AWS #3: Dani Abulhawa

Dani Abulhawa is a British-Palestinian interdisciplinary artist. Her background and training are in performance, movement and skateboarding. She’s based in Manchester and is a lecturer in Contemporary Applied Performance at the University of Leeds. Dani’s performance and work with communities often explores the lived experience and politics of specific spaces and places.

I first got to know Dani through her work with Skate Manchester, and when she helped me move a ramp to the local skatepark with her van. In the following interview, Dani and I speak about encountering skateboarding in WH Smiths, the importance of playfulness, and how the ideas of the choreographer Rudolf Laban can be applied to skateboarding.

Find out more about Dani and her work here.

Above: Dani skating in Bangor (via @skeeterdani)

Chris Alton: How did you first get into skateboarding? What was the appeal?

Dani Abulhawa: I used to come home from school and wander around the town centre, because I lived quite close to the town centre. I used to go into the shops and look around and wander around the streets. That was what I liked to do for fun, on my own (laughs).

One day, I was in the newsagent, WH Smiths; and I saw on the shelf, this image of a night scene and a skateboarder performing a trick. They were hovered midair, in an empty urban landscape and I was very drawn to this image. So I bought the magazine and became really intrigued by this idea of skateboarding and the visual culture around it, but also the kinds of spaces that people were occupying.

I was about 15 and I asked my parents to buy me a skateboard for my birthday. So they ordered me a full setup, and they ordered like a 411 video, which was a video magazine series from the 90s and early 2000s. It was basically tips and tricks about how to skateboard. And I got this skateboard; I taught myself to ollie on the carpeted floor of my parent's living room. That was my first experience of skateboarding practice, which is a little bit strange. Most people start by rolling, but that was secondary.

I think I was drawn to skateboarding, primarily, because I actually really like being in urban environments and I like being in the street. I like the materiality of concrete environments. I've always been drawn to that. I like the angles of brutalist architecture; and that all coincides with skateboarding aesthetics. And I did end up sort of rolling around a lot more on a skateboard after the carpeted experience. I lived quite close to a skate park called Radlands, which was a very famous skatepark in Northampton. So me and the boyfriends that I used to hang around with would go to Northampton and sometimes to Milton Keynes, and to Birmingham, and we'd also skate around our little town in the Midlands.

CA: What was the town that you grew up in?

DA: It was Rugby, close to Coventry. And it's quite close to Birmingham and Northampton. It's just very much in the middle.

CA: What's Rugby like? Is it quite architecturally similar to places like Milton Keynes or Coventry because you mentioned brutalist architecture?

DA: No, it's a market town! It's got a lot of much older architecture. It doesn't have any of those features at all. But I was very drawn to places like Coventry, Milton Keynes, and London, obviously.

CA: As well as being a skateboarder, you're an interdisciplinary artist with training in performance and movement. Having watched you skate in person and online, this training seems really apparent. Your skating reminds me a bit of early freestyle, and some of Mark Gonzalez's more playful skating. So I was wondering what influences your skateboarding?

DA: Thank you for associating me with the Gonz! Because, that's definitely a reference I'd love to be connected to, though I don't have nearly as much skill. I'm really drawn to the playful and the fantastical. When I was growing up my favourite skateboarder was a guy called Mike Manzoori. He never used to skate in a very silly or playful ways that some skateboarders do. But, I think there was a playfulness to the way he approached certain tricks and obstacles. I liked his style! Then the Gonz is a big influence, and Rodney Mullen of course. And Gou Miyagi more currently.

Sidewalk Magazine was one of my central entry points into skateboarding; I read Sidewalk religiously, every month. They would document a lot of British skateboarders and one of the guys that they documented, who I just loved, was a guy called Chris Atherton, who would sometimes go by the name of Avi. He was based just north of Manchester in a little town, and he used to create these absolutely wonderful, bizarre skate videos that involved him just doing all sorts of weird tricks on sofas and curbs and weird objects. That's just always really appealed to me; just being more playful.

CA: Yeah, I really get that sense from your skating. Whilst The Gonz is a pioneer, there's a shared attitude of play. You don't really observe the hierarchies of skate tricks and it makes me think; what's a trick? What counts? Does it matter? Why should it?

DA: Thank you. That's great. I'm really pleased about that! To be completely honest, part of the reason for that is because I can't do those tricks: the good tricks. But another part is that I don't have the motivation to learn those tricks either. They don't interest me that much. It's a bit like how you're attracted to certain subjects at school. It's not that you're incapable of doing – in my case maths or science – it's just that I'm not really drawn to them. So I don't try that much and I don't really do them. I feel like that about a lot of the more impressive or – let's say – dominant skateboard tricks. But for me, rolling around and playing with weight on the skateboard and balance; I just really enjoy that. I can have a very nice time doing practically nothing on a skateboard.

CA: Picking up on what you mentioned there about weight and balance. On your Instagram account, there's a video of a man skating a plywood mini ramp. The caption references Rudolf Laban's 'efforts of action drive' and in the comments, you state that his system for understanding movement can be useful for skating. As someone who had to look up Laban, I'd be really interested to hear more about how his ideas can be transferred from dance and movement to skateboarding.

DA: Yeah, so Rudolf Laban was a dancer and choreographer who's most famous for a system of notation; a way of writing dances down, if that makes sense? But he's also famous for coming up with the 'efforts', which is a way of understanding human movements through different forms of attention to effort. So the forms are; weight, and then there's space, and then there's time.

Weight can be expressed in the human body across either heavy or light, and everything along that sort of continuum. And your relationship to space can either be direct or indirect. So you're either occupying space in terms of straight lines, angular lines, right angles, and so on; or indirect where you're moving on different angles and curves. Then time is understood through either sustained or sudden. Sustained action refers to something that moves continuously, almost like it has no beginning or no end. And then sudden time is like a hand on a ticking clock. So it's something that is like almost all beginnings and all ends.

So, for example, if you're moving in a direct manner, in a sustained way, with lightness; that would be called gliding. And if you're moving in a sudden, light, and indirect way; that's what we would call flicking. So there's all these different efforts, and I think that they associate to skateboarding in a really interesting way, because I think that you can see the efforts being performed when you do different tricks. Sometimes there are multiple efforts for a trick.

The person that you saw on that video is my partner, Christian. I was playing around with this concept and we were breaking down the trick he was trying to do; a fakie BS 360. And we were breaking that down into the different effort that he was doing and trying to emphasise parts of the effort that he was lacking, so that he could get the full rotation all the way around. We were just experimenting, but he managed to do this trick. So I use it as a way of exploring, but also maybe improving my skateboarding practice, or working with other people to do that.

CA: It really resonates with me. Because, having returned to skateboarding in my late 20s, I approach it in a much more thoughtful way than I had done when I was younger. When I was younger, I had the stamina and the sort of rubbery bones which meant I could throw myself off something or try something to – and beyond – exhaustion. But now, I'm a lot more mindful about how I'm doing tricks and think about the small things that aren't quite working.

Interestingly, I was listening to Tony Hawk on The 9 Club earlier today. He spoke about landing the first 900 using similar terms. Obviously, he's not thinking of Laban, but he's talking about his weight and becoming lighter at certain points in order to make this very difficult trick work.

DA: Yeah, Tony Hawk is a really skater interesting. When he started skating, he was this very skinny kid and he writes about this in one of his books. He didn't have the weight to lift out of ramps in the way that the other guys could. So that's why he developed the practice of ollie-ing out of the ramp and started to develop other aerial manoeuvres. So his understanding of weight and his exploration of that led to him being quite innovative. Because then everyone started to skate like that.

There's this perception, I don't know how true it is really, that most skateboarders don't think about it and just get on with it. But I think that skateboarders do think very deeply about what they're doing. They tweak and try different things; we all do that in slightly different ways. But it's interesting that there's a dominant mode of behaviour where we have to pretend like we don't care and we're not really thinking about it too much.

CA: Yeah, I kind of get what you mean. There's almost this goal of making it look effortless; like you're not thinking about it and can execute something really complicated with ease. So people put a lot of thought and effort into perfecting something, so not only can they land a kickflip, but they can land it bolts without their arms going up in the air. There's a lot of conscious effort that goes into looking a certain way.

DA: Oh, totally. I think that's the crux of what I'm avoiding with my skateboarding. To pick up on that idea of the way it looks; within dance it's about it looking a particular way. You train in a particular technique – ballet for example – so that you look perfect and the lines are perfect. But there's also a facet of dance practice, which is somatic. It's about how it feels – how the movement feels – more than how it looks. And I that's the way that I understand skateboarding as well. I'm not particularly bothered about performing a trick in a way that looks like it should look or is dominant. I care more about how it feels to be performing a particular trick or manoeuvre.

CA: That's really interesting, because as I've begun to think more critically about skateboarding, I've started to realise that there is quite a lot of homogeneity in terms of trick selections and the types of skating that are celebrated in one way or another; being invited into the Olympics, for instance.

You have a video work called 'Feint Lines', in which you cruise around a multi-storey carpark. You adopt unusual poses, you roll backwards, and you perform a hanging limbo under some steel girders before pulling yourself back. I really admired the playfulness. You've already talked a little bit about the importance of play in your skateboarding, but I was wondering what the thought process behind that video was?

Above: Documentation of Feint Lines by Dani Abulhawa, 2018

DA: That video is actually a very short piece of documentation from a performance that I made; alive performance in that carpark. It was presented as part of the Not Quite Light Festival, which was a group of events with other women artists. We were exploring the experience of being alone at night in different ways. So I was looking at that through my skateboarding practice, to some degree, and thinking about how to create a choreography within this space with my skateboard.

I didn't think about performing a sequence of tricks. It was more about exploring the the site with the skateboard and trying to find the indexical markers of my relationship with the site as I'm rolling. So, where are the where are the tiny slopes? Or where are the moments where this happens? Or how might I play around with the the painted lines? How would I interact on my skateboard with this part of the architecture of this particular site? So it was more like a site-based exploration with the skateboard than a stage for a set of tricks. Because I often work in site specific or site-based ways.

One of the major parts of the relationship with the skateboard in that site was the sound, because it was extremely loud. So I played a lot with how I could manoeuvre the sound around the space. For the first part of the piece, I skated in a big circle all the way around, making this thunderous resonating sound. So it was more about the materiality of the space and the skateboard together.

CA: As someone who really likes wordplay, I have to ask what the idea behind the title 'Feint Lines' is?

DA: On one level, I was thinking about the idea of 'faint lines', as in not completely visible lines. That relates to the skateboarding choreography, which is very liquid. But the spelling I used was 'feint', which is a to trick or deceive with movement.

The other layer that I haven't described in the performance was a text, a story that I wrote about a woman who discovers she can double herself. So the choreography was there, but that was woven together with this story about a woman who discovers that she's able to double herself and be in two places at the same time. She uses this power to enable her to get out of difficult situations and to do the things she wants to do and to occupy space at night. That came from being fearful out in the street at night and wanted to have someone to walk home with. So I dreamed that I might be able to double myself and I could walk home with myself, it that makes sense?

CA: Yeah, that's super interesting. Thank you. So, two years ago, you gave a talk at Site Gallery, alongside Iain Borden. The talk's central theme was that of 'symbolic and expressive movement' in skateboarding. For a brief talk, you cover a phenomenal amount with great clarity. I wanted to ask about the parallels that you draw between the functions of skateboarding and the functions of performance?

DA: Thank you, that's a great question! But I'm having to really delve into my memory to try and recall precisely what I wrote. But if we're thinking about the functions of performance, then one of the functions of performance in relation to public urban space is to mark identity; to create a kind of identification with a particular place. One of the things I argued in that talk was the need for skateboarding to be out on the street. The reason for that was because people – especially people that are not your typical skateboarders – need to be able to see people on the street performing in different ways. So that we can envisage the possibility of play, and of our urban spaces being playful. It's also important to see people that might look like you doing an activity, so that you might feel like you can get into it.

The way that we occupy public space is very seriously controlled by human patterns of behaviour and authorities, and also by the city's dominance around the flow of capital. So you're supposed to go from A to B, at a fairly productive pace – to use Laban's efforts – in a very direct manner. So that you can spend money, do what you need to do, and then get get back home. The idea of loitering around in the street to play really goes against that; you're not being productive in an economic sense. So I argue for the importance of that in that talk.

Above: Skateboarding and Femininity: Gender, Space Making and Expressive Movement by Dani Abulhawa, 2020

CA: A couple of months after that talk, you published Skateboarding and Femininity: Gender, Space Making and Expressive Movement, which “explores and highlights the value of femininity, both within skateboarding and wider culture”. Now, I'm not going to ask you to summarise the entire book, but perhaps you could say a bit about where the book stems from and what led you to write it?

DA: I identify as a woman and I started skateboarding in 1998; and at that time, there were very, very few women and girls who were skateboarding. It's incredible now how many women and girls are skating, but back then it was really very few. I was always very aware that I was occupying a space and a culture that wasn't really intended for me, in which I was a visitor or an adjacent actor within this sphere. In skateparks, at that time, I wasn't necessarily seeing anyone that looked like me. And also, during the late 90s, I feel like there was quite a lot of aggression in the way people skated. It wasn't easy to find space for yourself.

I'm not a very competitive person and I'm a bit of a wimp really. I'm not the sort of person that would push into the centre of things. I'm at the peripheries. Back then you weren't in an environment where people were going to help you all that much. In fact, I was trying to learn to drop in on this mini ramp and I had this one friend who was like, “oh, I'll hold your hands.” And the idea of someone helping you by holding your hands and encouraging you in that was was completely alien to me; it was a bizarre moment. And now everyone's offering to help and being really kind and sweet in skateparks. It's an incredibly different space.

From the experience I've had – I did a Degree in Drama and I did a Master's Degree in Contemporary Art – I found myself in a critical space, in which I could examine those years that I spent being a skateboarder. The writing of the book was about bringing together a lot of those experiences and I wanted to rewrite – or to understand – how women's and girl's involvement in skateboarding, but also more feminine qualities of movement, have shaped skateboarding practice historically. I was also looking at ways we might understand the gendered nature of skateboarding culture, as it is today, in terms of the ways that we interact with each other to the kind of tricks that we do.

I also have a chapter in the book, which is focused around my work with SkatePal. They're a UK-based skateboarding charity, who build skateparks and teach children to skateboard in the occupied Palestinian territories. I'm an ambassador for the charity, and it's very, very close to my heart for lots of different reasons. So the last chapter is about my work with SkatePal. I interviewed a lot of local people at the Rosa Skate Park in Asira Al-Shamaliya. I'm examining skateboarding practice as a somatic practice, which was mentioned before – that idea of somebody developing their own self knowledge and defining what they get out of an activity internally, rather than what it looks like.

CA: The the introduction to the book references alternative masculinity, femininity, and queerness in skateboarding. I wondered if you could say a bit about their presence?

DA: Yeah, in the introduction of the book – because I'm focusing on femininity, which is a very specific aspect of gender presentation – I wanted to address how much the book is about opening up a discussion around gender. People express their genders in multiple different ways. It's wonderful that the world has become much less hostile to that, which has made it much more possible for people to be authentically who they want to be. I think that it's something that's been suppressed a lot within mainstream culture; gender presentation that is beyond the binary. Queerness has been suppressed historically, but it's always been present. People are people and it's always been there.

I really wanted to explore the broadness that's coming into skateboarding, which – I think – is coming from mainstream culture and the greater acceptance of and support for people who ware outside of the binary. What I'm arguing for is an emphasis on giving power to the feminine, not so much as a way to just empower women and girls, but to actually look at that form of gender expression and how it might be supported in anyone that wants to express it, you know?

CA: Yeah, absolutely! So, we've come to the end of the questions that I have prepared. The last question I had was: is there anything that you're currently working towards? A new trick, a performance, a text? Anything that you would like to share?

DA: I'm on a little bit of a hiatus at the moment, because I'm not able to skateboard. Because I'm actually pregnant.

CA: Wow, congratulations!

DA: Thank you. I would say that's what I'm working on at the moment; growing a baby. I'm sort of fascinated by that, because I wouldn't think of myself as someone that's very maternal. And the idea of not skateboarding for a long time is really bothering me! I think that this is a really interesting discussion to have, because there are lots of people in the world that are able to make babies and want to have babies, and who skateboard. And there's lot of people who have babies and who've given birth to babies who are coming to skateboarding in later life as well, and that's wonderful. I think it's going to give me a very new and different insight on the accessibility of different spaces. Both when I'm pregnant, but also when I have our baby as well.

I'm also working on a Leverhulme funded research project on girl skateboarders, which is going to involve an audio artwork that will come towards the end of the project. It will be looking at different narratives of women and girls in urban spaces. I'm not really sure how it's going to knit together, but it'll be something anyway.

CA: Gosh, having a baby. That's quite something! Of all the things that I thought you might say when I asked what you're working towards, growing an entirely new life wasn't on the list!

DA: Yeah, I love how it how well it connects to the subject matter as well.