Opinion

Dance for decolonisation: a new medium for Rhodes Must Fall

Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) in Oxford is a decolonial and anti-oppression movement that was inspired by the actions of students in South Africa, who called for the decolonisation of the University of Cape Town (UCT), through the removal of colonial iconography. The success of the campaign at UCT, to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from UCT’s campus, received global
attention and led to a wider movement to “decolonise” education across the world, including at the University of Oxford.

The renewed calls of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer revived the ambitions of Oxford students and graduates to call for a decolonised University campus, curriculum and academy. This message was clearly articulated and felt across the Oxford community, with more than 1000 community residents, University affiliates and protestors gathering to demand the removal of the Rhodes statue from Oxford’s high street on June 9th. Despite this broad support, the momentum of the movement was stalled by the institution of a Commission of Inquiry by Oriel College, which is slated to decide on the future of the statue in January 2021, fully six months after the historic June 9th protest and nearly six years since RMF in Oxford first articulated its demands.

In this context, RMF in Oxford seeks to commemorate International Human Rights Day 2020 by rearticulating the demands of those who gathered throughout the summer, with their masks and protests signs, to demand that the University finally reconcile its colonial history and uncritical veneration of one of Africa’s most dominant imperialists, Cecil Rhodes. RMF have produced a dance protest to rearticulate the persistent demands of the movement and to call global attention to the many anti-oppression movements and solidarity campaigns that emerged this year.

I remember my first protest this summer. While it was intimidating to reclaim public space and fill it with new energy and political information, it became clear to me that the inherent power of protests is not solely in raising one’s voice to demand systemic change, but also to interrupt the status quo by requiring non-participants to deviate from their everyday routine, in a moment of collective awareness and conscientiousness.

What makes a dance protest different? Dance captures momentum in a unique form. It is a universal language that allows communication of messages and emotions that transcend the confines of culture. If there is one thing human beings have in common, it is dance. The emotionality of dance grabs our attention and using it as a platform to protest invites solidarity. Consequently, RMF in Oxford invited activists and citizens across the world to submit their own dance-protest videos to advocate for causes that recaptured the public imagination in their own cities, towns and countries this year. What we received was an overwhelming response narrating the calls of movement such as Black Lives Matter, End SARS in Nigeria, Help for Yemen, Lebanon, Free Kurdistan and Justice for Tamils in Sri Lanka through movement and music. This action in commemoration of International Human Rights Day is a tangible and visceral representation of how power resonates across geographies when movements unite in solidarity – recognising the parallels of their respective oppression and the possibilities for their collective liberation across space time.

And so, the idea turned into action. This whole project is supported by people that have dedicated their talent, energy and time for free. It was important to come up with a simple and yet empowering choreography that would enable and allow everyone who supported this movement to join. We needed a song that would set the foundation to express our message. It was very clear to us that it had to be “My Power” by the one and only Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. As she shares in the documentary Making the Gift, “My Power” is “a celebration of power, and of not allowing anyone to get into your psyche or to make you feel anything less than a King.” As Beyoncé sings out alongside Nija, “they’ll never take my power, my power, my power.” And so, after a few practice sessions in the park and the organisational work of getting permits, we were ready to take on the streets.

When we assembled on High Street in front of the Rhodes statue for the final performance, the excitement and nervousness were palpable. The presence of Thames Valley Police at the site posed a challenge to relocate the protest, despite our having a permit. After explaining our procedure of repeatedly alternating between stopping the traffic for a few minutes to perform on the street and waiting on the pavement, they admitted that they couldn’t stop us. We immediately took our positions. The volunteers that would temporarily stop the traffic witnessed various reactions of the crowd. Some would stop to take videos and applaud, whereas others would intentionally drive through the mass with their bike, honk their car horns or complain to the police. It was the volunteers’ job to hold the space we wanted to claim, and it was ours to fill the space with information and assertiveness through our dance protest.

In addition to our choreographed dance protest, we opened a circle that invited participants to express themselves freestyle. We were amazed by the diversity of dance styles that each participant had brought to the table, ranging from classical Indian dance, Ballet, Krumping, Hip-Hop and Vogueing. Many of the participants have described this as a unique experience in which they felt a sense of empowerment through community.

On the pavement, during breaks, I would see people connecting with each other and hear them sharing experiences of what made them dedicate their time and energy to this project. Some participants shared the confidence they received to step out of their comfort zone through the support of being surrounded by such a diverse group with shared passion and values. We all saw the strength of dance allowing us to express a non-violent and yet very emotive rage translated through performance.

Before getting on the street one last time, I reminded them to take their time and enjoy every moment taking up the space – a space that is so often taken away from us in everyday life. It takes strength and courage to claim space, and when we come together, united by passion, it becomes the inviting space that we need. When we left the street that evening, we felt
exhausted and yet inspired and deeply satisfied, knowing we had given everything to express the urgency for change. The most important thing we left that street with, though, was hope: the hope of seeing Rhodes fall.

For more information about Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford and the anti-oppression movements featured in this dance protest, or to submit a dance video for a campaign in your region, please contact: [email protected]