Interview: Naira Estevez

What do artistic work, practice-based research and an intense, booty-shaking feminist squat workout have in common? They are the different approaches dance-activist Anisha Müller uses to challenge a world that is not a safe space. Currently studying “Art in Context” at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, Müller’s research is based on her biographical and practical experience related to the art of dance. With FemmeFitness, she has developed a fitness course of party moves rooted in her intercultural dance background. A few weeks after my first FemmeFitness class I had the opportunity to talk with Müller in a Neukölln Café.

@ Valerie Siba-Rousparast

Anisha, you teach feminist workouts that are totally different from anything I have ever experienced in a regular gym. Still, judging from the way you lead the class, you also seem to have a traditional fitness industry background. What is your connection to it?
I’ve been a fitness instructor for five years. At first it was a side project to make money – and I’ve always loved very high intensity workouts. It took me quite a long time, but I started to realise why – and what – I didn’t like about them. Still, I needed the money, so I started covering Zumba classes and general fitness classes. As part of the industry, you have to promote lots of things implicitly and explicitly. In the end it didn’t match my feminist ideas, so I started teaching the classes in a slightly different way. One of the biggest changes was not making people think more about their body than they already were in the gym-space. I didn’t draw attention to what moves lead to what toning, which many gym-instructors do – and are encouraged to do – because body shaming is what makes people go to the gym. It’s all part of a money framework. I also didn’t like the way that Zumba, in particular, capitalizes on cultures without contextualising them.
At some point I realised I had enough ideas and wanted to do my own completely different concept. I didn’t want to be part of a fat-shaming and otherwise culturally problematic industry, and people really enjoyed my approach. So, I started thinking there is more interest to do something different.

This was how you came up with the idea?
The concept wasn’t complete at the beginning because I didn’t have my own space to do what I really wanted. It was still in a gym, and that was awkward, because it couldn’t be donation-based, and I really wanted people to come who couldn’t necessarily afford a gym membership. The people from the gym were nice, but still didn’t really get my idea. When I started explaining my intersectional feminist agenda, they were shocked. They understood that I didn’t want to make people lose weight, but they didn’t understand the fat-activist PoC political stance. So that was too much, and I went on looking for a space where I could do FemmeFitness exactly as I wanted to. Eventually I found St. Georg, which is a Berlin based cultural events network that particularly supports PoC and femme-centric DJs and artists. They immediately facilitated my project and let me use their space without a fee. As a woman of colour, I felt they respected my work and listened to my ideas.  St. Georg is an amazing support to their community.

As a participant in your class, I immediately felt the impact of the room: It was a little strange at first, because I expected a regular gym, and it didn’t seem typically welcoming. It’s a club and has this funny mouldy smell and the lights are dim. It’s one room in the basement, which you enter via a steep, stony staircase. There’s a bar, and in contrast to all the gyms and dance studios I’ve ever been to, there are no mirrors. Overall it just didn’t feel too ‘fitness-y’. But during the class I realised that this setting was exactly what makes people feel comfortable and move as they want. Was that what you were going for?
Yeah, from the way that the place is built, it allows certain people to go. It’s no coincidence that when you go to the gym, the majority are white skinny cisgender people. For me this is one reason why I needed a room where this is not necessarily the case. One of the amazing things about it is, that people approach it differently.  It’s not just that the actual physical space is different but saying that there is a workout dance class in a club makes people think of it as a party. That’s what I wanted. The whole idea is to celebrate your body whatever it looks like. Even just for that hour: to try not do more policing than we get anyway. I think the club atmosphere can really help with that – alongside all my safer space talks and ideas.

People also felt free to take off their shirts when they got hot during the workout. That was probably due to the absence of a certain heteronormative sexualising gaze that tends to dominate regular gyms – and also clubs. But it was still unique given the potentially sexual components of the moves you use for your class.
I would describe my class as (a)sexual-empowerment because I reckon some people might feel super sexual with some of the moves, and some won’t at all. It’s important for me to create a space where anything is OK.

What would you say makes the moves sexual or not?
Currently I’m doing a workshop in relation to FemmeFitness, just to deal with those questions. Like, what is a ‘sexy dance’? Can we reclaim it? Is it from the outset a male-gaze thing, or is it a misinterpretation of different non-western dance forms? Some of the moves I do are inspired by my family environment growing up and the different cultures of dance I’ve been surrounded by. A lot of those dances are routed in very asexual traditions. But when they enter the western context, they are understood as hypersexual. That is completely intertwined with the colonial history.

How specifically?
My primary dance-background, for example, is classical South-Indian dance. During the colonial reign all dance was banned by the British empire for thirty or forty years. That had a huge impact on the development of all dance practices. Initially I thought that it was because the white western reformers and religious people saw it as a sexual thing. Actually, it had more to do with the colonizers’ anxieties than with the actual look of the dance. The idea remains in western perceptions though, and a lot of people might see those dances as super sexual – regardless of the actual background. Not to say that to enjoy it in a sexual way is bad.

And if those dances would, or do, have sexual connotations, one might also ask why it is being problematised and associated with fear.
Exactly. Also, one connection that I made is that a lot of these dances were done by femmes – not just cis women, but also trans and queer people, dancing on their own, in a public space without partners. For me, this also has to do with agency – when femme and queer people are owning their body and there is this immediate shutdown, particularly in colonial thinking.
Sometimes rethinking these things actually changes the way you move. That is one of the reasons why I started the facebook-page **FemmeFitness** to accompany my class. I try to make those topics more understandable through posts for people who are interested.

©Valerie-Siba Rousparast

Would you say you use social media as a strategy in handling cultural appropriation?
I do online, but I also encourage people to have discussions in person. When I’m dealing with the issues of cultural appropriation or body-policing, I always try and think of how to offer alternative ways of going about it. In the past I’ve been criticised for my stand in relation to different cultures and different musical genres. I play a broad variety of pop music by artists of colour from all over the world, so for me, one approach is contextualising and giving credit to where they are from. I feel there isn’t always a right or wrong way in how to deal with it. It’s a lot about cultural sensitivity and profit.

There are certain things I wouldn’t teach, but if I get too caught up in the complexities, I risk losing sight of what I’m trying to do. I just really promote the music I’m playing, so people will buy it to support the artists. I contact the artists through Instagram, which is awesome because it’s so easy and they are often super flattered. I say “Hey, I want to promote you – how?” and they tell me to repost them on Instagram, or to buy their song on a specific platform. I am also careful about who I promote and what they are promoting, by extension. I like to choose empowering songs and people the participants can relate to.

Do you always try to stay positive?
There are different types of activism and I support them all because you need to have different types of activism. Some of my friends are fuelled by anger, which is important. It’s an active emotion and it propels a lot of people to fight hard. But it’s also exhausting and can make you feel like shit. My positive celebratory approach is first and foremost because it fits my personality best. I’m super critical and say things as they are –  if there’s an issue –  but I’ve also learned, on a very basic level, that being welcoming means people feel I am not intimidating and they can come and chat with me about stuff. That’s the kind of framework that you need in a safer space.

In what concrete ways are you being welcoming during FemmeFitness?
I bring bananas to my class. I bring tampons and I say how I feel. I want to make sure there is an atmosphere where people can come and tell me that their knee hurts, that they have their period or whatever. Generally, for people to be free to share how they feel. I also noticed that people do that with each other. The other day someone forgot their T-Shirt, and some was like “oh, you can wear mine!” That does not happen in a gym.

Is your positive approach primarily designated to femme-identifying people?
Until now, masc-presenting people have come, but as I try and prioritise femme, queer and PoC that is the main audience. I think about people whose bodies are constantly policed, like people with disabilities, gender non-conforming and fat folks, but I would never turn anyone away. Also, because of the dominating group, if you are a cishet white man for instance, you might feel out of the majority, so the whole dynamic completely changes. I’m at the front and I encourage you to follow me, so it’s not like you could just do your own thing. It’s not that some guys can just sit on the side and watch. That’s the only real rule I have. If you’re exhausted and you need to take time out, of course please do. But there’s no creepy watching!

Did that ever happen?
Once I did a class in a somewhat secluded place outside and a group of 14-year old boys came past. I saw them and thought: ‘Oh no! How do I go about this? If I tell them off it completely kills the vibe. If I suddenly switch my presence, the people in the class will feel awkward and the boys might get annoyed and I will get annoyed, because my good mood is then gone.’ In that moment we had a pause between songs. They were watching and giggling, and I decided to be really friendly and tell them to come and join us and that we were having lots of fun. Initially I thought they would say no, but two of them joined in and stayed for two routines. I was so touched by that.

So, you actually dissolved the male-gaze by including them?
My class does not exclude anyone. Thinking about how you are perceived in society is not meant for women only. For me, femme has to do with femininity and maybe stereotypical dance moves or expression, but it should be accessible to anyone. For an hour, I want to celebrate these forms of being. In doing so, it can be ironic, subversive or funny. It can be deeply connected to your identity, or not. And in that situation, I was really moved by these 14-year old kids who’d surely never do those dance moves normally but were having lots of fun in that situation.

Do you think they enjoyed the dance moves?
Yes! I actually realised that some privileged people like cis-het white men might find it tricky to move in a certain way because they’re so conditioned. But my guy friends who’ve come have loved it too because it’s another type of vulnerability that they’ve exposed themselves to – which is why I don’t think FemmeFitness is just for women. I think men, trans people, queer people – all people– can benefit from allowing themselves to move this way for an hour.

Is this empowerment?
I think it can be super empowering, yes. Also, collaborating with people and learning from them in a mutual exchange, is at the heart of empowerment. I recently looked it up, and the definition is giving power or agency to someone, but I really disagree with that; I don’t think it ever works. There are other examples, where you help someone empower themselves, which I think is slightly better. But really, even if you have a platform and the capability to offer support, it still means work. People have to do it themselves. I can’t say that people can come to my class, feel great and leave with all their body or other insecurities gone. That’s not the way it works. But I can share some words or feelings that might be helpful to others.

So how do you work on your own empowerment?
In lots of ways my FemmeFitness work has helped me. Recently I did a workshop about Asian stereotypes where I realised that few of my friends really knew about my dance history. I did South-Indian dance for ten years. Now I’m coming to terms with where this comes from and why I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it; why was I embarrassed. Now it’s cool to wear bindis, which was so not cool when I was younger. In this workshop I met many others who had had similar experiences, and that empowered me. My main inspiration is talking to other people and I go by personal experience, which is often undervalued in very academic feminist circles. I generally follow people and do things that make me feel strong and secure.

And how do you stay open?
That is also part of my own process. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding when you get through it. You learn that everyone makes mistakes and that no one is perfect. I make politically incorrect mistakes, as do others around me, but I’m aware that everyone has a story and background that shapes them. We are all on our own, diverse paths to feminism and empowerment. This is also part of my approach, I guess. Altogether I think empowerment is sharing. I feel really empowered from the people who come to my class and I’ve learned lots. It’s amazing.