Reclaiming Culture Through Dance: A Look at Tony Shapiro-Phim’s Research
Tony Shapiro-Fim has worked as a researcher, writer, curator, educator, film director and activist following his early passion – dance.
October 24, 2022
Tony Shapiro-Fim, Associate Professor of Creativity, Arts and Social Transformation and Co-Director of the Peacebuilding and Arts Program, has worked as a researcher, writer, curator, educator, film director and activist following his early passions. – Dance
When she is not co-editing literature or teaching courses related to her passions such as dance and migration, she can be found researching the impact of dance across cultures or working with special communities as they creatively combat various forms of injustice. . and wisdom
In her filmmaking debut, “Because of War,” four Liberian women tell the story of their survival after war, loss and exile, and the centrality of their traditional artistic practices to community-building.
Shapiro-Fim spoke with BrandeisNow about her research and path to filmmaking.
What inspired your career path?
When I was very young, I found myself drawn to many things, one of which was the circus. It’s not the animals, but the acrobats and tightrope walking and the traveling nature of that life that I find compelling. I could have taken several paths, including running away to join the circus.
However, when, while working in refugee camps in Indonesia and Thailand, I was struck by the predominance of dance in such merciless and often dangerous conditions. In particular, they are the ones who fled Cambodia, survived the genocide and lost homes, livelihoods, loved ones and entire communities, who chose to dance and to make sure their children knew how to dance, even though they could dance. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.
I have studied dance most of my life, starting with western modern dance, ballet and jazz at the age of four. So I was particularly drawn to what I was seeing in terms of dance at camp. One of the camps was in a war zone where artillery shells would rain during the performance. At that point, the dancers and the thousands watching them would run for cover. When the terror and destruction stopped, people would finish the show and return. It gave me great pause, and I desperately wanted to understand the dance drive and see the dance in the midst of this kind of vulnerability. Once I decided to return to the United States to study the relationship between dance and war, my career path began to come into focus.
How does studying dance relate to your background in choreography?
Anthropology can be defined in many ways, but it is essentially, the study of mankind. Trying to understand why people do what they do and believe what they believe, in isolation from context and how they find and create meaning. The anthropology of dance is the exploration of the significance and impact of dance or structured movement systems in cultural contexts, including consideration of the qualities of dance and movement itself.
When I lived abroad, I studied a bit of dance in the places I was, including Indonesia, Thailand, and finally, Cambodia, where I spent many years. Having a background in dance was helpful when I began researching dance as part of my PhD studies in cultural anthropology, as I understood the sensations that come with movement.
How can dance impact a community and make a difference?
We can take as an example the refugee camps in Thailand. They were surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, and, on at least one side, landmines. While the United Nations and non-governmental organizations set up schools and medical facilities, Cambodian refugees in the camps, of their own volition, built performing arts centers.
Thousands of people will gather and watch their fellow refugees perform. Beyond the entertainment of the masses, artists have created focus and beauty in the midst of loss and inhumanity. Experiencing Cambodian dance as a performer or observer was a way to claim a shared history and connection to community as well as a way to reaffirm status. Perhaps it was a way of caring for each other.
Cambodian dance, especially classical traditional dance, which has a long history associated with land, spirituality and royalty, can, in that case, be a statement against the past as it gives people roots in the traditions of the land they belong to. Through this, camp residents can imagine possibilities beyond the confinement and violence of their current situation.
What inspired your directorial debut, Because of the war?
Before I came to Brandeis, I was working at a non-profit arts and social justice organization in Philadelphia. I was introduced to exceptional singers and dancers who were superstar recording and performing artists from Liberia. They all settled in Philadelphia, along with thousands of other Liberians after the civil war in their homeland. As part of a project we developed together, they conducted their own research in their communities to identify pressing concerns. One of their findings was that Liberian women, in particular, feel isolated, given language and cultural and other barriers, and in some cases, are abused at home.
Four Liberian women then used their fame and art to tackle these issues through the power of song. They formed the “Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change”, working with a local educational and advocacy organization called “Women Against Abuse”. I helped Chorus secure a grant to support their work and documented the project. My video footage became the seed for a full-length documentary, mostly about women’s anti-violence and community-building work in both West Africa and North America.
We collaborated with an ethnomusicologist (someone who studies music in its social and cultural context) who specializes in Liberian music, and hired excellent videographers and editors. Finally, we made a film that we sometimes present at universities and film festivals, where we address anti-immigrant bias and policy and the arts and human rights, among other issues.
But our main audience is Liberians, among them the conversation about these artist-heroes and ignites the place of traditional expressive culture in a new country even in dealing with contemporary issues. A screening film shows women and police officers patrolling the area where many Liberians live. They discussed the fraught relationship between police and black immigrants, listening to the differences. Those discussions are ongoing.
You seem to have a little bit of everything. How do you balance it all?
All aspects of “a little bit of everything” are actually connected. I feel very lucky that the spark of inspiration, mainly from the fabulously talented and brilliant people I’ve met, has led me to the next thing and the next in my life. I have been careful to find ways to deepen my relationships with particular communities, and, when invited, to respectfully and humbly enter, listen, and observe newcomers.