If I can’t Dance to it, It’s not My Revolution! Political Dance Vs. Propaganda

chinese dancers for Mao

dancers in cultural revolution ballet

Emma Goldman is credited with the title quote, and it’s one of my favorites.  I think she was simply saying that she’s not going to fight for a joyless society, a point that is so easily forgotten when the focus is on struggle.  But music and dance have also been used throughout history to make political points.  From the blatant propaganda of this little ballet melodrama from China’s Cultural Revolution


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to this wonderful statement about the sex slave trade, beautifully designed to make people stop and think:

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Art goes straight to the heart and that’s why it’s used, not always this eloquently, to make political points.  This video in particular got me to thinking about the difference between a thoughtful political statement and propaganda.  Both are designed to influence emotion.  My Chinese example was easy because it was so obviously designed to raise certain very specific feelings with a strong undercurrent of “You are supposed to feel this way!”  but propaganda can be much subtler.  According to the dictionary, propaganda is information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

Except for the misleading part, the definition applies to the second example as well.  So maybe that’s the only difference.  If it’s designed to mislead, it’s propaganda.  If it’s merely biased, it’s not?

The sex trade clip brings awareness to a serious problem, an ongoing injustice.  But the Cultural Revolution was founded on a fight against a corrupt government that was certainly responsible for its share of heartbreaking injustice.  I remember how much I loved that image of the strong woman fighting oppression with a rifle and Bermuda shorts.  It had a huge impact on me when I was in my 20s.  Really, what was the message here?  Fight oppression in solidarity with your fellow freedom fighters!  Not so different from the red light dancers.  Their message included the element of surprise, but boiled down to “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself now?  So go do something about this now that you know!”

If Mao had succeeded in replacing a repressive government with one that truly supported the best for its people, instead of succumbing to another form of tyranny, would this historic dance piece still strike us as propaganda?

I think Emma was on the right track.  If you take joy out the revolution, you wind up with a joyless post revolution.  Dance can make a powerful point, but ultimately it’s a joyful experience and that’s why we do it.  I believe, in fact, that if most people danced there would be no need for revolution.

When people from different cultures dance and play music together, there is no room for hostility.  That’s my vision for the future!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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