In 2008, Mary Brooke Oberwetter was arrested for dancing at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial (you know, that guy who insisted on freedom of speech). She was arrested on the grounds that she was “creating [her] own center of attention and distracting from the atmosphere of solemn commemoration.” She sued the park police and lost. (U.S. Court of Appeals ruling May 17, 2011)
On May 28, 2011, Iraq war veteran Adam Kokesh, Medea Benjamin, Tighe Barry and others were violently arrested for protesting that ruling by dancing at the Memorial. The inevitable videos taken at that event immediately went viral through Facebook and Twitter. This Saturday, June 4 at noon EST dancers will again gather to protest the new status of dance in America as a dangerous expression of freedom. It will be a global dance of protest.
When I taught Dance in World Cultures at a nearby university, I always included a section called “Dance as Enemy of the State.” Most people think of dance as an apolitical form of social and personal entertainment, unaware of the many cases in which dancing has been and is considered a dangerous activity; when dancing is an act of bravery. Since I am not able to make any of the protests scheduled for tomorrow, I figured I could at least write a blog on the subject. I’d like to introduce you to a few compelling examples of the treatment of dance and dancers under repressive government forces: first, Cambodian court dancers under dictator Pol Pot, second, the swing dancers under Hitler’s Third Reich, and finally, the Native American Ghost dances during America’s violent westward expansion.
Cambodian Court Dancers
According to Cambodian legends, the dancers of the royal courts were originally apsara (celestial or heavenly dancers), whose coupling with the kings brought fertility to the land. The court dancers continued to be earthly embodiment of the apsaras and their presence in the courts maintained the courts’ links to the divine. Their dances were prayers or offerings meant to bring peace and vitality to the country. The dancers of the royal courts embodied and represented Cambodian cultural identity, its ancient divine heritage, and its ongoing presence in the world.
The Cambodian court dancers (all female until the 1950s) lived and trained at the palace, and were in fact not allowed outside the palace walls. In 1975, Pol Pot, the leader of the fanatical communist party, Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodia), seized control of the country. The very existence of the dancers threatened Pol Pot’s plans for the country: to remake Cambodia from scratch, to return it to a period of peasantry and agriculture. Anyone or anything that represented the period of the monarchy was destroyed. That included hundreds of court dancers and musicians, along with their costumes and instruments. Those who could, fled the city and concealed their identities. If caught or identified, they were executed. Instead of creating beautiful dances with their hands, they worked in the fields and washed dishes in detention camps. They remembered the dances in their minds or by secretly repeating the hand gestures in the dark.
In 1979, communist Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge and established The People’s Republic of Kampuchea. They supported the restoration of the dances as a way of establishing their political legitimacy in the eyes of Cambodians. In 1991, Prince Sihanouk returned from exile and in 1993 was elected king. His support has helped revive the dance. The nation’s artists began to reassemble and rebuild their culture. Schools were formed by surviving artists in Cambodia and by refugees in America. But their population had been decimated: they believe that up to 90% of the nations professional artists died under the Khmer Rouge.
Swing Kids: Dance in Nazi Germany
Hitler had aspirations for Germany similar to Pol Pot’s: to establish a nation of pure Germans. In addition to his extermination policies, Hitler attempted to recruit and control the younger generation and the body politic of an Aryan culture. The Nazis determined that the only acceptable dances were those which served their nationalist-socialist agenda. Rural folk dances represented a traditional, pure, wholesome Germany and were therefore acceptable. Nazi festivals presented masses of people moving in a common rhythm, emphasizing national unity over individual expression.
The Aryan gatekeepers determined that American swing music and dance was decadent. Swing symbolized American degeneracy, the creation of Africans and Jews. It encouraged interracial engagements, improper gender behavior, and sexual freedom in defiance of Hitler’s national purpose: the racial purity of Aryans. It inspired spontaneous, loose, syncopated body movements that violated Nazi’s rigid demands of social order, discipline, paramilitary drill of the Hitler Youth. Its very rhythms opposed totalitarianism: the syncopated rhythms of jazz contrast sharply with the well-ordered, structured movements of marching drills. Swing dance expressed youthful individuality, not national unity.
But Germany’s Swing Kids were NOT engaging in deliberate anti-Nazi or anti-war activity. They were counter-cultural only in their desire to express their individuality in the face of enforced conformity—not unlike what most Western young people do. Many Swing Kids were not even fully aware of the seriousness of their actions until they were arrested by the SS as political dissidents and sent to concentration camps, where a number of them died or were executed for their crime of dancing.
The Native American Ghost Dance
The Ghost Dance began to appear in the late 1880s when tribal life had been pretty well destroyed and many tribal peoples had been forced onto reservations. The buffalo, so central to Plains Indian material and spiritual life, were nearly gone. On the reservations, native religions, languages, and ceremonies were discouraged; they were made dependent on the government for food and clothing which was never supplied. In 1886 in the area now called Nevada, a Paiute Indian leader named Wovoka received a prophecy and directions for a ceremony during a vision quest. Wovoka prophesized a time when the buffalo would return, all their ancestors would return, the Europeans would be swallowed up, and peace would again prevail. The Ghost Dance spread from Nevada north to Canada, east to Nebraska, and south into parts of Texas. It bound together disparate tribes in common cause.
The Ghost Dance ended abruptly in 1890 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The American government, fearful of what they interpreted as a form of organized resistance, sent out the American cavalry to attack a gathering of dancers. They massacred the entire encampment. After that, all large gatherings of Native Americans were banned until the 1930s.
These are just three examples of the dangers of dancing in the wrong place at the wrong time. I haven’t even mentioned more recent and still on-going repression of dance throughout the Middle East and China. We, as Americans, once would have been aghast at reports of people being arrested “just for dancing.”
Dancing can be more than artistic expression or spiritual practice; it can also be a powerful political act. So powerful, in fact, that authorities often fear it even in the absence of explicit political speech. Let’s hope that the planned dance/demonstrations on Saturday strike some fear in the hearts of the new security state.