Comments, In Focus

The rebellion of dance

“At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the cause. I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause, which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedoms from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it”


Punk Food Bandita / Milk the Cow Podcast*


Here in a passage of her autobiography which has since been heavily paraphrased, Emma Goldman describes how her desire to dance at a social was deemed to be frivolous and counter revolutionary by her supposed comrades. Not one to be pushed around or shy from confrontation, she infamously declared she wasn’t interested in a revolution that did not allow dancing, recognising that there is a primal part of our soul that is compelled to stamp and twirl and sway. I hope anyone who has ever been asked not to dance because it is undignified shares her outrage. I have danced since I could stand. To me, it is a form of chaos magic, with which I can channel intentions and energies, express emotions there are not yet words for, see visions and drive out negative forces. It is also a powerful form of communication which has been used to express everything from love to war.

Dancing is something we all do, whether we are aware of it or not. Babies and small children automatically move to beats and music without ever being told how. Even those among us who claim not to dance will find their fingers and toes defiantly tapping in time to a song that has woven its way into their head. But throughout history dance has caused outrage and moral panic, from twerking to Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet choreography to Stravinsky’s the Rite of Spring which caused a near riot when it premiered in 1913 because of its bold, non-conforming music and “scandalous” dancers.

Because while dancing is an integral part of human nature, so too has it always been treated with suspicion by authority. Church and state have tried to forbid and restrict our need to dance for centuries and continue to still with alarming frequency.

Fundamental political and religious leaders deem it a threat to morality, and insult to God or a tasteless frivolity which needs to be extinguished. The 1780 Sunday Observance Act saw this legislated, making it illegal to provide any paid for entertainment on the Lords Day, lest we offend Him with tea dances or mosh pits. Given the year of its inception this may seem unsurprising and something you might put down to witch panic and religious hysteria, which is now an obsolete relic that we had forgotten was there and left to gather dust on law shelves long ago. But this particular section of the act was still in place right until 2003, and getting rid of it was not without opposition. 43 MP’s voted to keep it, some stating it would encourage our young to engage in social activity which would affect their productivity at work at the start of the working week. One of those determined to retain it was our then shadow education secretary- Theresa May.

As if we need further reminders that legislation restricting our freedom to dance is our present and not just our history, let’s look back to the amendments of the Criminal Justice Bill in 1994, brought in to criminalise the rave scene as well as the vibrant and growing direct action protest movement at the time. Part of the bill tried to restrict rave music, defined as ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. Because dancing not only makes us feel powerful and free, it also brings us together with others we may not have associated with otherwise on a mutual common ground. What could be more potent than that, or more dangerous to leaders? Well, looking at past and present examples, it seems that dance was considered particularly contemptuous when it is conjured from the feet of women and young people.

Last year, a young Iranian woman named Maedeh Hojabri, an 18 year old gymnast, posted videos of her dancing in her own bedroom on YouTube.

Iran prohibits dancing in public or appearing without a headscarf.

Her arrest and subsequent detention led other Iranian women to protest by posting pictures and videos of themselves dancing and going out to remove their headscarves in public. I’ve seen a few of Maedeh’s videos. Her style of dancing is similar to what I’m learning, which I do on a Sunday as it happens. She’s hugely talented and there is absolutely nothing outrageous in her movements, though it should be no one else’s business even if there were was. Hojabri has now been released on bail with a ban on ever dancing online again but it is likely she would still be in jail now if it hadn’t been for the outpouring of anger that her imprisonment attracted. Iran wasn’t always this way. Dance was taught in schools there once, before the Islamic revolution in 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhdollah Khomeini stated that music was a drug and something he wanted to eliminate entirely. But music isn’t quite forbidden there, or dancing specifically. However, indecent acts in public is an offence, and what is considered to be indecent is left to their increasingly oppressive and corrupt interpretation.

Afghanistan too is a dangerous place to dance these days. In 2012, the Taliban beheaded 17 people for attending a party on the basis that there was music and dancing. This region was home to Attan, composed of rhythmic drum beats, revolving in circles and spins which gets faster and faster, sometimes lasting two or three hours. The place where Rumi was born, inspiring the whirling dervishes where men and women participated in sacred dances for hundreds of years. Let that sink in. The attitude these regimes have to music and dancing is significantly more draconian than it was 2000 years ago.

It would be easy and hugely misleading however, to say this sort of oppression springs from certain sects of Islam, and a problem that is far away from us in the west.

Mike Huckabee, a former pastor, republican presidential candidate and governor with the usual blend of misogyny and homophobia made leaflets as a teenager expressing that dancing was immoral. While normally we can be fairly forgiving of things said when we are young, he has admitted he still feels the same.

The recent video of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez dancing on a rooftop when she was in high school provoked jeers of disgust from republicans that I would have preferred they had demonstrated when told that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a fellow student when he was still in high school. In some Christian colleges in the United States attending a dance is classed as a misdemeanour, a throwback to a puritan past, which again didn’t ban it outright, but did not allow men and women to touch or drink alcohol while dancing, so afraid they were that it could lead to ‘sin and sloth’.

But why? What is it that these authorities are so threatened by? Well, dancing is an act of joy but also an act of defiance. Look at footage of the Gilet Jaunes movement sweeping across France, dancing of the fork lift truck used to smash down the gates of a government ministry in Paris. Tribes across the world have danced before their enemy before battle. In 2013 an anti-capitalist group organised flash mobs in banks all across Andalusia in response to high unemployment and austerity as a result of the banking crisis.

The use of flamenco was not just for dramatics. Its history is steeped in rebellion from its beginnings with the gypsies and poor rural workers to the songs of the republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

Just a few weeks ago, school children in Denver were filmed raucously dancing and singing in the corridors to Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’ in solidarity with their teachers on strike. We bond with complete strangers when we dance. It is an act of dissent in itself, as anyone who has ever been to a rave can tell you. A brain full of ecstasy is also a contributing factor to this of course, but it isn’t actually required to obtain that connection, it merely lowers our inhibitions to help it along.

Then there’s sex. Because autonomy over our own bodies has always been something they have felt the need to concern themselves with. In places where some form or legal or moral prohibition on dancing has been imposed, the citation is usually that dancing is indecent.

For if we are allowed to express ourselves this way without regulation, there’s the risk we take ownership of our bodies and realise we are not their commodities. So we are told it is a sin, leading to depravity, witchcraft and the devil. Not to say that dancing cannot be sensual or even overtly sexual. Of course it can. But we’re not talking the lambada here. Note that the waltz was condemned as it got couples too close.

The Charleston in the 20’s caused a scandal as it allowed a woman to break from a male partner and dance freely on her own. No matter how we are dancing, or who with, history has condemned women as either witches or whores, or both for it. By making dancing a moral outrage, it ostracises those who continue to practice it from the community. The witch trials across America and Europe also did this.

While people from a wide range of backgrounds were accused, the majority were people already on the margins of society for whatever reason, but you were significantly more likely to be accused it you were a woman, if you were poor, very young, very old, or for the slightest deviation of conformity like refusing to bear children.

Dancing reminds us we are wild children who do not belong to regimes, which is why someone, somewhere, will always try to supress it. It is such a primal part of our nature that people will risk life and liberty in order to play and practice it. With it, you can tell stories, declare love, lament heartbreak and grief, and channel anger even with those you do not share a language.

It could be your only joy or weapon. Your only way to hold on to your identity. Dance can be the fine line between revelry and riot and a powerful form of protest that is almost impossible to quell.

* Article published by Milk the Cow Podcast.


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