In Practice: Borderlines

By Sima Belmar

dancer bends forward while walking on a line
dancer bends forward while walking on a line
Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz / photo by Yvonne Portra

Every day my inbox receives announcements for interdisciplinary conferences on migration, conferences that investigate “the performative role of the document in controlling the movement of bodies across borders” or the ways “artistic interventions show that borders can become sites of resistance and gestures of solidarity especially for those whose bodies are arbitrarily made ‘illegal.’” Poised to write an article about borders, migration, and dance, I realized I was woefully ignorant of what the basic terms of the immigration debate mean.

Luckily, I know a geographer who specializes in borders. Adam Levy, Associate Professor of Geography at Ohlone College, agreed to give me a crash course in political/physical/social geography. Our conversation began happily thinking about borders and border crossing in conceptual and choreographic ways (see footnote #1). He explained how in the past, geographers drew on the language of fluvial geomorphology (river science) to study border patterns, and how contemporary geographers “focus on three different types of spaces and the processes that produce them: borders as the limit, as the outer zone of contact, and as separate, hybrid space.” He defined a “borderland”—e.g. Tijuana/ San Diego, Juarez/El Paso—as places that “create a third space,” and pointed out that borders are not necessarily contiguous spaces as in the case of diasporic communities. But before I could settle into a reverie about the fluvial geomorphology of dancers, shit started to get real.

To explain the difference between a refugee and a migrant, Adam pulled up a 2014 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) presentation used as part of global border guard training plans “designed to help local government agents learn how to perform, that is, to better manage risky populations, as part of their gatekeeping role.” According to Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, a refugee is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” is outside their country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return. A refugee may also be someone whose life is at risk due to “generalized violence or events seriously disturbing the public order.”

Scrolling through the presentation, I saw how the press uses the terms interchangeably. Indeed, the point is to show that refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons, economic migrants, victims of trafficking, and others are all in the same boat, always discursively, often literally. They come from the same countries, they take the same modes of transport across the same bodies of land and water, and they face the same dangers along the way. They are subject to traumatizing Refugee Status Determination (RSD) processes—“credible fear hearings”—since they are all perceived as threats to state sovereignty and security. So even though an economic migrant is classified as someone who is leaving their country of origin by choice to improve their socioeconomic status, they are often subject to the same risks to life and limb as those fleeing state-sponsored persecution. “It’s a biopolitical issue,” Adam says, “Modern humanitarianism qualifies which lives are worth saving.”

I plunked my head on the table in despair. The situation is so dire and complex with countries paying other countries to create safe havens in their own countries in order to stop people from crossing the border, and credible fear hearings that are poorly administered, not to mention the very structure of RSD—“a neoliberal, actuarial model, trying to calculate precise dangers; a damage control model,” Adam explains, with significant collateral damage.

So what do those of us who spend our lives attending and attuning to choreographic structures and the materiality of embodiment have to offer in terms of developing understanding of what it means to move across borders and within borderlands in the context of gatekeeping?

Luckily, I know a choreographer-dance scholar who specializes in borders. Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz is a movement artist and Ph.D. student in performance studies at UC Berkeley, whose research explores borders and migration as choreographic systems that involve both the human and the non-human (objects, ephemera, documents), “the way objects move things.”

As a formerly undocumented immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, Juan Manuel entered California “without inspection” (EWI) in 1990 at the age of six, just as the state was gearing up to pass Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant, “Save Our State” (rhymes with “Make America Great”) initiative. It took him two attempts to cross the border, first through a fence, then across the desert: “It was very cinematic: running, helicopters overhead. So already at an early age I was exposed to the physical dimensions of what it means to have a precarious life. (Though it felt like an adventure to me at the time!)”

After moving around southern California, Juan Manuel settled in Salt Lake City
in 1996. Juan Manuel grew up dancing cumbia, salsa, merengue, and bolero, and started taking modern dance classes with his sister in high school. The way modern dance thematized space, time, and energy offered him tools to express his “anxieties and uncertainties about what it was like to be undocumented and Mexican in Utah. Dance theater became a site and process to work out those things.”

In 2011, a year before DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) went into effect, Juan Manuel left the US for Mexico in order to regularize his status, unsure if he would be allowed to return. Speaking about his first interview in Ciudad Juárez, he says, “I had to let them know I was a credible US resident. This person starts asking about this form that I had sent in years ago, and I’m sweating. I have the document that says the US received it. I can’t lose it, the document or my composure. At that moment there’s this vetting of your sweat and your gesture. On the one hand, I’m looking at the dramaturgies of the border in the interview center. And yet, I am scared because my family’s on the other side” (see footnote#2).

Juan Manuel draws on his experience with the material realities of border crossing to put pressure on theories of migration that fail to address the material conditions and kinesthetic-affective experiences of crossing a national border or trying to order a hamburger in a language that isn’t yours. One way he does this is by facilitating “Curated Moves” workshops, where participants “work through origin stories and produce as much sweat as possible,” changing out of their sweaty clothes and examining them as artifacts of the experience. These workshops activate what Juan Manuel has termed “sweat citizenships,” ways that movement leaves traces of and beyond the person who moves. “A lot of mobility is about the production of sweat for work, or the lack thereof to make sure you don’t look guilty. When I think I sweat, when I move I sweat—it’s a way of knowing and relating. When I go see performances, I look to see who cleans up the space. If at some point in time, after the creative practice encounter, our sweat can meet, there’s some point of connection between me and the people who work in the space.”

From his experience crossing the border into the US from Mexico, to living as an undocumented person of color in Utah on the “wrong side of town,” to making cross-disciplinary dance theater works about his immigrant and undocumented status, to working in Minnesota at the Latino Economic Development Center, to his research on migration in an interdisciplinary PhD program, Juan Manuel learned “saber cómo mover, knowing how to move in a very practical sense, always in conjunction with the materiality of life.” Drawing connections between these diverse movement processes, he realized that “all are practices of movement and that relationships are inherently mobile. Performing my anxieties on stage became a process to work through the messy uncertainty of fear that would come with my eventual departure. I always assumed this departure would be accompanied with an irremediable loss. However, I learned from other immigrants and migrants, my parents included, that leaving and moving across countries, or towns, is a practice of learning how to move in unknown situations. I stopped being afraid of not being able to return when I realized that my liberation and freedom was not dependent on the United States’ immigration system. I had the capacity to improvise and learn how to move dynamically across borders, be they national or personal, to form new relationships.”

Juan Manuel’s consciousness-body is a borderland, a hybrid, third space made up of multiple artistic genres, aesthetic modalities, geographic landscapes, and cultural affiliations. For him, dancers have the potential to attune consciously to this viscous, “kinopolitical” (see footnote #3) (corpo)reality: “I think dancers and dance studies can contribute to border migration policy by attuning to different qualities of movement, vibrations, stopping and starting, repetition, circulation, to the different types of movement people do, and how those different types of movement respond to different forces, rather than thinking about in the way that it’s conceived in migration, from point A to point B.”

We all learn how to move in formal and informal ways, but we are not all required to be conscious of that knowing. We move through separate and unequal choreographic scores of living. Social, economic, and political policies direct the ways bodies move as matter through the world, inside, outside, and across national borders. As dancers, we have the potential to see the choreographic in everything we do, like Juan Manuel observing the ways buildings, guards, waiting rooms, and documents structured his movement towards and within his visa interview in Ciudad Juárez. As dancers, we can also attend to the sweat we leave behind as material traces of the past acting in the present towards potentially resistant futures. As dancers sweating bullets, we have the potential to engage in conscious trespass. Practice attunement to moments of trespass— physical, social, affective, political—to the moments when we choose or are forced to cross rather than walk the line, to our sense of being borderlands.

1. Adam introduced me to Glenn Weyant’s The Anta Project, Banksy’s Walledo Hotel project in Palestine, and Milan-based Multiplicity Lab’s Border Device(s) project.

2. Juan Manuel documented his path to documented status on his blog,

3. Thomas Nail, The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.

Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is ODC Writer in Residence and host of the new podcast Dance Cast. She has been writing the “In Practice” column for In Dance since 2017. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to