In the process of becoming an ally

‘It don’t matter if you’re black or white’ was the ideological soundtrack of my youth. Somewhere along the line, while imitating Michael Jackson moves, we somehow forgot that what he was singing about was an ideal and not yet a reality. I, and many others, grew up with the illusion that we don’t see skin colour, and that it really doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. But it does matter and, by ignoring that, we are at risk over overlooking systematic iniquities in our society. As Anousha Nzume’s writes in her recently-published and very accessible book Hallo witte mensen (Hello white people), ‘if you claim you don’t see colour, you will also not see power structures created on the base of colour.’[1] In order to unravel power structures we have to talk about skin colour, including within the dance field. So here we go.

I am a well-educated white woman who is also a dance dramaturge. Since the beginning of my career the representation of bodies has been a strong focus. Dance for me is an art form that can ingrain new and different perspectives on gender, age and colour. Starting from that framework, I’ve been trying to find my voice about a topic over which I can claim no ownership of but towards which we all have a responsibility.

A recent experience gave me a better understanding of the mechanisms that occur in a dance scene that is trying to become more diverse. At Spring Forward 2017 I saw the performance Reck by the British black choreographer Botis Seva, in which six dancers (five black, one white) aimed to unfold ‘a rebellious witnessing, a glance into a very different world.’[2] The work began as an intense choreography of the muscles in the dancers’ backs. The dancers then progressed into a tribe of cave people who made monkey sounds and movements, making me increasingly uncomfortable and, by the end of the 25-minute performance, on the verge of crying. To me Reck tapped into dangerous stereotypes of black people as sexual, aggressive and animalistic but without criticising, reclaiming or commenting upon that.

Unfortunately, immediately after the show, the choreographer and dancers jumped into a van bound for the airport. That left me with only other audience members to discuss what we’d just seen, thought and felt. I was confused by the responses of some of my peers – who couldn’t relate at all to what I was saying – but was relieved when others confirmed my reading of the piece. I felt shame when I didn’t dare to admit to one of the few black audience members that I wanted to speak to him because of his perspective as a black man. I felt silenced when several people implied that because of the choreographer’s dark skin my reading wasn’t valid. I then grew agitated when I learnt that the selection committee apparently hadn’t discussed the representation of blackness when selecting this piece. And so I wrote an essay expressing this agitation. In the meantime I did some more research, discarded my first text and started over.
An important insight derived from Nzume’s book was that in order to change things, white people should step back a moment and think of ways of becoming a humble but forceful ally. This can include simple things such as shutting up and listening, and strengthening a diversity of voices without taking over. For Spring Forward 2017 more than twenty white programmers together decided what diversity should be within the festival, and a white audience – including me – evaluated whether or not it was successful. This is a mechanism seen all over Europe. It’s a road paved with good intentions, but one upon which the structures of power are kept intact.

A shift is needed to create the equality that I believe we are longing for. The aim for diversity should not only be presented on the stage, but should be visible in the power structures that we collectively build. What it requires is a critical but constructive approach to our own individual roles. It starts with the acknowledgement of our discomfort when talking about the topic of skin colour and a reflection on how we deal with that discomfort. It is only when we start realising that we all play a role in confirming power structures that we might be able to dismantle them.
My experience at Spring Forward 2017 forced me to re-evaluate my own role in the dance scene, and made me think of how I can become an ally. This writing is the first outcome of that journey and I would like to continue my search with others. I’m looking for people who would like to share their discomfort, incapability or anger while being confronted with this topic in the dance scene, and the way it confronted you with your own role. If you’re interested in taking part in a dialogue please send a message to In the meanwhile I will contact Botis Seva to explore with him what a possible alliance could be. To be continued.

[1] Nzume, A. Hallo Witte Mensen, AUP, Amsterdam 2017, p19

Annette van Zwoll