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By Professor Lars Waldorf, Essex Law School
Once again, I was called on to be living proof that anyone can dance. I showed off my worst moves. I told how my wife recently abandoned me on the dance floor. The facilitator confirmed that I was the tensest person he had ever encountered in his inclusive (mixed-abled) dance workshops. Once again, we put my own embodied embarrassment to some use: to begin the process of breaking down barriers, reassuring workshop participants, encouraging inclusive dance aesthetics, and thereby co-creating a safe space for bringing dance, disability, and rights together.
What was different this time is we were training Nepali dancers, lawyers, and, most importantly, war-disabled activists in a pioneering method of transformative human rights education developed by VisAbility in Sri Lanka (with support from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), British Council, Goethe Institute, and Schmitz Stiftungen). What was also different is we were focusing specifically on the Right to Information (RTI) as a way for war-disabled people to demand more transparency and fairness in the provision of social protection and reparations.
This South-South training and knowledge exchange was led by Mahesh Umagiliya, a Sri Lankan choreographer/dancer and a co-founder of VisAbility, alongside Vinothine Balasubramaniam, a Sri Lankan RTI activist. The Nepali participants came from the National Network of Disabled Conflict Victims (NNDCV), the human rights NGO Advocacy Forum, and the music school NAAD Sangeet Pathshala. I was there not only as an ice-breaker, but also to provide some (much less fun) training on project evaluation, ethics, and data management in my role as Principal Investigator on our Performing/Informing Rights project.
Civil war inevitably maims and mutilates. After war, people with conflict-related, physical impairments are likely to experience extreme poverty, social exclusion, and illegal discrimination – notwithstanding the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to “leave no one behind” and notwithstanding 184 states ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is certainly the case in post-war Sri Lanka and Nepal where disabled people frequently lack the knowledge, confidence, resources, and access to claim their rights, benefits, and reparations.
Our earlier AHRC-funded Performing Empowerment project (2016-18) brought together transformative human rights education, legal empowerment, and inclusive dance to enable war-disabled people in northern and eastern Sri Lanka to claim their rights and benefits. However, a few disabled participants became understandably frustrated and discouraged by a lack of government response to their applications for disability benefits. As a result, we saw a need to empower disabled people to chase up their claims-making to government officials using Sri Lanka’s strong RTI law. Hence, this new AHRC-funded Performing/Informing Rights project (2021-23) that not only adds RTI to VisAbility’s trainings in Sri Lanka but also tests whether VisAbility’s methods can be adapted and applied to Nepal’s post-war context.
Both projects develop a novel form of transformative human rights education for disabled and non-disabled people using dance. According to a 2011 UN Declaration, human rights education is all about “empowering persons to enjoy and exercise their rights and to respect and uphold the rights of others.” Transformative human rights education takes this further through experiential learning focused on how rights can address everyday forms of political, economic, and social exclusion. It also emphasizes playful, participatory, and embodied learning. Indeed, dance has been used to teach, perform, and campaign for human rights, perhaps most famously with the One Billion Rising Campaign.
Both of our projects also pioneer a more holistic form of legal empowerment. Legal empowerment is a form of rights-based development by which the poor are enabled to use law to make rights claims and improve their livelihoods. Despite the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ call to empower disabled persons and provide “equal access to justice for all,” there has been surprisingly little attention to how legal empowerment might help war-disabled people. VisAbility has started filling that gap while also using inclusive dance to combine somatic and psycho-social empowerment with legal empowerment.
Mixing Rights and Dance
It’s not easy to combine rights and dance. For one thing, law privileges words, whereas dance relies on embodied expression. For another, there is a risk of instrumentalizing dance and thus losing some of its creative potential. Furthermore, the most visible examples tend to be professional performances, such as William Forsythe’s “Human Writes” and Pichet Klunchun’s “7 Decades of Human Rights,” rather than grassroots, education projects.
VisAbility is still experimenting with how best to mix dance and rights – something that Mahesh has likened to “putting sweet buns with chilli sambal”. Initially, its workshops had separate sessions on each. With the Performing Empowerment project, VisAbility started explicating dance movements through rights language and teaching rights using those movements (partly as mnemonic devices or body memories).
With this new project, VisAbility is aiming for a more ambitious synthesis of dance and rights. That first meant Vinothine training Mahesh on RTI and him leading an RTI training himself. It also meant Mahesh training Vinothine on dance and VisAbility’s methods. They then worked closely with Helena-Ulrike Marambio, the project’s Post-Doctoral Research Associate, to develop a draft training resource. However, Sri Lanka’s economic and political crisis meant Mahesh and Vinothine had to do this all online in the face of electricity outages. It wasn’t until they got to their Kathmandu guesthouse that they could actually start working through the resource together in the same physical space.
For Mahesh, one of the biggest challenges is that RTI training involves “a lot of information you have to deliver” which is “really hard to put into a dance task” because it needs to be learned “as information, not as something else, not as something realized in a symbolic way.” Another challenge was to “create a methodology that was not only suitable for Sri Lanka but can be used in another country also.”
Training and Knowledge Exchange
Even though the Nepali participants knew they would be learning dance and RTI, they were wrong-footed from the get-go. As Amisha Adhikari, one of Advocacy Forum’s lawyers, told us afterwards: “When they first entered the workshop venue, they were stunned because they did not see any chairs, any writing materials, projector, all that stuff. So, they kept coming to me asking … How are you going to talk about RTI [without that]?” What Mahesh and Vinothine quickly demonstrated is that moving bodies are a whole lot more fun than PowerPoints. As Vinothine put it, “without boring [them], we can deliver our knowledge and participants are engaged with the dance.”
Mahesh and Vinothine didn’t hesitate to deviate from the training resource as they read both the mood and bodies in the room. Still, some of the RTI exercises proved too complicated, which prompted me to suggest we “simplify and exaggerate” – simplify the RTI content and exaggerate the movements to make things more memorable. So, we focused on five key stages of the RTI process rather than trying to teach all 13 stages. Participants proposed movements to represent each RTI stage and we voted as a group for the ones we liked the best. Mahesh then helped us simplify and exaggerate the five chosen movements and had us rehearse the sequence over and over, so the RTI process became muscle memory. As Amisha later said: “The law is very complicated, right … but once they perform it by themselves through movements, through gestures, they will be able to remember those gestures and movements even if they don’t remember the legal provisions.” Earlier, though, she had had some doubts: “As a law student and as a lawyer, I always felt like law requires seriousness. … Dance is more like entertainment. So, I was confused how the two of them will work [together].”
Mandira Sharma, a prominent human rights lawyer and founder of Advocacy Forum, told me that she too had initially been “very puzzled” and “a little bit sceptical” about how dance and rights could be combined. But she explained that the training had “really opened our minds” as they saw how dance made it “easier for a non-legal person to really understand what the RTI process is about.” She added that dance is “really an empowering tool – even for us [as human rights activists].”
Moving from Dance Performances towards Street Theatre
On the last afternoon of the workshop, Mahesh choreographed a short work of “street theatre” (often a mix of theatre, dance, and music performed outdoors) that depicted a war-disabled woman using the RTI process to gain the government-issued disability card that entitles her to interim reparations. After just three, rather free-wheeling rehearsals, we performed for staff of the Taragaon Museum that had so generously hosted us. Afterwards, one audience member encouraged us to perform in more venues, including hospitals and rehabilitation centres.
VisAbility usually caps its workshops with dance performances at parks, outdoor markets, and street junctions. The performances serve three important purposes. First, they build cohesion and solidarity among the workshop participants. Second, they help empower participants: once they have danced in public spaces, they are less shy about performing their rights to government officials. Finally, they challenge the stigmatizing, shaming, and invisibilizing of disabled people in everyday life. As Gerda König, the German choreographer and VisAbility co-founder, has said: “Yeah, [people] are staring at them, or they look away, or they don’t even see them, but [for the workshop participants] to be as a crowd there [gives] so much power.”
Until now, VisAbility’s dance performances have been mostly abstract or non-representational. There was some resistance to using dance didactically to tell stories about challenging discrimination and claiming rights. But with this new project, VisAbility is moving towards more representational movements (partly due to more co-creation with workshop participants) and then integrating that with verbal storytelling about RTI. This may prove more resonant for participants and audiences. After all, there is a rich tradition of using street theatre to challenge injustices in Nepal and Sri Lanka. And street theatre has been used to promote RTI awareness in places like Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka.
While all of us were energized by our three days together, the real test comes when our Nepali colleagues start conducting their own dance and RTI workshops, as well as performances, with war-disabled and non-disabled people at the grassroots level.
This article was first published on the project website https://performingempowerment.wordpress.com/