are relentlessly choreographed into spaces without our consent, but with our continual complicitly (toilets marked with wheelchairs, upwards pointing triangles, downwards pointing triangles, images of be-skirted ladies in hats and long dresses). ‘We’ become invisible and when we say ‘we’, we can actually insert any person who is trying to live an empowered life away from all the normalising that a faceless presence imposes on us. Women’s threat levels on super high as we cross to the other side of the pavement, take the last tube home or try asking for a pay rise. (Alex: As ever, I only speak from what I know and I am sure everyone can insert their own feeling of being choreographed out of a space.)

It is hard not to become emotional, and this should not discount our actions, this should not allow for erasure. Our anger should not mean that you can avert your eyes. Nor should our simultaneous joy. Or our desire to be pleasant, to be liked and to fuck you up at the same time.

SWAGGA by Project O is on at The Yard Theatre between 16th and 20th June. For more information please visit The Yard. 



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