Article by: Sarah Agban
Photograph by: Lojine Mohamed; in “The Performing Body” course
This article is part of the “Ya Leil Ya Eyein” issue
A sensation is often understood by what it is not: a sensation is not an organized or intentional response to something. And that is why sensation matters: you are left with an impression that is not clear or distinct. A sensation is often felt by the skin. The word sensational relates both to the faculty of sensation and to the arousal of strong curiosity, interest, or excitement. If a sensation is how a body is in contact with a world, then something becomes sensational when contact becomes even more intense. Perhaps then to feel is to feel this even more (Ahmed, 2017).
A touch contains infinite possibilities for the body experiencing it. The unpredictability and spontaneity of touch creates a situation where its effect is felt after the fact – it is a deferral of feeling. Where touch is an unintentional and spontaneous contact between two bodies, and where it is an intentional and deliberate act, the body has no way of predicting the effect of that touch before it’s happening. In other words, the body experiences an immediate, physical and visceral reaction to being touched.
This physical, somatic experience is circumstantial, contextual, and automatic. It is usually cognized in hindsight. A simple tap can activate personal and political histories stored in the body that a person may not have access to on a direct or conscious level. In light of the current pandemic, a simple touch or physical proximity have been re-coded as dangerous attacks on bodily health and integrity. Our current moment is one where touching, after ritualistic disinfection, has become an anxious affair. Although it is important to note that only a privileged minority can afford strict distancing precautions, this new arrangement of navigating the world has, as Salma Abdel Salam notes, significantly changed the choreographies of the everyday. It has made us more attuned to our consumption of physical space and, within dance communities, forced us to rethink the ontology of dance itself1.
Many of us are coerced, if not forced, to censor and sanitize the way we present ourselves in public spaces. This is especially true in collective settings where security threats are more critical. To that end, there is an urgent need for spaces where we can explore our embodied subjectivities with considerably less restraint.
The physics and intimacy of a touch — be it one’s own body, another’s body, or an object — always entails a transmission. This transmission is constituted by an imprint left on the surface touching and on that being touched. In the context of dance and performance, as in everyday life, a touch contains the potential of being anything from threatening, reassuring, energizing, encouraging, daunting, comforting, or banal. In a most rudimentary and literal sense, touching is contingent on materiality.
A physical act, touch invokes the materiality of bodies. As dancers, we develop a relationship with our bodies as instruments. Most dance training will emphasize the importance of being present in the body, but the body in this context is invoked as apolitical and acultural entity; the dancer’s body is habitually and mindlessly fragmented and denied personhood. Trainers will usually refer to intention, alertness and concentration when they talk about a dancer’s “presence”, and yet, we are always present in our bodies — sexed, classed, and raced — when we dance. We are constantly present and moving with/in our gender and class, with/in our ethnicity and sexuality, with/in temporality, subjectivity and personal histories. In most classroom and workshop settings, we train falsely and forcibly outside of personhood and socio-political context, assuming a pseudo-presence in our bodies as bare instruments.
Paradoxically, dance then results in a fragmented bodily experience wherein its practice is understood as purely physical, overlooking the social and political dimensions of the body that enables dance itself. Not only are these political materialities disregarded, they’re viewed as impediments to a more liberated, unobstructed, and allegedly, universal experience of “being human”.
Discourses on “transcending” gender, sex, sexuality, race and class have permeated
performance scenes in Cairo. As yoga, fitness, somatic practices, and dance continue to bleed into one another, concepts pertaining to bodies circulate in ways that are decontexualized and stripped off of the particularities that tie them to a specific practice. The more unmoored these concepts are from their specific meanings, the more they turn into trendy sound bites that carry potential to negate and suppress political-corporeal experiences.
The blatant, arrogant and misguided dismissal of the elephant in the room, that is our socio-political dwellings, our marked bodies, signals a deep detachment and carelessness in our communities. In many of the art and performance settings a language is used that suggests that being human can somehow be experienced outside of sociality and subjectivity. These discourses that take place within privileged circles, removed from the immediate consequences and precariousness of occupying a marked body, often claim a mode of existence that is energetic, spiritual, and acorporeal, as the “real” and “ultimate” form of human experience. To that end, practice revolves around training the body to access these disembodied, transcendental, energetic states.
With the gendered, sexed, and racial intricacies of the body posited as obstructive and contrived, there is increasing pressure to liberate the human experience from the “shackles” of its social and political existence. Looking at the social and political dimensions of the body through this lens fails to recognize how embodied cultural subjectivities can be fluid and creative sites from which to construct and experience being human. We can – and do – know the world through the body in its social, political, “invariably public”2 state(s), as opposed to despite or outside of it.This is an especially damaging position to hold, particularly in relation to when a person is resisting normalized bodily practices, in which case, discounting the radical potential of their performativity becomes a violent act of erasure.
Personally, I have experienced being in an affective state that is most closely described as “trance-like,” or moving between worlds, through dance and other somatic practices. But, although this affective state is elusive and difficult to describe, it does not take place in a political vacuum. The cultural connotations of the body are not suspended or erased when a person enters that state.
Navigating social or political topics is difficult in many countries in the region, where the body is an object of heightened surveillance and policing. Many of us are coerced, if not forced, to censor and sanitize the way we present ourselves in public spaces. This is especially true in collective settings where security threats are more critical. To that end, there is an urgent need for spaces where we can explore our embodied subjectivities with considerably less restraint. It is our responsibility as dancers and artists in the region to work creatively around these restrictions and hold space for each other as people who occupy precarious and oppressed subjectivities.
Dance can and does offer a space for us to connect with our bodies in their physical, material, social and political totality. We can tune into our experiences with gender, we can dance with, interpret and redefine the spaces we occupy. Every bend and stretch in the body contains the potential to make cracks in the rigid cultural constructs we operate under and reveal their inherent fluidity. As movement takes place in time and succession it highlights that every bodily performance, while rooted in structure and history, is also constantly in the making. The inherent physicality of dance and touch highlights the material reality and precariousness of social and political subjectivities. When we are touched and when we move our bodies, we are reminded that the body is always already a site of political struggle and resistance.