January 2020

Move, Dance, Talk, Resist

For immigrant women to dance and expose themselves through movement is a political act of resistance.

by Lucille Toth

As an immigrant woman and a dance scholar, I have been exploring different emotional, physical, intellectual and critical relationships to borders and walls through movement, in my ongoing dance project On Board(hers), which I started in 2018. On Board(hers) is a contemporary dance series of workshops based on the experiences and testimonies of female immigrants, for which I have developed a trauma-informed technique using movement, language, and emotion in order to respond to an urgent social and psychological neglect to the so-called contemporary migration ‘crisis.’ I use quotation marks here to question the Euro-centric vision of migration that sees current migration as Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since WWII; the word crisis implies something that needs to be fixed. Instead of talking about a migration crisis, I propose shifting the discussion to focus on a ‘hospitality crisis,’ with the (ir)responsibility of the West at its core. The On Board(hers) project, through the kinesthetic memory of its participants, attempts to make up for a growing lack of hospitality in an environment that fears the movement/migration of certain bodies. On Board(hers) allows communities of immigrant women to produce a unique testimony that reflects current national and global history.

This article reflects on the trauma-informed movement techniques developed as part of the On Board(hers) workshops with female immigrants in Ohio. During these workshops, we focused on post-traumatic memories, which are often associated with amnesia. Yet, On Board(hers) explores how those memories are still present in the body of individuals. Therefore, we work on the ways in which kinesthetic memories of the past are evoked via movement, and how the dancer’s body is thus an assemblage of different cultural traditions disturbed (if not denied) by immigration policies.

The urgent question of my work is: How can dance help create a sense of belonging and community for 21 million female immigrants (the number of women born outside of the United States that currently live on American soil)? Based on individual narratives, On Board(hers) tries to create a collective kinesthetic memory to shift the current narratives that was forced upon immigrants. In June 2018, for instance, President Donald Trump tweeted how immigrants “infest” America and how Mexican migrants bring “tremendous infectious disease to the US.”[1] Six months later, Fox host Tucker Carlson said that immigrants make the US “dirtier.”[2] Those two examples show the type of narratives that affect immigrants every day both psychologically and physically. Moving those memories, unpacking them, and transforming them allows the immigrants, as they become dancers, to reinvent them.

What is a trauma-informed movement workshop?

“Trauma is often communicated through the body via physical ailments, particularly when words are insufficient to capture an individual’s experience or when adequate processing of the trauma is not possible due to profound stress. Dance offers an alternative form of therapy that can address ‘where’ the trauma is held, relieve tension, and restore a sense of ownership with one’s body and mind.”[3]

– Jennifer L. Lapum

The quote above, and particularly the notion of ‘where’ trauma is held in the body, is central to the trauma-informed movement processes of the On Board(hers) workshops. Memories and traumas are traditionally linked to the brain, including the storage of both explicit and implicit memories. The first ones refer to both explicit memories as episodic memories (based on personal experiences) and semantic memories (general facts and knowledge). Explicit memories are located in the hippocampus, the neocortex, and the amygdala. Implicit memories, however, are unconscious and automatic memories, including physical and kinetic memories. Implicit memories are processed in the basal ganglia and cerebellum, and these past experiences are used to make decisions in the present or inform current behaviors.[4] In On Board(hers), we worked with both explicit and implicit memories as we tried to create a tool kit for women to build on. For instance, we harnessed explicit memories when repeating movements that we learned while crossing a border, and implicit memories when working on emotions and movements we unconsciously and passively integrated.

One key concern for practitioners working with kinesthetic traumatic memory is the need to avoid re-traumatizing the participant. This is why “trauma-informed practice does not require disclosure of traumatic experiences; rather, it reinforces safety and empowerment by creating a person-centered environment that is based on an understanding of the effects of trauma on the individual.”[5] In order to locate, verbalize, and transform kinesthetic memories, we used the following strategies:

  • We create a ‘bank of movements’ that we did not actively integrate as ours (movements that are part of our implicit memory) in order to challenge them.
  • Translating written personal narratives into movement in order to move away from an intellectual approach of our traumas and ground the work into the body itself.
  • Collaboration between the participants is key. We value both individual and collective narratives. Noticing the similarities in experiences and acknowledging the differences creates a sense of belonging.
  • Rethinking the importance of consent through contact improvisation techniques. Working on consent is a way to not only build conscious boundaries for ourselves but also realize our relationship to others in the boundaries they draw for themselves. 

Building on individual memories, we tried to build a collective archive of kinetic memories of immigration. As we went back to individual memories (after sharing them collectively), we tried to notice the ways in which our collective experiences reshaped the individual, and vice versa.

Techniques developed in On Board(hers)

In 2018, thanks to the help of CRIS (an independent non-profit organization that serves the refugee and immigrant populations in Central Ohio) and the Ohio State University, I brought together a group of 15 immigrant women from all around the world. These women had different ages, levels of education, sexual orientation and economic statuses. Some of them spent years in refugee camps. Some are from countries currently under the Trump administration’s travel ban. Some are DACA students. Some arrived legally and work or study in the U.S. For political reasons, I never verified the legal status of the women with whom I worked, nor did I require any previous dance training.

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Yolanda sharing her protective interpretive movement. Photo credit: Studio Kin.

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The women crowd around Bita in a protective circle as she shielded her face. Photo credit: Studio Kin

Women lifting the foam wall. Photo credit: Zane Miller

Motion is entirely dependent on politics. Being allowed to cross a border, to dance, to move in or out of a country depends solely on policies regulating movements. For immigrant women to dance and expose themselves through movement is a political act of resistance. What we gain through the use of choreography and movement in the On Board(hers) workshop is an open, critical, and artistic resistance to those restrictive policies.

Lucille Toth is an Assistant Professor of French at Ohio State University-Newark. Trained in contemporary dance, her research interests lie at the intersection of dance, medical humanities, gender and migration studies. Originally from a small village in the south of France, she left her country when she was 21 years old to study in Canada and California before landing in Ohio. In addition to being a scholar, Lucille Toth  gives dance workshops in the US, in Canada and in Europe. As a choreographer and women’s rights advocate, she created “On Border(hers),” an all-women dance project based on the testimonies of female immigrants.

Further Reading

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jul/06/donald-trump-mexican-immigrants-tremendous-infectious-disease

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2018/12/15/tucker-carlson-said-immigration-makes-america-dirtier-so-an-advertiser-took-action/?utm_term=.e900390a81ea

[3] Jennifer L. Lapum, Jennifer Martin, Karyn Kennedy, Catherine Turcotte & Heather Gregory (2019) “Sole Expression: A Trauma-Informed Dance Intervention,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 28:5, 566-580, DOI: 10.1080/10926771.2018.1544182.

[4] See Reisberg, Daniel (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[5] Jennifer L. Lapum, Jennifer Martin, Karyn Kennedy, Catherine Turcotte & Heather Gregory (2019) “Sole Expression: A Trauma-Informed Dance Intervention,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 28:5, 567, DOI: 10.1080/10926771.2018.1544182.

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