The Dancing Cure

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Art, Articles

Wars usually end with talking. With the blood still fresh on the battlefield, politicians sit down at a negotiating table for peace talks. Words, after all, are their currency. Just as psychoanalysts apply a “talking cure” to resolve deep-seated conflicts, politicians sit across from each other to talk things out.

But what about soldiers? Their experience of war has more to do with action than with words. The traumas of wartime — inflicted by and on soldiers — are more of the sticks-and-stones variety. Yet the default approach to dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is through words. The National Center for PTSD recommends sitting down with a trained professional for a course of cognitive, exposure, group, or family therapy. Talk, talk, and more talk.

It’s not that talk is useless. Such therapy has helped many, many people. But soldiers are not out on the battlefield yelling epithets and absorbing verbal abuse. They’re killing and brutalizing, and being shot at and brutalized in return. Can such traumas be healed through words alone?

Now imagine these horrific experiences, which are enough to push adults into catatonic states, being visited on children. Between 2004 and 2007, child soldiers fought in 19 countries or territories. Employed in various capacities — scouts, prostitutes, mine sweepers — they often begin to kill before they hit puberty. Nor does the tragedy end with the end of conflict. “Tens of thousands of child soldiers have been released from armies and armed groups since 2004 as long-running conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa have ended,” according to Child Soldiers: Global Report 2008. Reintegrating those children back into war-torn societies is a monumental task.

Like ballet dancers, these young soldiers have been trained from an early age to go through precise motions, to shape their bodies to the required task. In this case, though, the task is to kill, not to pirouette.

So, can we address these traumas through words alone? David Alan Harris, a choreographer and therapist, has pioneered the use of dance and movement therapy with child soldiers. In his contribution this week to Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), Harris tells the riveting story of how young men in Sierra Leone, who show no outward emotion about their past atrocities, slowly come to terms with their experiences — through dance.

“The first sign of empathy for a victim came during a group dramatization,” Harris writes in Dancing with Child Soldiers. “A 17-year-old who had never before shown any emotions, even when speaking of horrific events, was cast by a peer in the role of a young mother with a baby at her breast. When another teen, acting the part of a rebel, ripped the infant away and murdered it, the face of the youth playing the mother contorted in utter agony. Following this courageous depiction of authentic horror, the sharing of long-suppressed emotions emerged.”

The use of movement therapy releases pent-up emotions and body memories, provides a kind of counter-ritual to the ones imposed by the army, and promotes new bonding experiences for the former child soldiers. The arts, here, aren’t supplemental or elective but an essential and integral part of the healing process. Reading and learning about this is one way to observe the Day of the African Child, which occurs every June 16.

“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” anarchist Emma Goldman once more-or-less said. Perhaps in the future, the survivors of war will proclaim, “If we can’t dance, we don’t want to be part of your therapy.”

More Fiesta!

Art is a business. And some artists, like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, run their enterprises as if they were, well, enterprises.

The two artists of the French outfit Société Réaliste implicitly challenge this conflation of art and business by setting up their own companies. Except that there’s something a little odd about these companies.

For instance, the duo set up a firm that develops models for marketing contemporary art. Sound’s intriguing. But wait: the firm’s name is “Ponzi’s.” Then they established a web site where people can apply for an EU green card. That’s a nice idea. Except there’s no such thing as an EU green card.

“We discovered that there exist hundreds of scam websites around the official U.S. Diversity Visa Program, a.k.a. the Green Card Lottery, that try to sell to potential migrants the right to apply to the State Department’s program, a process which is actually free,” Ferenc Gróf and Jean-Baptiste Naudy tell FPIF’s Niels van Tomme in Siding with the Barbarians. “Dealing with this frontier between legality and swindle in a liberal market society, as well as with institutional design, we have created a website inviting the potential migrants who would want to go to the United States to apply for a non-existing European Union Green Card Lottery. While designing this website, we tried to imagine what European identity might mean compared to its opposite: the other, the stranger, the foreigner, the migrant.”

Also in Fiesta! this week is a powerful poem by FPIF contributor E. Ethelbert Miller: The Genesis of Torture.

More on Cairo

Last week, before our website temporarily succumbed to hackers, we managed to publish one last piece on Obama’s speech in Cairo.

FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo praises the choice of Cairo as a location, since it is the heart of the Arab world. Unfortunately, he points out, Egypt is also a police state. “Mubarak has run the Egyptian government for 27 years. His goons neutralize his opponents with killing, torture, and imprisonment. Lawrence Wright, in The Looming Tower, described how Egyptian security forces raped a 13-year-old boy, threatening him with distribution of photographs of this act to his community if he didn’t squeal on his father. The brutal regime in Egypt was also where Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second man in command of al-Qaeda, was radicalized.”

So, perhaps cyberwarriors were displeased with our coverage of Egypt and took their revenge on our site. Not to worry: Our site is now safe again to surf.

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