Being a Body

By KJ Dahlaw

A close up of KJ Dahlaw, softly smiling against a white wall.

KJ Dahlaw Photo courtesy of KJ Dahlaw. [ID: A close up of KJ Dahlaw, a white, non-binary trans person with blue eyes, button up shirt and tattoo on forearm, wearing glasses and holding head with hand.]

I’ve been thinking a lot about the body. My body. Our body. The ways that we are a body together. We, the SF Bay dance community, and more broadly, as a human community. I’m interested in our bodiedness.  

It’s interesting, right? We’re living through this time of radical wealth disparity, global pandemic, deep fissure between the right and the left and it all lives in our bodies. Our bodies are dynamically connected to each other and the ecosystem of which we are part. We are in relationship to each other. The needs, desires, rights, dignity of all of us is related to each of us.  

I come from a lineage of Western contemporary dance, modern dance, and classical ballet. I love how I can feel my teachers in my dancing body. (The wisdom, craft, and techniques as well as the patterns of dominance.) I love to dance. My body loves dancing. Dance feels like this space where I get to transcend. It gives me such deep pleasure, it’s all I want to do.  

But you know what’s hard on my body? Working as a dance artist in the Bay area. I’m a freelance dance artist, dancer/choreographer/teacher, living in the East Bay: Richmond, CA. My name is KJ Dahlaw and I’m a queer, non-binary trans dance artist and parent of 2. It should come as no surprise to read that it is hard to survive as a dance artist in the Bay Area. Jobs in dance don’t often pay living wages, nor are they stable. Our field has been hit particularly hard by the limitations of the pandemic too, which results in less work. I currently have 7 jobs, a mixture of W2 employment and 1099 contract work. I recognize my privilege in having these jobs and it’s incredibly difficult for my own body to hold so much while raising kids and managing my own anxiety disorder and C-PTSD. Just being real. 

I want to talk about the ways in which we are interconnected and how our health and wellness inside of our communities is in relationship to the health and wellness of all. We are a body. In this context, I do want to discuss the SF Bay area dance community as a body. The field of dance is in and of the work of the body. Dance emerges from the body. We possess quite a depth of knowledge about the body and even pathways of healing and repair with the body. How are we as a dance community accountable to one another? 

I bring up community accountability because there is no overarching infrastructure in the field of dance, locally or globally, to which we are accountable. Being an accountable community means taking responsibility for our choices and the consequences of our choices*. How can we be a more accountable community in the face of rampant dancer underemployment, job/financial instability, lack of access to adequate healthcare, and seeking justice when abuse is called out in our field?  

The field of dance is in a period of much needed change. Dancers, who were trained to be obedient and unquestioning of authority, are starting to demand rights. Dance patterns the body. Western concert dance training, ballet in particular but extending into modern and contemporary dance orients the body towards dominance. In the sense that there is a tradition of teaching and directing dance with required obedience to authority, use of negative reinforcement (i.e. verbal abuse, beratement, body shaming) as means of motivation, and relentless repetition of form. I keep thinking about the ways that the ballet and modern dance training that is patterned into my body, relate to my sense of agency. On a larger scale, I think about the ways this patterning relates to our bodiedness as a dance community.  

When we train dancers to blindly obey their teachers/directors, we are not honoring the agency of our dancers. When we train dancers to expect to be touched without their consent, we are not honoring the agency of our dancers. When we train dancers to accept and be grateful for any kind of dance work, regardless of the value of their labor, we create a body of dancers who do not understand their own worth or value and to accept poverty as a part of the gig. This is a problem. because along with the internalized lack of agency and consent plus impoverishment, dancers also are hesitant to speak up when abuse happens in our field.  

There was an allegation of abuse in the SF Bay dance community in the summer of 2020 that was handled very poorly, in my opinion. Rupture happened when no process of community accountability, conversation and healing tended to the wound. It felt like neither the dance organization where the alleged abuse occurred nor the SF Bay Area dance community at large was able to hold this rupture in our collective body with dignity. The dancer making the accusation is a beloved member of our community, an exquisite dancer, and a dynamic, thoughtful teacher. Now, they feel unsafe to be in SF dance spaces. This particular situation feels relevant to examine as we contemplate our bodiedness as a dance community. This is a wound in our body that has been left unhealed.   

I am working with an injury in my own body right now. It’s my left knee. It’s been really emotional for me to sustain an injury. I just turned 41. This injury is literally just from overuse. Overuse of my body. Huh. That tracks. My survival literally depends on my body and my ability to dance and teach dance. Learning to slow down and honor the limitations of my body is good work for me but not easy. My body is certainly my teacher in a new way. As much as I’d like to, I can’t muscle my way through this. I can’t ignore this injury. I can, however, listen to my body and change how I work. We can learn so much from our bodies.  

We are a body. We are a body that can create great beauty, transcendence even. We are a body that can make change in this world. We are a body in full frailty, resilience, and vulnerability. We are a body that can change, adapt and heal. We know from experience with countless injuries in the body, that we cannot heal through bypassing and erasing harm. When parts of our body are in pain, do we not stop and tend to pain/injury/woundedness? I ask again, how are we as a dance community accountable to one another? How do we show up for the needs of the very real human dancers who embody our work?  

I have my eye on the Dance Artist National Collective (DANC), a growing group of freelance dance artists organizing for action toward safe, equitable, and sustainable working conditions. As a dance teacher, I also research methods of reinforcing agency in the classroom through choice making and practicing verbal consent with touch in the studio. Likewise, I want to be available for taking responsibility for my choices and I want to trust that my community will hold me accountable for my choices. We can’t be a healthy body if we are not attuned to one another and accountable to one another. I’m wondering about what kinds of structures of accountability might be useful for the SF Bay dance community in holding the wellness of the body a priority?  

We are a body. We are connected to one another. We are responsible for the impact of our choices and actions in relation to one another. There is a serious way that our collective body is out of balance. I’m curious about how we can do better, how we can support one another and address the needs of dancers with dignity. Let us center our bodiedness in our practices and take leadership in community accountability because of the wisdom and knowledge of the body that we already possess. I know my own particular body is asking me to slow down, reassess how I work and take time for healing. What is our collective Body asking of us?  

*I got this definition of community accountability from this youtube video from the Barnard Center for Research on Women, who named the source of this definition from the Northwest Network.  

This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of In Dance.

KJ Dahlaw is a bay area dance artist and makes work under the name of Unruly Body Tanztheater. They hold an MFA in Dance from Saint Mary's College of CA and a BFA in Dance Performance from Northern Illinois University. KJ’s work examines unruliness; queer theology;the body; and practices of counter-hegemony in the dancing body. KJ is exploring the lineage of tanztheater and has a background in ballet, modern dance,and improvisational practices.