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"In the name of harmony". The imaginary of whiteness in the field of contemporary dance

« Au nom de l’harmonie ». L’imaginaire de la blanchité dans le champ de la danse contemporaine
Julien Debonneville
Traduction de Jean-Yves Bart
Cet article est une traduction de :
« Au nom de l’harmonie ». L’imaginaire de la blanchité dans le champ de la danse contemporaine [fr]


This article considers the social construction of bodies from the angle of the imaginary of whiteness and of racialization processes in the transnational contemporary dance field, in an effort to evidence how bodies become marked by racial difference in auditions and during the creative process. Based on a qualitative sociological study of dancers and choreographers active in the field, it begins by showing that whiteness constitutes a deeply invisibilized hegemonic norm whose performative effects contribute to producing othered bodies. It then examines how the dancers and choreographers in question appropriate and revalue this difference through their creative practices. They are able to subvert these assignations by resorting to choreographic and bodily aesthetic registers built around the idea of creolization and hybridity.

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Notes de l’auteur

This article was written during a postdoctoral fellowship at the Department of Social and Cultural Diversity, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity (Göttingen, Germany), granted by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). I would like to thank these organizations for their support.

Texte intégral

1Cet article interroge la construction sociale des corps au prisme d’un imaginaire de la blanchité et des processus de racialisation dans le champ transnational de la danse contemporaine afin de comprendre comment les corps deviennent marqués par la différence raciale lors des auditions et du travail de création. Fondé sur une enquête sociologique qualitative avec des danseurs et danseuses et des chorégraphes circulant dans ce champ, il expose dans un premier temps comment la blanchité représente une norme hégémonique fortement invisibilisée dont les effets performatifs participent à produire des corps altérisés. Nous verrons par la suite comment les danseur·euse·s et les chorégraphes marqué·e·s par cette différence se réapproprient et revalorisent cette dernière à travers des pratiques de création. L’enquête soulignera dès lors comment ces dernier·ère·s peuvent subvertir ces assignations par l’intermédiaire de registres chorégraphiques et d’esthétiques des corps pensés autour de l’idée de créolisation et d’hybridité.


  • 1 Here the author draws on Amandine Dumont’s (2019) work.
  • 2 This is a reference to writings by Noémi Michel, who uses the phrase “bodies marked by racial diffe (...)

2On 8 February 2021, Pap Ndiaye and Constance Rivière’s report on diversity at the Paris Opera was made public. The authors found that “the Paris opera is not a place of diversity […], it is a white world that is a far cry from what contemporary French society looks like” (Ndiaye & Rivière 2021: 25). They also note that the body in “classical ballet has been shaped by white actions, by dancers with white or whitened bodies”, with white constituting “the neutral, if not the universal rule, all other bodies being perceived […] as ‘exceptional bodies’, ‘untamed bodies’ that ‘take up too much space or cause discomfort, embarrassment’” (Ndiaye & Rivière 2021: 241). In this article I set out to question this hegemonic norm of whiteness (Cervulle 2012) with a focus on the European transnational contemporary dance field, to gain an understanding of how bodies are named, classified, hierarchized through the idea of “racial difference”2 in artistic practices. To this end, I have conducted an ethnographic study on the normalization of bodies, considered as discursive scripts informed by social imaginaries (Appadurai 2001), whose performative effects (Butler 2005) make a mark on dancing bodies. In this sense, the body is a “social and cultural phenomenon, a substance of symbol, an object of representations and imaginaries”(Le Breton 2010: 3). More broadly, the body should not be reduced to its physical or physiological dimension, but instead be approached as a “multifunctional, polysemic reality, playing on various social registers (economic, political, ideological, symbolic...)” (Berthelot 1983: 126). The body may also be a potential metaphor, a possible counterpoint, or a site of symbolic incarnation (Berthelot 1983: 126).

  • 3 According to Colette Guillaumin, the idea of minoritized social groups directly relates to the conc (...)

3Among the imaginaries that circulate in the dance field, gender plays a structuring role in the construction of bodies (Marquié 2016) and has been the focus of many studies. However, while sociological studies on contemporary dance – as well as classical and modern dance – have gradually come to consider gender relations (Valentin 2000; Faure 2004; Sorignet 2004a, 2004b; Fisher & Say 2009; Lefevre 2015; Vionnet 2015; Marquié 2007, 2011, 2016), the ways in which imaginaries shape racial difference have seldom been addressed so far. Few scholars have attempted to describe how processes of racialization of bodies work in the contemporary dance field, be they othered bodies or white bodies (as social constructs [Ahmed 2004]). While the field is characterized by a particularly “small number of dancers from North and Sub-Saharan Africa” (Sorignet 2012: 245), this does not mean that white bodies are not subject to racialization processes. Studies on contemporary dance that have tackled race relations head on (Desmond 1993; Cooper 1997; Bourdié 2013; Despres 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016) have focused primarily on the construction of otherness through migratory circuits, as in the case of African dancers. However, they do not consider whiteness as a hegemonic racial norm. This article thus proposes to question how this norm of whiteness works in the contemporary dance field with a focus on the perception of otherness, and in particular of minoritized dancers3 perceived as Black or Asian. To do this, we consider the ways in which dancers become marked by racial difference in auditions and during the creative process. We also examine how this difference is put in perspective with the norm of whiteness in choreographic practices. This norm structures hiring and creative practices, through a discourse on the “harmony of bodies”, but also in technical ways. However, the actors marked by racial difference may also appropriate and subvert the norm in artistic projects.

4Drawing on a qualitative sociological survey on dancers and choreographers active in the transnational field (Sapiro 2013; Sapiro & al. 2018) of European contemporary dance, this article begins by discussing whiteness as a highly invisibilized yet hegemonic racial norm in that field. Conversely, dancers perceived as Black or Asian are referred to an otherness –which is systematically made visible– that reassigns other bodies to an essentialized difference. In what follows we will see how the actors marked by this difference appropriate it and revalue it through hiring and creative practices. The article will show how these dancers and choreographers subvert these assignations through choreographic and aesthetic registers built around a discourse on the hybridity and creolization of origins, bodies, and styles. Ultimately it will yield an understanding of why, in the artistic field, bodies do not all tell the same story on stage, depending on their inscription in race relations.

1. Behind the Scenes of an Ethnographic Study in a Transnational Artistic Space

  • 4 Among the interviewees, some defined themselves as dancers (16), others as choreographers (4), or b (...)

5This research draws on a qualitative fieldwork to analyse the social and racial construction of bodies in the contemporary dance field. Thirty semi-directive interviews, ranging from two to four hours, were conducted with dancers and/or choreographers4 who gravitate in the transnational European contemporary dance space, whose main hubs are, according to these actors, Paris, Brussels, London, Berlin, and Stockholm. This transnational space is far from homogeneous in terms of cultural policies for the promotion of contemporary dance. France, Belgium and Germany have actively pursued such policies. Since the 1980s, France has become a “land of immigration for many foreign dancers and choreographers, who can benefit from a labour market that is fuelled by numerous subsidized companies and from the specific insurance scheme that applies to artists, which is unparalleled in Europe” (Sorignet 2004b: 67).

  • 5 For more on class relations in the world of contemporary dance, see in particular Pierre-Emmanuel S (...)

6To investigate the transnational circulation dynamics within this space, dancers were interviewed at various stages in their careers (Becker 1985, 1988), from the beginning to the end and when in the course of making career changes. Interviewees were aged between 20 and 50. They had a variety of nationalities and origins (Swiss, French, Belgian, German, Japanese, Burkinabe, South African, Cuban, Algerian, Italian, Israeli, Spanish) but were based in Europe, and defined themselves from an ethnic-racial point of view as “black”, “white”, “Arabic”, or “Asian”. While the vast majority of interviewees was endowed with large amounts of cultural capital and came from the upper middle class, some interviewees had a working-class background and their trajectories have been characterized by intense social mobility, including in terms of acquisition of cultural capital5.

  • 6 A very large majority of interviewees were recognized as prestigious in that they enjoyed high leve (...)
  • 7 This concerns in particular female dancers around thirty seeking to settle to start a family and da (...)

7As a rule, most interviewees were on the move in this space for a variety of professional reasons (residencies, tours, workshops, auditions, companies) and private ones (family life, social life, visa, etc.). They were actors who introduced themselves as “dancer”, “dancer and choreographer” or “former dancer and now choreographer”, and whose main professional activity was dance. They enjoyed varying degrees of recognition and legitimacy in the field, from prestigious dancers (and choreographers) who were well-established in the field and performing in national choreography centres (CCNs) or renowned companies to dancers and/or choreographers with local ties, known primarily regionally6. It should be noted that while most had artistic careers in which mobility was a structuring factor, some of the interviewees were actively seeking to establish local roots to distance themselves from the norm of mobility that prevails in the world of dance7.

  • 8 These include a male Swiss friend, who identifies as “white” racially, and has been a dancer for a (...)

8Interviewees were selected based on the international dimension of their careers, their anchoring and legitimacy in the field, and their racial self-definitions. Contacts were facilitated by precious friendships with professional dancers in Switzerland and France, which pre-existed the study8. Following the snowball sampling method, through these friends, I was able to meet and interview a variety of dancers and choreographers. Others were approached via email or during chance encounters in order to consider a wider variety of networks of actors in the field. In addition to the interviews, the research also draws on the techniques of observation: ethnographic research was conducted in a national choreography centre (CCN) in France and in a prominent company based in Switzerland. My ongoing presence in the venues of socialization of the dance field and its activities in Switzerland for an entire year (at shows, at the “Fête de la danse” festival, in cafés, etc.) allowed me to refine the analysis and to develop other forms of sociability with dancers and choreographers.

9Lastly, as a researcher, it is important to situate oneself socially in order to understand how a range of power relations have structured fieldwork practices, in terms of access to the field, interactions between interviewer and interviewees, exit from the field, and circulation (Clair 2016). More broadly, the privileges (McIntosh 1988; hooks 1992) related to my posture as a scholar in terms of gender (as a cisgender man), my whiteness, my age (as a thirty-something), my (Swiss) nationality, my cultural capital, and my academic status (as an untenured PhD in social science) facilitated the study. This materialized in easier access to the fieldwork sites, the sharing of social codes and a sense of kinship with the interviewees that grew as the study progressed, ultimately creating a predominant sense of a close-knit community and reflecting a degree of homogamy.

2. Bodies in Motion Through the Prism of the Imaginary of Whiteness

  • 9 While Sylvia Faure emphasizes the importance of these imaginaries for young dancers, this article p (...)
  • 10 This article focuses on the effects of these imaginaries of difference, rather than on their origin (...)

10In the current context of globalization, imaginaries structure the ways in which we conceive ourselves and act, which leads anthropologist Arjun Appadurai to consider “imagination as a social practice” (Appadurai 1996: 31) and by extension “the work of the imagination as a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity” (Appadurai 1996: 3). In the art world, dance, like many other artistic practices, creates a tension between the real and the imaginary. Imaginaries are manifold and in flux (Léonardi 2000) and contribute to the making of otherness. They have performative effects and insinuate themselves into the slightest motions, in the processes of learning, teaching, auditioning, creating, staging and performing. The body is one of the channels of these imaginaries. Indeed, “the body is the site where thought can, precisely, be embodied” (Commeignes 2000: 40). In this respect, one of the specificities of dance is that it “shapes the connection between the imaginary and the body”, in which “collective and personal social representations and creations enter in a dialogue” (Marquié 2016: 100). Sylvia Faure, for her part, argues that “the dreamt, fantasized body, [the] body that one desires to be or to have, [the] body one thinks they are…, the actual or imaginary corporeality of the young dancer is constantly confronted with its objectivation” (Faure 2000: 78)9. Cécile Léonardi goes further in positing that “the body no longer exists other than imagined” in the sense that ‘body-matter’ can be defined as a ‘place’ where individual and collective imaginaries pass and inscribe themselves” (2000: 59). The body can accordingly be approached as a “reservoir and a vehicle of social practices and representations” that also “serves as a medium for the expression of ideologies and their legitimization, and therefore their existence over the long term” (Marquié 2016: 90). While gender reveals the import of these imaginaries in the contemporary dance field, to the extent that is often problematized by the actors in their creations, race issues tend to be considered and highlighted to a lesser degree in choreography. In the few cases where these questions are problematized, it is often in connection with the themes of exile, migration, of the faraway, and sometimes of colonization. Race is related to otherness, which has the additional effect of leaving whiteness unexamined. This invisibilization of whiteness reproduces a system of domination in which otherness is visible and the dominant norm is invisible, as Richard Dyer explains: “Looking with such passion and single-mindedness at non-dominant groups has had the effect of reproducing the sense of the oddness, differentness, exceptionality of these groups, the feeling that they are departures from the norm. Meanwhile the norm has carried on as if it is the natural, inevitable, ordinary way of being human” (1988: 44). Studying imaginaries allows us to evidence how these racializing representations work and to analyse this tension between visibility and invisibility. An empirical investigation of the imaginary of whiteness and otherness in the contemporary dance field will accordingly shed light on how race relations shape the making of white and non-white bodies10. More largely, it is a means to consider how the relationship of minoritized groups to a majority social group reveals the implicit norm.

3. Hegemonic Whiteness in Contemporary Dance

3.1. Whiteness as a Principle of Social Organization

  • 11 Although the concept of identity is becoming increasingly difficult to handle in the social science (...)
  • 12 This is a socially situated invisibility insofar as it is particularly at work from the point of vi (...)

11Whiteness is a normative principle of social organization based on race that conditions bodies as social signifiers (Puwar 2004; Ahmed 2007). The concept of whiteness more precisely refers to “the social, cultural and political white hegemony faced by ethno-racial minorities, as well as a mode of problematization of race relations” (Cervulle 2012: 39). As such, it is “a social construct with dynamic modalities through which, in some socio-historical contexts, some individuals or groups can be assigned (following an allo-identification process) or can subscribe (following a self-identification process) to a socially rewarding ‘white identity’” (Cervulle 2012: 49). As a hegemonic racial norm, whiteness entails an imaginary in which identities11 are constructed. The concept also reflects a number of social dynamics at work around questions of (in)visibility. Since the 1990s, critical whiteness studies have highlighted the “unseen dimensions”12 of the white subject (McIntosh 1988; Ahmed 2004; Sullivan 2006). In the words of Ruth Frankenberg: “Naming ‘whiteness displaces it from the unmarked, unnamed status that is itself an effect of its dominance. Among the effects on White people both of race privilege and of the dominance of Whiteness are their seeming normativity, their structured invisibility” (Frankenberg 1993: 6). In a similar way to what critical masculinity studies have done, this field of research has made whiteness visible in race relations to overcome effects of power that tend to make it “neutral” and “normal”. In other words, race marks all bodies, but not in the same ways. As Ruth Frankenberg points out: “White people are ‘raced’ just as men are ‘gendered’. And in a social context where white people have too often viewed themselves as nonracial or racially neutral, it is crucial to look at the ‘racialness’ of white experience” (Frankenberg 1993: 1). Critical whiteness studies thus allow us to deconstruct the dominant norm and its associated privileges. As we will see, this tension surrounding the issue of visibility is very much at work in the contemporary dance field, especially when it comes to conceiving the aesthetics of bodies on stage. Through this tension, imaginaries contribute to the unequal marking of racialized bodies.

3.2. Whiteness as the Frontier of an Artistic World

12Just as modern dance in the late nineteenth century overturned the norms of classical dance by breaking up lines and highlighting “unbalanced”, “slack” bodies and “challenging verticality” (Sorignet 2012: 13), contemporary dance does not intend to fit “into a lineage to conquer sufficient legitimacy to face up to academic ballet, but rather to contribute to a collective effort to define a creative space” (Sorignet 2012: 13). Contemporary dance is fundamentally characterized by the ideas of rupture and subversion of artistic and aesthetic norms. Its subversion of the codes of dance and of social norms has constituted a form of “liberation” of the performing body (and of the female body) (Sorignet 2004c). While the historical bodily norms of classical dance continue to be subverted on stage, particularly in terms of gender, the representation of diversity – especially regarding racial marking – is arguably problematic. Although the European contemporary dance field has gradually tended towards the inclusion some form of racial diversity on stage, it remains largely dominated by white dancers and structured by the norm of whiteness. The prevalence of this norm is directly reflected on the representations of bodies, and it has the performative effect of categorizing, classifying and distinguishing white and non-white bodies. The performativity of this hegemonic norm can already be observed early in the dancers’ careers, as they learn their craft in ways that are structured by forms of identification and imitation. For racialized young dancers, this identification work directly relates to questions of legitimacy and to the opportunity of recognizing themselves and of projecting themselves into this job. In this sense, whiteness structures early aspirations to become a dancer. Haruki a thirty-something Japanese dancer and choreographer who defines herself as Asian, was trained in Japan and England and danced in many prestigious European companies before she set up her own company – illustrates this performative dimension of whiteness as well as the way in which this norm legitimizes bodies that have access to stages while delegitimizing others:

I wanted to be a dancer because I’d see prima ballerinas who were invited to the opera in Japan. Sylvie Guilhem was my idol. I wanted to be like her, to move like her, but when I saw her, I was like ‘why don’t I have that body? Why am I not like her at all?’ […]. This classical body is a very European thing. It means very slender, long legs. A very long neck, open hips, too. The arms too. And the very small head. There were lots of reasons why I didn’t recognize myself at all in what I was seeing. […] And so I felt that compared to the European model, everything we’d do wasn’t good enough […]. At first, I internalized this view that Japan was inferior too much. (June 2018 interview).

13The white body, as the aesthetic and artistic norm, produces forms of inhibition, and contributes to the construction of a symbolic frontier between legitimate and illegitimate bodies on stage. The very capacity of picturing oneself on a stage – and beyond, pursuing a career – is at stake in these representations of whiteness. More than a frontier, this norm of whiteness is like a barrier between two words – an inclusive and an exclusive ones – for some racialized interviewees. Ibrahim, a prestigious forty-something French choreographer, the former director of a French national choreography centre who defines himself as a “racialized Frenchman”, was quick to notice the import of this norm in the world of French theatre and dance:

  • 13 This refers to the arts of theatre and choreography.

“We made the observation that French theatre13 is very white. When you go to the theatre and then you walk out into the street when it’s over, you feel as if you’ve crossed into a different country, you’ve crossed a border, and we thought, better turn things around than suffer from this! That was the plan when we founded this company”. (April 2017 interview).

14The metaphor of national borders is summoned here to describe an isolated, diversity-proof art world, from which he has often felt excluded. Ibrahim goes on to relate how the people he frequents in the dance world justify these borders, and explains why he believes they are so difficult to cross:

“When we meet directors, we ask them: ‘Aren’t you sick of being among whites?’, and they go: ‘I’m not racist, I just like to work with my classmates’. ‘But you do see they’re all the same, right, doesn’t that bother you?’. It’s not active discrimination, it’s just that we’re subjected to systems, we’re subjected to habits, we’re subjected to kind of muted ways of working, and as a result there are some people we can’t include in our collective imagination. […] I hope that in the years to come, we’ll have gotten to a far more creolized collective imagination”. (April 2017 interview).

15The lack of diversity of this world is understood as the result of its exclusive whiteness but also and most importantly of an inability to conceive “creolized” creations. As he points out this diversity issue, Ibrahim emphasizes the influence of imaginaries on the ability to include so-called different bodies on stage. These imaginaries reinforce the supposed legitimacy of white bodies, and conversely the illegitimacy of those marked by racial difference. This aesthetic of the body is also discussed by the actors in terms of “harmony”, a discourse that is often central to the creative process.

3.3. “Preserving the Harmony of Bodies”: Whiteness as a Norm in Hiring and Creation

16Auditions (in group or individual form) are occasions when imaginaries manifest themselves in sharp relief. Bodies are evaluated on their ability to perform, to embody norms and to belong a group. During an audition, the dancer’s body is under considerable pressure, having to meet normative expectations of a physical, social, aesthetic and artistic nature. It becomes a reflection of the choreographers’ expectations and projections. Indeed, it has to intrigue and stimulate their curiosity by moulding itself into an imaginary. The evaluation and selection processes require the individual (and his or her body) to evoke and connect with the choreographer’s imaginary, as Pierre-Emmanuel Sorignet explained in his study on contemporary dance: “the evaluation is not only technical; it pertains to the ability of a given individual on the move, a given body to trigger the specific imaginary of the choreographer, who is trying to find individuals who will be able to illustrate what is still a project and to help define the choreographer’s ostensibly ‘distinctive’ style” (Sorignet 2012: 86). From the choreographers’ perspective, the question of the signification of bodies marked by racial (or gender) difference is no trivial matter. Indeed, bodies are not neutral on stage; the perception of movement creates a new imaginary (Marquié 2016: 100). They suggest a range of significations and social representations that will be resignified in the piece. In this respect, bodies marked by racial difference (as well as gender, if not class difference) convey othering social scripts. They can arouse curiosity or disinterest, but rarely leave spectators indifferent. These bodies often challenge the actors of the dance field (audiences, critics, choreographers, etc.) when they are present, and more rarely do so through their absence. Below, Pauline, a fifty years old Swiss choreographer, who has managed a company since the 1990s and defines herself as “white”, expresses her discomfort in the face of the ambivalence of the signification of so-called different bodies:

“I asked myself this for this piece, actually, since we’re working on the question of the uniform. I told myself: “Oh, we’re working with Europeans only”. I’ve never worked with African-Americans, Indians or Asians. And so considering I had to find a man, we had a beautiful talk with the team. I told them: “It’s a problem for me to get someone because they’re black or because they have another cultural background.” […] Then, I was told: “Well make a casting call, and mention that you’re looking for a coloured young dancer”. I thought to myself, I can’t do this. Then, they told me: “You are looking for a boy, right?” “Yeah, but just so Laurent isn’t the only man”. But if we were to have an Asian or an African-American boy, then he would be the only one. What would that tell us, you know. That’d be politically correct, ticking off a box. […] We ended up taking a [white] European boy”. (May 2018 interview).

  • 14 In Pauline’s words, representations of the black body are associated with a specific territory – th (...)

17As is also the case with gender and masculinity, the non-white body carries a range of different significations that are activated in a dichotomic relationship with whiteness. Whiteness endows this so-called different body with a form of visibility and with otherness14, which take on meaning, whereas the white body remains invisible and “neutral” because it is the norm.

18This ambivalence regarding the signification of non-white bodies transpires particularly acutely in the case of black bodies, as Paul, a Switzerland-based dancer and choreographer who defines himself as white, notes in a discussion on the recruitment of dancers:

“If I had an African performer in my piece, he would have represented the slave or something like that. I didn’t want that. I think it’s problematic when you have five dancers, and only one is black, because it immediately points to a minority. Then it changes the way in which you see and understand the piece”. (February 2019 interview).

19His words attest to the particular visibility of the black body, which conjures an imaginary on slavery and colonization that muddles the choreographer’s gaze and his idea of harmony. Overall, the choreographers’ representation of harmony exists in a tension with the idea that dancers have a skin colour. Paul’s experience also reflects his internalization of an established racial order that directly impacts creative practices. He sums up this ambivalence surrounding the reading of so-called different bodies:

“When you depict difference in a piece, for instance if you use someone who is very visibly queer, or something like that, it conveys another message to spectators, and as a result it doesn’t necessarily tell what you wanted to say. It changes the way you read the piece. You know, in general, people will project loads of things on a piece”. (February 2019 interview).

20Thus, racial or gender differences constitute interpretation scripts that are determinant as far as the reading of bodies and the activation of imaginaries are concerned, unlike other differences such as eye colour, which do not have the same importance.

21For some choreographers, awareness of the visibility of difference in contrast with the supposed harmony of the other bodies also involves a discourse on body morphology. The reading of bodies and their forms is modelled by an essentializing imaginary, especially when it comes to black bodies. Indeed, some choreographers explain that it is difficult for them to combine the representation of their physicality with that of white bodies in their work – as in the case of Nathan, a young choreographer who defines himself as “white” and “Mediterranean” racially:

“The black bodies I know, it’s crazy how differently they work. They’re better, strong, more resistant. They jump better, they spin better. They have all these natural abilities. They’re just born with it. But the thing is it creates a different quality, a different layer. I mean in a casting call, they can seem more different, not only because they’re black, but because the way they move is so different, surprising and far better. So that creates a difference from the group, and then you lose the group”. (April 2018 interview).

22Using an othering discourse on purportedly “more muscular”, “stronger”, “athletic” black bodies (compared to so-called white bodies), this choreographer points to the risk of losing a group’s aesthetic homogeneity induced by his perception of skin colour – a difference that appears to him to carry the threat of producing new significations on stage. This discourse on group homogeneity historically relates to the ballet body in classical dance, meant to be harmonious in its uniformity and conformity with aesthetic and bodily standards. As we have seen, this imaginary of bodily harmony that centres on whiteness continues to have performative effects in the contemporary dance field. Although the subversion of codes is part and parcel of this field, effectively some differences, including racial ones, are sometimes not considered to have the same creative potential as those relating for instance to movements, choreographic norms or costumes.

3.4. Whiteness as a Technical Norm

23While the visibility of non-white bodies reveals a tension surrounding the problem of harmony for some choreographers, it can also become problematic in relation to their stage and technical design. Indeed, it is paradoxically the non-visibility of non-white bodies – especially black bodies – that can raise issues in terms of lighting standards. As lighting is often designed by white people and for white people, different lighting requirements can be an additional constraint for choreographers, used as a justification for preserving the “harmony” of bodies:

“Another import… interesting thing is, different skins are not lit in the same way. If you have five white performers and a black one, the black performers can’t be visible, because if you increase visibility too much, the white skins are going to get burnt. That is something I’ve often seen. You have a black performer who disappears, because he doesn’t capture light in the same way […]. It’s not mentioned often, I think, but it is an important factor. Last week I saw [a piece]. In the piece everything is black, there was a black performer, and the piece is rather dimly lit. You couldn’t see her body, you could only see an outline, whereas you could clearly make out the others. So you really do see another type of body”. (February 2019 interview).

24The non-visibility of black bodies is a preoccupation for some choreographers in that it threatens the harmony of bodies on stage. This reflects the role of whiteness as a hegemonic norm, conveyed by an imaginary, in the making and normalization of bodies on stage, and which is part of a broader script of difference that has effects on hiring, the creative process and the technical aspects of dance.

4. Creating From the Margins

Fig. 1.

Fig. 1.

A creation on the theme of identity fluidity by a resident contemporary dance company (26 April 2019)

© Vania C., CC-BY-NC

25What does dancing and choreographing mean for a minoritized social group in an artistic field structured by race relations? Karim Hammou and Kaoutar Harchi have argued that “minority art” produces forms of subversion because racialized groups, although “relegated to subordinate positions, the farthest removed from economic, political and generally also cultural power […] have however always witnessed the emergence of a minority of creators who are liable to destabilize or cross the symbolic and material borders of the majority order” (Hammou & Harchi 2020: 303). In the context of dance, these symbolic and material borders are negotiated through the subversion and revaluation of imaginaries and bodies. Indeed, while social imaginaries contribute to structuring and normalizing the interpretation of bodies through their performative effects, bodies can also be subject to reappropriations and resignifications designed to subvert norms and assigned identities. In this sense, dance can become a space of creation and subversion of identities through the social uses of bodies. The constraints that weigh on bodies can be hijacked and recast in an artistic (and in some cases political) fashion, as Hélène Marquié notes here: “Each dance brings into play experiences and representations of bodies, the singular and intimate awareness of the presence of self, of relationships to others and to the world that surrounds us, amid social constraints, aesthetic constraints, but also freedom from these constraints” (Marquié 2016: 89). A renewal of the interpretation of bodies and imaginaries is thus at work in choreographic creation. This investigation of the imaginaries of difference can for instance be glimpsed in the choreographic project of Ibrahim, who founded his company in the 1990s to build a space for the recognition and resignification of differences:

“It kind of was the guiding line running through lots of other projects. I started getting interested in the figure of the migrant, of the foreigner. I do think that we have so many things to learn from people whose difference is a little bit more visible. When you’re the only black person among white people, or the only disabled person in a group of able-bodied people. This stuff forces us to rethink ourselves. One thing led to another, and I did several projects that dealt with this”. (April 2017 interview).

26Ibrahim’s project reflects a choreographic work that is based on the idea of what he calls “diversity” (of bodies, origins, “cultures”, etc.) to rethink identity from the perspective of difference. It entails placing difference at the centre to deconstruct the hegemonic norm of whiteness. The imaginaries of difference are subverted, revaluated and highlighted in the choreographic project to deconstruct expectations and stereotypes. This is echoed by Haruki’s work on established social, racial and cultural representations of Japan, and more broadly Asia:

“People often tell me, “it’s hard for us to identify, because you’re Japanese”. So they struggle to define me because I don’t make sushi and I don’t read manga. In my creations I try to overcome these outside stereotypes, in the sense that I’m questioning what a mixed, multiple identity is today”. (June 2018 interview).

27In one of his creations, for instance, Haruki proposed a choreographic work revolving around a highly robotic voice and the world of robotics to question, among other things, the concept of identity. More broadly, her choreographic work is based on the idea of overcoming the fixity of difference to rethink plural identities, while creating imaginaries that include, in her own words, more “diversity” and more “creolization”, leaving more room for the mix of artforms, influences, bodies and cultures, as evoked previously by Ibrahim. This deconstruction often allows to rethink the very idea of the harmony of bodies in order to embrace difference in a plural and subversive way. By revisiting the ideal of the ballet body, based on homogeneity and similarity, one of Ibrahim’s projects pushes the idea of bodily difference to the extreme to reconsider social representations of harmony. The piece plays with this tension between “harmony in uniformity” and “diversity”, by relying on so-called different bodies to create a subversive choreography:

“About that piece, choreographers from prominent companies told me: “don’t you think they’re all too much together, doing the same thing too much. They should dance things that are a little bit more different”. But that was precisely what I was getting at. When you bring together a community of diverse people and when they’re doing the same thing, what you perceive is their difference, not the ability to turn it into something uniform. And the thing is, in some dance circles, and in some dance imaginaries in particular, which revolve around the image of the ballet body, which is quite regulated, perfectly aligned, that’s kind of a problem. […] In my view it’s a problem with imaginaries, some people can’t identify with today’s world. It’s as if they were trying to remove themselves from today’s world and populations. That, I think, is pretty serious. It’s as if we were blinded as to who we are”. (April 2017 interview).

28While the hybridity of identities can be approached through bodies marked by racial difference, in my fieldwork I also observed how this difference is subverted through the criss-crossing of different artistic influences. Adama, a famous Burkinabe choreographer and dancer who lives in Europe and defines himself as “Black” and “African”, expounds on this here:

“There are two different styles on stage. There’s me, with Afro-contemporary traditional dance, and the other person, with contemporary dance. I often hire contemporary dancers who have worked here [in Europe]. I put them on stage, and I bring them to use some of Afro-contemporary traditional dance because they’re such different styles. And that will give you other qualities […]. And that’s how people will understand the mix between the two. That’s where it becomes great. The interplay between the two gives it quality!” (May 2018 interview).

29Haruki also embraces a similar discourse on the “creolization” and “mixing” of styles, citing the influence of Butô in her contemporary dance pieces:

“I also like the Japanese metaphor of emptiness, which is used a lot in Japan, particularly in Butô. The goal of Butô dance was to understand how to dance and walk when you’re dead […]. Lately I’ve started, or rather resumed, working with Japanese people, and it’s been good for me. I’ve been learning a lot, especially regarding myself and how I experienced all these years spent without communicating with Japanese people. It allows me to reconnect.” (June 2018 interview).

30The blending of artistic influences thus functions as a crucial means to revisit difference and to produce hybrid forms of identity for some choreographers who are marked by racial difference. In the cases of Adama and Haruki, this involves a phenomenon of transnational or translocal circulation of artistic practices, through which identities are renegotiated and traditions are reinvented (Aterianus-Owanga, Djebbari, Salzbrunn 2019; Martiniello, Puig, Suzanne 2009). It also allows choreographers to work on the idea of creolization, by creating new space in which so-called different bodies are recognized and resignified. In that sense, the mixing of styles is conducive to recognizing and highlighting other bodies (more muscular, more supple, more dynamic, smaller, queerer, marked by racial difference to a greater extent, etc.) while essentializing them for strategic purposes (Spivak 1985). This is a political use of difference, intended to give new significations to some social markers, as part of a broader politics of representation (Hall 2007).

31The staging of these “new” bodies also depends on the legitimacy of new styles on stage. Ibrahim drew inspiration from hip-hop dance to work with bodies that are traditionally underrepresented in contemporary dance. In this sense, the mixing of styles is a means to introduce new bodily aesthetics on stage:

“I think that in contemporary dance, there are movements that relate to specific social classes and circles, for instance hip-hop twenty years ago. Certain demographics were associated with certain bodies and certain styles, although that changes very quickly. In my piece [...], I brought together people who are quite different [...] and a boy with a background in hip-hop. There were very different people in terms of how they moved and of their ethnicity. The writing was based on that concept, often very blurred and with lots of rough edges.” (April 2017 interview)

32Through the mixing of styles (Afro-contemporary, Butô, hip-hop, etc.), other bodies are made visible on the contemporary dance scene, meaning that other differences are represented and politicized, such as Asianness and Blackness (Hall 1993; Adusei-Poku 2013). Blackness, like Asianness, is a repertoire of representations designed to (re)create and politicize racial and cultural identities, as Nana Adusei-Poku puts it: “Blackness was and is still en vogue in the beginning of the twenty-first century, not only in popular culture but also in the arts, which synchronically reproduces classical stereotypes about the Black body and challenges Black artists and scholars not to fall into already established counter-discourses but rather expand the repertoire of representations” (Adusei-Poku 2013: 108). Thus art becomes a political space of struggle over recognition, in which identities are (re)negotiated. “Minority art” in that sense partakes in a form of subversion through “cultural representations that are liable to challenge expectations of exoticism and instrumental appropriations by the hegemonic centre […] to the extent of transcending assignation to a primitivist exoticism, and hybridizing ethno-racial borders to create spaces of aesthetic wiggle room” (Hammou & Harchi 2020: 302, 303). The struggle over recognition and the politics of representation are however fraught with ambivalence and tension. As described by Claire Ducournau in the case of the African literary output in France and of the assignation of writers to their origins through terms such as “immigrant from Sub-Saharan Africa”, “Frenchman/Frenchwoman from Sub-Saharan Africa” or “dark-skinned Frenchman/Frenchwoman”, the individuals in question “play ambivalent games of identification or subversion – where some subscribe, sometimes at the cost of showing restraint in confidential spaces, to such ways of representing them, others resist through lucidity and humour, to the extent sometimes of refusing to collaborate” (Ducournau 2019: 150). In my fieldwork, these ambivalences were highlighted in the limitations of the subversive and political potential of this mixing. In some cases, indeed, these bodies marked by racial difference can only access stages and gain recognition when introduced from the angle of diversity and mixing. Lena, a thirty-something dancer and choreographer, who defines herself as “Swiss and Afropean” and is based in Switzerland after having worked in various companies in England, notes:

“Mostly there are white choreographers that talk about ‘diversity’ without genuinely representing us, but as soon as we [racialized individuals] want to do it, we’re being told it’s too political […]. We’re just allowed to perform for them without getting a word in”. (April 2018 interview).

33In the 2000s, a trend in choreography indeed consisted in “celebrating diversity” in a depoliticized manner, with far less subversive potential. As Pierre-Emmanuel Sorignet observed, “the development of a discourse around ‘mixing’ [in France], both in terms of bodily techniques and of the social and geographic origins of dancers, coincided with an effort by public authorities to have the performing arts be part of an examination of social themes” (Sorignet 2012: 86-87). Some choreographers proposed pieces in which bodies marked by racial difference (as well as gender, class, and disability-related differences, etc.) find themselves assigned to an aesthetics of difference. In informal chats, some choreographers reported that they were witnessing the rise and institutionalization of a new aesthetic line in the contemporary dance field, concerned with the representation of otherness and difference (racial, cultural, social, but also gender- and disability-related, etc.) in depoliticized, instrumental and exotic fashion. These artistic practices also give us keys to understand that struggles and competitions in the field do not merely relate to cultural and economic capitals; the racial question is also relevant. The staging of “diversity” is becoming a new register of social distinction in the field, and one that can also contribute to a process of artistic exploitation of a social and political critique. Multiculturalism – as a normative language (Hall 2007) – can thus have the effect of channelling depoliticized otherized identities in art (Martiniello 2014). Strategies aimed at mixing styles and diversifying bodies may lead to subverting some of the hegemonic codes and imaginaries of dance, including those surrounding whiteness, but also involve a risk of reifying new representations of otherness, and of indulging in depoliticized artistic repurposing. The opening up to “diversity” and the aesthetic and artistic recognition of difference thus tends to shift the boundaries of otherness on stage. Yet at the same time, it is also liable to normalize said otherness by placing it within the bounds of an increasingly expected and trendy aesthetic and choreographic register.


34This article has considered the social and racial construction of bodies in the transnational contemporary dance field in order to understand how bodies are unequally marked by aesthetic standards. It has first pointed out that bodies are given different significations in the field depending on how and where they fit in racial relations, because whiteness acts as a hegemonic norm. More precisely, it has shown how white bodies are often considered by actors in the field as neutral, normal and invisible. Conversely, bodies marked by racial difference exhibit a “problematic visibility”, detrimental to the “harmony of bodies”. The article also highlights some of the current limitations of subversion in the artistic field, which was built around the very idea of transgression. Although subverting standards is a practice that is inherent in the field, most of the racial norms surrounding whiteness continue to shape creation and are evidently difficult to transgress. Justifications of a bodily, technical and aesthetic nature contribute to fixing a certain idea of the “harmony” of bodies on stage. From the dancers’ point of view, the mark of difference still affects their access to the stage. This research has shown that bodies marked by racial difference struggle to free themselves from (colonial, post-colonial, gender-based) imaginaries that are hard to shake off. The circulation of individuals and choreographic styles in the contemporary dance field is embedded in power relations in which bodies are perceived through imaginaries of racial difference.

35However, this research has also shed light on how some choreographers and dancers who are themselves marked by racial difference subvert these assigned identities through reflective uses of the diversity and bodies and/or the transformation of choreographic styles. As it puts bodies to the test, the contemporary dance stage can become a space for negotiating otherized identities (and their signifiers). For choreographers, this process is rooted in an artistic and political approach, but it involves a risk of appropriation and depoliticization, robbing diversity of its potential for subversion as a new standardized aesthetics of movement emerges. Ultimately, this article calls for broader consideration of the political underpinnings of diversity (Vertovec 2012) and multiculturalism, concepts that should be approached as “floating signifiers” (Hall 2007) in a constant state of tension and negotiation.

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1 Here the author draws on Amandine Dumont’s (2019) work.

2 This is a reference to writings by Noémi Michel, who uses the phrase “bodies marked by racial difference” (2014) to point out that all bodies are racialized, but that the weight of race (as a social construct) is unequally distributed among individuals and social groups. More broadly, it bears reminding that the meaning of difference “has no origin or final destination, cannot be finally fixed, is always in process, in translation, being defined positionally along a spectrum. Its political value cannot be essentialized (...) it can only be defined in relation to all the other forces...” (Hall 2021: 418).

3 According to Colette Guillaumin, the idea of minoritized social groups directly relates to the concept of difference, and chiefly reflects a political situation in which said groups have less power in a social system, especially in terms of influence and freedom, but are not necessarily less numerous (1985: 102). This assignation to a minoritized social group is also relational and part of an asymmetrical relationship. This minority status involves material parameters in that it reflects an economic, legal, ecological status, but it also has symbolic implications in that it is justified ideologically and inscribed within a social system (Guillaumin 1972).

4 Among the interviewees, some defined themselves as dancers (16), others as choreographers (4), or both (10). All names and institutions were anonymized.

5 For more on class relations in the world of contemporary dance, see in particular Pierre-Emmanuel Sorignet (2012).

6 A very large majority of interviewees were recognized as prestigious in that they enjoyed high levels of symbolic capital in the field.

7 This concerns in particular female dancers around thirty seeking to settle to start a family and dancers claiming to defend “another way of living off dancing”.

8 These include a male Swiss friend, who identifies as “white” racially, and has been a dancer for a dozen years in a CCN in France, and a female Swiss friend who identifies as of “African descent”, danced in England and Belgium for around ten years and is now working in the healthcare sector.

9 While Sylvia Faure emphasizes the importance of these imaginaries for young dancers, this article posits, as others have done, that they have an impact at all career stages.

10 This article focuses on the effects of these imaginaries of difference, rather than on their origin and construction, which closely relate to colonial and postcolonial history (see Appadurai 2001).

11 Although the concept of identity is becoming increasingly difficult to handle in the social sciences, it is used in this article as a normative ideal based on which individuals define themselves, rather than as a descriptive feature of experience (Butler 2005; Hall 2007).

12 This is a socially situated invisibility insofar as it is particularly at work from the point of view of the white subject. As studies by black feminists in the US have shown (e.g., hooks 1992), whiteness as a dominant norm has long been visible for minoritized individuals.

13 This refers to the arts of theatre and choreography.

14 In Pauline’s words, representations of the black body are associated with a specific territory – the United States – invisibilizing other areas of the world such as Europe and Africa. This territorialization of black and white bodies excludes hybrid identities.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1.
Légende A creation on the theme of identity fluidity by a resident contemporary dance company (26 April 2019)
Crédits © Vania C., CC-BY-NC
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Julien Debonneville, « "In the name of harmony". The imaginary of whiteness in the field of contemporary dance »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 9 | 2021, mis en ligne le 27 décembre 2021, consulté le 19 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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