Srećko Horvat - Dance as a political category

With the recent people’s uprisings in all corners of the world, from the “Arab Spring” to the Occupy Wall Street, from Turkey to Bosnia, one thing that emerged and that is common is – the body.

On the one hand, these protest movements can’t be understood without the notion of the body, on the other hand, neither the body can’t be understood without the notion of protest.

Marcel Proust famously said that “it is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body”. The time has come to rephrase him and say that “it is in moments of protests that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom – our body”.

“Der Mensch Als Waffe”

At the time of his death, Holger Meins was only 33 years old. He died by starvation on hunger strike in November 1974. He was 1,83 m tall and had only 39 kg.

Holger Meins

Holger Meins was a German film student who joined the RAF – Red Army Fraction in the early 1970s. He studied film from 1966 until 1968 in Berlin, but he was forced to leave the university when he occupied the Rektorat together with his friends during 68. One of his last movies was Farbtest – Rotte Fahne, from 1968, with a couple of man running through Berlin with a red flag. A reconstruction was made by Gerd Conradt, using the material of the original film as well:

There was no interest for the film at the Film Academy, but as we could expect, the German authorities were pretty interested in the film. Later it turned out they had every reason to be concerned.

Namely, only a year later Holger Meins joined the RAF, and he was captured together with Andreas Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe in June 1972. In prison, Meins and the other RAF prisoners launched several hunger strikes againt the bad conditions of their imprisonment. This is already part of German histor

Meins died by starvation on hunger strike in November 1974.

Holger Meins Death

His death sparked many protests across Europe and further terrorists acts – among them, the Embassy siege in Stockholm in 1975, by terrorists who named their group after him – “Holger Meins Kommando”.

When in Prison, Holger Meins wrote a letter under the title “Der Mensch als Waffe” – “the Man as Weapon”.

It is precisely today that the body as weapon acquires new relevance.

The biopolitics of hunger strikes

As we know, the hunger strike, as a non-violent resistance or pressure, has its long history. From the pre-Christian Ireland, to the ancient practice of hunger strikes in India, when protestors – typically indebted people – would come at the door of an offending party and hunger. The most famous example is, of course, Mahatma Gandhi, who was protesting the British colonial rule of India in his several famous hunger strikes. Then we had the British and American suffragettes, etc.

The most notable example are, however, Irish republicans, and it brings us back to Holger Meins’ thesis that the human body can serve as weapon. Just after the end of the Irish Civil War, in 1923, more than 8000 IRA prisoners went on hunger strike, then again in 1940s, and then again in the 1970s.

Actually, it was precisely the IRA hunger strikes that were, among other things, an inspiration for the RAF hunger strikes a few years later. The conditions of the RAF prisoners in Stammheim were a Guantanmo avant la lettre: all prisoners were put in solitary confinement, the lights were left on day and night, it was complete isolation.

To this day the best description was given by none other than Ulrike Meinhof:

“ The feeling, one’s head explodes (the feeling, the top of the skull will simply split, burst open)—

the feeling, one’s spinal column presses into one’s brain

the feeling, one’s brain gradually shrivels up like dried fruit, for example—

the feeling, one is constantly, imperceptibly, flooded, one is remote-controlled—

the feeling, one’s associations are hacked away—

the feeling, one pisses the soul out of one’s body, like when one cannot hold water—

the feeling, the cell moves. One wakes up, opens one’s eyes: the cell moves; afternoon, if the sun shines in, it is suddenly still. One cannot get rid of the feeling of motion. One cannot tell whether one shivers from fever or from cold—one cannot tell why one shivers— one freezes.

The feeling of traveling through space packed into a barrel so that the acceleration causes your skin to flatten—

Kafka’s penal colony — The version with a bed of nails—

A non-stop rollercoaster ride.“

Isn’t this one of the best descriptions what happens to the human body and mind when one is in prison? Moreover, what all these examples show – the hunger strike of Holger Meins and the feeling of Ulrike Meinhof – is what Giorgio Agamben would call “biopolitcs”.

The human body as the last resort

What is more remarkable here – and it directly brings us to our topic – Dance – is that the prisoners themselves used the human body as their last resort, as their last means and last terrain of struggle.  

Let’s take an example from the IRA again. In 1978 prisoners started something that will be known as the so called “dirty protest”. They refused to leave their cells to shower or use the lavatory, and the prison officers were unable to clear them. It was a clear shift in power dynamics. Instead of being pure body objects, the women decorated the cells with menstrual blood for example, their bodies were now political weapons. The body was transformed into a site of resistance, rather than an object of discipline and normalisation.

If you live under the conditions of biopolitics, if you are deprived of everything and your body is the object of discipline and punish, then the last resort is precisely the body. Or take another, older, notable example – that of Marquie the Sade. We know that he spent 32 years of his life imprisoned. But what is less known is that at one point prison guards confiscated every piece of writing material they could from his prison, and it is said that he would then take sharp objects and start carving his writings into the walls, and when that was taken from him, he would bite into his fingers and write in blood…

What we see in Ulrike Meinhof’s statement and Marquise de Sade’s practice is the following: in those conditions there, is no difference between the body and the mind – the mind becomes the body and the body turns into ones mind. Which brings us to the philosopher whom Isadora Duncan called the “first dancing philosopher”. Friedrich Nietzsche.

In dance circles, Nietzsche’s quote is often repeated: “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once”. He was a big fan of dancing. There is even some evidence that after the famous Turin incident in 1889, when he had a mental collapse after a man was beating his horse, a few days later a friend went up to Nietzsche’s room and “was confronted by an appailing spectacle. A totally naked Nietszsche was dancing in Dionysian madness”.

Of course, interpreting this event, we are tempted to use Nietzsche’s own words: “Those who dance are thought mad by those who don’t hear the music”.

The dancing philosopher

To go a step further, here a reference from the classical Essay on the Meaning of the Comic by Henri Bergson could be useful. Writing on the “absence of feeling” which usually accompanies laughter, Bergson is another philosopher who used dancing as an important tool for philosophy:

“Try, for a moment, to become interested in everything that is being said and done; act, in imagination, with those who act, and feel with those who feel; in a word, give your sympathy its widest expansion (…) Now step aside, look upon life as a disinterested spectator: many a drama will turn into a comedy. It is enough for us to stop our ears to the sound of music, in a room where dancing is going on, for the dancers at once to appear ridiculous. How many human actions would stand a similar test? Should we not see many of them suddenly pass from grave to gay, on isolating them from the accompanying music of sentiment? To produce the whole of its effect, then, the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart.”

If we now imagine Nietzsche’s friend watching through the keyhole and seeing Nietzsche dancing madly and nude, without music it must have looked crazy. Moreover, if Nietzsche was dancing to a non-existing music, to silence, unfortunately we don’t know that, than it was even more crazy. At least for the spectators. But for Nietzsche, and that’s I think one of the most important lessons for dance as such, there is no separation between mind and body.

What Nietzsche aims for is not only a reversal of the standard Platonic-Christian positive valuation of the mind over the body. The point is not so simple to say that now the body, for Nietzsche, has a primacy over mind. Nietzsche wants to overcome the dualistic opposition between body and mind itself. That is the reason why Nietzsche never speaks about the Körper, but about the Leib. Körper would be a mortal body, and Leib is much more than only a body, it’s a unity of body, mind and soul.

And it is exactly here that we should return to the beginning. The “radical” examples used – RAF hunger strikes, IRA dirty protest, and not mentioning suicide as the final weapon – show that the body isn’t always a political object, but can also be a political subject. And if it is so, shouldn’t we say that the same holds for dance as such. If there is no separation of body and mind, as Nietzsche claims, then the body isn’t only an object but already a subject. And if the body is a subject, then it’s a political subject as well.

The best proof is, of course, the New Dance Group, a working-class organization for dance, formed in New York in 1932 by two Jewish dance students. And you know what was their slogan? It’s an echo of Holger Meins and his thesis about the “the human as a weapon”: “Dance is a weapon in the class struggle”.

The main concept of the New Dance Group is what, for me, as an outsider, an ideal dance group should look like. Beside dancers, it attracted ordinary workers as well. And just for a dime (ten cents), the students would receive an hour-long dance class, an hour of improvisation based on a social theme, and an hour of discussion on social issues. As we know, in 1932 eleven workers’ dance groups in New York joined together into the Workers’ Dance League.

That’s exactly what we need today: a Worker’s Dance League. Or at least, dancers who are aware dancing is not always “pure art”.


The recent protests in Turkey gave us at least two confirmations that the “body can be a weapon”.

The first was a dance protest in solidarity with demonstrators occupying Gezi Park in Istanbul hold by members of Turkey’s State Opera and Ballet:

One of the protestors said that dancing on stage was the only way they could express themselves,: “Our only aim, as we can only express ourselves by dancing, is to show our protest like this too”.

The other example is the so called, now famous, “Standing Man”:

Does it come as a surprise that this man wasn’t a simple protester? His name is Erdem Gunduz and he is a dancer and choreographer. The first evening he was standing there for five hours and staring at a portrait of Mustafala Kemal Ataturk. Soon, similar protests consisting of simply stopping and standing still spread everywhere in Turkey.

It was a brilliant strategy, reminiscent of Tianamen Square’s “Tank Man” or the recent silent standing performance by Jelena Topić from Bosnia. Why is it a good strategy? Because non-violence is much harder to deal with than violent protests, the government now was tempted to arrest people who were doing nothing more than standing still. Of course, they arrested the standing people in the end as well.

The rich history of “bodies as weapons” teaches us not only that we need rethink the role of the body in the protest, but also – that we should rethink the role of dancing today, dance as a political category par excellence.