Dana Mills, author, dancer, activist. Photographs courtesy of Dana Mills

Radical Dance with Dana Mills

Dana Mills is an activist and political theorist who has written extensively on dance, history, and politics. Her first book from 2016, Dance and Politics: Moving Beyond Boundaries, examines a range of historical dances within their political contexts. Her new book, Dance and Activism: A Century of Radical Dance, which was published in January of this year by Bloomsbury Press, further explores the role of dance in social justice.

Mills taught political science for several years as a professor at the University of Oxford and for a short time at the University of Amsterdam. In 2021, Mills decided to leave academia and moved back home to Israel to work full-time as an activist. She now lives in Tel Aviv and is the Director of Development and External Relations for the Israeli activist peace movement, Peace Now. In edited excerpts from a recent interview with Mills via zoom, the author/activist discusses her new book, her career change, and the role that dance continues to play in the struggle for social justice.  

After more than a decade of living abroad as a scholar and writer, you have recently moved back to Israel to assume a new position with Peace Now. Could you talk about what led to this decision? 

When I was thirteen, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by right-wing extremists. He was on the verge of signing what we thought was a peace agreement, which was after some very difficult years of terrorist attacks by Palestinians on Israelis, and military assaults on Palestinians by Israelis.

I clearly remember when Rabin was assassinated, that it was the first time I saw my mother cry; it was the first time I saw people around me really shaken, and something was changing around me. I had a friend at school who went to meetings of Peace Now Youth, and she invited me to go. It was a time of optimism—we thought there was going to be some kind of agreement, and we were meeting a lot of Palestinian youth. The assassination of Rabin was the demise of that feeling because things became more and more extreme: The right really took hold of things in Israel, and we [Peace Now] became much more of a militant opposition group.

So that’s really my education in politics, as an activist. Then I went on to do three degrees in political science, and I ended up doing a PhD at Oxford and writing books. And then there was what I would call an era of civil disobedience around the world. I lived in England during the Brexit campaign, and then I lived in the U.S. in the crucial year when Trump got elected to the White House. At the same time, there was a huge campaign of civil disobedience, here, around Netanyahu, and I really felt that things are changing in the world, and that people are motivated to protest again. I guess there’s something in me that’s still an activist at heart. When I see injustice, I just want to pick a side and put on a t-shirt and go shout at someone—it might not always be the most effective, but that’s the first thing I want to do. I became more and more involved here [in Israel], and I saw a job going at Peace Now. I really applied on a gut feeling—I had no plan, was in the middle of a lockdown in the U.K., and I packed my life and came back after living thirteen years abroad.

Dana Mills protesting with activist group Peace Now, Israel

You began an interest in political activism at a very young age. When did you develop an interest in dance?

My dad first took me to a dance show when I was four. I probably started dancing soon after. It was always a big part of my life, although I knew my limits in it—I never had professional aspirations—which meant that I could do it for self-development and to think about the world, and I always thought that it was a great way to connect to the world. In high school, when I was in Peace Now, I was in a dance group, and my teacher instilled in me a love for practice and a love for community.

I danced throughout my army service and through my degrees. And then I started writing about dance, which became a whole different relationship to dance. I started to think about “what does it mean to put into words that thing that is nonverbal, that you cannot really put into words.” Now I don’t dance as much—I’ll blame the occupation and apartheid that I don’t get to the studio enough! But it’s still a safe space for me. Whenever it’s been a tough week, I always look forward to getting into the studio.

So, turning towards your book, Dance and Activism: You describe dance as “the art of now.” Could you elaborate on that?

There is no art form that is grounded in the present like dance. Everything that has a script and has something that remains after it has a past and might have a future. But dance happens in that moment, which is very special but also very limiting because obviously you work and work for this “one moment where you feel alive,” to quote Merce [Cunningham].

I think activism is also, in a way, the art of now. I have these arguments with my colleagues, planning a demonstration, and you can always plan a demonstration to an extent—we’ll leave from ‘that place’ and go to ‘that place’—but you never really know what will happen. You bring a big group of people together and you never really know how it might develop. There’s something about bodies in movement that always go unexpected ways, and though dancers try to codify them, there is still this unexpected energy about them.

There is also something about bodies protesting together—I tried to write about this in the book —when you go on a march or a demonstration, bringing people into a space together, you never really know how that will go. It really is the art of now, and it will never be exactly the same again. There is something very distinct about a moment, a political moment in time.

Are you finding these intersections—now as a full-time activist—between dance and activism in your everyday life?

Planning a big march, I have to think about where do we start, where do we go, what will be the physicality of it, what will the pictures look like. If you are an activist, you are choreographing bodies in space.

There’s something about dance being so visceral and it helps you to be able to connect to yourself and your body and have this relationship to your space that helps in articulating what this struggle is about. That’s something that really guides me, because I’m very sensitive to what it means to take away that connection to someone’s embodiment and to the space around them.

The book follows a handful of case studies of dances and dancers in examining dance and activism. How did you go about choosing these specific cases?

I started with an understanding that I wanted to write about an arc of time, so I started with 1920 and ended with 2020, so that it would be 100 years, and then I also wanted it to be global, because growing up in Israel/Palestine, I always felt a bit out of place in Europe and America. I always thought I could write about European and American artists, but it was, like, not exactly mine. And then once you bring in the Middle East, you’re like, “yeah, but why not Africa, why not Australia, why not other places” and so it became global, by force.

And I didn’t want them to cohere too much, because I think very often studies try to make things fit into a nice argument, and it was very clear to me, again, as an Israeli living abroad, that the world acts differently. To say that we are all part of the same humankind and we have global responsibilities doesn’t mean that we are all the same: I think a lot of people confuse equality and same-ness. You know, the way that I was raised here [in Israel] was very different to European methods of protest, which is different from American methods of protest, so I really tried to bring out the distinctiveness without making them like, “here’s another example of X that was effective,” because in every place, a different method would be effective.

Dana Mills protesting with activist group Peace Now, Israel

In your acknowledgements, you say that this book is for the dancers, and the dance activists. Throughout the book, you really emphasize—perhaps even legitimize—the role that the dancer can play in social justice. Could you expand on this?

I think my focus on dancers was from a two-fold reason. First, I think that very often in dance writing, dancers get overlooked, because the choreographer will get most of the attention: It’ll be this genius who created the work with these nameless bodies who executed it. Clearly, dance would not exist without dancers. Being a socialist throughout my life, I really wanted to bring back the agency over the art form to those who live it every day, and of course the choreographers are very important, but the dancers are the ones who keep that world alive, so I wanted to focus the book around them and write the book for them.

I think that we all have a role in the struggle. When you look at successful struggles, such as the struggle for votes for women, abolition of ethnic segregation in the U.S. and Africa, places where we really talk about benchmark moments where something was achieved, you always notice that the arts—and especially the performing arts—are very crucial in that moment. They’re really mobilized. I think that there is this misconception that we need a lot of diplomats, we need a lot of people who will be authoritative and will do things from the top down. My friend Yuli Novak [who formerly headed another anti-occupation NGO in Israel, Breaking the Silence] spoke in a really moving Israeli ceremony and said, “peace will not be made by men in suits; peace will be made by women and men of this place.” To paraphrase that, that includes the dancers, that includes the artists, that includes those who are able to transcend where they are today.

We started by talking about dance as an art form of the present. If you take that and you think about how dancers are required to transcend where they are, here and now, all the time—you’re always looking ahead toward something else—that it makes it a really important part of any social justice struggle. So, I think that really guided me in writing: understanding that there really is a very distinct place for dancers in social justice struggles, and they have never really taken credit for it.

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