Dance, Human Rights, and Social Justice >> An Interview with Scholar and Trailblazer, Toni Shapiro-Phim

Toni Shapiro-Phim, Cambodia, Free Body Project

Dancers perform for fellow Cambodian refugees in Site 2 Camp in Thailand. Photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim. 

What called you to the field of dance and social justice? 

I wouldn’t say that I was called to a particular field. I would say that a confluence of events, circumstances, communities and individuals I observed and with whom I came in contact called to me.

In the late 1980s, I was working in Indonesia in a refugee camp on the island of Galang, mainly with people who had escaped from Vietnam. Among the 10,000 Vietnamese – all of whom had endured a dangerous journey by boat, many robbed and some raped by Thai pirates en route – I saw a lot of poetry writing, painting, and woodcarving as people waited in the camp to see if and where (to what country) they would be resettled. On the other side of the same island were people who had escaped from Cambodia. Maybe 300 or so.

The Cambodians had recently suffered a genocide; almost everyone had lost loved ones, their homes, their ways of life. They didn’t know what was happening the next day or what they would do about their kids’ education and, yet, they were teaching their kids to dance. They were making dance and music a priority and I was totally blown away by that. I had studied dance since I was young, so perhaps that’s why, in part, I took particular notice of this.

After a year in Indonesia, I left to work in a refugee camp housing more than 100,000 Cambodians, located in Thailand, just across Cambodia’s western border. There I witnessed the same overwhelmingly powerful resonance of movement and music as resources for people in a situation of displacement and violence. (The camp was in a war zone: the conflict in Cambodia often spilled over onto Thai territory.) I conducted research inside Cambodia, too, during and after the war that ended in 1991, paying attention to dance in post-conflict times as well.

I tried to find ways to piece together a path of study for myself so that I could be supportive of people in ways that would help them sustain and build practices that they found vital, and that would draw attention to the inhumanity of war, the plight of refugees, the broader systems that perpetuate suffering, and ways in which the arts offer constructive paths to compassion, reconciliation and justice. 

Do you feel that you had a hand in creating this field?

I was at a conference, a dance conference, and there was a panel where people were talking about dance and refugees and I thought, I’ve been doing this for years. I was so excited, actually heartened, to find that someone had organized a panel around the topic. I introduced myself to the panel convener, Professor Naomi Jackson, and soon after that Dr. Jackson invited me to co-edit a book with her, which became our 2008 publication, Dance, Human Rights and Social Justice: Dignity in Motion

It was lovely to find links with others. For the longest time I didn’t feel that I was part of an intentional field of inquiry. I was trying to put things together on my own. 

How did you mold such a unique path for yourself? 

While I was working in the refugee camp in Thailand, I decided that I would like to go back to the US to do some graduate work to explore the phenomena of the aesthetic, spiritual and political potency of dance in the dire circumstances in a refugee camp, and in a war zone, following a genocide.

When I sent my handwritten letters from rural Thailand to my undergraduate professors to ask for advice, some who replied suggested that Cornell would be a good place for graduate studies since it has a superb collection of materials from and about Southeast Asia in its library. When I got the catalogue (this was pre-Google)… I didn’t know what to focus on because what I was observing and what I wanted to explore more deeply touched on so many things: history, religion and spirituality, dance and theater, ethnomusicology, political science, human geography… all kinds of things were possible. I saw “anthropology,” which was described as the study of humankind. I thought that was broad enough for my inquiry. And that’s the degree I pursued.

What was it that you discovered during your PhD studies around the world?

A million things. (And I continue to discover…) As one example, I would say that for Cambodians, dance that is recognized now as classical or of the court tradition has a lot to do with the spirits of the land. Cambodians grow up feeling connected to the spirits of the land, the actual earth of Cambodia. Since that is represented through a sacred serpent, which is recreated through a dancer’s body, dance marks and protects the land and makes it Cambodian.

At the moment when people were in exile and their world was in chaos, here was a kind of literal grounding and beauty that they could bring to their communities for extended moments and they – ordinary Cambodians, not professional dancers -- chose to do that.

Did you find that you weren’t taken seriously in your field because it has to do with dance? 

It’s interesting you ask that about way back then because, just this past week, I was part of a group of scholars developing a book project about the aftermath of mass violence in diverse locations around the world. I was the only one particularly engaged with the arts. (I was, indeed, proposing to write about dance.) I felt from some of the participants that what artists were doing wasn’t taken as seriously as some other initiatives, post mass violence, just from the way the discussion was going. What I was talking about was what people themselves chose to do as opposed to some outside entity saying, “Here’s a formula for how to get yourself back together after conflict.” However, there is promising institutional recognition: new degree programs at colleges and universities across the country focus specifically on the exploration of the arts in relation to social transformation. 

Social activists have long appreciated dance's potency as a source of social change, and I think that synergy has gotten stronger over the years. 

Toni Shapiro-Phim, Free Body Project

Toni Shapiro-Phim directing a new film highlighting four women who use traditional song and movement to build peace in Liberia and the United States. Photo by Kathleen Norton.

Does dance have wider implications for issues such as gender equality, the refugee crisis, or ongoing violence? 

Of course. But what those implications might be completely depends on the dance, who's dancing or participating in other ways (in a ritual, performance, demonstration, celebration, competition or game, etc.) and why. 

How do you describe this unique field? 

What I have found is that in many circumstances, when people are ground down by the inhumanity, danger and chaos around them, they choose to participate in a certain form of expressive culture because it is, at that moment, something they can’t live without. Sharing in a dance event of a particular kind helps them feel more fully alive and connects them to community (whether cultural or other), creating meaning and refuge in situations of total disconnect and peril. 

For some in the United States, dance is thought of as either a staged thing or something to participate in at a party or in a club. At least in mainstream media, dance in these contexts is often presented as fluff, peripheral to everyday life, rather than something consequential. Choreography about injustice, exclusion or inequity -- or uncommon/unexpected/subversive casting in a performance -- are approaches to work at the nexus of dance and social justice efforts that can inspire conversations, waking people up to systems of oppression in which they are embedded, and to resources for countering them. Theatrical, as well as social and other kinds of dancing can be catalysts for bringing people together for collective action, acknowledging threats to or violations of safety and dignity and establishing (even temporary) sanctuary. There are many other approaches as well.

During the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile, thousands of people alleged or assumed to be enemies of the state were disappeared. Women, who had historically not been prominent in public political discourse, took to the street and danced the cueca sola. This was a dance that the Pinochet regime itself had declared to be the country’s national dance. It’s a couples’ dance and very flirtatious. A man and a woman with a handkerchief that each holds onto dance to a lively rhythm and acknowledge each other with smiles. 

The women turned the dance, with its great symbolic power, on its head. In the plaza, they danced this couples’ dance solo, with images on their shirts of their disappeared loved ones. A very potent statement about grief and anger: bring back my loved one. This drew international attention that added to the condemnation of the regime. That’s, to me, an example of dance and social justice work brilliantly and poignantly conceived of and carried out by people for whom there were high stakes in changing the situation. 

What advice do you have for those of us who are interested in learning more about or pursuing work in the field of dance and social justice? 

One ethical way to approach any field is to pay attention to what’s important to people. If indeed we recognize that dance (however it is defined in any given community) holds some kind of place of prominence in terms of cultural expression for a certain group, it behooves us to take the time to look at how they might even, quietly, outside of the public radar, be engaging with dance in ways that help them counter loss, isolation, power imbalances or trauma, or that help them celebrate the subversion of oppression.

It’s also critical to note that in some cultural communities, dance and music are pretty much inseparable: one almost never exists without the other. In those cases, sound in all its complexity has to be incorporated into the conversation. Plus, nowadays, there’s an increasing merger in some places of dance with visual arts, architecture, new media and so on. Thus, we must look at the fullest picture we can of dance in a given context.

I hope we all work hard to recognize and challenge biased assumptions – our own and those of others. Acknowledge that people choose to do the things that matter to them, and that, at the same time, authorities might usurp the power of dance-that-matters by forcing people to do things in ways that support an oppressive regime. (In what was formerly the Democratic Republic of the Congo, people were threatened with physical violence if they didn’t dance publicly in honor of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and his family.) Become comfortable asking questions when people seem to be comfortable answering them. Be cognizant of one’s relationship to individuals and communities with whom one engages, in terms of privilege. Recognize the intersections of overlapping justice concerns, and how identities and systems of oppression also overlay one another. Read a lot and write a lot so that we, together, develop potent and inspiring vocabulary with which to explore this nexus of social justice and dance. Become active locally with individuals and organizations you admire and trust, to push for constructive change.

Toni Shapiro-Phim received a PhD in cultural anthropology from Cornell University. Her dissertation, books and other publications focus on the history and cultural context of dance and music around the world, with a specialization in Cambodia, particularly in relation to violence, migration, conflict resolution and gender concerns. She's held teaching and research appointments at the University of California-Berkeley, Yale University and Bryn Mawr College, and worked in Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese refugee camps in Indonesia and Thailand. Co-editor of Dance, Human Rights and Social Justice: Dignity in Motion, she has also contributed to Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide and The Choreography of Resolution: Conflict, Movement, and Neuroscience. Her most recent book, Talking Dance: Stories from the South China Sea, was published in 2016. Currently, she is serving as Director of Programs at the Philadelphia Folklore Project, She is completing a documentary film, Because of the War, about Liberian women singers who harness the power of their art for anti-violence efforts. 

Photo by Nalani Mehra Phim

Photo by Nalani Mehra Phim