Elinor Cleghorn

Fitting in: power, performance, and participation in Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits

Elinor Cleghorn

The dancing body on screen, particularly in film, and especially the female body, has been my focus since I first started writing about feminism and moving images. The love of my writing, thinking, and viewing life has always been Maya Deren, the Ukrainian-American filmmaker, activist, writer, poet, and anthropologist. Her six completed films, made between 1943 and 1952, all encompass what she described as her ‘deep feeling’ for dance. Through film, Deren discovered the technological and temporal means not only to visually represent dance movement on film, but to articulate the affective and political dimensions of dance that are impossible to represent in any other medium.

Before Deren began making films, she worked as a researcher and assistant to Katherine Dunham, the pioneering choreographer, filmmaker, and anthropologist, who had carried out fieldwork studies of Caribbean ritual dance forms, specifically those specific to Trinidad and Haiti, during the 1930s. While working with Dunham, Deren had access to her extensive research findings, which included 16mm footage of dances performed in religious and communal contexts. An engaged and committed socialist activist, Deren found in ritual dance a euphoric exemplar of her politics, of communal cooperation and social cohesion. In turn, Deren was in thrall to the altered states of consciousness inhabited by devotees when they became ‘possessed’ by the dance. From the moment she began making films, Deren’s absorption in the somatic and psychological possibilities of ritual dance permeated her optic.

Ritual for Deren was body politic and body poetic. She conceived of ritual as a “conscious manipulation”, governed by inviolable logics: she composed and constructed her films this way, as conjurations of time, space, and motion, tautly structured yet always transfigurative, almost mythological. In film she was able to dream an experiential reality for bodies that transcended ordinary limitations – geographical, gravitational, temporal, and motile.  This, in Deren’s mind, was the affective scene of ritual.

Last week, I participated in a panel discussion with writer, programmer and broadcaster Tara Judah and critic, film researcher and programmer Kelli Weston about Anna Rose Holmer’s wonderful debut feature The Fits, which was first released in 2015. The Fits tells the story of Toni (played with luminous brilliance by newcomer Royalty Hightower) an eleven-year old tomboy who joins an all-girl dance drill team, The Lionesses, who practice in a community center in inner city Cincinnati.  The center is also home to a boxing gym, in which Toni trains with her older brother, Jermaine. Through cracks in doors, Toni glimpses the Lionesses working through their drills, and her curiosity pushes her to join in. As Toni struggles through the choreography she develops friendships, and begins to experiment with the markers of ‘feminine’ adolescence: nail polish, earrings and spangly costumes.

Gradually, the older girls in the group, and then the younger ones, are affected by inexplicable and seemingly contagious episodes of ‘the fits’, physical seizures that cause them to collapse and convulse. In one scene, Toni and her young friend Beezy chat about what might be causing ‘the fits.’ “Do you think it’s some kind of boyfriend disease?” wonders Beezy. Toni’s not sure. The ‘fits’ look frightening. But at the same time ‘the fits’ seem to constitute a strange and necessary ritual of belonging.

At the end of the film, in an incredibly beautiful sequence scored to Kiah Victoria’s song Aurora, which repeats the refrain ‘must we choose to be slaves to gravity’, Toni floats above the ground, her ‘fit’ performed through a choreographic enmeshment of Hightower’s movement with mobile camerawork and rhythmic editing. Toni’s ‘fit’ is conjured as a performance of uncanny grace, and Holmer affords us access into a dreamscape of Toni’s inner life: are we watching Toni’s fever dream as she fits, or are we inhabiting Toni’s dream of what it means to ‘fit’? It doesn’t matter. Like in Deren’s films, dance in The Fits unseats the logical conventions of filmic narrative, allowing us, as viewers, to experience film as an art of time and movement with all the capacity to disrupt the claims that the patriarchal gaze-machine makes upon women’s bodies. Toni’s ‘fit’ is both an articulation of her innermost subjectivity, and a radical inhabitation of the power of participation and community. If you haven’t seen The Fits, I implore you too. It’s available now to stream on Netflix.

Holmer, like Deren, is fascinated by the way that dancing as ‘such a powerful intentional release’ can also be the conduit for something ‘uncontrollable’, a movement emergent from ‘this other area of consciousness.’[1] Whether or not the contagious nature of ‘the fits’ is a medical epidemic or something the other girls are enacting is left deliberately ambiguous. The cause and authenticity of ‘the fits’ is not the issue here; what counts is the way that fitting serves as a metaphor for ‘fitting in’, not to diminish the girls’ individual identities but, to use Deren’s words, to ‘enlarge’ them ‘beyond the personal dimension and…the specializations and confines of personality.’ As Kelli Weston pointed out in our discussion, the drill team is a powerful locus of community in the US, especially for girls of colour, offering support, protection, and an essential space of belonging. In The Fits, the communal compulsion of fitting is underscored by an impulse towards individuation: each girl’s experience of fitting is entirely her own, yet it finds expression and acceptance within a communal social space that nurtures and nourishes subjective freedom.  Ultimately, ‘the fits’ serve to exemplify the uncontainable, transformative force of female identity, and dance, as a movement of the body and the movement of the medium, cohere to create choreographically cooperative visions of feminine and feminist somatic and psychological exploration. ‘We’re saying that there is power in collective identity’, Holmer states. ‘And it should not be conflated with conformity.’[2]

Where the dance-based rites and possession ceremonies of Haitian Voudoun provided Deren with choreographic impetus in her filmmaking, Holmer garnered inspiration from the ritualistic force of instances of dancing mania and ‘dancing diseases.’ In an interview for Vogue published last year, Holmer describes how she was fascinated by cases of collective, apparently epidemic dancing manias that broke out in Europe in the Middle Ages. In one notable historical instance, the so-named Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518, around 400 people were possessed by a dance that continued for between 4 and 6 days. Around 15 people were estimated to have danced themselves to death each day, and the physical capacities ‘performed’ by the afflicted subjects far transcended what the human body should naturally be able to endure. The dancing plague began with one woman, Mrs. Troffea, dancing ‘fervently’ in the street. Despite much speculation, no one is sure what exactly caused these dancing manias. Were such instances medical epidemics, caused by poisoning, or supernatural interventions, or mass psychogenic phenomena? Again, the cause is not what matters here. What does matter is the social force of dance, and the way that such force resists sanctioned diagnostic explanation.

John Waller, in an article on dancing manias published in The Lancet in 2009, makes a link between psychological distress and involuntary, compulsive movement: the participants in these dancing plagues, he writes, were ‘victims…experiencing altered states of consciousness.’[3] Waller suggests that appalling harvests, the advent of syphilis, and the recurrence of leprosy in Strasbourg in the early 1500s caused ‘acute distress’ for its people, and thus created the ‘conditions for an extreme psychological reaction.’ Yet, as he points out, this does not explain the community’s ‘irresistible urge to dance.’ Whether examined through historical phenomena or observed on film, dance, especially on a mass social scale, pulses inexhaustibly, resisting capture and wresting away definitions. In The Fits, Holmer transposes the psychical mysteries of dancing manias into the motile, fluid tensions of adolescence: there is psychological distress, sure, but there is also freedom, and grace, and vulnerability, and, most importantly, empathy.

In her 1945/6 film Ritual in Transfigured Time, Deren used the motif of a cocktail party as a means of exploring the ritualistic dimension that trembles beneath secular social ‘choreographies.’ Her protagonist, the dancer Rita Christiani who performed with Dunham’s touring company, moves through questing spaces, dancing to retain the integrity of her identity. While the film does explore the social performance of coupling and partnership, the muscularity of Ritual ultimately defies hetero-patriarchal conventions: through Deren’s film choreography of Christiani’s movement, the sexualized implications of the performance of the female dancing body are challenged and complicated. In turn, in The Fits, dance is unmoored from any association with the performance of sexuality. As Tara Judah pointed out in our discussion, Toni moves fluidly through the ‘gendered’ spaces of the boxing gym and the dance practice hall. Her identity is hers to explore through movement, and in her movement she is free from the gender confines that might be seen as germane to those social spaces. As a gesture of feminist filmmaking, Holmer’s choreographic configuration of Toni’s ‘headspace and physical bodily space’ creates an encounter with a young woman’s body that is unencumbered by easy identification and unburdened from expected tropes of gender and sexuality. Toni’s experience of dance, and of ‘the fits’, as Kelli Weston explained during our panel, is a manifestation of her inner life during those awkward, anxious, awakening years between childhood and adolescence. Toni moves through spaces where she is free from the oppressions of gender normativity, and her movement is released from the objectifying gaze. ‘The fits’ may well be something of a ‘boyfriend disease’: as Tara Judah suggested, it could be speculated that the girl who first experienced the ‘fit’ might have been pregnant: but all this exists only in whispers. In its use of women dancing as the principal mode of expression, The Fits attunes our attention away from ‘eroticized femininity’ towards the political potential Laura Mulvey identified in experimental cinematic practices ‘capable of re-representing and recreating women’s subjectivity.’[4]

Dance movement has, since Deren, been a medium through which feminist alternative and experimental filmmakers have re-visioned the objectifying implications of the patriarchal vision-machine. In the work of experimental artists including Shirley Clarke, Amy Greenfield, and Tanya Syed, and feature directors including Sally Potter, Andrea Arnold, and Céline Sciamma, we can feel the pulse of Deren’s feminist articulation of film’s capacity to release women, and their bodies, from the suffocating limitations of hetero-patriarchal structures of film spectatorship. Whether the dance is a projection of ritual devotion, an expression of socialist politics, or an articulation of the contagion of adolescent becoming and belonging, feminist film choreography powerfully destabilizes the implication that the movement of women’s bodies on screen, in film, exists to serve some imposed narrative or diegetic meaning. In The Fits, Holmer’s choreographic direction evokes the tenets of Mulvey’s 1978 manifesto for feminist subjective exploration through film, ‘Film, Feminism, and the Avant-Garde’:

"What recurs is an overall return to women, not indeed as visual image, but as the subject of inquiry, a content which cannot be considered within the aesthetic lines laid down by traditional cinematic practice. Pleasure and narrative involvement are not the result of identification, narrative tension, or eroticized femininity, but arise from surprising and excessive use of the camera, unfamiliar framing of scenes and the human body, and the demands made on the spectator to put together disparate elements".[5]

Like the ritual celebrants Deren conjures through the tissue of her films, Toni in The Fits chooses not to be a slave to gravity. And Holmer, through her exquisite choreographic vision, transports us into a tender, exploratory space where women’s bodies matter, and a young girl’s identity refuses to be bound.


[1] Julie Felsenthal, interview with ‘Anna Rose Homer on directing The Fits and the power of contagion’, Vogue (June 2 2016) https://www.vogue.com/article/the-fits-anna-rose-holmer-interview

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Waller, ‘A forgotten plague: making sense of dancing mania’, The Lancet , Volume 373 , Issue 9664 (2009): 624 - 625

[4] Jean Petrolle and Virginia Wexman, ‘Introduction: Experimental Filmmaking and Women’s Subjectivity’ in Women & Experimental Filmmaking, eds. Petrolle and Wexman (Urbana and Chicago: Illinois Uuniversity Press, 2005): 4

[5] Laura Mulvey (1978) ‘Film, Feminism, and the Avant-Garde’, quoted in Women & Experimental Filmmaking, p.4