The true magic of dance is that it can focus your attention on issues that you would normally avoid and that it can make you understand things more clearly than ever trough the single movement of a hand or by the raising of an eyebrow. In Situation Mit Doppelgänger two male dancers make some very relevant points about racism, sexism and the physical strain of dancing professionally – all at once mind you – just by… twerking!
“This is a dance performance about cultural appropriation.”
Cultural anthropologist Julian Warner and director Oliver Zahn have created a performance which is simultaneously hilarious and eye-opening. It is an impressive display of the history of dance as well as a lesson on colonial relations and the segregation between black and white communities from the 1800’s until today: this is a dance performance about cultural appropriation. I can hear you thinking “how on earth can such a theme be presented in a funny way?”. Well, Warner and Zahn do this by re-enacting the dance contest which was once held between master Diamond (an Irish-American dancer) and master Juba (an African-American dancer). Master Diamond claimed to be the best imitator of “black dances” in the whole world and challenged anyone to prove him wrong. He was taken up to this challenge by Juba, an actual black dancer.
“twerking (a form of dancing which aims to limit all movement of the upper body in order to focus the attention to the rapid up and downwards movement of the butt)”
In this updated version of the dance-off, Diamond and Juba are introduced by a stern female voice-over who reminded me of a grumpy, old, classic ballet teacher. She explains to the audience that Diamond and Juba will be performing four styles of dancing and will be judged by a professional jury on three points: accuracy to the prescribed rules of the style, rhythm and – most importantly – authenticity. The dance styles they will be showing us are: minstrelsy (a combination of German folk dance involving lots of body percussion and African stepdance), cakewalking (once a parody on Western Ballroom dancing by slaves, later parodied as stereotypical ‘slave-dancing’ by white performers), twerking (a form of dancing which aims to limit all movement of the upper body in order to focus the attention to the rapid up and downwards movement of the butt) and an intermezzo containing the “thriller” move from Michael Jackson’s music video by the same name. The dancers take their positions with concentrated faces, the voice-over counts down, and the dancing begins: the similarities between them are incredible.
“Apart from the color of their skin, there is hardly any difference to be found.”
Apart from the color of their skin, there is hardly any difference to be found. Neither between the two dancers, nor between the white and black versions of the dances they perform for us. We need the voice-over to tell us which version is the German folk dance and which is the African parody of the British oppressors. We need the woman’s voice to tell us which twerking-routine is inspired by New Orleans club-goers and which is the routine from Miley Cyrus’s MTV performance. They show us what she doesn’t tell: is there really any difference? What are we talking about when we debate about matters of authenticity? Does the one have more right to dance in a certain way than the other? Are we even allowed to judge the formalistic aspects of their dancing in the light of these racial issues? Can, or should, anyone own the right to dance?“
Try not to work it out, but twerk it out”
This performance shows us that there is still much to talk about. But perhaps the best way to say it, is to dance it. So, next time when you feel lost for words in conversations about race, sexism, or any other topic that fuels your anger or frustration try not to work it out, but twerk it out. Don’t go throwing eggs at each other, but do a cakewalk. Don’t go stepping on anybody’s toes, just step (dance) on it. And see where this leads the conversation.