By Donna Mejia January 10, 2020
On January 6, 2020 my dance sister and beloved colleague Amy Sigil announced a formal modification to her popular, trademarked dance style through social media. She succinctly explained that the title “Improvisational tribal fusion” would be changed to “Improvisational transnational fusion” and beautifully acknowledged me as the originator of her adopted terminology. The online conversations and reactions that followed have ranged from cheering support to exasperated resignations from dance.
It is true that I began my efforts to challenge the genre title ‘tribal fusion’ in 2011 to whomever would listen. As a woman of Choctaw, African, Jewish, Scottish, French and Creole heritage, the word tribal signified membership to a people who endured brutal and perpetual genocide, racism, and political, economic and ideological disenfranchisement. I can’t unsee these things. I will not trivialize the sacrifices my ancestors made to survive and uplift me. My life is beautiful because of their wise and brave actions. I am descended from slaves in Louisiana. I am the product of my Great Grandmother being raped by her employer in Mississippi. A tribe signified DNA-membership to an identifiable group that shared a common language, cultural practices, experiences, histories, food, attire and values. We collectively attempted to retain those practices through hundreds of years of attacks to our sovereignty, values, personhood, homes, health and family structures. It wasn’t easy. Many cultural treasures, languages and knowledge have been obliterated. Many humans didn’t survive.
A weekend festival gathering of dancers who’ve gained entrance to a community through paid instruction do not share the same cultural, demographic and physical umbilical cord. Most certainly, no matter what adversities they have traversed as individuals, they have not experienced the shock of collective genocide and persecution for their way of life. They amalgamate into a family of shared temporal experiences and inspirations, but the ability to adopt or drop that mantle of identity can be timed to begin and end with their time on the dance floor or on social media. Afterwards, home/original identities may be resumed if they so choose. Not all do. For many those identities transform, become integrated, permanent and public facing.
Many tribes of indigenous origin did not/do not have that luxury or editorial agency in their lives.
Transnational is a factual and non-politicized descriptor of the kind of dancing I see in the fusion world. I offer it as an umbrella terminology for our community in hopes of encapsulating the many interpretive variations and styles of our gatherings:
trans = above and beyond
national =a nation-state border
Why this proposed change in language? In summary, I began structured dance training in 1981. Mid-career, I converted to fusion dances of the North African and Arab World in 2001. My inspirations were Rosangela Silvestre, Letitia Williams, Shaunti Fera, Gypsy Ames, and Rachel Brice. These women generously gave me access and instruction to an artistic homecoming that fulfilled me profoundly. Like many, I rearranged my life, priorities, checkbook and career to dive deeply into this dance form.
My emotions were conflicted: I had a deep love of the dance and formed genuine friendships, but also observed perceptions and community practices that made me cringe. I began to be very selective with how my money was spent, what promoters I supported, what events I associated with, who I learned from, how I attired myself onstage and questioning what my own conflicts of interest were in benefitting from the community as a teacher and performer. I began to take responsibility for my participation in this dynamically evolving community. Ballet took 400 years to become a global form, but transnational fusion was a world-genre after 7 years through online exchange. We were in the fishbowl of the internet and had to grow up quickly. By 2011, I could no longer complicitly co-sign the label Tribal Fusion. It was too dismissive of the harrowing experience of tribal peoples on all continents.
I recall that a sponsor once argued with me about the length of my proposed retitle. Behind my back she shortened “Transnational Fusion” to “transfusion” because she needed something catchy to easily fit on her printed graphic. She didn’t ask what the new title meant. She just wanted it to fit her marketing mold even if it was a nonsensical descriptor of a medical procedure instead of a dance practice.
My experiences in our dance community between 2001 – 2011 raised the following questions for me:
- Was the pageantry and reconfiguring of performance identities and stage names fostering a culture of privileged escapism from what we thought of as normal life? Can extraordinary moments be cultivated without coopting alternate identities?
- Many participants adopted exotified identities and appearances for weekend festivals or online accounts. Did participants truly understand what it was like to be a member of the disenfranchised peoples whom served as our inspiration?
- Was our community also meaningfully engaged in the economic, political, and social upliftment of the communities that inspired us (Arabs, Africans, Turkish, Persians)?
- The community was mostly middle and upper class European descended women teaching mostly European descended women about dances of the Arab world, and that formula was problematic to me. Could we generously share our body-positive platforms in the spirit of global citizenship?
- A dominant number of performances I viewed thematically focused on caricatured and distorted depictions of “exotified Middle Easterness.” The tidal wave of historic, political and propagandic misinformation about Arab, Persian, Turkish and African peoples and cultures was larger and older than many knew. Would it be possible to unplug us from those tropes and inspire the community to learn the stories and histories of those who inspired us visually?
- Could we grow in equitable, inclusive participation by disrupting the demographics of our gatherings by inviting the voices and knowledge of Arab, Persian, Turkish and African citizens to the table?
- Could we wrangle our economic sovereignty without wealthy or biased promoters/patrons determining our collective values and practices for us?
- Could we humbly and honorably cite our influences and elders so that their contributions would not be invisibilized, leaving them nameless in the history books?
- Could we find an inclusive language for ourselves that would subvert and challenge our blind spots and implicit biases?
Since receiving professional work in this community in 2002, I have endeavored to raise these charged and controversial topics publicly. Many early adopters and thoughtful people have stepped up to keep the community from collapsing as a passing novelty, while also infusing our practices and norms with integrity. Amy Sigil and the Unmata family has been with me from the start, beginning the deep work of examination. My student collaborators from Smith College were incredible and added to my own knowledge. Producers like Ziah Lisa McKinney and Rachel Kay Brookmire provided me platforms to speak my truth without censorship. Other colleagues utilized their forums to speak their truths too (Sarah Johansson Locke, Khadijah K.S. Smith, Karim Nagi, Amel Tafsout, Amar Solunamar, Michel Moushabek and many more). Dancers like Christy Smith started reading clubs to review materials I cited during my keynote talks. Companies like Luciterra in Vancouver brought the conversation to their communities and took the time to thoughtfully communicate their insights to clientele. Fellow dancers of the global majority (non-white) and awakened allies all expressed their mutual craving of the conversations we wanted to have, and this encouraged me. Artists like Mevier de la Cruz, April Rose, Joanna Ashleigh, Leah Woods, Constance Winyaa Harris, Brittany Banaei, and Abigail Keyes sought wider knowledge through educational systems and shared their work communally. We followed the footsteps of scholars and artists who came before us. Clients respectfully asked if they could adopt and use my proposed language publicly, to which I answered a resounding yes. Through it all, I discovered a web of kindred thinkers and movers that inspired me to keep bringing the conversation forward.
Here we are. This has become a global art movement. We are infiltrating conventional venues, Broadway productions, academia, major music festivals, film, and more. We can hail a roster of practice groups in every major city around the world. We are a multi-billion dollar industry that now spans the globe. YOU have changed the history books as the first art community to utilize online sharing to workshop communal aesthetics and values.
And yet, this is still defined as an underground dance community. You/we operate independently of conventional dance circuits, red-carpet theaters, award shows and major arts funders. You’ve/We’ve kept your/our independence. Perhaps you’ve grown in personal resilience as friends come and go from the active scene, heroes and founders transition from this Earth life, inspirations retire, gatherings shutter their doors and your disappointments poison your inspiration. You have probably traversed many pitfalls in our burgeoning popularity: toxic individuals, exploitive promoters, racist, ageist, ableist and sexist infiltrators, injurious physical trends, and conflicting aesthetic interests. You may have made your own mistakes. I certainly have.
But you wake up the next day, fall back in love, keep showing up and keep moving. This is because dance is an enduring orientation that chooses you. It becomes the way you encounter, inhabit and process the world around you. It is a kinesthetic intelligence that, once awakened, doesn’t go back to sleep. It is a commitment to feel deeply, and be in perpetual conversation with oneself. You find that you once you embrace those truths, you stop treading water and discover exponential progress. Buckle up.
You, as part of this community, are quite powerful and influential. Collectively, we differ tremendously in priorities and motivational reasons for being here, but we are now a family.
So, what does it mean to truly embrace global citizenship and be a family? Moving beyond lip service to inclusivity, joining this family in earnest would require an acknowledgment and meaningful engagement with our:
- Interconnectivity: beyond the interplay of nation states, 58.8% of humanity is presently connected to the Internet. The epoch of our tipping point has been reached.
- Intersectionality: the ways in which our identities overlap, complicate and compound the negotiation of social exchanges
- Interdependence: we need each other to exist and survive
- Stewardship: responsible caretaking of the environment and eco-spheres we inhabit (individually and collectively)
- Inclusiveness: we treat all with the values we wish to be treated with
- Fostering of open exchange: celebrating and learning about each other does not negate our own culture, but the power differential in our interchanges would need to be examined carefully to avoid distortions and exploitations
- Embracing of multi-dimensionalism and complexity: we do not require reflections of sameness to feel comfortable because we have internalized an internal locus for self-worth. The benefits of difference become legible to us. We no longer fear the unknown and unexpected.
There is unpaid labor in allowing our lives to be complicated with the fullness of diversity. After encountering the stimulation of something different and novel, we begin the real work of evaluating our perception of norms, symbols, assumptions, values, practices, agency, and negotiations of power. If new knowledge is to be truly and experientially integrated into our understanding, there are no shortcuts to this process.
It’s what we learn is the real work. It demarcates the moment we move beyond being superficial tourist or dabblers, and stretch ourselves to new understandings and embodied realities. Being deeply reflexive and responsive to diversity isn’t easy, and I’ve seen a great number of people feel paralyzed and stunned into inaction after encountering such complexity. They throw their hands up in exasperation… not knowing where to begin. Inaction can be interpreted as a kind of hopelessness—a presumption that your desires and wishes cannot be actualized (to paraphrase a wise gentleman named Aaron).
Beloved dance community, we are evolving now… so don’t give up on each other.
Would you be willing to encourage a new vision that permits questioning? Would you patiently steady yourself as we fumble forward and calibrate to each other? Can you drain the vinegar from your veins or the acid in your tongue, listen with patience and aim to uplift truth with each word? Would you participate in creating new terminologies, practices, aesthetics and values that can stand the test of time? Would you let those things evolve as we learn and realize more? Would you build your stamina for occasional discomfort, and stay present for tough conversations and critical examination so that we can increase our sophistication and understanding of what we do together? Are you willing to see our version of the world through new and different eyes, over and over again?
Can you remember your original inspiration for coming to this community? Can you trust that what you originally resonated with is still there to nourish you? Can you be an active part of resolving the blind spots of our age? Can you pause any tendency to be defensive, suspend the need to prove you are right or one of the “good ones.” Can you not tell underrepresented peoples how they should be reacting to the injustices they experience? Can you not insist that disenfranchised and underrepresented populations comfort, reassure and educate you while navigating the legacy of their generations-long wounding?
Can we re-write the script? Yes, we can. Can we own our early origins as a genre and heal our blind spots? Absolutely. Can we grasp our legacy as early adopters of global citizenship and model inclusiveness for other transnational communities? I intend it with all of my heart.
At the core of changing our genre’s name lies an important issue that Robin DiAngelo eloquently articulated in her seminal 2011 article “White Fragility:”
While anti-racist efforts ultimately seek to transform institutionalized racism, anti-racist education may be most effective by starting at the micro level. The goal is to generate the development of perspectives and skills that enable all people, regardless of racial location, to be active initiators of change. Since all individuals who live within a racist system are enmeshed in its relations, this means that all are responsible for either perpetuating or transforming that system. However, although all individuals play a role in keeping the system active, the responsibility for change is not equally shared. White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.
It is true that underrepresented peoples have been speaking of these issues for a long time. The hard work of deconstructing internalized privilege and fragility are customarily resisted because it requires acknowledgement of our complicity, despite thinking of ourselves as good people. Please don’t be seduced into inaction by this over-simplification. The level of resistance you feel to new challenges is commensurate with the degree of transformation that awaits you. If you knew how much you would alchemically transform by clarifying every distortion and untruth from your life, you would run towards your problems instead of away from them. Reconfiguring our language and terminologies is a liberating step away from a colonialist history that impoverishes us all. People of the global majority are not the only victims of hegemonic thinking.
If you find yourself wanting to cry and dump online, may I implore you to hit the pause button. If you’ve not taken the time to start the work of decolonizing your own thinking, please read two articles by these White anti-racism scholars before you unload onto others:
“Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh (Originally published in 1970)
“White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo (original article published in 2011, new book published in 2018)
Yes, please. Adopt this new language far and wide as an umbrella term for our genre, and then customize a subtitle-descriptor that aligns with your interests. As an example: “Hello, I’m Donna Mejia, I am a transnational fusion dance artist. My own style is a mashup that dialogs dances of North Africa and the Arab world with hip hop, electronica, and Brazilian dance.” Boom. It’s customarily the start of a fun conversation. Give it a try. George Clinton wisely said “Free your ass and your mind will follow.” Cheers to that. Keep the beats coming and let’s keep dancing. Don’t avoid or leave the community just to deflect personal reflexivity. Be brave.
Complicate our conversations with good questions and counterpoint ideas. In my courses at the university, I created a practiced called Fumble Forward to seek exchange and hit the pause button on conventional responses such as anger. To keep a space of inquiry open in a charged subject matter, students will preface their public commentary by saying “I’m about to fumble with my words.” The community responds as a chorus with “Fumble Forward!” It is our social contract to let confusion be a part of our discourse. Perhaps a student is unsure of the terminologies needed to join a conversation. Perhaps they are unsure if their questions will be offensive. Perhaps they don’t have fully formulated ideas and opinions yet. But for the next few minutes, we’ve all agreed to suspend judgement, lean in and help each other clarify through a process of corrective, delicate or clumsy verbal surgery. Fumble Forward allows us to stay open and speak from the heart with diplomacy, even if our voices are trembling and we can’t find confident, stable ground. Fumble Forward gives us a starting place to back away from sounding off, moving towards true listening and communication. Please adopt that too if it resonates.
Your willingness to credit me is appreciated and I thank you for it. As a college professor, I openly concede that I benefit from demonstrating I’ve made a lasting contribution to my field of study. If new language or disrupting implicit privilege/racism is the thing I am remembered for, above and beyond my choreography and pedagogy, I will take my last breath smiling. This effort is a personal ministry, which is why I have tried to spread the ideas through live lectures instead of academic publication. I found it important to put myself in the room to hold space while colleagues, patrons and participants encountered themselves on this issue. I have learned so much from all of you and I thank you. We must heal this together if the awakening and progress is to be real. Let’s show the world how it can be done.
Switch this into high gear. Help this to trend proudly. Shine your courage to do the work and pull up a seat to the conversation. Keep creating and moving with a new consciousness of who we aspire to be. Maybe we’ll collectively find an even better name for our genre. Heal this blind spot.
Recall that this week the United States of America sparred with Iraq and Iran, furthering the legacy of distortion between yet another generation of citizens. To learn more about Orientalism, colonialism, patriarchy and racism in our world, please visit this free resource page and treat yourself to starting with whatever magnetizes you most: https://donnainthedance.com/resources/
Lastly, it is my honor to have joined Rachel Brice’s online platform Datura as a featured guest instructor. Two years ago, the Datura team invited me to share movement and an introduction to my scholarship on their English-speaking platform. That material was filmed June 2019 and has been in editorial preparation. Datura has generously accelerated our project and published it ahead-of-schedule to accompany this blog post and unfolding conversation in the community (Thank you Datura). Shameless plug here: I hope it provides you a useful overview of key points and theories in support of your creativity and learning. My lecture for Datura can be found here: https://daturaonline.com/key-concepts-for-dance-researchers-in-the-age-of-fusion
Let’s do this. Together.
I love you. Thank you for being my community.