For many of us, dancing is synonymous with celebration. We waltz at weddings, chacha at the club, or moonwalk in the mirror when no one is watching; but dance has historically been just as rebellious and political as it is celebratory. The politics of dance shine through the toyi-toyi, the signature dance of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa that was used during mass demonstrations to intimidate settler police forces. The way we move our bodies has the potential to start revolutions and end injustices. The power that dance holds is most familiar to the governments that wish to repress it. It is the fear of that power that led Iranian police to arrest six young adults for uploading a video of themselves dancing carelessly to Pharell’s Happy or Pope Leo XII to ban the Waltz which he described as “highly obscene”. Yet the human spirit craves dance so much, that like the Irish step dancers who learned to dance without moving their upper bodies to avoid British suspicion, it always finds a way.
In the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police in the US, dance as protest has taken on a new form. As tens of thousands march around the world in the Black Lives Matter movement, many have expanded their cause past the symptom of police brutality to include the disease of systemic racism itself. Satisfying scenes of activists swiftly tearing down statues that glorify slave traders and colonizers continue to circulate online, with one notorious figure making repeat appearances, Christopher Columbus. Columbus embodies the original sins of imperialism, racism and genocide in the new world. His arrival, and the subsequent arrival of Europeans to the continent marked the beginning of the end for native Americans as they saw their women exploited, their lands seized, and their people exterminated. The admirable defiance of native people was on full display in a recent scene in Minnesota as members of the American Indian Movement were recorded dancing around a toppled statue. The dancers held hands and sang traditional chants while circling a defeated Columbus to the beat of the drum. Watching this simple act of dance stirred me with emotion. The traditional choreography felt full of tensions, where revenge battled justice and regret danced with resistance. With each step the dancers seemed to declare “this is our land” with every chant they proclaim “we won’t be silenced”. I realized one reason the line dance resonated so strongly with me is because since 1492, Assyrians have struggled for indigenous justice too.
The tragedy of the native Americans draws bitter parallels to recent Assyrian history. Having inhabited our indigenous lands for thousands of years, we have both been divided by European powers, displaced by foreigners, suffered genocide and teeter on the brink of extinction. Our cultures are both appropriated by settlers and our histories revised to seek their political ambitions. We have both been manipulated, raped, pillaged, forcefully converted, systematically murdered and reduced by our enemies to a shadow of our former selves. We have both seen too many unkept promises and too few allies to our cause, and despite all that we have survived – we dance.
The act of oppressed people dancing on their indigenous land is both cathartic and powerfully mythic. Popular Assyrian folk songs include reference to the ancient continuity of khigga and directly link the act of dancing to future liberation. Lyrics sing with the hope that one day when Assyrians are able to safely return to their homelands they will cleanse the earth and declare victory through dance. When I watch the triumphant yet melancholy video of native Americans dancing I see Assyrians dancing in the streets of northern Iraq. Another short but powerful video shows members of the Assyrian diaspora performing a folk dance in the mountains of their ancestral homeland. They have returned through an annual birthright Assyria trip (Gishru) and are mostly strangers to one another; hailing from North America, Europe and Australia. Brought together from the four corners of the world, they unite through the familiarity of dance – holding hands to perform the steps they were taught as children. Step by step, shuffle by shuffle, they cleanse the land beneath their feet. The vibrations of their stomps comforting their ancestors. For a fleeting moment, this land is theirs.
Dance and real estate both depend on the same factor for impact: location location location. Unlike the native Americans dancing around a defeated Columbus, I as an Assyrian-American do not dance on my indigenous land. Instead I dance as a settler on native American land. My cultural legacy is one of displacement, yet I was raised on the land of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. How do I reconcile my position as both oppressed and oppressor? What do I owe native Americans for benefitting from their land? How do I contribute to native erasure? As the music fades and the dancing ends, these are the questions that remain.
The answers to many of these difficult questions begin with ally-ship and self education. I hope that the next time a Columbus statue is torn down that Assyrian-Americans will be the first to join in and dance. I hope that Assyrian-American parents take the time to commemorate Indigenous people’s day instead of “Columbus day” and teach their children which tribe’s land they occupy. Above all I hope indigenous peoples around the world show solidarity with one another and demand to have their full rights restored. Reflecting on the struggle to end South African apartheid, one activist made it clear that “the [toyi-toyi dance] was our weapon. We did not have the technology of warfare, the tear gas and tanks, but we had this weapon.” Let us too be equipped with the weapons of unity and dance, only then can we win the fight against injustice and achieve the dignity we are owed.