Borders, residencies and the migratory bodies of dance

Borders, residencies and the migratory bodies of dance

These are some remarks from a panel at the European Dancehouse Network Atelier, “Who am I? An exploration of how artistic identity is maintained in a nomadic life”. The two day event was held at the DanceHouse Dublin, 11-12 December and featured performances and discussions. For most contemporary dancers, sustaining their practice involves continual mobility punctuated perhaps by residencies of weeks, months, or in some very rare cases, years.

The panel for which I prepared these remarks came at the close of the meeting and I was responding to the discussions over the previous two days and to a specific request that I consider the idea of borders, crossing-borders, in-between spaces, and the notion of residency in this migratory context.

“After yesterday’s panel that focused upon identity and the migratory dance body, Mary Brady has suggested that we use today to think a little more about the notion of borders and residencies. Clearly, this is central to the European Dancehouse Network Project but it also raises borader issues about those power geometries that Karen Till referred to yesterday. (1)

Borders Make Bodies Visible

These power geometries mean that borders make bodies visible. The body must be presented at the border – indeed in France the Muslim face must be unveiled for intrusive and humiliating inspection. (2). Borders also mark the beginning of the spaces in which our body may be out of place, a foreign body carrying a range of derogatory insinuations. Geographers talk about territoriality as the form of control that is exercised through space. (3)

People are controlled by making spaces and associating restrictions with those spaces and their borders. Under apartheid, for example, people of colour were excluded from a right of residence in certain districts within cities and many were nominally assigned to reservations, or homelands. (4) Similarly in some of the southern states within the USA there were so-called sundown towns where at sundown by curfew black people were prohibited from certain streets, neighbourhoods or even all public spaces. (5)

Of course these examples of borders and visibility rely upon racial making but there are other markings, as with the yellow stars that Jewish people had to wear in 15th century Venice. (6) They were also subject to curfew and had to return to the getto by nightfall. In Ireland, this making of bodies was part of the way English colonialism tried to prevent the assimilation of the Anglo-Irish with the Celts. For example, by The Statutes of Kilkenny of 1367, the English were prohibited from wearing their hair in the local style, or dressing in the local style. (7) The bodies of the English were also disciplined in a particular way with the English farmers required to practice archery, and the wealthier English required to equip themselves with sword and horse. The English, then, would comport themselves differently.

Dance has its part in this history. Irish dance was suppressed and although, as with other aspects of Irish culture it survived in peripatetic form these dance forms were infused with continental European forms, by way fo the English country house. The dancing masters of the eighteen century, then, were a hybrid and evidence of precisely the sort of cultural promiscuity the penal laws were intended to prevent. (8) Of course, with the project of de-Anglicism Ireland from the late nineteenth century, this hybridity was attacked from the other side, as evidence of a failing of Irish cultural energy and distinctiveness. (9) Yet, in a colonial act of mimicry the Irish aimed at the very respectability the English presented as a mark of English superiority over the Irish. (10)

Roots and Routes

This experience of being out-of-place and of being the object of special attention once one has crossed a border, may well, as Philip Connaughton, remarked yesterday, encourage one to reflect upon previously taken-for-granted aspects of behaviour or identity.

However, lest we imagine that the identity is fixed and that crossing borders merely reveals it, I think we should entertain the possibility that in crossing a border we bear the mark of our trail, that is, in Paul Gilroy’s terms, we have routes and not just roots (11). One might be an Irish resident from England, which is not the same as being English or indeed Irish. Again, dance is a relevant context to think about these things. As Sibéal Davitt and Kristyn Fontanella showed us yesterday, in their performance of “As We Know It”, rhythm and gestures are infectious and various dance forms can make space to flatter with imitation and incorporation.

The dance forms that were policed into shape as competition dancing went on their travels and their centre of gravity is now probably among the Irish-Americans of the United States and Canada. (12) Again, these are people for whom roots and routes are important. The dance form had to accommodate the aspirations of the parents of these children and thus the paraphernalia of the child beauty queen, with its elaborate costumes and ringlet hair reshaped the dance form (13) as also did the infectious rhythm of African-American tap in a hybrid context of mutual learning. (14) Competition dance is a diasporic form and alerts us to the cultural accretion and renegotiation that is part of crossing borders with bodies and of having bodies that make corporeal our routes.

The World is Already Here

Finally, we might think about borders and residencies. The European project enjoins a certain sort of mobility but this might also serve to hypostasise national identities and then mix these thin versions together as a rather weak alphabet soup. (15)

Thinking about residence might sensitise us to this a little more. As Fearghus Ó Conchúir said yesterday, the body that travels needs care. Dancehouses must try to tend to the full set of emotional and corporeal needs of the body out of place, must host the migratory body. However, dance culture must also acknowledge the diversity of cultures among the other residents of the dance cities.

It might be a useful part of such residents to reach out to these other dance cultures and while I know that Dancehouse Ireland does indeed serve the needs of diverse dance communities, I wonder if those dance communities are part of the residency experience of the contemporary dance-artist. The reason for raising this question about diversity and residency is that we must avoid living as a tourist who only encounters the world through travel. (16) Instead, we must understand that the world is already here, as co-residents and extensive responsibilities for distant strangers. (17)

If we can explore that local engagement with the global we might cultivate a confident cosmopolitanism that can engage with the wider world as an Irish citizen of the world. A particular kaleidoscople of intermingling traditions gives this cosmopolitanism its local colour, and one that without chauvinism we might take as a sort of ironic nationalism. It might be that this, rather, than a thin version of Euro-dance, better suits our local and distant obligations and ever our creative opportunities.

Gerry Kearns
18 December 2015, published in Geographical Turn.

(1) The notion of power geometry is set out in Doreen Massey, “A global sense of place“, Marxism Today (June 1991) 24-29.

(2) Joan Wallach Scott, “France’s ban on the Islamic veil has little to do with female emancipation“, Guardian (26 August 2010).

(3) Robert D. Sack, “Human Territoriality: A Theory“, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 73:1 (1983) 55-74.

(4) Jenny Robinson, “The Geopolitics of South African Cities: States, Citizens, Territory”, African Studies Seminar Paper 295 (University of Witwatersrand, July 1991).

(5) James Louwen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism; website accessed 12 December 2015.

(6) Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilisation (New York: Norton, 1994), ch. 7: Fear of Touching: The Jewish Ghetto in Renaissance Venice.

(7) A Statute of the Fortieth Year of King Edward III., enacted in a parliament held in Kilkenny, A. D. 1367, before Lionel Duke of Clarence, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

(8) “Irish County Dance Collections, 1790s“, Irish Traditional Music Archive (2009).

(9) Helen Brennan, “Reinventing Tradition: The Boundaries of Irish Dance“, History Ireland 2:2 (Summer 1994).

(10) On mimicry, see: Homi Bhabha, “Of mimicry and man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse,” in idem, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994) 121-131- For a discussion of an Irish writer who identified this problem at the time, see: David Lloyd, Nationalism and Minor Literature: James Clarence Mangan and the Emergence of Irish Cultural Nationalism (Berkeley CA: California University Press, 1987).

(11) Chris Lebron, “Between Roots and Routes: On Paul Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantinc” – draft for Oxford Handbook for Contemporary Classics in Political Theory”, (n.d.) available at:

(12) Gisele O’ Connell, “Performing the Nation-State: Political Geographies of Irish Step Dance“, Geographical Turn (15 December 2015).

(13) For a critical response to this, see: Cahir O’ Doherty, “Why Irish dancing has lost its way and needs to change, ” Irish Central (25 September 2015).

(14) Ron, “Tap-Dancing vs. Irish Dancing,” U. S. Slave (14 December 2011). The hybrid forms of Irish-American and African-American culture are the focus of Larry Kirwan‘s musical, Hard Times, about Stephen Foster and his time in the Five Points of New York.

(15) On the labour mobility policies of the European Union, see: Sara Riso, Johan Ernest Olivier Secher, and Tine Andersen, Labour Mobility in the EU: Recent Trends and Policies (Dublin: European Monitoring Centre on Change, 2014).

(16) Zygmunt Bauman, “Tourists and Vagabonds. Heroes and Victims of Postmodernity,” Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna, Political Science Series No. 30 (Vienna: Institut für Höhere Studien, 1996).

(17) Stuart Corbridge, “Marxism, Modernities, and Moralities: Development Praxis and the Claims of Distant Strangers”, Environment and Planning D. Society and Space 11:4 (1993) 449-472.