DANCING AT THE BORDER
“Nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”
— Gloria E. Anzaldúa
In 2018 I traveled to Tijuana Mexico as member of The New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) Caravan, a project led by an immigrants rights organization based in New York City. Volunteers worked as a accompanists, food preparers, and offered various services for people applying for asylum in the United States at the border. We were a group of social workers, students, artists, activists, mothers, sons, fathers and daughters that would travel every other day by foot from San Diego to Mexico and then back again later that evening. The journey began at the parking lot of a large strip mall complex in San Diego. We would then walk through a highly militarized border crossing and enter into Mexico to join NSC at their hub. I was stunned by the feeling of fear as I crossed back and forth each time between the countries. It was a fear unlike any other I had experienced. As an activist and community organizer in New York City, I have had multiple experiences with civil disobedience, but due to my identity and positionally have never felt physically threatened by militarized force the way I felt while crossing the Mexico/United States border. It felt like I could disappear here and there wouldn’t be much accountability.
The walking path between the two countries is completely fenced in the entire way and at some parts there's a fence above as well. I kept thinking to myself, they — either government — could detain me and I would have very little control over the experience. My reaction took me by surprise because I came into this experience thinking my acts of civil disobedience and time spent in detention for it made me extraordinarily prepared. I was not.
DANCING IN THE DARK
Fast forward to April 2018, I am back in graduate school and attending a special workshop on the somatic arts. My fellow social work students and I are instructed to take off our shoes — if comfortable — and sit in a circle in the center of the room. We the go around the circle and introduce ourselves, give a little background on our social work practice and then share any experience we have had with movement and dance. The practitioners then introduced themselves and the topic of the workshop, borders. My mind races back to when I would walk across the Mexico/United States border. How incredible it was that a wall and militarized walking path on a small little piece of land could bring division to the extent that the two countries divided have completely different landscapes. I then thought to myself how heart breaking it is that people are experiencing the fear I felt but amplified by continued disenfranchisement, violence and poverty.
Our lead practitioner then shares with us that she is an anthropologist, somatic practitioner and has been leading workshops like the one we are about to embark on, with people living at the border. After hearing that I wondered how healing this workshop must be for them, completely missing the idea that perhaps it may also be healing for me.
After our introductions we were lead through a 40 minute somatic exploration that included dancing to different kinds of music and concluding with dancing in the dark. We achieved the final exercise by breaking up into pairs where one person had the role of witness and the other of dancer. The witness’s job was to be the eyes for the dancer and make sure they stay in safe proximity to their surroundings. The dancer’s task was to close their eyes and explore movement without eye sight. Each participant had the chance to be witness and dancer. After the activity we then discussed with our partner, our experience and then collectively returned to the center of the room and shared any last reflections.
When in dialogue with my partner, I shared that how noticed that I was performing a recurring move, to which they also took notice. In the moment of sharing that I suddenly remembered the move was reminiscent of how I danced as a young child. When very young I would put my palms together in front of me and move like a fish swimming in the ocean, a behavior and dance move which is documented in a family karaoke video from the 1980s. My partner echoed this reflection and added how she felt being my witness was a playful experience for her.
When we returned to the large group and shared reflections, I mentioned how free I felt dancing in a space with moving borders. There was a feeling of liberation and inclusivity when division of land — private property, domination, exclusive ownership— was not what constituted a border. The borders in our classroom during the exercise were relational — they were not fixed — which enabled a deeper sense of community and solidarity. Our borders that were always moving and changing based upon the need and desire of the dancers and their witnesses, exposed the ability of humans to share power and control. The borders were alive. They didn’t signal death or disappearance. They were not decided by a single entity or authority. They were decided by a community who saw itself in that moment as beings in relation to everything other being. It was a experiential practice of shared power.
I then felt something bubble up from inside and I shared with the group how I wished society was set up this way, and at the same time — even with the sadness and through the struggle of wanting to alter how our world is designed — I was able to experience boundless hope and elation. We were able to create this environment in forty minutes. A world with moving borders is possible.
Embedded in this dance workshop was perhaps a lesson in how we can alter our systems to better survive climate change and other violent/turbulent systems that cause migration, but perhaps the more poignant point is how I came to my conclusion. My new found understanding was not born out of some outside force of information dissemination, instead it came from within. I experienced it. From a community organizing perspective, this type of self and community guided exploration was a powerful tool that held space for the working class and its agency for collective liberation.
COLLECTIVE SELF-DETERMINATION, THE BODY & RADICAL ENGAGEMENT
In order to piece together how this dance movement workshop made such an impact let us unpack and define a few terms and concepts.
Collective self-determination, defined by Gramsci and further explained by Thomas (2013), is the ability for all people to build, self-organize and engage in acts of self-liberation while removing barriers and oppressive systems which impede upon mutual aid practices. In other words, collective self-determination is the idea that people have the ability and agency to self-organize, self-define and collectively build a more just world without hurting others. This ideology directly challenges neoliberal, colonial, and imperial ideology that some groups must suffer for others to thrive. This idea directly challenges our borders as being just and necessary.
Martin (2014) notes that children learn about their environment and develop their sense of self through their bodies. Their physical bodies are the instruments of this learning. Martin (2014) continues to mention how full integration of body parts affects how children respond, behave, move, and feel about their environment. As an adult learner, I often forget how my body can be an instrument of learning. I forget about how the body is in constant relation to static and moving beings and objects, and that it is constantly responding to changes in environment.
Finally, radical engagement requires us to act and respond to our environments in a strategic ever evolving manner. This is an important concept for community organizers whose targets are constantly moving and evolving. We must constantly ask ourselves how can we develop leaders in our communities? How can we engage them in acts of liberation? How do we find openings to building power? How do we educate from a liberatory framework instead of a “banking education system,” as coined by Freire (1970)?
I started this paper with a quote by Gloria Anzaldúa, “nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.” Perhaps we can add to that, nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in community.
The dance workshop I attended had the three elements mentioned above. First, our classroom practiced collective self-determination we all organized a space where each person felt free to move as they chose. Second, I learned how I felt about boundaries through my body. It is as if I discovered it for myself, instead of being conditioned into me. It should be of no surprise that I am still an active participant in many open border movements, and my mind still goes back go that workshop. Finally, we radically engaged with each other in discussion, exploration, and then further discussion. We accepted the confines of the physical space and then chose to reimagine what a moving border in practice can be.
I arrive at the top of the subway platform on 125th street. Before I pass through the turn styles I take my weekly metro card out of my wallet. My eyes search — sometimes the search takes a millisecond, sometimes a few seconds— for a person looking for a swipe so they can ride the train to their chosen destination. I ask politely if they would like to be swiped in and if greeted with a “yes” answer, I then do so. I have begun to notice more of a significant police presence in the subway in the mornings during these exchanges that I and numerous New Yorkers participate in. The swiping people in is completely legal and a first line of defense against a growing militarized force. The “border problem” isn’t just between Mexico and the United States. The militarized border is right here on 125th St and Lexington. It’s time to accompany each other and yes, may we each dance.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy Of The Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.
Martin, M. (2014). Moving on the spectrum: Dance/movement therapy as a potential early intervention tool for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41(5), 545-553.
Thomas, P. (2013). Hegemony, passive revolution and the modern Prince. Thesis Eleven, 117(1), 20-39.