publisher colophon

This article offers notes toward decolonizing embodiment through an examination of the concept of embodied arts and its potential to exceed and productively destabilize theatrical scholarship. It begins with a discussion of embodiment as the key term underpinning the notion of embodied arts. The second section surveys some recent examples of decolonial thought, asking how these writings both rely upon and trouble the idea of embodiment; the third confronts the difficult but unavoidable problem of decolonizing white bodies. The article concludes with some speculations on the future of embodied arts in theatre/performance studies and artistic research.


decoloniality, embodiment, indigenous studies, artistic research, embodied research

It is increasingly common to declare a breakdown of boundaries between the previously established genres of performance and performing arts. Theatre, dance, and music are no longer separate forms but more like lineages or genealogies—as, for example, a postdramatic theatre piece may closely resemble a work of contemporary dance or music, the main difference being the different canons with which each engages. The aesthetic and ontological divisions that structure both professional industries and scholarly disciplines of theatre, dance, and music are increasingly recognized as limited insofar as they can be traced to specific historical developments within Europe and their ongoing influence through colonial and neocolonial infrastructures. If divisions between theatre, dance, and music have never made much sense outside the Eurocentric canon, one could hope that a political decentering or “provincializing” of Europe in the world would include a radical reconfiguration of concepts like script, narrative, score, and work, which structure disciplinary divisions in performing arts.1 To a certain extent, this has been the promise of performance studies, but as I have noted elsewhere, it is a promise that remains unfulfilled insofar as the broad spectrum of performance offers no corresponding field of practical experimentation.2 [End Page 9]

While it is essential to recognize the contingency of these genre boundaries, they all share and are built upon a fundamental assumption that is equally or more Eurocentric; namely, the divide that separates an audience of spectators from a company of artists—or, more precisely, the divide separating events defined by an audience/artist division from events in which the distribution of participation is more complex. In this article I argue that the breakdown of genre boundaries between theatre, dance, and music is incomplete if it does not also incorporate a more radical breakdown of the epistemological and ontological boundaries separating artists and audiences. My suggestion here is that notions of embodiment and embodied arts offer something specific to decolonization efforts, which cannot be subsumed under the concept of performance. Unlike performance, which carries connotations of measurable efficacy and immediately evident force, embodiment has the potential to initiate or reinvent an ethics and politics in which life, survival, vulnerability, and ecology would be key terms.3

My intentions in this article embrace both a literature review and a provocation. On the one hand, I have been asked more than once recently to recommend readings in decoloniality and critical race theory that might support work in theatre and performance studies, especially in the emerging academic fields of artistic research/practice research. In addition to surveying such sources in a kind of primer, I want to point toward what I think might be some of their implications for these fields. I do not claim any particular authority over the concepts of decolonization or decoloniality (the difference is discussed below), but approach them with humility in order to ask how and whether the basic assumptions suggested by the idea of embodiment can be disentangled from the multiple legacies of colonialism that manifest in structures and forms of whiteness, patriarchy, and capitalism. As performers and embodied practitioners, I argue, we must strive to decolonize not only performance but also embodiment itself. What might this look like?

In what follows, I begin with a discussion of embodiment as the key term underpinning the idea of embodied arts. Drawing on my own prior research and referring to some of the ways in which embodiment currently circulates in scholarly thought, I argue that embodied arts must embrace much more than the performing arts of theatre, dance, and music. I distinguish embodiment from performance and indicate where I believe embodied arts can take us that even the implied object of performance studies cannot. In the second section, I survey some recent examples of decolonial thought, asking how these writings both rely upon and trouble the idea of embodiment. It emerges that embodied arts as a concept has both decolonial and neocolonial potential, depending on how it is understood, but that this concept unquestionably does important work in decentering certain still-dominant assumptions within theatre and performance studies. In the third section, I apply the foregoing discussion to a difficult problem that demands attention from theatre and performance studies, embodiment theory, and decolonial praxis alike: [End Page 10] the (im)possibility of decolonizing white bodies. With this in mind, I conclude by speculating on the future of embodied arts in theatre studies and artistic research.

Thinking Embodied Arts

The divisions separating theatre, dance, and music—which continue to structure not only academic departments but also performing arts venues and funders—are not only artificial but also culturally narrow, owing to the development of text-based drama and visually choreographed dance in Europe and its colonies. When in Europe and North America we speak about theatre and dance as distinct genres, we are carrying forward assumptions about speech, narrative, gesture, and composition that derive from European forms. There is every reason to unmake these divisions, not only because they prevent us from understanding related forms elsewhere in the world but also because they continually reinscribe colonial cultural categories in our own lives. A similar point can be made with regard to music: here again, it is only the specific cultural development of European-influenced “art” music, with its ontology of notation and fantasy of pure sound, that allows us to conceive of music as distinct from theatre and dance.4 The breakdown of boundaries between these genres and the rise of interdisciplinary performing arts practice since at least the 1960s could be seen as aligned, at least potentially, with efforts to decolonize academic and cultural institutions. Yet it would be far too simple to assume that these movements always work in tandem, as interdisciplinary arts can easily remain within the fundamental parameters of Euro-American whiteness, especially if they allow themselves to regroup under the banner of performing arts.

There are countless “global” forms and traditions in which narrative, speech, song, melody, movement, and gesture are woven together in ways that pay no heed to European genre distinctions. Indeed, attempting to generate a list of these would be counterproductive, taking the European categories for granted as the background against which otherness is defined.5 Our task should not be to collect examples in which theatre, music, and dance are blended, but rather to acknowledge that those distinctions never carried weight beyond the cultural formations in which they appeared. This is a core problem continually faced by western academic fields that study non-European forms: European history remains implicitly centered as long as “world dance” refers back to “dance,” “ethnomusicology” back to “musicology,” and performance studies back to “theatre.”6 As these disciplinary relationships demonstrate, underpinning the separation of theatre, dance, and music is an even more fundamental division, which may perhaps be addressed by considering the rubric of performing arts alongside that of embodied arts. In a more technical and philosophical context, I have defined embodied arts as “concrete ways of grappling with, getting a grip upon, and coming to know the materiality of human embodiment through processes of direct and detailed material negotiation.”7 In the present [End Page 11] context, what is at issue is an ongoing tension in theatre studies and elsewhere between ontologies of embodiment and ontologies of performance.

In her introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater, Nadine George-Graves demonstrates some aspects of this tension. On the one hand, her emphasis on “corporeality as an idea that unites the work of dance and theater scholars” suggests a focus on embodiment that could have radical implications for these and other fields.8 On the other hand, in her bid “to define an emerging field,” George-Graves maintains a set of modernist distinctions that work in some ways against this potential. This is particularly evident in her dismissal of sports, where she suggests that only the competitive element “holds our attention,” and of yoga and exercise, which “rarely involve an audience.” Like Phillip Zarrilli, George-Graves here implies a valorization of performing arts as a domain of heightened or even transcendent awareness, dismissing other areas of specialized embodied practice, such as sports, by linking them to the banality of everyday life, which she associates with “basic survival.”9 In Zarrilli’s writing, this model of art—as transcendence of the everyday—is carried into the theorization of embodiment via the idea, developed by Drew Leder, that one is usually unaware of one’s body and only becomes aware of it through specialized undertakings such as those of performing arts. Art as transcendent consciousness thus works on both levels, culture and embodiment, in contrast to the banality of everyday life and the routine disappearance of the body.10 While such valorization of the “arts” has its uses, it also has the unfortunate side effect of denigrating a much wider range of practices that do not follow a strict division between embodied arts and everyday life.

In fact, the divisions that separate performing arts from physical culture and other specialized embodied practices sometimes do not accurately characterize the practices they aim to describe. Zarrilli, for example, dismisses western sport only to replace it with a south Indian martial art, which has no more obvious relationship to the theatrical works he has since created than does football.11 George-Graves, in her own research on African American performance, crosses boundaries not only between “theater, dance, comedy, music, etc.,” but also between performing arts and other fields such as gender, spirituality, and “the repertoire of culture,” implementing a disciplinary flexibility that is “rooted in and spidered out from the body.”12 Certainly the contributions to the Oxford Handbook, which range from social dance to political protest to academic practice-as-research, do not follow simple distinctions in terms of the presence or role of an audience. That such frameworks are nevertheless invoked suggests that we have not yet developed models through which to understand the full range and actions of embodied arts.13 As I understand it, the division that must be broken down in order to develop the concept of embodied arts in a decolonial way is not between theatre and dance, or between these and music, but between performing arts—defined by the presence of a spectator figured as external to the “work” of the event—and all those embodied [End Page 12] arts that do not involve performance in this sense. To think embodied arts, we need to go beyond the dissolution of disciplinary divisions that structure western performing arts and recognize the blending and overlapping of performing arts with martial arts, healing arts, ritual arts, and sexual arts, etc.—all the fields of artistry and knowledge in which the affordances of embodiment itself are foregrounded.14

Such connections have been examined and explored, yet our theories and methods largely remain stuck within archaic, colonial divisions for political, institutional, and epistemological reasons. Ronald Grimes proposed “ritual studies” in the early days of performance studies and Jerzy Grotowski called a phase of his post-theatrical work “ritual arts,” yet these terms have not become widespread.15 Zarrilli conducted pioneering work on martial arts from a performance studies perspective, which is still cited today, yet only in the past few years is an interdisciplinary field of “martial arts studies” developing.16 Countless authors have worked across performance studies and gender studies in recent decades, yet the division between theatrical performances of sexuality on the one hand, and sexual practices or identities on the other, remains substantially intact. How can we further hasten the deconstruction of the underlying assumptions that separate ritual, healing, martial, sexual, and other embodied arts from performing arts? I take this as the challenge suggested by the term “embodied arts,” in relation to which the dismantling of distinctions between dance, theatre, and music can only be a preliminary step.

Performance studies moves in this direction, but it cannot escape the problem of the audience and the colonial structures of spectatorship that come with it, because its central term still finds its primary definition and grounding in those assumptions. If performance implies spectatorship and thus grounds itself in the “techniques of the observer” and of distanced spectatorship that underpin patriarchal and colonial epistemologies, then perhaps alternative models, frameworks, and techniques could be developed through a turn to embodiment.17 With this in mind, I have argued at length that embodied practice is structured as much by knowledge as by habit, demonstrating how this insight allows us to reveal the contiguity of physical culture, performing arts, and the construction of identity as fields of embodied technique, wherein the hierarchical valuing of “aesthetic” performance over mundane or everyday practice does not apply.18 In this framing of embodied arts, where “art” refers to knowledge in the sense of techne, spectatorial methodologies are displaced and—following arguments for situated embodiment in other fields—it is the artist or practitioner who is recognized as having contestable but undeniable epistemic privilege in relation to the meaning of events.19 To clarify: I am not suggesting that we replace performance with embodiment or pit performance studies against embodied arts. As Juan Manuel Aldape Mufioz’s thoughtful critique of my own work points out, the word performance in “performance studies” and “performance as research” carries specific “animate and political possibilities” and cannot simply [End Page 13] be replaced.20 Embodiment without performance risks tending toward a purely introspective mode, a kind of “work on the self” that never arrives to any public sphere and can be critiqued as a withdrawal from politics. I therefore want to offer not an argument against performance studies but a case for embodied arts as its essential companion.

Of course, like performance, embodiment is an English word that carries the burden of Anglophone linguistic dominance and colonization both historical and present.21 If performance carries assumptions of spectatorship and transcendence, then embodiment may equally carry assumptions of individuality and biologism. Why draw a line around the body or bodies? Do we not thereby exclude craft arts, culinary arts, herbal and plant-based arts, and other fields of knowledge that work not only with the body but with the close and continuous material flows of wood, stone, plants, textiles, and other “materials”?22 In fact, I have never seen embodiment as synonymous with “the body,” but always as pushing back against it: existing in contradistinction to its constituent parts;23 proliferating multiple bodies in place of a singular body;24 or even defined retroactively as an ethical pivot between ecology and technology.25 What I call the “trope of excess” figures embodiment as an excess of the body,26 affirming that “there is always a real or a withdrawn dimension to the body that is in excess to medicine’s and philosophy’s and theory’s ever more complex and precise accounts of the body.”27 While this trope highlights the need to avoid reducing embodiment to the body, it still begins from “the” body in order to posit embodiment as an excess. Turning this around, I would prefer to define the body secondarily, as a derivative of embodiment. Embodiment, then, is not the excess of the body; rather, “the body” is a set of overlapping and contiguous fields through which we work in partial ways with the affordances of embodiment.

Either way—as epistemic mapping or via the trope of excess—it seems that at the root of theorizing embodiment and embodied arts is something like an impulse to undo the distancing, spectatorial technique that structures so many bodies and institutions in the colonial milieu. Anthropology as a discipline, perhaps because of its historical engagement with indigenous worlds and cultures, undertook during the twentieth century a deep reckoning with colonialism that continues to shake its foundations.28 Theatre studies as a discipline has not yet done this: while it has radically expanded the scope and objects of its analysis, theatre studies has not yet fundamentally questioned the spectatorial method and subject/object split that defines and distinguishes it from theatre practice. The turn to performance may have displaced the centrality of the written text as the object of study in theatre, but textuality still reigns when it comes to methods of analysis and forms of publication. This has everything to do with the limitations of performance as a concept, insofar as it posits a spectatorial position in relation to which the meaning of the event takes place—a position which easily becomes synonymous with that of the theorist or critic. We therefore cannot avoid asking whether and how embodiment itself [End Page 14] might be decolonized in a field where the body is absolutely central and yet still not recognized. Does the idea of embodiment have decolonial potential today? Can it be distinguished from the biomedical and objectified body with sufficient precision to make it a decolonial tool? Is embodiment just another one of the “master’s tools,” which will never dismantle the master’s house, or can embodiment be counted among the techniques that might dismantle the house of “the body”?29

In the next section I offer a necessarily incomplete survey of recent postcolonial, anticolonial, and decolonial literature, searching for clues as to the role or absence of embodiment in decolonial projects. In addition to developing my argument for embodied arts, this abridged review is intended as an introduction to decolonization and decoloniality for theorists and practitioners of performing arts who may or may not be familiar with those terms. I apologize for the fact that, due to my own limitations of geography and language, I refer here only to Anglophone texts and the examples they consider, including a handful from the Global South but surely missing many of the most vital contemporary actions and conceptualizations of embodiment.

Bodies in Decolonial Thought

The literature on decolonization has exploded in the past decade, so that for almost every major scholarly topic one can now find a book or article that considers how to “decolonize” it. Given the rapidly increasing prevalence of the term, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s much-cited warning against its use as a mere metaphor seems a good place to begin. In “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Tuck and Yang argue against the casual use of “decolonization” in contexts beyond indigenous claims to sovereignty, which they see as a dilution of the concept’s political bite:

When metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future. Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks.30

With this caution in mind, we must be on the lookout for how the idea of decolonizing embodiment could serve to diffuse or water down more directly political engagements. On the other hand, this cannot be an excuse for giving up on critical or theoretically oriented decolonial processes. It might therefore be useful to juxtapose Tuck and Yang’s “decolonization” with the idea of “decoloniality” that Walter Mignolo has developed following the work of Anibal Quijano. [End Page 15]

For Mignolo, decoloniality is a complementary mode or even perhaps a successor to political decolonization. Whereas decolonization refers to the transfer of political power and sovereignty from a colonizing society to an indigenous one, decoloniality names a more thorough and complex transformation of knowledge and its institutions. Decolonization movements aim to overturn a system of colonial rule; decoloniality, by contrast, is an ongoing praxis that unmakes and reinvents techniques, institutions, and logics. As a result, while decolonization can be accomplished at least nominally through political revolution, “Decolonial delinking cannot be done all at once but shall focus on specific domains, levels and flows” of the “colonial matrix of power.”31 Decoloniality is not a metaphor for decolonization but a more distributed and tactical version of it, which may attack coloniality via cultural institutions like museums and universities, as in the call to “Decolonize This Place,”32 or via extractive infrastructure such as oil pipelines, as in the Canadian movement Idle No More and the protests at Standing Rock. The call to decolonize universities comes at all levels, from research methods to curriculum and fees.33 Such movements tackle the colonial legacy of the university while also reclaiming it as a site of struggle. Even K. Wayne Yang, in a more recent book, argues that decolonial potential exists within the university.34

Perhaps the difference between decolonization and decoloniality can help us draw a similarly vital distinction between decolonizing bodies and decolonizing embodiment. At this point in history, the decolonization of bodies could only properly mean the abolition of a racist and otherwise unjust prison-industrial complex; the opening of borders that forcefully maintain neocolonial divides; substantive programs of reparation for slavery and of land transfer to restore indigenous sovereignty; economic reforms geared toward environmental justice; and other such large-scale political and legislative transformations. Systems of violence, as well as the actions taken against them, involve embodied arts at every level, but they are also manifestly technological. Colonization itself is never primarily an embodied art and, therefore, nor can decolonization be. Just as racism is more than prejudice, colonization works through embodied technique but is maintained only by the unequal distribution of advanced technologies—especially weapons and walls.35 Nevertheless, if we ask ourselves how political actions for decolonization can be supported by a wider movement of decoloniality, we find that embodiment and embodied arts have a central role to play in the transformation of logics, techniques, and institutions. This decoloniality would be related to the literal freeing of bodies not metaphorically but at various levels of social and material interaction. For example, when we develop alternatives to the western biomedical body, we open possibilities for new conceptions and implementations of health.36 When we offer decolonial understandings of gender and sexuality, we intervene in patriarchal and colonial systems.37 Such decolonial interventions necessarily [End Page 16] accompany decolonizing political action; otherwise, as Mignolo forcefully argues, new borders and prisons are soon erected to replace the old.

Mignolo emphasizes that embodiment is not limited to human bodies, as “not only Man/Human has a body: plants have bodies, fish have bodies, birds have bodies, vegetables have bodies, fruit have bodies.” Body for Mignolo means living organisms, which, as I suggested above, “deontologize the entity body (molecular self-regenerative system) and restore it to the irreducible processes in the praxis of living.”38 While the distribution of embodied agency beyond the human is a core argument of new materialist philosophies, it also resonates with many indigenous and animist ontologies according to which jaguars, mountains, and fogs are relatable as beings or persons.39 Embodiment here troubles the category of the human, as human corporeality overlaps in so many ways with nonhuman being. Using embodiment as a leverage point from which to cut ties with the colonial order of “Man/Human” also demonstrates the ways in which humanness has been hierarchically positioned as the pinnacle of racial and sexual orders that classify racialized and sexualized others as less fully human. This crucial point links indigenous decoloniality to contemporary work on blackness, which comes at decoloniality from a different perspective: starting from the legacies of chattel slavery rather than of native dispossession, but no less committed to the radical deconstruction of the concept of the human. What Katherine McKittrick calls the “counterhumanism” of Sylvia Wynter emphasizes “the ways in which the figure of the human is tied to epistemological histories that presently value a genre of the human that reifies western bourgeois tenets” and asks “how we might give humanness a different future.”40 Likewise, when Denise Ferreira da Silva defines “affectability” as the “condition of being subjected to both natural (in the scientific and lay sense) conditions and to others’ power,” she links embodiment—as that which is affectable—to both material and social power and in particular to the colonial construction of race as a hierarchical differentiation between those who possess reason or “rationality, the divine’s gift to man,” and those who are “merely affectable.”41 In these works it is clear that the concept of embodiment cannot be decolonized without a full reckoning of its racist, patriarchal, and colonial histories.

The most totalizing articulations of racism, sometimes grouped under the name Afro-pessimism, argue that anti-Blackness is not merely integral to but constitutive of contemporary social existence.42 This articulation of blackness as “both a lived impossibility and categorical exception” goes too far when it attempts to reduce all forms of embodied subjugation to anti-Blackness, perhaps precisely because it ontologizes race at the expense of embodiment.43 Yet other threads of black studies, drawing on some of the same sources in black feminist thought, take up the task of redefining embodiment from the perspective of blackness. For example, Alexander Weheliye develops a concept of the viscus or “flesh” that “insists on the importance of miniscule movements, glimmers of hope, scraps of [End Page 17] food, the interrupted dreams of freedom found in those spaces deemed devoid of full human life.” This “differently signified flesh” is founded on the recognition of an irrepressible dignity that attends life even under the most oppressive conditions: a “natural sweetness” of “life itself”—figured as embodiment or flesh—that roils with political resistance and potential.44

A range of recent journal issues focus on decolonizing the transgender imaginary, decolonizing sex and sexuality, and decolonizing media.45 Within theatre, dance, and performance studies, decoloniality may appear through works that trace the appropriation of European embodied techniques across the world or that articulate methods and theories developed from more or less explicitly decolonial perspectives.46 My own recent artistic research explores the decolonization of Jewish identity, drawing on many of the sources cited above as well as on work that makes this intention explicit.47 Taking my own grappling with whiteness as a reference point, I turn in the next section to a difficult problem that scholars and practitioners of theatre/performance studies, embodied arts, and decolonial praxis might each consider: the challenge of decolonizing white bodies. Although I do not wish to center whiteness in a conversation about the decolonial, this problem needs to be addressed, both as a limit case for the arguments offered above and in the context of predominantly white academic departments and institutions in the United States and Europe.

Decolonizing White Bodies

White bodies pose a specific problem for decoloniality. For revolutionary decolonization, outright war against whiteness in the form of the colonial state seems justified. But for more thorough processes of decoloniality, the complexity of embodiment demands an engagement with the impossibility of neatly categorizing bodies.48 The problem of whiteness cannot be solved through military or political action alone. On the one hand, white bodies incarnate coloniality. Their constructed whiteness is the fortress around which other bodies are subjugated and oppressed. On the other hand, white bodies are also bodies, and from the arguments cited above it is clear that processes of racialization cannot account for the fullness of lived embodiment. No bodies are entirely white; there is no body that has been fully saturated (drained? bleached?) by whiteness. This is not because whiteness is located at the surface of the skin with something else hidden inside or underneath—it is not—but because whiteness infuses bodies as knowledge, culture, and technique: fractal veins that permeate but never entirely fill embodiment, never fully determining what a body can do.49 It follows that there are differing degrees, levels, and qualities of whiteness, and this raises the question of how to unearth the nonwhiteness of bodies that have been racialized as white. The famous “knapsack” of white privilege is not one that can be taken off at will, because like all racializations it is strapped on by others through entrenched social systems.50 [End Page 18] As a result, there are limits to even the most radical white “race traitor.”51 How, then, “can white people be responsible for their complicity [with whiteness] if they cannot choose to be not white?”52 What is the future of whiteness, its making and unmaking?53

While I obviously cannot offer any conclusive responses to these questions, I would like to consider the historical significance of white attempts to escape whiteness, including the harm these have unintentionally done, and ask what contemporary deconstructions of whiteness might do to avoid the trap of reproducing whiteness when trying to get away from it. Following Philip Deloria’s work on “playing Indian,”54 Shari M. Huhndorf has examined the white fantasy of “going native” across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States. To a large extent, such stories “reveal white America’s aspirations to hegemony, specifically through that society’s attempts to obliterate Native peoples, cultures, and histories.” In this sense, “going native” extends the violent conquest and appropriation of indigenous lands and bodies into the realm of cultural identity. Yet Huhndorf also asks: “To what extent does evoking ‘nativeness’ destabilize the notions of race, gender, and history which the dominant culture seeks to naturalize?” If these “complex workings of culture reveal the conflicts and fissures at the heart of” American identity, then “perhaps in these contradictions lies the potential for decolonizing knowledge.”55 These issues remain crucial today and continue to operate even in mainstream politics.56 Contemporary debates over cultural appropriation index the tension between a mode of exchange with the potential to transform relations and an extractive relation in which the “borrowing” of culture masks a deeper exploitation.

There is an important point to be made here about the relationship between embodied arts and political awareness and action. One of the problems with the white fantasies of “going native” that Huhndorf traces is that, even when they lead to an ostensibly deep transformation of the white person and their way of life—as in some white New Age writers and practitioners—they mostly fail to engage with the histories of violence and the politics of sovereignty that structure relations between indigenous and colonial peoples. This superficiality with regard to native or indigenous knowledge supports an easy appropriation in which whiteness and coloniality are reinscribed under the guise of transformation: a change in personal identity without a change in allegiance. It might be worth distinguishing, then, between a mode of “playing Indian” that appropriates cultural elements from marginalized peoples and the potential for “going native” in a more fundamental or radical way that could open the door to political action as well as politicized identification. Such a distinction is drawn with care by Macarena Gómez-Barris in her discussion of New Age tourism in Peru. In the gulf separating touristic, neocolonial “spectacularized Andeanism” from an indigenous-centering vision of “Andean phenomenology,” she asks whether there might be some potential for [End Page 19] “Decolonizing the New Age.” Politicized consciousness is undoubtedly a key part of this difference, but no less important is “embodied knowledge as the source of a future-oriented imaginary of the planetary.”57 There are thus degrees, levels, or layers of transmission and different kinds of decolonial and neocolonial potential at play in such encounters—a point that might return us with increased urgency to the complementary ontologies of performance and embodiment introduced above.

Tensions between performance and embodiment came heatedly to the fore in the 2015 outing of Nkechi Amare Diallo—then and still known as Rachel Dolezal—and what was widely received as her appropriation of blackness. Diallo grounds her identification as black in her individual experience and, although she was politically active within the NAACP, has not responded to the criticism of her actions with an acknowledgment of the ways in which her white lineage troubles her claims. On the other hand, as some thinkers working across black and trans identity have acknowledged, racial categories are constituted in multiple ways—genetic lineage but also adoption and other alternative kinship mechanisms, physical appearance, languages and cultural codes, political affiliations, personal experience, and more—and it is only by taking into account this complexity that someone’s “real” identity can be approached. As Kai M. Green asks, “When does passing stop being passing and become being?”58 Responding to Green’s essay, Marquis Bey and Theodora Sakellarides raise further questions: “What is Dolezal doing with her Blackness; how is she ‘Blackening’ racial categorizations? Dolezal allows for something new to be learned of race, of Blackness, and it is this contribution that preoccupies us.”59 The main arguments over Diallo’s identity are thoughtfully synthesized by Aniruddha Dutta, who acknowledges the differences between racial and gender identification while refusing to accept an ontological division between them.60 While the majority of critics have treated Diallo’s claims as outrageous, these authors emphasize the impossibility of restricting white bodies to whiteness, as doing so—in the terms developed above—risks reducing embodied decoloniality to political decolonization.

Any movement away from an explicitly political contestation of nationhood and sovereignty and toward a decolonial engagement with knowledge, spirituality, or embodiment carries the risk of inadvertently diluting revolutionary decolonization. This is the point made by Tuck and Yang, with which I began the section on decolonial thought above. Yet it is impossible to imagine a lasting decolonial transformation of society that does not involve epistemological and embodied decoloniality as well as structural and political change. The decolonization of bodies, which relies on stable identity categories to define the distribution of power, and the decoloniality of embodiment, which fundamentally deconstructs those categories, go together. Neither can be accomplished without the other. When it comes to decolonizing white bodies, this means that the obvious need for white people to support—financially, physically, and institutionally—movements and initiatives [End Page 20] led by people of color must be supported and supplemented by embodied arts that work to unmake whiteness and to redefine the identities of those racialized as white.

Writing about whiteness in South Africa, Samantha Vice has argued for a mode of work that follows the Greek ethos of “care of the self” to develop a “personal, inward-directed project” organized around the conscious experience of shame and discomfort and the cultivation of humility and silence.61 In a special issue of the South African Journal of Philosophy devoted to the discussion of Vice’s essay, Alison Bailey extends Vice’s emphasis on shame and humility to encourage “white South Africans to make themselves epistemologically and ontologically vulnerable.”62 At stake here is a recognition of the embodiment that underpins whiteness and the need for techniques and practices that bring the vulnerability, openness, and affectability of embodiment out from beneath the mask of whiteness. It is this need for transformation at the level of the embodied self that leads to calls for white people to “clean up their own houses” and “work on their own stuff” first, before attempting more public antiracist or decolonial work—as Bailey argues, citing James Baldwin’s advice: “Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.”63 A similar suggestion is offered by Huhndorf, who seems to invite “those in search of alternative traditions to turn to their own pasts to solve their society’s problems.”64 Heeding such calls, white practitioners of embodied arts have gradually begun to examine their own racialization and take steps toward deconstructing or at least better understanding it. This may involve rooting out whiteness as a kind of organizational culture or technique that can be found at work in any context.65 Or it may require, as performer and theorist Esther Neff suggests, finding ways of “performing unwhitely.”66

A further approach to decolonizing white bodies can be found in the “cultural somatics” proposed by Tada Hozumi. Drawing on western expressive arts therapies, Japanese somatic traditions, and other lineages, Hozumi suggests that “oppressions such as white supremacy and heterosexism” be understood as “expressions of trauma in cultural somas (bodies).”67 In a blog post titled “Why White People Can’t Dance: They’re Traumatized,” Hozumi explores the idea that whiteness not only enacts violence but is also an expression of trauma. Thus “white-ness is traumatization itself. The white body is in freeze: a state of disconnection between mind and body. It is ungrounded and cannot feel the earth. We see this pained energy of white-ness play out in our society through violence towards sexuality, emotional vulnerability, and ecology, amongst other things.” Whether or not the term “trauma” is valid in this context, Hozumi is plainly not looking to absolve white people of responsibility for racism but to analyze the politics of somatics and the somatics of politics.68 While Hozumi’s cultural somatics is not a form of direct training for white people to enact antiracism politically, neither is it a naively individualist application of somatic practices to white bodies. Rather, Hozumi aims to counter racism through [End Page 21] embodied arts, proposing a specifically embodied approach to unmaking whiteness. Such an approach recognizes that, whatever whiteness is, if it is thickly interwoven with bodies, then it cannot simply be eradicated but must be unlearned, retrained, and transformed.

Concluding Thoughts

I have argued that dismantling disciplinary boundaries, such as that between theatre and dance, should only be a first step in the direction of a more fundamental decolonial move that resituates performing arts in a wider context of healing, martial, ritual, sexual, and other embodied arts. Even if performance studies has to some degree allowed academic institutions to recognize the public and discursive dimensions of nominally private acts, we still need a richer framework for embodiment to help us decenter western techniques of audiencing and spectatorship in our understanding of embodiment and practice. Tracing the notion of decoloniality through indigenous, black, and critical white studies, I have tried to show here that embodied arts are crucial arts of survival, “arts of living on a damaged planet,” arts of the past and future, and arts of the earth as well as arts of the body.69 It is not possible to engage with the sources cited above and still imagine that embodied arts could refer only or even mostly to performing arts. We need interdisciplinary work across theatre and dance and music, but we also need intersectional work across race and gender and religion, and this needs to take place not only in terms of what we study but also in the very structure of who studies, how, and where. The challenge to decolonize academia demands a reconsideration of the place and role of bodies—including white bodies—in its spaces.

If decoloniality differs from decolonization in that it works at all levels of knowledge and power and not only through the explicit politics of sovereignty, then academia could be an important site for this work. Theatre and performance studies moves in this direction when it engages with critical, cultural, and decolonial thought such as that cited above. Meanwhile, at another level, theatre and performance studies is grappling with decoloniality at the level of method through emerging modes of artistic research, practice research, and embodied research. In the United States and Europe, these two strands of activity have mostly not yet come together. Those programs in the United States that are most steeped in critical and decolonial thought remain conservative at the level of method, while the methodologically radical development of artistic research in Europe is not generally oriented by a decolonial frame. This is hardly surprising if we consider how controversial each move has been on its own terms and that their combination would require an even more radical overturning of entrenched epistemological hierarchies. Yet such an epistemological revolution is precisely what is needed.

While artistic research in Europe has radical methods, it largely fails to understand their political implications; and while cultural and decolonial studies [End Page 22] in the United States has articulated the most urgent politics, it remains stuck at the level of method.70 Artistic research, if it does not engage thoroughly with cultural and performance studies, risks failing to understand its own implicit and potential politics. On the other hand, decolonial thought and writing, if it does not find ways to radicalize at the level of method, risks articulating a critical program without a sufficiently developed program for institutional change.71 In the context of predominantly white academic institutions, I propose that we might see artistic, practice, and embodied research to a large extent as projects for decolonizing white bodies, which must be linked in solidarity with black-, brown-, and indigenous-led projects for unmaking whiteness and remaking the world. To realize such a vision, we will need to resituate performing arts alongside embodied arts, shifting onto-epistemic categories until we are able to declare in our own fields that, as Shawn Wilson proposes, “research is ceremony.”72 Perhaps then we can begin to understand “theatre” not as a site defined by the division between performer and spectator but as a home for transformative embodied praxis. The place of the critical scholar in that space, like the place of the white body, is not comfortable.

Ben Spatz

Ben Spatz is a nonbinary researcher and theorist of embodied practice with more than two decades of experience as a performer and director. They are Senior Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance at the University of Huddersfield, UK; author of What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research (Routledge 2015); and AHRC Leadership Fellow (2016–2018). Spatz is also editor of the videographic Journal of Embodied Research from Open Library of Humanities and the Advanced Methods imprint from Punctum Books; co-convener of the IFTR Embodied Research Working Group; and co-investigator on the ESRC project “Research with a Twist: A Somatics Toolkit for Ethnographers” (2018–2019). For more information, please visit


1. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

2. See Ben Spatz, “Mad Lab—Or Why We Can’t Do Practice as Research,” in Performance as Research: Knowledge, Methods, Impact, ed. Annette Arlander et al. (New York: Routledge, 2018), 209–23.

3. On performance, see Jon McKenzie, Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance (New York: Routledge, 2001).

4. See Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Marie Thompson, “Whiteness and the Ontological Turn in Sound Studies,” Parallax 23, no. 3 (2017): 266–82.

5. The need to avoid such exoticization—arising, for example, when rasa is treated as “a culturally loaded and temporally specific concept that is predominantly experienced through interactions with Indian art” and thereby locked out of current Anglophone debates over “immersion”—has been carefully articulated by Royona Mitra, even if her conclusions on ocular spectatorship (which she likens to Jacques Ranciere’s “Emancipated Spectator”) diverge from my argument here. See Mitra, “Decolonizing Immersion: Translation, Spectatorship, Rasa Theory and Contemporary British Dance,” Performance Research 21, no. 5 (2016): 89–100.

6. On the politics of world dance as a category, see Susan Leigh Foster, ed., Worlding Dance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

7. Ben Spatz, “Embodiment as First Affordance: Tinkering, Tuning, Tracking,” Performance Philosophy 2, no. 2 (2017): 264.

8. Nadine George-Graves, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 5.

9. Ibid., 6.

10. Phillip B. Zarrilli, Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski (London; New York: Routledge, 2009), 51.

11. Ibid., 23.

12. George-Graves, Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater, 3.

13. This article was inspired in part by a recent call for proposals from the Journal of American Drama and Theatre, for a special issue on “the embodied arts.” Taking The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater as its starting point, the CFP glossed the embodied arts as “dance, theatre, performance art, or any hybrid form therein.” See American Theatre and Drama Society, “JADT Special Issue—The Embodied Arts,” June 7, 2018,

14. I use the phrase “healing, martial, and ritual arts” in Ben Spatz, What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research (New York: Routledge, 2015), 9, 249; I think Daniel Mroz suggested this framework to me. In the context of current trans, queer, sex work, and ecosexual movements, the inclusion of sexual arts among these fields of knowledge and practice seems essential, although its further discussion is beyond the scope of this article. I leave it to the reader to continue to develop my intentionally incomplete invocation of embodied arts “etc. . . .”

15. Ronald L. Grimes, Beginnings in Ritual Studies (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982); Thomas Richards and Jerzy Grotowski, At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions (New York: Routledge, 1995), 122.

16. Phillip B. Zarrilli, When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013); Paul Bowman, ed., The Martial Arts Studies Reader (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018); Janet O’Shea, Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals about Martial Arts Training (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

17. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990); and see Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance (New York: Routledge, 1997).

18. Spatz, What a Body Can Do.

19. Ben Spatz, “Colors Like Knives: Embodied Research and Phenomenotechnique in Rite of the Butcher,” Contemporary Theatre Review 27, no. 2 (2017): 195–215.

20. Juan Manuel Aldape Mufioz, “Violence and Performance Research Methods: Direct-Action, ‘Die-Ins,’ and Allyship in a Black Lives Matter Era,” in Arlander et al., Performance as Research, 315.

21. “Art” is arguably no better, nor is “practice”—but one must choose some terms with which to work.

22. Tim Ingold, “Materials against Materiality,” Archaeological Dialogues 14, no. 1 (2007): 1–16.

23. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “November 28, 1947: How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?” in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 149–66.

24. Annemarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

25. Spatz, “Embodiment as First Affordance.”

26. Spatz, What a Body Can Do, 56–60.

27. Christopher Breu, “Identity vs. Embodiment: A Materialist Rethinking of Intersex and Queerness,” Symploke 24, no. 1–2 (2016): 76.

28. For example, see the recent debates on method and colonialism, organized around the work of Marisol de la Cadena, in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7, no. 2 (2017): 1–21.

29. Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 110–14.

30. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 3.

31. Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 162.

32. MTL+ Collective, “Decolonize This Place,” 2016,

33. See Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London: Zed Books, 2013); Margaret Kovach, Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009); Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie, Place in Research: Theory, Methodology, and Methods (London: Routledge, 2014); and the social and educational movements organized around the slogans “Why is my curriculum white?” in the United Kingdom and “Rhodes Must Fall” in South Africa.

34. la paperson, A Third University Is Possible (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

35. For a comparative history of colonization, see Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (New York: Verso, 2016).

36. Shigehisa Kuriyama, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (New York: Zone Books, 2011).

37. Robert Alexander Innes and Kim Anderson, eds., Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015); Sandeep Bakshi, Suhraiya Jivraj, and Silvia Posocco, eds., Decolonizing Sexualities (Oxford: Counterpress, 2016); C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

38. Mignolo and Walsh, On Decoloniality, 162.

39. See, for example, Diana H. Coole and Samantha Frost, eds., New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); Marisol de la Cadena, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

40. Katherine McKittrick, ed., Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 11, 9.

41. Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), xv, 49.

42. Frank B. Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Jared Sexton, Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction, rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Racked & Dispatched, 2017),

43. See Iyko Day, “Being or Nothingness: Indigeneity, Antiblackness, and Settler Colonial Critique,” Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no. 2 (2015): 108.

44. Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 64, 12, 127.

45. Respectively: TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 1, no. 3 (2014); JMEWS: Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 14, no. 2 (2018); and Cinema Journal 57, no. 4 (2018).

46. Books in this area that focus specifically on training and embodiment include Jonathan Pitches and Stefan Aquilina, eds., Stanislavsky in the World: The System and Its Transformations across Continents (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2017); Sharrell D. Luckett and Tia M. Shaffer, eds., Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches (New York: Routledge, 2017); Royona Mitra, Akram Khan: Dancing New Interculturalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); Claudia Tatinge Nascimento, Crossing Cultural Borders through the Actor’s Work: Foreign Bodies of Knowledge (New York: Routledge, 2009).

47. Ben Spatz, “Molecular Identities: Digital Archives and Decolonial Judaism in a Laboratory of Song,” Performance Research 24, no. 1 (2019): 66–79; and see Santiago Slabodsky, Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); Houria Bouteldja, Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love, trans. Rachel Valinsky (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2017).

48. On the ontological implications of intersectionality theory, see Anna Carastathis, Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016); Ange-Marie Hancock, Intersectionality: An Intellectual History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

49. Spatz, What a Body Can Do, 44–48.

50. Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peace and Freedom, July/Aug. 1989, 10–12.

51. See Race Traitor: Journal of the New Abolitionism, launched in 1993:

52. Barbara Applebaum, Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011), 3.

53. Linda Alcoff, The Future of Whiteness (Cambridge: Polity, 2015); Birgit Brander Rasmussen et al., eds., The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).

54. Philip Joseph Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).

55. Shari M. Huhndorf, Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 14.

56. For example, see Kim TallBear’s statement on Elizabeth Warren: TallBear (@KimTallBear), “an updated statement on #ElizabethWarren DNA testing story. includes a slight clarification. [screenshot],” Twitter, Oct. 15, 2018, 7:04 p.m.,

57. Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 61, 55, 49.

58. Kai M. Green, “‘Race and Gender Are Not the Same!’ Is Not a Good Response to the ‘Transracial’ / Transgender Question OR We Can and Must Do Better,” Feminist Wire, June 14, 2015,

59. Marquis Bey and Theodora Sakellarides, “When We Enter: The Blackness of Rachel Dolezal,” Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research 46, no. 4 (2016): 44.

60. Aniruddha Dutta, “Allegories of Gender: Transgender Autology versus Transracialism,” Atlantis 39, no. 2 (2018): 86–98. I follow Dutta in using Diallo’s current name.

61. Samantha Vice, “How Do I Live in This Strange Place?” Journal of Social Philosophy 41, no. 3 (2010): 324; see also Alexis Shotwell, Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012).

62. Alison Bailey, “On White Shame and Vulnerability,” South African Journal of Philosophy 30, no. 4 (2011): 480.

63. Ibid., 475.

64. Huhndorf, Going Native, 193.

65. Guidance on undertaking such a process is offered by Tema Okun in “white supremacy culture” and other resources available from Dismantling Racism Works, 2001,

66. Esther Neff, “Performing Unwhitely/Becoming Imaginary I: Theory 07/12/2016,” Medium, Nov. 9, 2017,

67. Quotations are from Tada Hozumi, Selfish Activist,

68. A later post, identifying whiteness as a kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, was taken down after some strong negative reactions that criticized its use of biomedical terminology and emphasized the risk that attributing whiteness to trauma can erase the differences between oppressor and oppressed—in Tuck and Yang’s terms, extending innocence to whiteness. For example, see Lisa Vallejos, “The Dangerous Game of Calling Whiteness PTSD: A Response to Tada Hozumi,” Medium, Nov. 13, 2017,

69. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, ed., Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

70. I discuss Europe and the United States here because those are the contexts I best know and mostly work in. While acknowledging the irony of nation-state designations in this context, I am also aware of some work in Canada, South Africa, India, Singapore, and New Zealand/Aotearoa that undertakes artistic research in a decolonial frame—see, for example, Manola K. Gayatri, “PaR and Decolonisation: Notemakings from an Indian and South African Context,” in Performance as Research: Knowledge, Methods, Impact, 170–184.

71. For a history of these tensions in the United States, see Roderick A. Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

72. Shawn Wilson, Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods (Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood, 2008); and see Virginie Magnat, “Can Research Become Ceremony? Performance Ethnography and Indigenous Epistemologies,” Canadian Theatre Review 151 (2012): 30–6.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.