Connect with BCNM's Naomi Bragin and Street Dance

21 Jan, 2014

Connect with BCNM's Naomi Bragin and Street Dance

The Berkeley Center for New Media is turning 10! To celebrate, over the next ten months leading up to our birthday party on September 25th, 2014, we’re sharing ten stories of BCNM’s life so far. This month, hear how Designated Emphasis Ph.D. candidate Naomi Bragin explores power structures through street dance.


Naomi Bragin might have become a concertmaster. Raised in a Los Angeles household of opera music, violin practice, and no television, she was immersed in classical culture growing up. But it was dancing to electronic music that ultimately ignited Naomi’s passion, and once she experienced movement styles developed in the underground clubs of LA and New York in the 1990s, dance became her outlet for artistic expression.

Naomi moved to Oakland in 1997 and became involved in the Bay Area’s unique hip-hop culture. Inspired by her participation in this community, in 2002 she started her own company “DREAM,” with the mission to bring to concert stages many of the dance traditions she had been informally researching offstage in "the streets." After several years of steady professional growth – DREAM's collaboration with Afro-Cuban folklorist José Francisco Barroso was nominated for the Bay Area's Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Best Choreography — she felt the need to deepen her critical and ethical engagement with hip hop and street dance culture. She joined UC Berkeley’s Performance Studies PhD program and the Center for New Media to invigorate her artistic vision through a renewed commitment to research and education.

Through dance, Naomi examines structural relations of power that mediate the body's sense of motion, effecting and potentially transforming consciousness – a process she calls kinesthetic politics. Locating hip hop culture within enduring conditions of slavery and white supremacy, the commercial spread of street dance through television, film, and cyberspace reproduces the figure of the 'happy dancing slave' in complex ways. Naomi argues that kinesthetic politics is essential to understanding black people's collective strategies for protesting racial, gender, and sexual oppression. Her dissertation is both an ethno-history of street-dance styles – which have yet to be consistently and seriously engaged in academia – and a critique of the politics and ethics of participating in street dance culture in a contemporary context that denies freedom to black people.

“Everyone wants to play black,” Naomi says. “But no one wants to be black.”

Against this backdrop, dance is always political. As Naomi notes, the global spread of hip hop dance, facilitated by social media, does not guarantee, and in certain ways diminishes, social justice for black communities innovating these traditions. The popular idea that we now live in a ‘postracial’ world suppresses discussion of the specific struggles for liberation that black people continue to face. Policing and dynamics of viral antiblackness are the focus of Naomi's recent essay "Shot and Captured: Turf Dance, YAK Films, and the Oakland, California, RIP Project," co-winner of TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies 2013 Student Essay Contest (forthcoming Summer 2014). The RIP films are a group of four YouTube broadcast dance memorials, dedicated to black Oakland youth whose deaths go unreported in official news media. Even while local artists bring international attention to violence in their communities, enduring logics of racial blackness impact the viral circulation of not only the performances, but also progressive discourses of youth empowerment and socially engaged art.

Naomi also writes on queer kinesthetics, black masculinity, and the street dance waacking/punking, forthcoming March 2014 in All Hail the Queenz: A Queer Feminist Recalibration of Hip Hop Scholarship, a special issue of Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory; and antiblackness, internet meme-ing, and the Harlem Shake for The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies (2015).

Naomi hopes that her work will suggest new ways of engaging race, gender, and sexuality through dance and social media, and credits the Center for New Media’s interdisciplinary environment for helping her situate her work within broader scholarly conversations. “On the fourth floor, I may find myself explaining my work to a computer programmer, a social scientist, a game theorist, or a high school educator,” Naomi says. “Even if our projects seem completely unrelated, we strengthen each other's work by figuring out how our ideas fit within a wider sphere of concerns.”

Interested in creating a new fund for community-based graduate student projects or building opportunities for marginalized communities to be represented in academia? Support BCNM in its mission to bring together the humanities, arts, and sciences to critically analyze and shape developments in new media from cross-disciplinary and global perspectives by donating today. If you have other ideas to help develop the future of BCNM, please contact us as well.