slow, sticky, sustainable

By Bhumi B. Patel

Group of dancers on stage embracing one another
Photo by Lydia Daniller [Image Description: In magenta and purple lighting, seven dancers stand in a close circle with their arms wrapped around each other. one dancer with short curly hair opens her mouth in a happy laugh.]

I am ready for a different world. I am ready for a world where care leads practices of policy-making. I am ready for a world where we abolish not only systems of physical incarceration, but punitive and carceral thinking and culture as well. I am ready for a world where we can all operate from a place of abundance, instead of scarcity. I am so ready that I feel a physical ache for it. I often talk about the speed of my train toward liberation not stopping for others to catch up. But I worry that when I talk about the speed of my train, what is left unsaid about what I value and believe is that the train has to be built sustainably. Built with integrity, openness, abundance, and commitment to the continuous, ongoing, neverending work of traveling toward that beautiful horizon of liberation. I fear that if we move too quickly the trajectory toward ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized liberation will burn out. That the enthusiasm to read and learn will dissipate. That burst of excitement about change will fizzle because the work is exhausting and difficult and long-term. But onward we must go.

Systems of oppression want us, as QTBIPOC, to believe that we don’t have the authority or expertise to make decisions about our own professional development and careers, but we do. It is not imposter syndrome that we are feeling when we doubt ourselves. It is white supremacy. So when we are told that what you’re willing to give up is a miniscule fraction of your annual budget to mentor us, or a small artist fee to participate in a festival for which your organization gets recognition, or a micro-grant that requires hours spent on an application, I see your well-intentioned canoodling with systems of oppression. I see your inability to give up power.

I’ve been feeling a deep depletion, a sense of overwhelm, an immense sadness about the constant invisible labor that many QTBIPOC artists do every day. From code-switching to swallowing micro (and macro) aggressions; from serving on panels to being asked for my opinion on equity statements. Each with undertones of tokenism, this labor of just being goes unacknowledged in its heaviness. Expected because though it is labor, it is propagated as “for the common good.” I get the sense that there is a desire to create belonging for those who exist at the margins, but just being included is a terrible standard for belonging. Assuming that QTBIPOC artists want training, mentorship, guidance, or to be your tick box of diversity and inclusion is even worse.

Invisible labor is just the surface. Invisible labor is the twin of extraction and the cousin of scarcity. There is an invisibilizing that happens when you exist at the intersections of marginalized identities that plays into bigger underlying issues about taking, reciprocity, and scarcity. When I reflect on being asked to do labor for equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility efforts, I frequently am left with a feeling of being mined for knowledge or approval. I witness the taking and taking and taking, because we all want more, even under the guise of “giving back” or “learning.” We want more accolades for equity work. We want more money and resources. We are ravenous out of a sense of not enough. But when you have never experienced “having not,” you end up with a skewed sense of what it means to “have.” And while we, in the arts, have experienced immense losses in this last year, the gap between those who have and those who have not continues to grow. In order to create equitable and sustainable practices, move away from extraction, and start to witness invisible labors, we must interrogate the beliefs we hold about scarcity to flip the narrative toward one of abundance.

Scarcity is built into the very fabric of some areas of our field. I know that there are movement- and body- based communities who have and will continue to practice from a place of abundance, but for the vast majority, scarcity is in the metaphorical water that we drink. We have enough love to go around, but we’ve been conditioned to believe that there aren’t enough financial resources, dancers to hire, fellowship opportunities, or critics to review our work. We’ve been taught that if we don’t get recognized in our youth by lists that name those under 25 or under 30 “to watch,” we have missed out. We underpay ourselves and overwork in the name of the Art, only to end up in some kind of unspoken, unhealthy competition, in which no one actually wins anything.

I’ve heard so many metaphors about creating a seat at the table to solve issues in inequity, in part because we’ve been told as much, but I implore us to collectively dream bigger than a seat, or even a new table. Let us dismantle the table, take the walls of the room down, and future a new world.

Ask yourself: What would it look like for everyone to have enough?

A few years ago, I noticed that artists around me were making performances about grief—embodying it, processing it, living with it—and I was too. I was re-entering dance after a major injury and all I could think about was the grief I was holding like a tightly wound coil in my body. I could see so clearly the struggle to have enough in these works. It makes sense that patterns like this one emerge. We are living in the same world, witnessing the same crises of migration, climate change, poverty, racial inequity, and now, a global pandemic that was grossly mismanaged and led to the deaths of over half a million people in the US alone. So many of us understand our experiences of the world around us through movement and making.

Like the number of performances tackling grief, I’ve been noticing words like decolonization and anti-racism being used to describe work being done artistically and administratively in the dance ecosystem. Without tangible action to substantiate these claims. Recently, I’ve noticed that many artists are shifting their attention away from the process of making art and more toward what I’ve heard referred to as “resource sharing” and “mentorship.” Recently, I’ve seen calls for QTBIPOC Board Members and public equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility statements on websites and social media accounts. Recently, I’ve seen a waning in enthusiasm, a metaphorical throwing up of hands demanding “haven’t we done enough already?”. I know that the intention is good, but the impact is that I feel siphoned into a box. One in which I am the recipient of the well-intentioned oppressive structures that demand I be grateful.

But I am not grateful. I am disappointed. Being part of an established company’s festival to fill the new mission to support QTBIPOC artists does not require those with power to give up any of it. Offering mentorship to young QTBIPOC artists often does little good and more unintentional harm in teaching to strive for whiteness. Having QTBIPOC artists “guest teach” at an institution does not leverage more space for us in education and academia. Liberation is not the empowerment of QTBIPOC artists by mentorship from white artists. It is not a program to learn how to have a dance company without long term cultural shifts. It is not guest teaching. It is not all QTBIPOC festivals under a white-led organization’s name. Liberation is handing over resources. It is giving up power. It is sitting out grant cycles. It is using clout and influence to change the system.

What’s difficult is that equity work, or even just being committed to being a good person, goes unseen, nobody gives you a cookie to keep going when you have steadily and sustainably been in it for a long time. The cookies are given to the most emotionally performative (frequently unsustainable) displays of solidarity in hiring, programming, demographics. And I’m sure that getting that cookie feels good, but the cookie will not feed and nourish the work to keep going long term. The pursuit of integrity and transparency toward cultural change is a thankless mission. Instead of offering thanks to those who have been in the work for decades, I see the co-opting of QTBIPOC practices, the lip service of resource sharing, the pushback of niceness as adequate, more opaqueness than ever. Nevertheless, this mission is necessary. And just to be clear, I do not want a cookie. I want lasting, sustainable, cultural change where the needs of the most marginalized are centered.

I will leave you with this. I am burnt out because of the emotional, financial, and cultural labor and pressure I’ve been under to create, support, and demand equity in our field and how that is undervalued and invisibilized. But I’m not going to change; I am always going to give this much because I believe in our capacity for a better world.

I can’t help but think that if we want a real revolution then it is important to give up more than we ever have before. Isn’t real abundance believing that there is plenty for all of us? Angela Davis reminds us that “you have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” So I ask you, dear reader, what are you most afraid of giving up when it comes to the changing world, and how will you work through that fear for a future where we practice liberation as a horizon toward which we collectively aspire but do not expect to arrive? We are ready.

Let’s get messy.

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of In Dance.

Bhumi B Patel directs pateldanceworks and is a queer, desi, home-seeker, science fiction choreographer, movement artist, and writer (she/they). In its purest form, she creates performance works as a love letter to her ancestors. Patel seeks to create movement at the intersection of embodied research and generating new futures, using improvisational practice for voice and body as a pursuit for liberation. Bhumi is a 2022-2023 Dance/USA Fellow and a 2023 YBCA 100 Honoree. She is a PhD candidate at Ohio State University, presents her research across the US on queer decoloniality and improvisation, and creates site specific work as a way of tracing the deeply woven connections in which we live–past, present, future–to build communities of nourishment and care.