Dance and Poetry Together as a Symbol of Hope

In honor of national poetry month, our April post sheds light on the natural connection between dance and poetry, while also honoring the renaissance woman, Maya Angelou, who bridged poetry and dance throughout her professional career.  Angelou’s body of work is just one example of how the arts can provide inspiration and hope during difficult times.   

Dance and Poetry 

Dance and poetry both use their own type of “language” to create meaning.  Poetry (and spoken word) is different from everyday conversational language.  Its language is more lyrical, metaphorical, and aesthetic compared to other types of literature.  Poetry has its own style and rhythm to express a certain idea or set of feelings.  Dance has its own language that also uses metaphors, rhythms, and styles but dance expresses ideas and feelings through movement in the body.  When these two art forms come together, they complement each other.  This is because poetry can put symbolic words to accompany movements, and dancing can embody the different aspects of poetry.     

Maya Angelou, April 4th, 1928- May 28th, 2014

Maya Angelou is widely known for her iconic work as an American poet and novelist.  Angelou is best known for her 7 autobiographies including her first one, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, along with  her numerous essays and poems.  One of the many amazing things about Angelou is that she is a professional in other career areas besides writing.  She is known as a renaissance woman because she was a writer, civil rights activist, singer, actress, director, producer, college professor, and dancer.  

Dance Background   

In high school, Maya Angelou won a scholarship to the California Labor School.  There she trained with Martha Graham and Pearl Primus.  Graham is known for modern dance and Primus is known for African based dances.  Shortly after, she met Alivin Ailey and the duo formed their own modern dance act.  Today, Ailey is widely known for the work produced by his dance company, The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which combines modern dance with black cultural expression.  They performed as “Al and Rita”.  The name Rita was based on Angelou’s original name, Marguerite.  Angelou successfully flourished in many career areas after this time.   

Throughout her career as the renaissance woman, Angelou provided inspiration in many different art forms.  Poetry and dance do more than simply offer an alternative way of communicating, they provide hope.  Take Maya Angelou’s popular poem for example:   

Still I Rise 

Maya Angelou  

 You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise. 

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise. 

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries? 

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard. 

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise. 

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs? 

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise. 

Dancing to Still I Rise

This post is all about poetry and dance coming together to compliment each other.  So let’s take a look at one group of dancers demonstrating their interpretation of this poem.  The video below shows dancers from  Spotlight Studio of Dance performing their interpretation of the poem Still I Rise.  The piece and music is choreographed and spliced by Jennifer Shead.  For those who are already familiar with the poem, you may notice the spoken word in the background doesn’t follow the exact structure of the original poem.  This version of the poem was taken from an interview Angelou had recorded.   

This version of her poem is very fitting for the difficult time right now.  Maya Angelou said it best,  


“Everyone in the world has gone to bed one night or another with fear or pain or loss or disappointment and yet each of us has awaken and risen despite it all:  black, and white, Asian, Spanish, Native-American, pretty, plain, thin, fat… We rise.” 


The power of the arts allows us to express feelings and messages that are often difficult to express through conversational language.  Continue to take care of yourselves and loved ones through these challenging times.   Whatever you need to rise from, just know we all can rise, together.      



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