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Flexibility and Its Bodily Limits: Transnational South Asian Dancers in an Age of Neoliberalism
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I was nervous. My muscles were tight, and I only had a few minutes to stretch before my audition with one of the most well known contemporary South Asian choreographers in the UK. It was November, and the steady drip of the London rain was settling deep into my bones. All of a sudden, the door to the studio on Wightman Road flew open and let in a blast of cold air. And there she was. “So, shall we start?” she asks, folding her arms across her chest and looking me up and down. She wastes no time and launches into teaching me movements in rapid-fire succession. She tells me to extend my arms in a diagonal line and imagine being pulled in opposite directions. She asks me to stretch my leg back (“Farther. Farther. FARTHER!”). Next, she tells me to wrap my right arm underneath my leg, reach my left arm across my head, lift up on to my toes, bend my torso toward my back leg, sink lower, straighten my leg, and twist my head to the side. I feel a sudden twinge in my lower back and a shooting pain travel down the back of my leg, and I start to wonder: “How flexible do I need to be to get this job?”

In this essay, I focus on the flexible bodily practices of transnational (diasporic and migrant) South Asian dancers working in the UK. My research draws on my experiences as a professional dancer with Angika (2004–2008), a contemporary British Asian dance company that was founded in 1998 by Mayuri Boonham and Subathra (Suba) Subramaniam, and the individual companies they started, Atma (2009) and Sadhana (2010), respectively, after the company devolved in 2008. I suggest that examining the practices of South Asian dancers as transnational labor reveals the body’s flexible response to the contradictions between race and citizenship in late capitalism.

My idea of dance as transnational labor draws heavily on Marta Savigliano’s Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (1998) and Priya Srinivasan’s Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor (2011). Both Savigliano and Srinivasan emphasize the cultural and political work of transnational dancers, and argue that in order to make visible this important work we need to analyze the material as well as the immaterial, or affective, labor of dance, and, more importantly, the link between the two, i.e. how dance produces affect that has material effects. In this essay, I refer to both the material (political, economic, and cultural) and affective (emotional) labor of flexibility, and examine how flexible practices produce affect that has real effects on dancers’ bodies, lives, and citizenship. As economic migrants, cultural workers, and expressive bodies, it is particularly important, I argue, to look at all the different kinds of labor that the flexible, transnational South Asian dancing body performs.

Dancers are acutely aware of their flexibility. They spend years working to extend their lines and widen their turnout. But what does it mean to be flexible in an age of neoliberalism? If we understand dance as transnational (material and affective) labor, how can we think about the bodily labor of flexibility and the work it does in terms of performing citizenship? Aiwha Ong, in her groundbreaking work Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (1999), argues that the inequalities and unevenness of late capitalism have forced transnational subjects to become more and more flexible, making creative accommodations and arrangements with capital and nation-states. She suggests that globalization has engendered “flexible citizens” who “respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political-economic conditions to accumulate power and capital” (Ong 1999, 6) in order to navigate increasingly volatile and uncertain market forces.

Although Ong theorizes the unevenness and disjunctures within globalization, she does not necessarily address the corporeal dimensions of transnational labor and flexible citizenship. Karen Shimakawa (2002), looking specifically at the subject of Asians in the U.S., argues that “the heightened anxiety over the erosion of borders wrought by globalization” has led the nation-state to seek “to reconcretize national difference on/through the racialized body” (130–2). If, as she suggests, the material body is used as a spectacle in difference...

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