Stretching the Body Politic: Refugees Dancing with Germans in Germany

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Kaplan, Jeff. “Stretching the Body Politic: Refugees Dancing with Germans in Germany.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2021.

Jeff Kaplan

Germany – Deutschland – DANCING TO CONNECT 2016 – Battery Dance Company New York; HIER SchülerInnen der Leonardo-da-Vinci Gesamtschule Potsdam – Aufführung im Brandenburger Theater, 12.10.2016; © Christian Jungeblodt

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, violence has displaced approximately one out of every 112 people in the world (“Figures at a Glance”). At the same time, a resurgence in right-wing voices has been fueling a brazen xenophobia reminiscent of the disasters of the twentieth century, as European nations attempt to handle the influx of refugees. New York City-based Battery Dance is participating in Germany’s refugee integration effort to combat social stretch reflexes with “Dancing to Connect” workshops that bring German and refugee teens together. A long-standing modern dance company, Battery Dance also leads applied dance initiatives globally. In the refugee integration program, company members help non-dancer German teens and their newly arrived peers create dances as a way of overcoming recoil against “others,” like a muscle contracting against a too-sudden change, and also to engender trust.

As an embodied art form, dance would seem well-suited to contribute insights into larger conversations regarding the role of elasticity in performance. Battery Dance’s efforts raise significant issues that extend beyond the studio: how can movement stretch communities in healthy ways? How might the body politic move without injury? What are the best means to extend embodied minds? These questions serve as a point of departure for this reflection and are important to consider in the context of programs like Dancing to Connect, which may serve as a model for using the arts as a strategy for refugee integration in a charged moment.

This article uses a movement idea as a lens for analyzing a dance-based community initiative. First, it adapts the physiological phenomenon of the “stretch reflex” to an understanding of a body politic undergoing stress. Then, it provides a brief context for the workshops’ rationale. Finally, it interweaves multi-media content of Dancing to Connect in order to show how the refugee integration workshops “stretch” social fabrics without tearing them. My relationship with Battery Dance came out of interviews I conducted with the company as part my recent book project, Involuntary Motion: The Somatics of Refugee Performance, in which I argue that refugees are bodies in motion and, thus, the use of dance as a framework helps in understanding problems in refugee performance (Kaplan). Since motion constitutes a core component of the experiences of both dancers and refugees, one of the goals of this piece is to demonstrate the power that dance can have in reframing identity for displaced teens, as well as for their peers within host communities.

Bodies Politic

We have all probably stressed or strained a muscle at some point. The recoil we experience when the body moves too quickly is a kinesthetic self-defense response. On a physiological level, the American College of Sports Medicine defines flexibility as “ROM [range of motion] of a joint or group of joints, as per the skeletal muscles and not any external forces” (Schoffstall et al. 122). Muscle spindles contain sensors that trigger a “myotatic stretch reflex” when they perceive a sudden lengthening in order to protect tissue from harm. The resulting sharp pain is not the injury per se but a neurochemical tripwire. Stretching regimes reprogram muscle spindles, like rewiring a fuse to activate at a higher threshold. Unlike training effects such as muscle growth (hypertrophy), which involves changes in morphology, stretching repatterns the body. Extending the idea of elasticity in the dance studio to suppleness in society, stretching the body politic increases the degree to which social fabric can extend without activating autonomic, potentially violent, contraction.

To speak of stretching a German body politic in a refugee context requires care, given Europe’s nightmarish use of social body imagery in the past. The idea that racialized others constitute a form of disease in the social body has returned to Germany’s far right discourse — or perhaps never left. Still, observers are taking cautious steps forward. For example, Andreas Musolff reports on discourse analysis that shows how German media embeds the conceptual metaphor of Germany as a country at (and also as) the “heart” of Europe (439-443). Theorizing from the somatic, Julia Metzger-Traver explores the “critical re-imagination of the body as a metaphor (or muse) for anti-totalitarian, ethical ways of belonging” (64). Germany has stretched before, as when West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) absorbed the former East Germany (German Democratic Republic) at the end of the Cold War. As regards the present-day migrancy crisis, Angela Merkel’s Germany has committed itself to a stretch of a similar scale. The question therefore becomes one of method.

Dancing to Connect

Jonathan Hollander founded Battery Dance Company in Lower Manhattan in 1976. He came to New York on choreographer Merce Cunningham’s invitation in order to dance, though Hollander’s path ultimately led to administrative leadership. In addition to his company’s own work, he established the summer Battery Dance Festival in 1982, now the longest running event in New York of its kind. Pursuing a commitment to arts for social change, Hollander began “Dancing to Connect,” a movement residency program for at-risk New York City public school students in 1984. Due to resource scarcity, Hollander had to compress extended artist residences into one-week intensives, which he paradoxically found released creativity among workshop participants (Hollander). Building on these experiences, Hollander expanded outreach globally to address issues such as human trafficking, sex violence, conflict resolution, and other areas, distilling programming into one-week intensives, as he describes in the following audio.

Since 2006, Dancing to Connect instructors have conducted workshops in over sixty-two countries. (For an in-depth look, see the documentary Moving Stories.) Germany would soon draw his attention.

On August 31, 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited a refugee camp near Dresden. The setting provided weight; the juxtaposition of the city’s destruction in allied firebombing during World War II set against a displaced person’s camp evokes Rebecca Schneider’s contention that time involves “a matter of crossing, or passing, or touching, and perhaps always (at least) double” (37). Presumably, Merkel sought a sense of gravitas in order to quiet the still-burning cities in German cultural memory by providing refuge for refugees in the present. Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase “unstuck in time” in his classic novel about the firebombings, Slaughterhouse Five, comes to mind (22). Committing Germany to welcoming those in need, Merkel declared: “We have done so much, we can do this,” (Wir haben so vieles geschafftwir schaffen das), which became the slogan, “We can do this,” (Wir schaffen das). A similar clarion, “Yes, we can!” had resonated for Barak Obama during the 2008 U.S. Presidential election.

In contrast to Obama’s leitmotif, Wir schaffen das seemed to have “misfired,” to use linguist J. L. Austin’s characterization of a speech act whose “procedure which we purport to invoke is disallowed or is botched” — at least at the time (167). On the ground, Germany accepted a million refugees during 2015. Merkel’s policy inflamed right-wing nationalism, and her words became a rallying cry for far-right groups like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The Chancellor’s words near Dresden appeared to evoke darker memories of other kinds of camps rather than empathy for destitute workers among some of her constituents. Nevertheless, looking back on the eve of the 2017 federal elections (which she would win), Merkel told the Welt am Sonntag, “I’d make all the important decisions of 2015 the same way again” (Alexander. et. al.). Indeed, pushing to settle refugees in the years preceding a COVID-19 context may make Chancellor Merkel’s policy look prescient; in any case, Merkel would presumably contend that outcry from right-wing groups should not bear on what the German government felt was a moral imperative.

In 2015, Battery Dance won multi-agency, multi-government grants to adapt its Dancing to Connect programming as Refugee Integration residencies from 2016-20 across seventeen cities in Germany, in consonance with Germany’s federal policy. Support comes from the European Recovery Program Transatlantic Fund, Bundesministerium für Wirtshaft und Energy (the German Federal Ministry for the Economy and Energy), the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Qatar Foundation International, and Schöpflin Stiftung (a German non-profit). Typically, workshop facilitators meet with German and refugee teenagers ranging in age from about fourteen to early twenties, evenly split between German and refugee participants, for twenty-hour, one-week intensives. Traveling in one-month assignments, the teaching artists facilitate the creation of five- to eight-minute dance works, which they then organize into performances. The German government provides venues, although the Battery facilitators work with the conditions they find at hand (Hollander, “Refugee Integration,” and for more detail, Kaplan 30-35).

The workshops have heartening results. For instance, a 2017 Battery self-survey of 130 of its workshop participants found a 100% increase in German students’ “very positive” view towards their refugee counterparts, and refugees generally, after their one-week experiences (“Refugee Integration”). Conversations with Hollander, his staff, and workshop instructors suggest the life-changing power these experiences can have, although an emphasis on outcomes may not capture the program’s full value. For instance, James Thompson argues for an “end of effect,” by which he means that applied performance projects undercut their own importance when overfocusing on the “ends.” Instead, practitioners should not overlook the “radical potential of the freedom to enjoy beautiful radiant things,” Thompson argues [italics in original] (Thompson, Performance Affects 6). Similarly, Helen Nicholson points out the importance participation has to democracy, a resonance she describes as the “playful unruliness of performance to citizenship” (Nicholson 35). Change in the refugee integration workshops happens on the level of individual experience, as Thompson would say: affect instead of effect.

Dance can offer a means of stretching the body politic through the proxy of moving bodies. The dancemaking that refugee and German teens do together reverberates beyond the studio. Thompson notes the importance of anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s expression “webs of significance,” which Thompson observes are critical for a “community’s sense of identity and well-being” (Thompson, Applied Theatre 70). Replacing the metaphor of a spider’s web with the synechdote of muscle fibers underscores the importance of tensile suppleness for the health of the bonds that connect a culture. Webs of significance that do not bend will break. A culture that cannot withstand deformation will not endure. Flexibility constitutes a core pillar of health — both for individual bodies and bodies politic.

The alchemy of dance propels Dancing to Connect participants into a habitus of movement by bringing individuals from disparate contexts together in studio in order to grapple with choreographic problems. As dance theorist Susan Leigh Foster notes, “choreography” can expand to include “theorization of the body,” which is to say, a “setting forth of what the body is and what it can be” (Foster 4). As groups of mixed teen movers spiral, leap, and roll in Battery Dance’s workshops in cities across Germany, they (also) probe the stretch reflex of the muscles of the body politic. By pushing against the limits of their embodied imaginations, participants increase the range of motion in the future social corpus that they will help constitute. In studio, they can rehearse the kind of society in which they would like to live, provided they stretch safely.

How to Stretch

As in any style of stretching, the refugee integration workshops require an informed protocol. In the following video, Hollander clarifies the role that the workshop structure plays in their effectiveness:

Dancing to Connect -- Frankfurt. Video courtesy of Battery Dance.

Any form of shared physical activity tends to create bonds, and the arts excel at ensemble building. Through the specificity of creative problem-solving, and working with the non-verbal (or rather, multi-modal) language of movement, the workshops create environments conducive for stretching hearts and embodied minds. Figuring out how to make a line of shapes across the stage, for instance, might at first seem unrelated to real-world policy issues, but the skillsets underlying collaboration remain the same, regardless of context. By operating within clear choreographic parameters, workshop participants experience the power of working together, a process that often yields results greater than the sum of its parts, while at the same time emphasizing the unique value of its contributors.

“Stretching” also serves as a diagnostic to locate areas of tension, which can result in surprises. As the next video shows, dissonance arose in the workshop in Kassel, less from difference in nationality than from varying levels of comfort with the creative process:

Dancing to Connect -- Kassel. Video courtesy of Battery Dance.

As the instructor notes, once all of the participants understood the value of process over product, choreography unfolded, and friendships blossomed.

Ironically, the workshops can at first seem more accessible to refugee teens than their German counterparts, whose Bildung (“education,” from the noun root Bild, meaning “picture,” a linguistic intuition of pedagogy as the inculcation of images, which further suggests the appropriateness of dance as a learning tool) perhaps proves more prescriptive. Many of the refugee participants have been in-country for a matter of weeks. They may not speak German, nor do they necessarily share a common language with one another. They have no resources. Therefore, a task like “cross the floor while making spirals” provides a concrete challenge at which they can succeed. Hollander thinks that such moments restore a sense of humanity.

Any hesitancy among participants dissipates by the second or third day. By the culminating performance, participants establish life-long bonds.

Habitus becomes a habit.

The success of Dancing to Connect’s refugee integration workshops shows how reframing movement from something pathological to something artistic can have a transformative effect (or affect). As the final video illustrates, validation perhaps constitutes the program’s most defining feature. For participants, the stretch becomes permanent:

Dancing to Connect -- Magdeburg. Video courtesy of Battery Dance.

A dance-based approach to elasticity has the potential to transform lives. As in any form of stretching, a methodology that resets the stretch reflex by testing connective tissue just within its current capabilities, under the eye of an experienced practitioner, results in practices that bear the potential to benefit diverse bodies in relation to one another as they learn to dance in new ways as a community.

Works Cited

Alexander, R., P. Huth, and U. Poschardt.Frau Merkel, haben Sie in der Flüchtlingsfrage Fehler gemacht?Welt am Sonntag, 27 August 2017. Accessed 6 April 2021.

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955. 2nd Edition, edited by J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà, Oxford UP, 2011.

“Figures at a Glance.” UNHCR.

Foster, Susan LeighChoreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance. Routledge, 2010.

Hollander, Jonathan. Personal Interview. 26 May 2020.

Kaplan, Jeff. Involuntary Motion: The Somatics of Refugee Performance. Routledge, 2020.

Metzger-Traber, Julia. The Body Politic. If the Body Politic Could Breathe in the Age of the Refugee: An Embodied Philosophy of Interconnection. Springer, 2018.

Moving Stories: Lives Transformed by Dance. Directed by Rob Fruchtman, Produced by Cornelia Ravenal, Mikael Södersten, and Wendy Sax, 2019.

Musolff, Andres. “The Heart of the European Body Politic: British and German Perspectives on Europe’s Central Organ.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, vol. 25, no. 5-6, 2004, 437-452.

Nicholson, Helen. Applied Drama: The Gift of Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

“Refugee Integration.” Battery Dance.

Schneider, Rebecca. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. Routledge, 2011.

Schoffstall, James, Marcus Kilpatrick, Peter Magyari, and Randi Lite, editors. ACSM’s Resources for the Exercise Physiologist: A Practical Guide for the Health Fitness Professional. 2nd Edition, Wolters Kluwer Health, 2018.

Thomas, Helen. The Body, Dance and Cultural Theory. Macmillan International Higher Education, 2003.

Thompson, James. Applied Theatre: Bewilderment and Beyond. Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.

—. Performance Affects: Applied Theatre and the End of Effect. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five: Or, the Children’s Crusade, a Duty-dance with Death. Modern Library, 1969.