Not dancing around the issue(s)

From July 5 to 8, the Dance Studies Association of the University of Malta will host ‘Contra: Dance and Conflict’ – a conference on conflict and dance. Conference chair Brandon Shaw speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the importance to doing away with the notion that dance is purely an expression of peace and tranquility

Brandon Shaw: “I love how attuned the Maltese are to inclusion and not giving someone your back, and that’s also a choreography”. (Photo: Aldo Cauchi Savona)
Brandon Shaw: “I love how attuned the Maltese are to inclusion and not giving someone your back, and that’s also a choreography”. (Photo: Aldo Cauchi Savona)


“In terms of dance studies as a discipline, I think dance scholars are hyper-skilled in some areas that are crucial in terms of mutual-understanding and conflict resolution. Writing about dance really puts you in someone else’s shoes, and to adequately address a choreography or genre requires an engagement with race, gender, sexuality, and ability just as much as analysis of the movement, so we need that simultaneous wide-angle and narrow-focus lens. Because marginalised peoples – particularly women, racial minorities, and the queer community – have historically been so integral to dance, the dancers have often been in conflict with their societies. So much of choreography is problem-solving: getting people not to run into each other, or at least make that potential collision into an encounter.

“Personally, I’ve always been involved in dance and martial arts, and those two ways of being (training, regarding others, discipline) and really informed each other in my practice, choreography, and research. Some of my research investigates kinaesthetic empathy, a sense that enables you to intuit what someone else is experiencing bodily. Even though this is an ‘empathy’, it shouldn’t be confused with sympathy or compassion. A torturer, a massage therapist, a boxer, and a dance partner are all very attuned to how their actions are affecting you bodily, but that doesn’t mean they care. Empathy is poised on the knife’s tip, and I’m very interested in how we can convert the martial into a productive activity for justice. At the same time, there are times to fight, and fight hard. Here again, dance training can greatly inform martial arts (and vice versa). Many fighters recognise the value of dance, and dancers could recognise the value of martial arts as well.”

Doing away with preconceptions

“The [metaphor of dance-as-peace] can be found in Ancient Greek and Roman texts, where geometrical dances were seen to reflect the divine rotation of the heavens around the earth. This metaphorical understanding of dance mirroring the celestial harmonies continued through the medieval and Renaissance periods. We see it in Shakespeare, but he also likes the competitive and martial aspects of dance. For example, he compares Tybalt’s sword work to dancing, and that wouldn’t have really seemed odd to male audience members, who were expected to be skilled in both.

“With ‘Contra: Dance & Conflict’, I’d like to really dispel some metaphors of dance: ‘dancing around the issue’ and ‘giving it the old song and dance.’ The first plays upon the agility of dance, but the scholars who are coming are quite often also activists and creatives. Immersion in dance studies provides a way of looking at the micro, where so many acts of aggression take place, as well as the macro.

“However visually searing, everyday acts of racism are less frequently the camera-loving, highly visible acts of flag-waving Neo-Nazis. The daily reality, and one in which we all participate if we don’t give closer attention to our ways of moving, is so subtle: for example grabbing your handbag or tensing the shoulders when you encounter a man of colour. Or consider how the failure to acknowledge and greet someone is a full-body affair. (I love how attuned the Maltese are to inclusion and not giving someone your back, and that’s also a choreography). The macro-level is easier to see in some ways, but since dance scholars are trained at analysing large movements of bodies through choreographic analysis, here our perspectives are distinctive. So I see the as ‘dancing into the issue’... boldly. We can see examples of dance also being very explicit in its critique: Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ video and Beyonce’s latest Super Bowl show are examples of choreographic confrontation.”

Why Malta matters

“The Baroque period is central to stage dance in Europe, and so bringing delegates to a city like Valletta gives great historical rooting to the era and the dances that emerged from it. During the Baroque period, the rural forms of dance got gobbled up by the aristocracy and nobility and shaped to become ballet as we know it. Interestingly, one Renaissance dance, the Maltese Branle, is mentioned in one of the earliest dance texts (Arbeau’s Orchesography (1589) as having been invented by the Knights and depicting Turks, so it was likely a dance depicting a victory in battle. This shows a long history of social dance in Malta.

“Malta is also the architectural embodiment of our conflict with conflict. Many buildings structures originally intended for war (such as St Elmo) are now regular venues for art and discussions around reconciliation. I see in this a real hope for the future: an application of our intelligence where we seek not to weaponise every technology, but to convert the weapons into instruments of care and venues for convening. The Hebrew Bible has this passage that encapsulates this: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2.4). Valletta has historically been a place of conflict, and it certainly is now. I think it’s important to bear in mind in any kind of conflict (from interpersonal to global) that we are usually conflicting because we both care about the same thing; the conflict lies with disagreement on what to do about it.”


Contra: Dance and Conflict will be taking place over July 5 to 8 at the Valletta Campus of the University of Malta. For more information, log on to: