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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Toni Shapiro-Phim

Dr. Toni Shapiro-Phim is Co-Director of the Center’s Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts, and Associate Professor of Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation (CAST).

She is a cultural anthropologist and dance ethnologist whose research, writing, community work and teaching focus on the history and cultural contexts of the arts in discrete regions of the world, particularly in relation to violence, genocide, migration and refugees, conflict transformation, and gender concerns. Her documentary film “Because of the War” shares the stories of four women: mothers, refugees, immigrants, singers, dancers and survivors of Liberia’s civil wars. The movie highlights ways in which these superstar recording artists harness the potency of their arts to call for an end to violence at home in West Africa and in exile in North America.

About Dr. Toni Shapiro-Phim’s research

Dr. Toni Shapiro-Phim researches the relationship between dance and Cambodian wars, and the ways that people in Cambodia—and Cambodians in the diaspora—use dance as an instrument to tell stories, remember atrocities of the past, and embody the pain and cruelty of others. By studying how dance reenacts memories of Khmer Rouge atrocities, Dr. Shapiro-Phim finds how dance and performing arts can serve as an alternative medium to remember memories of the past, how dancers and performers push boundaries beyond confining parameters of historical knowledge, and how history is documented, grounded in affect by paying attention to artistic techniques, emotions and subjectivity. 

In Phka Sla (2019), the bodies of the survivors who experience the psychological trauma of the war hinder their ability to live a fulfilling and dignified life, because the bodies of survivors hold evidence of atrocities for years, if not decades. In dance-drama centered on reparation projects such as Phka Sla, Shapiro-Phim finds how choreographers and dancers use collective knowledge or survivors of forced marriage during Khmer Rouge to reenact a performance in the form of embodiment of other people’s stories of cruelty and pain, in order to acknowledge injury and harm suffered and potentially bring mechanisms for reparations.

Dr. Shapiro-Phim’s research also looks at the role that dancers and musicians have in promoting reconciliation, human rights, and a sense of home for Cambodian refugees living on the Cambodian-Thai border as a result of the Khmer Rouge war. Performing arts were deployed to reimagine possibilities of life beyond refugee camps where many Cambodians sought protection because engagements in arts help subvert aspects of harm such as the psychological trauma of war and violence. In studying the displacement of Cambodians in Thai-Cambodian borders, she looks at how Khmer classical dance—a royal court dance to communicate with heaven for rain and fertility—helps to restore human dignity and a sense of home to refugees living in what seems like perpetual statelessness, deprived of their freedom and agency (Shapiro-Phim 2021). 

In Seasons of Migration (2008), Dr. Shapiro-Phim follows all-female Cambodian dancers and a choreographer who toured the United States to present their work centers on the story of Cambodian immigrants who fled the war and moved to America. The dance itself depicts the tale of celestial beings and their journey of assimilation to life on earth, a reflection of dancers own experience as immigrants. She pays attention to the ways the dance represents women’s agency and their experience (and struggles) in navigating the new place, their heritage, and their future. 

You can also view Dr. Shapiro-Phim’s talk on Dance and the Seeking of Justice on Youtube:

Dance and the Seeking of Justice – Toni Shapiro-Phim

Dance and the Seeking of Justice – A Presentation and Discussion with Scholar Toni Shapiro-Phim WEDNESDAY * AUGUST 10, 2022 5:00pm HST – Mission Memorial Auditorium, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi Free and open to the public Presented as part of the Asia Pacific Dance Festival 2022, a co-production of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and the East-West Center Arts Program.

For more information about Dr. Shapiro-Phim, visit the faculty page on [new window]