Dance Maker: Amrita Hepi

Akshaya Bhutkar

Amrita Hepi uses dance as a platform for social commentary, expression, and activism. A Bundjalung and Ngapuhi woman interested in movement; she creates dance that unravels the association of shame with our bodies. Art, pop culture, and intersectionality are all expressed through Amrita’s work, encouraging discussion and dissection of our society.

VERTIGO: Can you tell us about your background as a dancer?

AMRITA HEPI: I started dancing at the age of four with my best friend’s mother, who taught Contact Improvisation — a partner dance style which focuses on physical principles of touch, momentum, shared weight, and a shared form of contact. As a four-year-old, this greatly fed into my general thrashing about in the living room at home. The same teacher then took me to my first Corroboree. I started dancing at my local dance school after that, and it’s kind of continued into a weird, long path from there.

V: What goals initiated your transition from student to ‘dance maker’?

AH: My decision to study dance at university and after attending NAISDA, made me take my dancing to the next level. I was exposed to a whole new world of performance and started considering making my own dances and choreography, rather than aiming to solely be in a dance company — the path that professionally trained dancers usually aspire to take. I worked with Alvin Ailey, an African-American choreographer and activist, and attended a residency in Canada at the Banff Centre. It was through these experiences that I came home and started to experiment with making my own dances. My first ‘official’ dance work was called Passing, which was apart of the New Wave Festival. From there, I started working with a few different dance companies and it kind of grew from there — including teaching pop culture dance classes in nightclubs. However, I am still learning and piecing together what makes a dance maker.

V: The expression of dancing and dancers themselves are associated with narcissism. Why do you think a perception like this is created, and how is this a dangerous illusion to present?

AH: I’m guessing people assume that dancers spend their time staring at themselves in a mirror. This is so different to the dancers that I know in my community — some have never danced in front of a mirror, are generous, super dedicated to what they’re doing, and are all totally selfless. I can imagine narcissism to be there in a sense, but it’s not something I see a lot of with my collaborators or broader community. Most of the dancers I know are vessels for people’s visions, and their own.

V: You often talk about the concept of shame. Can you expand upon this and how it influences your artistic work?

AH: I wasted so much time not doing things I loved because I felt a weird kind of shame in them. Questions like — How would people look at me? What would they think? — all stopped me from doing what I really wanted to do, because I didn’t want to seem undesirable. I don’t specifically make my work about the concept of shame but I have spoken a lot about it. The surrounding dialogue and my questioning of it help people unpack what they might not be doing because shame has seeped into their being. I express this within the context of a dance class. You’re moving your body around, which can be a good time to unpack feelings around shame — without people seizing up. It helps even more if the music is loud and the lights are low!

V: You express many political themes through your body and movement. What is it about dancing, compared to other forms such as writing that makes this form of expression more powerful?

AH: The most obvious is that it expresses something when the words stop and you can explore beyond that. There are so many inscriptions that we place on the body, on language, and on gestures. More prominently, there’s so much to explore through image, and the potential of bodies beyond that image — beyond virtuosity, idealism, and policy. The body acts as an archive, and re-places and diverts notions of an archive away from a documental deposit or bureaucratic agency, which is dedicated to the [mis]management of the past. It’s also a great way to culminate all of the words, wonders, and joy as well as rage.

V: Unlike sports which are played from a young age, just like dancing, many dancers stop participating in it once they hit the ages of 16. Why do we tell people to stop dancing once they turn a certain age?

AH: Puberty, shame, peaked sexual interest, hormones, the fact that dance is seen as weirdly sexual by some people, or the thought of it not being a real hobby. I stopped around 19 and had started feeling weird about it at age 17, because of dumb shit like boys, boobs, and shame. What a royal waste of time!

V: Elitism in dance is something that continues to be present, with styles such as ballet being seen as a higher ‘standard’ than other forms. Is this something you aim to dissect in your work?

AH: It’s funny what is seen as being a ‘legitimate’ dance — you have to look a certain way or dance in a serious company. Ballet is hard, being a stripper can be hard, being an independent dancer can be hard — work is hard. So why would we de-legitimise, or make any kind of work more important than or less than anyone else? There are layers of classism associated with what we deem ‘classic’. I’ve come to the point where I’ve realised I don’t need to elevate or pitch myself as the kind of dancer I am to everyone I come across. I do take ballet classes from time to time and enjoy them immensely. Everyone needs an access point, so I guess ballet can be an access point — as can Beyoncé. I think we need to decolonise dance and people’s ideas around it.

V: What is it about the art of dance that pushes you to pursue it every day?

AH: Dance is my home. I’m putting it all together and exploring it as much as possible. For me, the potential in it is endless.