Repetition, repetition, repetition

On Tuesday 5 February, MPs backed a bill to legalise gay marriage in England and Wales. A number of MPs made impassioned speeches in support and opposing the bill but one that stood out for me was by David Lammy, MP for Tottenham who drew a parallel between race equality and equality for for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. It stood out as a good example of some of the points I am interested in in this project; an example of repetition, an example of movement and an example of identity.

1. Repetition

The first thing that struck me was the rhetorical device of repetition. The most obvious being his use of ‘separate but equal‘ which is already a well established and potent phrase from American segregation – so it already has a deep real world power to it. But the repetition only adds to that – from 1’45” he uses the term four times, first with a general point

Separate but equal is a fraud.

And then goes on to use it to introduce three (three being a particularly common number in rhetorical repetition) different examples of segregation, two of which are particularly emblematic:

Separate but equal is the language that tried to push Rosa Parks to the back of the bus. Separate but equal is the motif that determined that black and white could not possibly drink from the same water fountain, eat at the same table or use the same toilets. Separate but equal are the words that justified sending black children to different schools from their white peers – schools that would fail them and condemn them to a life of poverty.

Now according to Dr. Gideon Burton of Brigham Young University “repetition is a major rhetorical strategy for producing emphasis, clarity, amplification, or emotional effect”. When we watched this clip as a group, I experienced goose-bumps in the repetitious section while Vicky spoke of poetry and Martin of sonnets and rapping. I think there is something very immediate and emotional about this rhythmic speaking.

Repetition is also a fundamental tool in choreography, something that Jonathan Burrows has written extremely well about in The Choreographers Handbook, for example saying that “repetition is a device to emphasise or erode something by showing it more than once”, reiterating Burton’s point.

Burrows also writes that “it is a moment of recognition in a sea of change” – something I experienced in Lammy’s speech as it helped reorientate me after each slightly complicated pictures of segregation. Burrows also recommends that “when you repeat material try changing it in two parameters” and we can see that variation (not necessarily in two parameters) in the above example or when Lammy goes on to say:

It is the same statement, the same ideas and the same delusion that we borrowed in this country to say that women could vote – but not until they were 30. It is the same naivety that gave made my dad a citizen in 1956 but refused to condemn the landlords that proclaimed ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’.

‘same’ here is followed by slightly varied words but to make a similar point each time. The ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ quote is another example of repetition which perhaps explains why it it still such a powerful and well used example of the racism once experienced in this country. And Lammy goes on with more repetition with variation:

This was not ‘Separate but equal’ but ‘Separate AND discriminated’, ‘Separate AND oppressed’, ‘Separate AND browbeaten’, ‘Separate AND subjugated’.

2. Movement

It is interesting but not surprising to notice how Lammy’s body language changes as he hits the rhythmic repetition section: he still falters a little in places but his volume noticeably increases; he starts nodding his head a lot more to emphasise points; and he starts to use less hand gestures (and he switches hands). Together these indicate slipping into a deeper bodily movement that reflects an emotional connection and commitment to the material. Speaking with a different part of his body suggests he is speaking with a different part of his mind.

3. Identity

Another point of note that Lammy is a black man, so while a white British MP could make the same intellectual and historical points (possibly without the family anecdote) and with the same rhetorical devices, there is something extra communicated by his visible identity (not to mention his stated/ public identity as a heterosexual Christian). And this is true of performance – as choreographers we cannot imagine performers are blank bodies without history (as much as we might try through movement or unitards – yes, you Merce Cunningham) but must recognise that all bodies say something just by having an age, by having a gender and by having an ethnicity.

Hamish MacPherson is a dance artist.

See also
Emotional words
David Cameron speech bingo – Now. Is the time. To play
Women speak


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