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Why white people can’t dance: they’re traumatized

Why white people can’t dance: they’re traumatized
This is a 'classic article' from my legacy website.

Please note that while I still consider my current work to have evolved out concepts and frameworks that I present in this piece and others, I have greatly departed, in both thinking and tone, from the kind of dualist social/racial justice discourse I embedded this piece of work within.

I consider my current work to be fully dedicated to embracing the nondual nature of the cosmos, never hardening into essentials of good or bad, right or wrong.

NOTE: When I say 'white' this doesn’t equal European. I understand that there are long and unique histories of European peoples that I can’t speak to as I am not the expert. For me white begins in the ‘enlightenment’ era where reason came to the forefront of European society. From this understanding, I believe that Europe was the first place modern colonization happened and I empathize with the grief that comes with acknowledging this.

ON COMMENTS: I am no longer approving comments on this post since I don't have the time and energy to reply and I want to be responsible. I want to address a few general themes that came up. 1) I see all oppressive mechanisms, such as misogyny or able-ism as energetic dis-ease, not just whiteness. 2) There are multiple layers of truth in my understanding. Being 'white' in the context of this world does mean 'white' people, with their privilege, generalized behaviours and ideas. BUT it is also true that whiteness is a social construct and no one is actually 'white'. These aren't mutually exclusive.

My exploration of race and racism started when I picked up street dancing as a serious hobby.

It all started 9 years ago, when I was making my head way as a video artist. I was doing artistic research on black vernacular dance (e.g. hip hop) and its connection to black rights movements. It was fascinating, saddening, maddening and inspiring to learn about how black dance culture supported the economic and political activity of black people.

But then in my project I hit a point at which it stopped making sense to just read about it. Reading so much about dance and watching so many videos, it just called on me to get off the couch and get on the good foot, so to speak.

I needed to be a part of the culture itself.

I still remember the day I went to my first dance class and the embarrassment I felt. Everything felt awkward as my limbs could not remember even a step of movement. And to be honest, I sometimes feel that way today.

I am eternally grateful though to the incredible gift that black/brown dance has been to me as it has lead me here, to become a body-centred therapist. As much as I am trained in Western psychotherapy, I understand the centre of my practice as a combination of my ancestral energy practices, such as qigong and martial arts with black movement principles.

From this place, I understand my racism cessation work as a commitment to the practices that have nourished me as a person and the communities that have supported me in my own healing path.

Getting back to the main subject, the burning question I had at the beginning of my research project was around the common phrase: “White people/men can’t dance”. What does this really mean? Is it really true?

This question stumped me because the community that I was starting to connect with through street dance was actually incredibly racially/ethnically/culturally diverse. Not only were there white people who could dance, there were East Asian, South Asian, Indigenous, Middle Eastern and all kinds of people who could dance.

Below: From The multi-racial Assassins crew, Rashaad Hasani and Ryan "Future" Webb get down.

This left me with a profoundly different understanding of race and its relationship to the body. And it has brought me to this conclusion 9 years later: White people ‘can’t dance’ because white-ness is a traumatized state that is disconnected from the body. That's what the aforementioned phrase really means.

As I deepened my understanding of trauma and anatomy, I began to see that white-ness is much more than a colour of skin or a culture – it’s a type of embodiment that holds a certain set of ideas and attitudes. And I saw this first hand by watching myself and my white peers heal by learning to dance.

The more I danced I became less anxious and reactive, and more expressive and confident. Something changed in me profoundly. And I wanted to know why.

Along with learning to dance I spent a long time researching Japanese and Asian movement disciplines and studied how postural alignments express aspects of our character, particularly our ability to self-regulate the nervous system. In this research I began to see how colonization/Westernization has profoundly impacted the way we move our bodies.

Just think about even this little fact: most non-European people didn’t wear pants before colonization, and if they did, they were not tight. Most cultures wore robes and ‘skirts’, no matter the gender.

We also generally didn’t sit on chairs. We squatted or sat on the ground. Many of our cultures didn't glorify tight muscular abs. We, including the Japanese, valued a soft and supple abdomen. We didn’t march like rigid European soldiers did. We walked using a slight skating motion from side-to-side and a subtle ripple up the spine (a movement principle you can observe cross-culturally in everything from dance to martial arts).

Below: Skating steps from house dance

Below: Sliding footwork in Aikido

Our bodies ‘moved’ completely differently before colonization/Westernization. We had a much greater sense of the lower body and abdomen. We have been white-ified through changes to our living environment including the adoption of Western military discipline and education.

When we begin to understand trauma and anatomy we start to understand how much impact this has had.

The major muscle in our body that holds trauma is our iliopsoas which connects our spine to our pelvis. It is the muscle responsible for engaging us in our stress reactions of fight, flight and freeze. Trauma locks up the use of this muscle, which in turn reduces the range of movement of the spine. Westernized/colonized life reinforces trauma to produce a rigid, reactive and disassociated embodiment -what we call white-ness.

How I understand white-ness now is that it is an energetic imbalance caused by a loss of spinal fluidity and awareness of the lower body. Emotional energy becomes concentrated in the upper body, particularly gathering in the mind. To live in a world dominated by white-ness is to live in an environment that denies and protects white-ness as embodied trauma.

When you look at it this way, white-ness is traumatization itself. The white body is in freeze: a state of disconnection between mind and body. It is ungrounded and cannot feel the earth. We see this pained energy of white-ness play out in our society through violence towards sexuality, emotional vulnerability, and ecology, amongst other things.

This is why, when a white ally asks me about how they can best ally with POCs, my best advice is to come dance with us. I don’t mean this just in the literal sense (although it's a lot of fun). What I mean is that white bodies need to actively experience the discomfort of their body not being dominant in a space to really understand how much pain they are in - to feel and heal the white-ness that has been fortified by living in a colonized world.

Like I did in my first dance class.

Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?

I provide coaching and consulting services for individual practitioners, enterprises, and organizations that are committed to intersectional cultural healing. You can find more information here.