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When Seeing Dance Is a Political Act

Date: May 26, 2017

How one dance fan resists by indulging in her favorite art


Back in March, I sat riveted and disturbed as I watched Dr. Brenda Dixon Gottschild descend the stairs of Philadelphia's Painted Bride Arts Center in full Aunt Jemima regalia. "Twice a week, a white police officer kills a black person," she cooed. The singsong, Southern lilt of her voice juxtaposed with that chilling statement transported me to a sticky place of reckoning, where the past reverberated within the present, where I wasn't exempt.

Gottschild's performative lecture and discussion opened The Body Wails, The Body Restores, an evening of dance by black female choreographers confronting racial violence and its legacy. For me, it felt like a necessary action being there.

I can't shake the images and emotions sparked by the works I saw that night. In #SayHerName, prison bars separated Vershawn Sanders Ward from the audience. More than the orange jumpsuit, the confinement of her movements signified her captivity: hunched and low, hands invisibly cuffed behind her head. Audio channeled activists Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and the late Sandra Bland, who died in jail after a traffic stop. Ward's frame conjured the bondage of black female bodies, literal and figurative. Native Portals: Continuum of Action (Witness) + Release greeted the audience with a noose dangling center stage. Kente cloth, floor-sweeping floral skirts, and white headbands transformed Lela Aisha Jones and her FlyGround ensemble into enduring symbols of black female suffering and strength. Visibly pregnant, dancer Peaches Jones moved within the ropes, as if trying the noose on for size. A recording of community organizer Deray McKesson's voice floated over the dancers as he argued with CNN's Wolf Blitzer about the damage caused during the Baltimore protests over Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. "I know that Freddie Gray will never be back and that those windows will be."

I wonder if you have to be a parent to fully contemplate these deaths that pile up without stop. I think of the father who told reporters that his son's friend, Jordan Edwards -- a 15-year-old Dallas, TX teen gunned down by police without reason -- "was not a thug." Does this question always hang in the air when the victim is a young black male? Could it ever excuse?


How can movement speak truth to so much barbarity? What purpose does a journey through savageries and their aftermath serve?

Plenty. Under a government with an open disdain for the arts, the very acts of making or witnessing dance are arguably political. But dance has a long history of overtly political work. See Kurt Jooss' anti-war The Green Table (1932); Alvin Ailey's celebration of African-American resilience, Revelations (1965); and Anna Halprin's interracial dance workshops and Ceremony of Us (1969). And the list of contemporary choreographers creating work that serves as a call to arms is long and ever-growing: Camille A. Brown, Urban Bush Women, Bill T. Jones, Nora Chipaumire, Donald Byrd, Kyle Abraham, Ronald K. Brown, Liz Lerman, Juliette Mapp, Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre, and many, many more.

At a time when hate and violence seem depressingly ubiquitous, attending politically charged art is a form of resistance. When the art is dance, this resistance becomes visceral. The body -- a storehouse of memories, histories, wisdom, suffering -- carries us beyond words. Dance invites us to think, feel, and engage with and through our own bodies, while it leaves much open to interpretation. This can be uncomfortable, and that is a good place to be. It's what keeps me coming back again and again and again.


An anthropologist and tango enthusiast, Carolyn Merritt recently wrote the book Tango Nuevo.

Top image: Native Portals 1 by Lela Aisha Jones | FlyGround. Photos by Johanna Austin

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