- Formal Protests: Dance, Race, and the Pandemic
On May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, a police officer killed George Floyd, a large African American man suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, by pressing his knee against Floyd's throat for eight minutes and 46 seconds as he lay on the ground and fellow officers watched. On May 31, in Santa Monica, California, at one of many nationwide protests against police violence, four armed officers in arachnoid riot gear spanned a street, colleagues behind them, and faced a crowd. Jo'Artis Ratti, a large African American man, advanced to the front line of the protest, faced the armed and armored police, and began to dance.
In the 1990s, Ratti and others devised a style of hip-hop dance called krump, which uses an abrupt, forceful vocabulary based on instinctual physical gestures associated with intense emotional states. Arms fling, fists thrust, shoulders hunch, knees crumple, and at times the entire body shrinks inward, shudders, stutters, and explodes outward. Unlike another hip-hop mode, break dancing, whose performers want us to admire the artistry and acrobatics of moves and skills as virtuosic and unnatural as those of ballet, krump, like some forms of modern dance, creates the illusion that its gestures symptomatically reflect the dancer's immediate feelings and reveal aspects of the performer's personality.
In video footage of Ratti's krump, which features his commentary, he stands a few feet from the police and stamps his left foot while his right leg shudders. He slams his arms together in front of his body, forcefully embracing the air, then tears them apart. His right hand repeatedly arcs over his head to pluck something invisible from his left hand. He thrusts his right arm toward the policeman facing him, two fingers extended as if pointing a pistol. He kicks toward them, then whirls away, reaches up and tries to yank down the sky. He kicks up behind him, staggers forward, flails a fist to his right, then staggers to his left. He raises his hands to his head as if in anguish, then flings them out and downward. He steps again to his left and does a kind of quivering meltdown.
Most remarkably, the choreographed violence and anguish of Ratti's performance, joined at one point by fellow dancer Samantha Donohue, did not evoke any discernible reaction in the police. (The Washington Post reported Ratti as having told them, "Bro, I'm here for peace.") That they stood stock-still may reflect excellent training for peaceful demonstrations where a protester might express anger and threaten, even gesturing in their faces; they may have rationally read Ratti's large gestures as nonviolent because he was unarmed. Their restraint, however, pays tribute to the power of Ratti's performance, not its impotence, for they may well have understood it as art—as a dance—and therefore symbolic: a distillation of rage and grief at the murders of Floyd and others into expressive gestures that effectively conveyed those emotions without being symptoms of them. The police may have understood themselves as the intended audience for Ratti's dance and reacted as audiences tend to react, politely [End Page 132] watching in silence, perhaps a bit bewildered at seeing something new and unexpected, but intuiting that Ratti was not inviting their interaction. However confrontational Ratti's dance looked as a work of political art, its formalism—the fact that it used a gestural vocabulary that even audience members new to dance performance could recognize as symbolic and not symptomatic—kept the protest peaceful but also kept it a protest.
The video footage of Ratti's brief dance, shot from different angles and edited together, makes us the work's audience. Months of the pandemic have acclimated us to watching dance on video, although a poor substitute for dance in person, and Ratti's performance onscreen highlights a larger performance, which includes his fellow protesters—sometimes random, sometimes cooperating in slogans and song—and the police, in their silence and stasis. Whirling at the center, Ratti turns his solo into a political production number, part improvised...