Dancing The Self- how dance for women became a women's movement
(First published in Animated Magazine Summer 2017)
Like most great things, this project grew organically. I’d been living and working in Cairo on and off for two years and I was full to the brim with inspiration from the energy and challenges that brought with it. From the openness and passion of every audience member, workshop participant and artist, to the beautiful but decaying architecture, overwhelmingly busy streets and relentless noise. The biggest challenge was being a woman here, with street harassment at endemic levels and a deeply entrenched misogyny.
Yet on the other hand, my own prejudice was crumbling around me. Just like most other British white middle class children, I was raised to respect other cultures, but did not necessarily have much opportunity to fully understand them. I’ve met amazing women here, some who are veiled against the wishes of their families, and some who’ve removed their Hijab and been met with fierce condemnation. The UK streets are not free of street harassment, and being a sexual object is no better than being hidden. The idea that Muslim women are more oppressed than the rest of us is truly limiting for us all.
I made my solo dance work (Un)Covered as a protest against the politicization of womens’ bodies via the clothes they wear. Advocating for autonomous choice above all else. It was vital to me that as much as possible I involved Egyptian women in the creation of this work. I wanted to be able to tour it widely and easily so the most economic way of doing this was to involve them in the research and use video to feature them in the work. I started with a group of women for two weeks, most of whom had never danced before. I entitled the workshop ‘Dancing The Self’ because I wanted to encourage them to inhabit their bodies fully, and express themselves freely.
That first week, I planned the content fairly instinctively: simple phrase work; improvisations around reclaiming personal space; drawing and painting in imaginary colours; mirroring a partner… Each day after playing around a theme I offered a creative task and asked participants to perform. I’d not worked that much with adults in community settings before, so I applied many of the structures I’ve used with children and young people and simply adjusted my delivery. I was amazed by the incredible power creative play had on adult women. Sometimes a woman will be so blocked in a meditative exercise; find it so hard to go inwards. But then in an energetic movement game she becomes so confident, and later, having had that experience, she is more able to connect to herself, and willing to go deeper.
The first week was so over-subscribed we added another. That one stimulated need for a level 2 course. Then word spread and more and more women wanted to sign up. I am currently leading the 4th and 5th groups through level 1, bringing the total to more than 100 women.
The more I have repeated the course, the more I’ve examined why it works so well. There is the simple fact that women in Cairo lack spaces where they can come together and socialize away from the male gaze. Then there is the block of the Hijab. Most veils physically restrict neck and head movement and make exercise less enjoyable, as well as it not being considered modest to move your body in certain ways in front of men. Therefore women who choose this way of life are limited in their choice of activities. Even women who are not veiled feel often inhibited by the male gaze. By having a women’s only group, we enabled more veiled women to experience dance, without the fear that it is contrary to their religion and without the need to wear their Hijab. We gave all women the chance to be physical and sensual without inhibition. One woman told me that until the 3rd day of the course, when she wore a vest, not even her parents had seen the skin of her collar bone and shoulders for years. She was liberated in being seen, within a safe environment, free of judgment. The other women showered her with compliments on her body. She glowed. Especially in such a hot climate, the feeling of opening the skin to the air is a beautiful sensation. One that I’m afraid I always took for granted until now.
It was with the 3rd group that I came to fully understand the benefits of the course content itself, and to share it with the participants. The knowledge of the ‘why’ changed the way they embodied the exercises. The content has stayed the same, and the effect that they feel happier, healthier and more connected is consistent, but these are not incidental experiences. ‘Star fish’ (the expansion out from and curving into the center whilst rolling from back surface to front surface in time with the breath) is a staple that they came to love. Especially once they - and I- understood it fully. Starfish is useful not only for its dance-based benefits of core activation and smooth, efficient coordination, but also for its sensory feedback. Visiting fetal position, laying on the belly and the back and moving through flexion/ extension of the spine unwinds the flight/fight stress reflex and reduces tension, making the whole body available. I started taking the opening and closing with the breath further, into a free improvisation and planted the idea that they could be in control of when to be open to people and when to close, that they could fix their own boundaries and therefore control their own feelings. In a culture where even things like being on time is left to God’s will “I’ll be there- Insha’allah…” this was a bit of a revelation. I knew of course that feelings live in the body, from my own experience, but to witness women’s movement literally releasing long held emotions through tears, laughter, relief and joy, was something else entirely.
Partner work and performance has also been a vital element. It allows women to be affirmed, witnessed and praised as well as being more social. We create dances around ideas like carrying a ball of energy, power poses, wearing favourite clothes or dancing out feelings. We finish every session with a sharing to rapturous applause and each participant reflects on one thing she appreciates about herself from the session, and one thing she appreciates about someone else, allowing us all to see the progress we’re making.
The feedback from the course has been overwhelmingly positive. Some women came despite injuries or illness and discovered their body was more able than they realized. Others arrived hating their body, focused only on how it looked, but left knowing how to be kind to themselves, appreciating what their body can do.
In April, I recreated (Un)Covered as a group piece on 26 of the women. (Un)Covered- En Masse was one of the highlights of my entire career. It was so true to the original spirit of the work to see such a diverse group of women, each so invested in their performance and empowered by the act of taking to the stage. These 26 women were all different shapes and sizes; from different religious and class backgrounds; some performing veiled, some in short dresses with hair down and flowing. Each one was completely beautiful and spectacular in her way. It felt like it had been too easy, like I’d barely done anything, simply provided a space and the women had blossomed into it in all their glory. It was humbling. I’ll never forget the sight of them shaking, twisting and punching the air, patriarchal control vanishing to dust in their wake.
Quotes from participants:
“It was a liberating experience. Happiness for me is the freedom to express myself, and that was my most joyful outcome from DTS” – Yasmine
“This has been a transforming journey for me. I met some amazing souls. I could feel myself changing to the better. I love myself more. I love my body more. I now love my movements, how random & spontaneous they are. Dancing is definitely therapeutic” – Sarah
“I found myself, literally found myself.” – Rana
“Feeling expanding in space for the first time, as if loudly saying to the world with all the power and will I have: I'm here, here to influence and express.
Now I can feel flying to overcome all disappointments and failures, believing that I have all the right to make mistakes, to learn and to cope ; there is no wrong, there is a space for all of the mess of me to deeply accept myself and even be welcomed by the world.. It was the DTS community.” – Yousra
“A connection between myself and each and every part of my body has been established & will continue to grow... an opening for endless conversation within my whole being is facilitated through Dancing The Self… Grateful! The dance is not anymore an entertainment but an essential living tool.” - Amira
Dancing The Self was hosted by Studio Emad Eddin in downtown Cairo and delivered by Zosia Jo Dowmunt. Zosia’s eclectic training includes a degree from Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Dance Research Studio’s Interdisciplinary Performance Training and certificates in psychotherapy and counseling skills from Spectrum Psychotherapy. Working as a performer, choreographer and facilitator, Zosia has built a portfolio career specialising in multidisciplinary performance work across the UK and in Egypt. Zosia’s Wales based company, Joon Dance, is focused on combining inclusive community dance with professional performance practice. Zosia is currently designing a One Year Program of regular classes to be delivered at Studio Emad Eddin by local practitioners to allow all the women to keep dancing. She hopes that, with some adjustments, she can also create a Dancing The Self course for women in the UK.
Photo by Roy Campbell-Moore