New York-based Havana Rose Liu is a model and activist. Here, she shares her thoughts on movement, identity and taking back one’s power.
Movement is liquid, baby steps, change, power, slow, reclamation, imagination, autonomy, gentle, anger, moss, light.
I was six and a half years old at my audition for the Mark Morris Student Dance Company. I remember I tried to embody the color yellow—the sunlight, the side-walk flowers, the zest, and the effervescence that I associated with the word. I remember I skipped across the floor and it felt like only two toes had even grazed the ground by the time I got to the other side. I was completely weightless. I remember envisioning a lush mossy space soaked in yellow light, with fresh water pools and sparkling little bugs. I remember how soft the whole scene was—the marshy peach fuzz that I sat on, the babbling blue. Even my bones felt soft. At six and a half, dancing “yellow” was gentle, energetic, and bright. I was accepted into the company.
Would I be accepted if I danced the way I see “yellow” today? In my years after six, growing up in my mixed race Chinese American body, the term has been filled with the weight of racial slurs, political invisibility, and stereotypes of submission. It’s safe to say that my definition of “yellow” has changed.
I recently attempted to recreate this physical prompt, of dancing “yellow,” and thus re-improvised to the word for five minutes in the quiet of my room. When five minutes came to a close, I had filled the space with many unspoken feelings about my Asian experience and mixed race identity, all in the form of movement. In moments, my physical actions had been so energized and full that my lungs sat in my chest like whipped egg whites, frothy and exhausted. In other moments, I had moved imperceptibly slow. I didn’t analyze any of these decisions until my five minutes were up. I simply held the word yellow in my mind and attempted to follow my body’s movements without judgment.
What was profound about this experience for me was that I had opened up a dialogue with myself. Internally, I opened up my subconscious voice to my conscious self through dancing with an aspect of my identity. I had danced an explanation of my experience and, for the first time in a long time, it wasn’t taxing—it was really fulfilling.
Often, I think that, for individuals who exist in marginalized groups, we are expected to be impossibly verbally eloquent in expressing the ways in which we experience the world. Without a clear verbal or written explanation of the perils of one’s experience, it seems as though empathy and sympathy are withheld. Ideally, I’d like to be forthcoming at any given moment about my mixed race, pansexual, multicultural experience—it isn’t always so easy. While more often than not I am hungry for difficult topics of conversation and more than willing to answer questions, there are days when explaining my differences feels extraordinarily isolating. When you are constantly reminded of the ways you are different, it can stop feeling “unique” and can start feeling like you are an outsider—like you are othered, exotic, inaccessible, and unrelatable.
I think our current understanding of empathy underestimates our human capacity for respect and compassion. Google defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” but, arguably there is no way to truly understand how another person feels, thinks, and experiences life—in other words, we will never fully understand anyone’s experience but our own. So why do we have such an unachievable standard of understanding dictating our ability to show compassion? Why can’t we witness the experience of another and simply respect it?
Would I be accepted if I danced the way I see “yellow” today? Well, I know now, through dancing my new definition of yellow, that I can accept myself. That moving my body gives me a new language that rejuvenates rather than depletes. That moving my body in many ways takes back my power from a system that needs me to explain myself. That moving my body gives my physical self a sense of worth outside of what I look like. That moving my body allows me to become closer to myself when society begs me to be exotified, even to my own eyes. That perhaps, moving my body and paying attention to my movement simply allows me to bear witness to myself and, in turn, respect myself.