on taking up space

I'm in the final stages of completing a new journal article on dance, women and taking up space. This article emerges out of my long engagement with the work of Iris Marion Young and her much quoted article "Throwing like a girl". I took these ideas out for a spin earlier this year with my review of Kate Champion's work Nothing to Loose (2015) .

These are the opening paragraphs of what I am calling, at the moment, "Taking Up Space: women, dance and embodied freedoms".

Just when you think the Iris Marion Young article “Throwing like a girl” must have had its day, someone finds another circumstance with which it resonates, loud and clear. In mid 2014 the American documentary film maker and photojournalist Lauren Green (2014) teamed up with a North American manufacturer of menstrual pads and panty liners, Always, for their #LikeAGirl campaign. Green made a video in which she asked girls and women, boys and men across a range of ages to run, throw and fight ‘like a girl’. The result, a three minute clip on Youtube, has had 59,173,965 views, 207,437 likes and 22,443 dislikes to date. Calling this a “social experiment”, Green found that girls under 10 reacted quite differently to her provocations when compared with women and men in their teens and early twenties. When asked to ‘run like a girl’, the latter group flapped about – they kicked up their heels with knocking knees, flicked their limp wrists, giggled and tossed their hair. The limp wrists returned when this same group were asked to mime throwing ‘like a girl’ or fighting ‘like a girl’. The other group, girls under 10, ran, threw and fought quite differently – their actions had intent. For this group their imagined balls flew across the room, they ran to win their ‘race’ across the film studio floor, and one little girl crunched up her face as she mimed punches that were definitely intended to have an impact. Interestingly, a younger boy who appears in the video replicated the behaviour of the older participants, but when Green asked him “So do you think you just insulted your sister?”, he replied emphatically “No” but then got a bit confused and added “Well yeh, insulted girls, but not my sister.” What amazed Green, and confounded the experiment’s older participants, was the revelation that for them ‘like a girl’ was pejorative even if they were girls. But as the young boy articulated, this was about ‘girls’, not about a 'real' girl – his sister. Equally, for the older female participants it was about being ‘girly’ not about who or what they are or were, or how they behaved in the world. The reaction of all participants displayed that this understanding of girl-ness was not only separated from everyday experience, or ideas about ourselves as beings in a world, but its manifestation in parody or reality was learned behaviour; learned, it appeared, in our teens.

The Green experiment and its outcome were not an isolated incident. In August 2014 Eric Anthematten, a philosopher at Fordham University New York, was bemused by the media reaction to the achievements of a 13 year old baseball player who plays for the Taney Dragons in Pennsylvania: Mo’ne David. With a 70 mile an hour fast ball Mo’ne was attracting a lot of attention, not because of the speed of the pitch, or the player’s age, but because she is a girl. In an attempt to historicise this reaction to the hype he encountered, Anthematten quoted Iris Marion Young’s by now 24 year old article at length.

I first encountered Iris Marion Young’s essay “Throwing like a Girl: a phenomenology of feminine body-comportment, motility and spatiality” as an undergraduate enrolled in Women’s Studies at the University of Sydney in the early 1990s. It was a revelation, not because I recognised myself in Young’s description of the pathologies of normative female body comportment, but because I did not. Of course I knew people who moved in just the way Young described – they were sitting, walking, running all around me, and a lot of them weren’t girls. These people did not claim space for themselves. Their bounded actions offered them very little purchase on the world, but their habits were not my habits. I had been taught to take up space.

As an undergraduate, what I particularly recognised in Young’s article but had never had a term for, was the notion of phenomenal space. This mode of experiencing space was explained with great lucidity through Young’s introduction to the work of the existential phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. With a history as a ballet and contemporary dancer, a practice that I had, by then, ceased to practise, Young’s work with Merleau-Ponty’s ideas made a lot of sense to me, her article named what I knew ‘in’ my body. I understood the reality and possibility of the idea of phenomenal space through my own experience. I had been trained to carry with me and to recognise in others an understanding of how we might take up space and how that taking up is not only an actual experience, but also a potential. It described the possibility of spatially, around, in front, below, behind and above me and how it was a potential carried with me all the time.

This paper attempts to unpack and explore the utility of this facility. It images how the notion of phenomenal space, as experienced through dancing (in this case the very stylised practice of classical ballet) might counter the inevitability of Young’s description of normative feminine body comportments, with their potential for “ambiguous transcendence”, “inhibited intentionality” and “discontinuous unity” (Young, 1980, 143). My paper speculates on the role of structured movement vocabularies in promoting an ability to take-up-space automatically, or when and if we require and desire to do so. In part it adds my voice to the accumulating scholarship on the way in which movement can affect, or can be thought of as the site of, our understanding of who we are or can be in the social circumstances we find ourselves. It also counters an exhausted critique of classical ballet and thinks through how this kind of movement practice can offer an embodied, counter-experience to the still alarming pertinence of Young’s description of female body comportment in Western, post industrial, English speaking, representative democracies. As Green's experiment and Anthematten’s comments show, Iris Marion Young’s essay “Throwing like a girl” still describes a real stereotype which affects how we consider women in the second decade of the 21st century. This essay is my attempt to suggest that dancing can change (y)our life(world).