#metoo Herstory in Dance: On Activism, Solidarity and Precision

BY ILSE GHEKIERE

In the wake of #metoo, several dance communities took actions to address the issue of sexual harassment. Even though it is now more apparent than ever that sexual harassment is present in all corners of the world and in all industries, it remains crucial to address these problems on a microscale and in environments that are closest to us. In that sense, it’s undeniable that the #metoo movement meant not only an acceleration of tackling issues of harassment on a global level, but that it also affected change in several professional communities, the dance community being one of them.

This #metoo-related activism should be seen as an exciting moment in the herstory[1] of dance; a moment of solidarity and action among womxn[2] dancers and allies addressing the direct experiences of the underlying patriarchal mechanisms present in our field. Talking to several international colleagues who have been active in the discussion gave me the opportunity to think about this movement not only by way of reflecting on my own experiences, but through those of other dance communities. From this perspective, #metoo in dance has to be seen as an international herstory – one that is specific to each community, but resembles and intertwines with others in various ways.

My own journey in relation to the #metoo movement started in the spring of 2017 when I received a grant from the Flemish government to research sexism in the Belgian dance field. In the fall of that same year, I was asked to write an article and share my findings from interviews with 30 womxn colleagues. But then, #metoo happened. The article, at that point being close to its final version, had to be rewritten entirely.

Why? What had changed? The mainstreaming of #metoo did many things, but first and foremost, it showed us a new online call-out strategy, rippling down from celebrity culture to the masses. The magnitude of the movement was crucial to break through a culture of silence, but in no time, a heated and messy social media debate took over looking for predators rather than listening to the issues of oppression at large. While some womxn would simply use the hashtag to show solidarity, some saw the movement as an opportunity to post their personal stories on social media, while also pointing at individuals in a context where no legal protection was guaranteed. These womxn might have recognized some kind of Harvey Weinstein in their lives, but seemed to overlook that Facebook was not The New York Times and that they didn’t have the status of a Hollywood actress. I am not writing this as a judgment, but as an observation.

By the time the news spread that the hashtag was appropriated from the African American civil rights activist Tarana Burke[3], I felt already deeply divided by the course this movement was taking. With that in mind, I was not sure how my research findings would flow with the movement, without being swallowed by it. The rewriting of the article became about finding a balance between calling out the problem (in a way that would catch attention), while also showing the roots of sexism (so that a focused collective conversation could take place).

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When my article, #Wetoo: What Dancers Talk About When They Talk About Sexism[4] was finally published, it received an amount of attention none of us had expected and immediately became part of a larger (and not very precise) #metoo debate in Belgium. Shortly after, Belgian based dancers launched a secret Facebook group called #wetoo #makemovement, an idea supported and inspired by a group of dancers who were already members of similar groups in Sweden, Norway and Iceland. During International Women’s Week in March 2018, a public reading of the gathered testimonies was organized at Kaaitheater, and a website with a statement and ‘tools for action’ was launched under the name Engagement Arts[5]. The idea was to broaden the conversation towards all art disciplines, while also pressuring different players in the field (i.e. artists, employers, institutions, educators, spectators and perpetrators) to take up responsibility. In a relatively short time, these actions did not only raise awareness about sexism and sexual harassment, they affected the debate of those topics on a political level. Even though this sounds like an all-round positive story, every aspect of it remains in constant negotiation. For instance, what is the role of the dancer after having pushed this movement to the place where it is now? How is it to be an artist and an activist at the same time?

When thinking about how #metoo related movements developed in various dance communities, it’s clear that many of us had little or no experience with activism, and actions were taken from a point of trial and error. It’s been reassuring to discover that I am not alone in having never imagined myself as an activist, let alone in the context of dance. In small art communities where freelance work is the norm, engaging in activism isn’t considered something ‘cool.’

That is to say, high-culture, government-funded art and activism rarely go hand-in-hand. While art is supposed to ‘break the rules,’ activism might be considered as dogmatic and judgemental – especially when linked to criticizing behaviour of powerful individuals and gatekeepers in the scene. No artist wants to be labelled a moralist or, in a #metoo context, falsely judged as sex-negative or prudish. Expressing any strong opinion that goes against the flow of a community always comes down to taking a risk. You might be misunderstood, you might lose job opportunities, you might even feel excluded while actually trying to find solidarity and inclusion. In the end, it might not be worth it. In addition, the economical context of art makes the notion of solidarity really hard to grasp. Even if artists value community-building and ideas about transforming society, most artists are encouraged (if they want to make a living from their work) to be competitive. Also, in many dance and choreography discourses in the West, critical thinking and theory have become such a strong default posture that taking a stance by actually acting critically might feel counter-intuitive, even suspicious. Besides, who has the time for collective activism when one needs to be constantly focused on developing individual artistic practices while applying for grants and also juggling a freelance-lifestyle?

In contrast to this reluctance towards activism, #metoo was about daring to take a stance – not only as an individual but as a community. The fact that some womxn in the international dance scenes had the guts to set up secret Facebook groups and online platforms to discuss sexual harassment in their respective communities is impressive on its own. Furthermore, it is not only important to acknowledge these actions, but also to value the work taken on and carried by dozens of volunteering freelance-artists[6]; a work consisting not only of hours of communication and logistics, but of offering emotional support to peers without having trained in professional ways to do so. One of the administrators of the Norwegian Facebook group described it as “the discovery of a complete lack of social structures within the field.” This a strong statement considering the fact that several of the protesting communities operate in countries known for their strong social structures – especially in institutions.

Many #metoo testimonies in dance revealed malfunction in already long-existing procedures inside institutions such as schools, theatres and companies. But even if #metoo activism often succeeded in pressuring these institutions to reassess their procedures, we should not forget that many professional experiences fall outside of these categories. Which makes me wonder: Are social structures built and upheld by institutions alone or is there also a responsibility to be shared by the community?

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It’s interesting to notice how the measurable outcomes of the secret #metoo Facebook groups differ drastically depending on which country they were launched in. The Swedish Facebook group (with #tystdansa or ‘silent dance’) appeared to be the most engaged, with its approximately 2000 members and 100 testimonies, while Norway (with #nårdansenstopper or ‘when the dance stops’) followed with 900 members and about 60 testimonies. Both groups saw an instant collective participation in often heated conversation, enabling the movements to efficiently make use of the #metoo momentum. In less than a couple weeks, after statements were communicated to the press, both pages were taken down. When asked why this decision was made, administrators referred to the confidential content and the level of fury that the discussion had reached, as gradually members of the group would start recognizing some profiles of people being accused of harassment. Even though anonymity is crucial in these online call-out spaces, censuring or controlling these emotionally-loaded debates becomes as problematic because: Who has the right to claim such an authority? The most serious risks (charges of defamation or spreading of rumors) had been thus avoided, while certain cases had begun to be handled by their respective institutions. A sense of purpose had been fulfilled.

In Belgium and Montréal (with Dance Montréal #nousaussimontreal, #wetoomontreal) the groups are still online. Montréal initially followed the activism in Belgium because a case of sexual assault had caused controversy in their community and had remained unresolved while institutions supported the person being accused. Information and support were exchanged between both dance communities in attempts to strengthen each other’s actions. Following the Scandinavian example, the two Facebook-groups were introduced as places for sharing experiences. The response however, was low. The Belgian group, with its 700 members, received only 25 testimonies (of which several were archival transcriptions, made of testimonies shared before the #wetoo campaign), while Montréal with its 250 members barely got a handful. After a couple of months, the two pages transformed gradually into information threads.

Whistle While You Work[7] is yet another online-platform that was launched shortly after #metoo. The project was initiated by Frances Chiaverini, an American dancer, and Robyn Doty, an American writer, both living in Frankfurt. Chiaverini has worked in several dance communities, therefore the platform wasn’t targeting any community in particular. When launching the website, she was not aware of the Facebook groups elsewhere (at the moment of writing, however, all three platforms are following and supporting each other’s activities). Even though Chiaverini feels she has put much effort into promoting the initiative, she has received fewer than two dozen contributions – having observed, as well, plenty of reluctance and hesitation in her direct environment.

Of course, it’s unfair to compare these numbers and outcomes as they don’t actually tell us anything about the extent of sexual harassment in their respective dance communities. The only thing it shows us is the willingness or unwillingness to collectively participate in an online discussion about something as delicate as sexual harassment. Maybe this unwillingness is rooted in a culture of silence specifically endemic to dance where speaking up is not encouraged, or maybe this has to do with the reluctance towards activist proposals. Whatever the reasons are, it is hard not to wonder what made it possible for the nordic groups to produce such a large amount of testimonies and make them public. We can speculate about several causes, but the fact that most Scandinavian countries are simply a couple of steps ahead when it comes to gender equality might have played a crucial role in the willingness to engage in a womxn-led movement.

Having been invited to the Norwegian group, I definitely noticed both a sense of consensus and solidarity among womxn – an atmosphere I recognized from having worked a lot in Sweden. This was interesting to observe because when I started interviewing colleagues prior to #metoo, one of my biggest surprises was that certain situations or ideas were not even considered ‘problems’– let alone ‘structural problems’– even when they were directly affecting the person I was talking to. Because the Belgian dance field is vast and counts many nationalities, it’s hard to find common ground for talking about gender. Furthermore, because Belgian contemporary dance is rooted in a reactionary movement against ballet and its feminine traits, talking about sexism might not only be considered ‘conservative,’ you may be also accused of ‘creating problems where there are none.’ I remember one dancer telling me about a conversation with a choreographer about her pregnancy. The choreographer had said he couldn’t work with her anymore, because “mothers were not interesting artistically.” What to me was (and is) a bluntly sexist statement, was to my colleague nothing more than the result of a professional inconvenience – one that made sense to her.

I am not pointing out this conversation because I believe we should work towards an absolute agreement on how we evaluate uncomfortable and inconvenient situations. Still, there is something to be said about what is experienced as ‘normal’ (especially when the situation involves a person with more power and authority), and how it is legitimized, even by the ones who are disadvantaged by it. Artistic preferences, artistic oeuvre, artistic methods, artistic freedom… all these artistic ‘whatevers’ function as perfect excuses for basically any type of behaviour, harassment and abuse included. If a person doesn’t find at least some collegial support for their disagreement with a sexist norm, especially from older and more established colleagues, then that person is much less likely to speak up about their experiences.

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If sexual harassment is linked to public secrecy and a culture of silencing, we still have a long way to go before everyone recognizes how these interactions contribute to a bigger picture of oppression. Solidarity and a level of common understanding are necessary to create spaces where people dare to speak with each other about recurring issues in their communities. For in spite of the belief that certain behaviors will disappear over time, engagement and action are crucial in any attempt to unravel toxic mentalities.

So, what is next? Even when certain goals have been reached, all conversations on the topic end with question marks. How do we proceed when the momentum starts to fade, when we might not have the energy to write yet another pressuring letter to our institutions, when we start to doubt if all this actually matters? How do we stay focused when we see that whoever might have been scared when #metoo burst in to the dance community continue their careers as if nothing had happened? Where do we draw the line when it comes to responsibility and accountability?

I know that I am writing these questions as if we are all in the same boat. As if we have all agreed that sexual harassment, sexism, and abuse of power are real things. Unfortunately, that is not the case. So much of the upcoming work will still be dedicated to addressing the voices that try to undermine these discussions. From that perspective, massive education on the topic is still needed – not only to shield our views against the disbelievers, but also to become more persistent and precise about our actions and the transformations we want to see in our respective dance communities.

Precision might be one of the biggest challenges to sustaining the credibility in the #metoo movement. Today, in certain countries and contexts, it might be easier than before to speak up about harassment and see individuals (mostly men) being held accountable. But the question remains: Where do these acts towards accountability, which is often really just a euphemism for ‘punishment,’ lead us in the long run? More power games? Even if I understand that certain #metoo cases need to remain entirely anonymous and be dealt with discreetly, it’s often frustrating not knowing what the accusations are about. I sometimes wonder if this is yet another form of silencing: the silencing of a public conversation. It makes sense that certain situations and interactions are hard to pin down, but when I’ve had the chance to listen to experiences of harassment and abuse, the patterns of behavior are so repetitive that I find it surprising so many of us keep on holding on to the belief that it’s ‘so complex.’ Enacting precision and naming specifics clearly can be a personal relief, granting those in need the empowerment and wisdom that they deserve inside of repetitive patterns or cycles of abuse. It is a powerful gesture to share with others and with those who’ve crossed the line.

And this brings us back to persistence. As mentioned above: Communities are different, and several strategies might need to be tried out before reaching a place of common support. Get inspired by other dance communities and the tools and strategies they have created. Inform yourself and consider the ways in which you can contribute to this movement. For instance, many actions, such as letters, testimonies, statements and articles, involve writing. If you are a dancer with a skilled pen, I would encourage you to write for your community and contribute to the shaping of new histories, herstories and theirstories[8] in dance. But don’t exhaust yourself; being part of a movement should be enriching, even fun. Protest does not always have to be loud and numerous in order for it to matter. We can contribute and support in many ways: Listen to a colleague, read a book on the topic, spread the conversation within your network in the scene. When you work with other colleagues, you can think of organizing gatherings, forums, workshops and events, or anything that keeps the conversation going. Whatever you do, now is not the moment to stop. We have worked on making ripples, but now, we need to make waves.

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This essay was commissioned by the second edition of CHOREOGRAPHY and was first published in October 2018. CHOREOGRAPHY consists of newly written texts by artists active in the field of dance and choreography in the Nordic countries with an editorial team, Ann-Christin Kongsness, Solveig Styve Holte and Venke Sortland, based in Oslo. For more info, visit www.choreography.no.

Ilse Ghekiere dances, researches and writes. She studied dance at the Conservatory of Antwerp and has a MA in art history from The Free University of Brussels. As a dancer she has worked with, among others, Michèle Anne De Mey, Mette Ingvartsen, Jan Martens, Pavle Heidler and Stina Nyberg. In 2016, she reoriented her practice to focus on the relationship between literature, body politics and gender history, and the position of the artist as activist. She lives and works in Oslo and Brussels.

Read Ilse’s interview on Stance on Dance here!

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[1] Wikipedia defines herstory as follows: A history written from a feminist perspective, emphasizing the role of women, or told from a woman’s point of view. The principal aim of herstory is to bring women out of obscurity from the historical record.

[2] Urban Dictionary defines womxn as follows: A spelling of “women” that is a more inclusive, progressive term that not only sheds light on the prejudice, discrimination, and institutional barriers womxn have faced, but to also show that womxn are not the extension of men (as hinted by the classic Bible story of Adam and Eve) but their own free and separate entities. More intersectional than womyn because it includes trans-women and women of color.

[3] Tarana Burke is the original founder of the #metoo-movement. In 2006, Burke began using the phrase “Me Too” to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault in society.

[4] https://www.rektoverso.be/artikel/wetoo-what-dancers-talk-about-when-they-talk-about-sexism

[5] http://engagementarts.be

[6] Many of the artists in this article decided to remain anonymous not only because of the collective nature of the #metoo movement but also to protect themselves against unfair professional repercussion.

[7] You find the project Whistle While You Work on http://www.nobody100.com/.

[8] In this context, the invented word theirstory could be defined as an attempt to write history from a perspective beyond gender binaries.

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