Intimacy as a Political Act

Intimacy as a Political Act: Contemporary Dance in South Africa

Dr Sarahleigh Castelyn

University of East London


Under apartheid, intimacy across racial classifications was illegal, for example, the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950 forbid intimate acts such as sexual relations between white and Black South Africans (Guelke, 2005:27). Three years later, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (Guelke, 2005:27) meant that Black and white bodies had to use separate toilets, parks, and even benches to sit on. Bodies of different races in close proximity were seen as dangerous and had to be monitored and disciplined (Foucault, 1975). Sichel posits how the origins of “South African contemporary dance has been, to a large extent, a political act of defiance and activism,” (2012:108), and I would add, South African contemporary dance at its core is about intimacy. There is the history of bodies of different races, genders, and sexualities moving in close proximity: touching, skin-on-skin contact and much more. South African contemporary dance is not only a physical practice of intimacy but furthermore in its composition, as dance styles reflecting the diverse cultural practices of South Africa, such as Ngoma and Bharatanatyam, interweave with Graham-based technique creating a hybrid configuration. The “connection between dance, rights, and justice’ is ‘a very intimate one” (Jackson & Shapiro-Phim, 2008:xix), and this provocation considers my own involvement in contemporary dance in South Africa as a political act reflecting Sichel’s statement that “South African contemporary dance has had, and continues to have, a deep-rooted impact on South African cultural history and most importantly, on individual lives” (2018:31).

I am standing to the side of the studio. 

I am trying to catch my breath. 

I am sweaty and my face is bright red; I think my ears are glowing too. 

Out of the three fans, only one works, although it makes more noise than cooling us down. 

The windows are open though and even on the second floor I can hear people talking as they walk down the stairs outside the dance studio. 

We have been experimenting with partner-work: bodies rolling over and under, bodies supporting each other, bodies giving and taking weight, bodies touching, hands, feet, legs, arms, torsos, pelvises, faces, close close close, sweat on the floor, someone else’s sweat on our bodies. 

Our bodies are black, brown, white, male, female, younger, older, fast, slow, tall, short, and it hits me, this is not only dance with danger with risk as we play with height and weight, but this is a dance that still is a choreography of rebellion against who can lead, who can follow, how we need to work together, and for myself and the dancers in this studio in this country where racialised bodies were separated from each other, this choreography of our bodies touching so intimately is still dangerous and defiant: a paradox. 

Biography: Dr Sarahleigh Castelyn

Dr Sarahleigh Castelyn is a performer, choreographer, and researcher: a dance nerd. She is a Reader in Performing Arts in the School of Arts and Creative Industries at the University of East London (UK). Her dance research focuses on race, gender, sexuality, and nation in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, the politics of hybridity, and the use of practice as a research methodology. She has performed in and choreographed dance works, for example at Jomba! Contemporary Dance Experience (South Africa) and The Playhouse (South Africa). She serves on a number of editorial and organisation boards, such as The South African Dance Journal and HOTFOOT.