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How to Be Bodies in the Twenty-First Century


At Public Books, environmental humanities scholar Heather Houser reviews three recent books that contemplate the relationship between dance and political resistance: Valuing Dance: Commodities and Gifts in Motion by Susan Leigh Foster, How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World by Ann Cooper Albright, and Making Dances that Matter: Resources for Community Creativity by Anna Halprin with Rachel Kaplan. As Houser writes in her review, dance highlights notions of vulnerability, embodiment, and resilience that are key to surviving and fighting in our embattled twenty-first century. Here’s an excerpt:

“It’s astounding the first time you realize that a stranger has a body—the realization that he has a body makes him a stranger,” James Baldwin wrote in If Beale Street Could Talk. “It means that you have a body, too.” There are so many ways to feel like a stranger, and be made into a stranger, based on the body’s particularities. Yet being and using a body can also be grounds for commonality. Recent books by Susan Leigh Foster, Ann Cooper Albright, and Anna Halprin emphasize a deeply physical understanding of resistance while highlighting dance as essential to its repertoire. Rather than positioning us on the frontlines of a police barricade or in the halls of Congress, these books put us among our neighbors, seeking movement in common.

“Resist!” The one-word slogan has galvanized a range of anti-Trump forces. When we think of the arts of resistance, we think of music as well as of elements of visual culture like graffiti, posters, murals, patches, and buttons. They evoke flashpoints of creativity during the 1960s and 1970s; for instance, the South African anti-apartheid movement, the British punk rebellion, and the anti-war and civil rights movements of the United States. Never dormant, cultural forms of resistance have ignited in the US once again, with the election of President Donald Trump. “Resist!” The word evokes movement—and movement repelled.

Foster, Albright, and Halprin take up the paradox of embodiment that Baldwin articulated. This paradox—the body is “both unique and common to us all,” in Halprin’s phrase—inspires these studies of movement in dark times. Their authors examine how the vocabularies of calamity and even violence might be turned on their head, with all the embodied action that metaphor suggests—how to turn a knockdown into a body roll, a jab into a jam, imperilment into improvisation.

Image via Public Books.