Why white people can’t dance: they’re traumatized

NOTE: When I say ‘white’ this doesn’t equal European. I understand that there are long and unique histories of European peoples that I can’t speak to as I am not the expert. For me white begins in the ‘enlightenment’ era where reason came to the forefront of European society. From this understanding, I believe that Europe was the first place modern colonization happened and I empathize with the grief that comes with acknowledging this.

ON COMMENTS: I am no longer approving comments on this post since I don’t have the time and energy to reply and I want to be responsible. I want to address a few general themes that came up. 1) I see all oppressive mechanisms, such as misogyny or able-ism as energetic dis-ease, not just whiteness. 2) There are multiple layers of truth in my understanding. Being ‘white’ in the context of this world does mean ‘white’ people, with their privilege, generalized behaviours and ideas, AND embodiment tendencies do exist. BUT it is also true that whiteness is a social construct and no one is actually ‘white’. These aren’t mutually exclusive.

My exploration of race and racism started when I picked up street dancing as a serious hobby.

It all started 9 years ago, when I was making my head way as a video artist. I was doing artistic research on black vernacular dance (e.g. hip hop) and its connection to black rights movements. It was fascinating, saddening, maddening and inspiring to learn about how black dance culture supported the economic and political activity of black people.

But then in my project I hit a point at which it stopped making sense to just read about it. Reading so much about dance and watching so many videos, it just called on me to get off the couch and get on the good foot, so to speak.

I needed to be a part of the culture itself.

I still remember the day I went to my first dance class and the embarrassment I felt. Everything felt awkward as my limbs could not remember even a step of movement. And to be honest, I sometimes feel that way today.

I am eternally grateful though to the incredible gift that black/brown dance has been to me as it has lead me here, to become a body-centred therapist. As much as I am trained in Western psychotherapy, I understand the centre of my practice as a combination of my ancestral energy practices, such as qigong and martial arts with black movement principles.

From this place, I understand my racism cessation work as a commitment to the practices that have nourished me as a person and the communities that have supported me in my own healing path.

Getting back to the main subject, the burning question I had at the beginning of my research project was around the common phrase: “White people/men can’t dance”. What does this really mean? Is it really true?

This question stumped me because the community that I was starting to connect with through street dance was actually incredibly racially/ethnically/culturally diverse. Not only were there white people who could dance, there were East Asian, South Asian, Indigenous, Middle Eastern and all kinds of people who could dance.

Below: From The multi-racial Assassins crew, Rashaad Hasani and Ryan “Future” Webb get down.

This left me with a profoundly different understanding of race and its relationship to the body. And it has brought me to this conclusion 9 years later: White people ‘can’t dance’ because white-ness is a traumatized state that is disconnected from the body. That’s what the aforementioned phrase really means.

As I deepened my understanding of trauma and anatomy, I began to see that white-ness is much more than a colour of skin or a culture – it’s a type of embodiment that holds a certain set of ideas and attitudes. And I saw this first hand by watching myself and my white peers heal by learning to dance.

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The more I danced I became less anxious and reactive, and more expressive and confident. Something changed in me profoundly. And I wanted to know why.

Along with learning to dance I spent a long time researching Japanese and Asian movement disciplines and studied how postural alignments express aspects of our character, particularly our ability to self-regulate the nervous system. In this research I began to see how colonization/Westernization has profoundly impacted the way we move our bodies.

Just think about even this little fact: most non-European people didn’t wear pants before colonization, and if they did, they were not tight. Most cultures wore robes and ‘skirts’, no matter the gender.

We also generally didn’t sit on chairs. We squatted or sat on the ground. Many of our cultures didn’t glorify tight muscular abs. We, including the Japanese, valued a soft and supple abdomen. We didn’t march like rigid European soldiers did. We walked using a slight skating motion from side-to-side and a subtle ripple up the spine (a movement principle you can observe cross-culturally in everything from dance to martial arts).

Below: Skating steps from house dance

Below: Sliding footwork in Aikido

Our bodies ‘moved’ completely differently before colonization/Westernization. We had a much greater sense of the lower body and abdomen. We have been white-ified through changes to our living environment including the adoption of Western military discipline and education.

When we begin to understand trauma and anatomy we start to understand how much impact this has had.

The major muscle in our body that holds trauma is our iliopsoas which connects our spine to our pelvis. It is the muscle responsible for engaging us in our stress reactions of fight, flight and freeze. Trauma locks up the use of this muscle, which in turn reduces the range of movement of the spine. Westernized/colonized life reinforces trauma to produce a rigid, reactive and disassociated embodiment -what we call white-ness.

How I understand white-ness now is that it is an energetic imbalance caused by a loss of spinal fluidity and awareness of the lower body. Emotional energy becomes concentrated in the upper body, particularly gathering in the mind. To live in a world dominated by white-ness is to live in an environment that denies and protects white-ness as embodied trauma.

When you look at it this way, white-ness is traumatization itself. The white body is in freeze: a state of disconnection between mind and body. It is ungrounded and cannot feel the earth. We see this pained energy of white-ness play out in our society through violence towards sexuality, emotional vulnerability and ecology, amongst other things.

This is why, when a white ally asks me about how they can best ally with POCs, my best advice is to come dance with us. I don’t mean this just in the literal sense (although its a lot of fun). What I mean is that white bodies need to actively experience the discomfort of their body not being dominant in a space to really understand how much pain they are in – to feel and heal the white-ness that has been fortified by living in a colonized world.

Like I did in my first dance class.

And finally, if this post resonated with you I would like to invite you to learn more about the Authentic Allyship program (for white-bodied folks).

If you would like to read more on this subject in English, I recommend checking out Peter Wilberg’s writing here.

33 thoughts on “Why white people can’t dance: they’re traumatized

  1. The way I read this is the 18thC European ‘age of enlightenment’ which aspired to separate mind from body (eg Descarte’s ‘I think therefore I am’) has a lot to answer for when it comes to our disconnect from our bodies. The argument is made that the historical trajectory of this disconnect is evidenced through clunky connection to movement such as dance & martial arts & that disconnect to our own bodies also manifests as cruelty to others via colonisation, racism, imperialism etc. In short I think it’s a keen observation that the source of cruelty towards others starts with polarity in ourselves. Really good piece.

    1. Sorry, but your experience, this just doesn’t make sense as a generalization. It sounds like youtr journey, and a very beautiful awakening ,of getting in touch with your body. Even your idea that “white people can’t dance” is what. Is waltz not dance? ballet? , all across Europe different cultures have their own way of dance. Is it different than African dance, or other forms yes. So by that logic you’re saying whites can’t dance?
      I would argue “white’s” colonization was religious, Christianity which came from the middle east.

      1. In the context of this article, ‘dance’ refers to POC dances and especially black and brown vernacular improvised dance, as it is a response to the common phrase: “white people can’t dance”.

        In terms of European dances, I think it would require a really deep look at foundational movement principles. Not something that is the scope of this article. I can say thought that one common facet of modern European dances is that the movement tends to come from the heart centre, while older dances tend to come from the lower abdomen or even lower.

        I don’t think this is ‘wrong’ in it of itself. All of these dances have their own unique beauty. And certainly a strong hip hop dancer would only improve their dancing by learning ballet or other European forms and vice versa.

    2. those forms of dance all empahsize exactly what the article is stating: rigid hips and frozen core, which is the case in point: the trauma permeates through all elements of culture. as a black woman who has danced ballet, american modern, afro-hatian, congolese, flamenco, afro-cuban, and more i can say from experience that the argument holds through these expressions of culture.

  2. So from my understanding
    White folk can’t dance because due to whiteness they can’t feel. They disassociate their head from feet. So you learn to dance by…?- being woke?

  3. Yes! Yes! Yes!! I love the connections you’ve made in this article and it sums up a lot of how I live and why I am so committed to dance. Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective!

  4. is it whiteness or ethics and culture ? the ethics and culture were inspired by white men in 18th century but is it whiteness or is it some white people who wholeheartedly embrace this philosphy . I have a theory that its actually Puritanism , Puritans who hate the body .F*ed up rigid religious ideology is the trauma, having to hide the real self . I question the value of putting this in a “white” bag , just as I would saying Black/ Brown people dance , play sport , music because ……………
    What happens when a white person can dance naturally , are they no longer white ? why is it necessary to use the colour here ? genuine question .

    1. I don’t think of ‘white’ as just a skin colour. I see it as a certain kind of energetic alignment that ‘white’ people tend to express.

      So yes, I do think a person recovering their natural spinal movement to be un-white-ing, for both ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ people.

    2. Agree with this comment. As a white person who teaches African drumming and owned a dance studio for two years, this article implies that the evil is whiteness. Skin color is not the issue. Otherwise, I like the premise of the article and I agree we’ll do better to have more dancing in the world. Let’s just avoid the skin color shaming.

  5. White people are good at the dances that developed in some white cultures – look at any folk dances from any European country: they favour fairly rigid upper bodies, often highly intricate steps (e.g. as those in Ceilidh gatherings), leaps or turns. There is generally little emphasis on rotations from the hips or pelvic thrusts. Every culture has a repertoire of bodily movements, what Marcel Mauss called ‘techniques of the body’ that are learned from an early age and determine how we sit, sleep, walk, etc. He had observed how different national regiments marched to the same music in remarkably different ways and that set him on the way to think about this from a cross cultural perspective. It is certainly true that people who descend from generations of a particular culture will find some bodily postures highly uncomfortable (such as squatting or kneeling on the soles of your feet) and they will find it hard if not impossible to retrain their own bodies to do so. It is the same with dancing: I could not manage to make a Japanese dance a Viennese waltz and I find the hip-swinging moves of some Latin and African dance highly awkward. Whiteness as such though is not a relevant category for such a comparison.

    1. I agree with you on many things.

      That said, I don’t think it is actually that hard to retrain the body once the self-idea shifts – because the body expresses our self-idea. Colonization has in some sense been a process of ‘white’ cultures violating the self-idea of non-white cultures.

      I also think there is a lot more nuance to be uncovered. I do see that there is a tendency of ‘rigidity’ in European forms. I would love to know more and trace the history of European movement though as I have a few inklings about it, especially in regards to shifts in European spirituality and philosophy.

      1. Whilst I generally agree with much in this blog,i.e., the urgent need to get ‘frozen’ bodies moving, to embody knowledge, etc I consider it highly problematic (and very simplistic reasoning) to associate ossified relationships with the body with race and skin colour. Historically bodies were not first enslaved by the Cartesian seperation of mind and body in the ‘Enlightenment’ era, nor was Europe the first place colonised etc. A much more productive line of investigation might be to consider the ‘physical education’ or rather the systematic breaking down of natural and spontaneous body movements by the military system throughout history, e.g. Chinese army, Roman centurians, fascism etc

    2. As someone who took ballet for 9 years, i disagree. Nothing rigid about it. And when he says white he’s not specifically talking aboht European people. Hes using the word white… but he’s talking about me. Im black and I have this “whiteness” about the way I dance as well. Even in ballet. I gwt what he is saying. You shoukd reread the introduction tho

  6. this was a fun read but uhhh what?

    the notion that the psoas is a hub, or store, of energy in the human body has been around for thousands of years and was popularized by the concept of kundalini in ancient India (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kundalini).

    the jist of kundalini is that there is an energy which is stored in and around the psoas, however when it exists there it creates a negative feedback loop between the mind and body causing tension in the body to manifest itself an tension in the mind and visa versa. also, as this tension develops in the psoas it is said to direct your consciousness towards “earthly” or “human” concerns such as sex, anger, fight/flight, anxiety, etc.

    as one grows closer to enlightenment the kundalini energy is said to travel up the spine away from the psoas and towards the mind where the energy is now able to manifest itself as things like mindfulness, increased awareness, and things we generally associate with englightenment.

    I just wanted to point out, from my perspective, where the original contribution lies in this article. It seems to me that you’re making the following argument:

    (1) some kind of energy (like kundalini) exists which is stored in the psoas
    (2) this energy is negative and when it is stored in the psoas it causes us to be less woke/enlightened/whatever
    (3) (this is where you loose me) whiteness is a product of having this energy stored in the psoas
    therefore,
    (4) whiteness is characterized by being less woke/englightened/whatever

    is this what you’re saying?

    1. Hi 🙂 I’m Japanese so I use a mix of energy systems in my thinking. I think of it more like white-ness is energy rising in the body without grounding in the Hara / lower dan tien. This happens because ‘white’ or ‘Western’ culture reduces energetic flow in the lower body.

    2. Not negative energy trauma. Which aint negative or positive because things arent black and white like that. But if you ever got that muscle massaged you know its true. The feelings and flashbacks it was crazy. Thats how i know trauma is stored in the body thru massage i learned and experienced many releases first hand.

  7. VERY illuminating and wise piece…thank you! And one of the top 5 favorite compliments I’ve ever received (a white gal) is “you dance black”!

  8. This is very interesting! Largely this matches my research on the culture history of sitting and especially on sitting still in school. Your descripton of the disconnected and disscociated body-emotion, the role of pain and how this interferes the ability to move or to dance reflects my own personal experience. (I appreciate your “love letter to white people”.) To dance is a wonderful way to transform this state (one way among others).
    But I am irritated as well. To take the very complex phenomenas of traumatization, of disciplining the body, of enlightenment and of spiritual concepts like energy or hara and to label this as whiteness or being white, seems problematic to me.
    The point I feel uncomfortable with is that you define whiteness as pathology as something that has to be cured. In psychology traumatization means to dissociate if one can not bear the pain of a situation or of a sequence of situations. Often people can work through the trauma afterwards but in some cases there remains a serious damage wich is called Posttraumatic stress disorder. As you spell it out whiteness is nothing else than PTSD. You claim white people cannot really feel and not really beeing connected because they are traumatized because they are white. This leads in a psychologisation of a merely sociological phenomena. On this ground it is difficult to discuss issues like power, racism and so on. And if this rationalization of the body (as I would call it) has nothing to do with the color of the skin but with modern western life why should we call it ‘white’? In my opinion avoiding this term would produce less biases. Just to bring up one hypothesis: Maybe this special kind of traumatization you are describing is much more correlated with class or gender or milieu than with “race”.

  9. I am no longer approving comments on this post since I don’t have the time and energy to reply and I want to be responsible. I want to address a few general themes that came up. 1) I see all oppressive mechanisms, such as misogyny or able-ism as energetic dis-ease, not just whiteness. 2) There are multiple layers of truth in my understanding. Being ‘white’ in the context of this world does mean ‘white’ people, with their privilege, generalized behaviours and ideas, AND embodiment tendencies do exist. BUT it is also true that whiteness is a social construct and no one is actually ‘white’. These aren’t mutually exclusive.

  10. Great article! Some reality and some humor. To Spencer and others, the author clearly states that by whiteness, he doesn’t mean necessarily “european” but those living in places that have suffered the trauma of colonization/westernization for a long time- and the truth is that most of these people are white or live in colonial European cultures. He includes himself under this umbrella (even though he is not european), likely because he lives in a european colonized place and has been integrated into that culture. I would argue, however, that during my travels in Japan, the people were quite stiff there as well, and they haven’t been colonized by europeans, but themselves are part of a colonizer culture. At any rate, the argument spurred from a stereotype he was engaging, “white people can’t dance”, not necessarily his own race based beliefs. This is the humor of the article. Sure, he could have been more succient and stated that people living in post colonized cultures and aren’t exposed to diversity are less likely to have good dancing/movement ability than those who do not fit under this category, but that is basically what he said he meant by “whiteness” when he defined the term early in the article.

    p.s. I can tell you it’s true that “white people can’t dance”. I grew up in a diverse place (urban Florida) where people are exposed to many cultures and can dance, and now I live in a very white place (Portland, Oregon) where nobody (even black folks) can’t dance. Ha!

    1. Just wanted to leave a note that Japan came into semi-colonial status through uneven trade agreements and also Westernized rapidly to the threat of white colonization. We also participated in white colonialism as oppressor. An added complication to this is losing a major to Western powers as well as the fact that Japanese folks on Turtle Island had property annexed and sent to camps during WW2.

      Our history is pretty complex but we have definitely suffered a great loss of our ways of being through our contact with white-ness.

  11. Great article. I wanted it to go a bit deeper into the background and causes of this trauma. I’m reading that it is more about the military opression that colonisation brings about. And underneath that is the need to CONTROL, to do the “right thing” under a judicial police state, or under religious docrtine. Yes that’s traumatic, and it gets passed down through the generations. Dance is a great way to break the old habits, and the Feldenkrais methods seems to really get the significance of this pelvic trauma.

    1. It’s interesting to me that Feldenkrais was largely influenced bu Judo, in that regard.

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