Dance As a Form of Activism
This month, Dancing with Class explores activism through dance. We will explore a wider range of activism by using dance to protest, research, and raise awareness for important issues. Activism comes in all forms. Activism can show up in different settings beyond protesting in streets. It is made up of people of different ages and backgrounds, but with these differences they are still tied together trying to make a change in this world.
Activism is “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue,” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary. The Cambridge dictionary defines activism as “the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one.”
We do ourselves a disservice, and those who we are standing up for a disservice, by limiting what activism “should” look like. This post reminds readers that if there is a change you want to see, then use the gifts you were given and the language you are most comfortable with. If that means using your words to send a message, then that’s great. If that means using your visual art, musical gifts, or moving the message out through dance then that is great too.
No matter how each of us does it, we are all achieving the same purpose: taking action to raise awareness to an issue and create change. We first need to learn the history behind dance activism before we learn how it can be used. Using dancing as activism is not a new idea. Very famous dancers have done this long ago and are known for their activism.
History’s Dance Activists
Pearl Primus – Primus was born in Trinidad in 1919 but moved to New York City when she was a young child. Primus was a dance researcher and anthropologist. She traveled to the Caribbean and the African continent to closely study the people’s cultures and way of life by specifically documenting their cultural dances. She returned to the United States where she choreographed and taught several routines/dances based on what she documented. Primus also choreographed several famous pieces raising awareness to the Black American experience.
Katherine Dunham – Dunham was also known as a dance researcher, anthropologist, and dance historian. Dunham was born in Glyn Ellen, Illinois in 1909. Dunham traveled to African Diaspora countries like Jamaica and Haiti to study the ways of life and their dances. Consequently, this research was the groundwork for her dance companies and her specific dance technique “Dunham Technique”. Her technique blended African-American traditional dances, Caribbean dances, and African rituals with traditional ballet. Dunham also taught Alvin Ailey. Throughout her career she stood up against racial inequality through her choreography, research, and controversial performances.
Alvin Ailey – Ailey was born in 1939 in Texas. Ailey noted his experiences of living in a segregated America, specifically rural Texas, motivated him to create an integrated dance company that maintained the essence of African-American culture using Modern dance. Today, he is known for creating the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater where Revelations was premiered in 1960. Revelations shows and embodies the pain and joy of the African-American experience. Today, his dance theater performs all across the country and uses several famous pieces including Revelations.
Martha Graham– Graham was born in 1894 in Pennsylvania. Graham is one of the major creators of modern dance. She was never afraid of being vocal about her political views. Graham was invited to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany. At the time, fascism was rising in Europe. She denied their invitation to perform with this response: “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time. So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted, have been deprived of their right to work, and for such unsatisfactory and ridiculous reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible.”
What Does Dance Activism Look Like Today?
Issues highlighted on stage – Dance routines can often have story lines and messages. Dancing as a whole stirs up emotions, so this makes the dance stage a perfect place to bring the experiences of marginalized people into the forefront. Often times, the stage is a place where performers take on the special duty of being the voice for those who don’t have one or had their voice taken away from them. For example, Katherine Dunham created the controversial ballet, Southland that directly highlighted issues of racism in the south.
Creating dances to reflect the lives of others – Some popular dances exist to directly address a group of people’s plights. For example, the use of “bone breaking” and other hip hop dancing techniques were created to do just that. Bone breaking is a technique in which dancers rhythmically contort their body and often look like they are breaking limbs and popping their joints out of their sockets. Often times, the dance can be shocking to first-time audiences.
Dance organization, Park Avenue Armory use this type of dancing in its performance FLEXN Evolution. This impromptu performance uses “bone breaking” to reflect black peoples’ experience. Specifically, it reflects feeling as if they are breaking down from the injustices everyday and everyday after that they have to put themselves back together.
Teaching dances to reflect a culture or group of people – Teaching dances from different cultures can also be a great way to encourage empathy for people that are not like ourselves. This is because dance can provide insight into a group of people’s struggles, celebrations, and everyday life. When we physically embody a person’s everyday experience it can be easier to understand that person and maybe even relate to them.
Dance activist Dr. Sharmell Bell takes it a step further during her workshops. Some of her workshops are in coordination with the Black Lives Matter Movement. Dr. Bell hosts workshops to teach street dances that reflect the community in which it came from and represents them later in protest. An important part of her work consists of providing history behind the dances to create appreciation and understanding for the culture/group of people the dance reflects, which hopefully in turn will reduce cultural appropriation.
Dancing as protest/Street Dance Activism – Dr. Sharmell Bell is a major contributor of “Street Dance Activism”. Dr. Bell is a full believer of using all types of artistic responses as activism; specifically, her response to social injustices are embodied in dance. Participants learn how to use their art to raise questions and create change in any setting by attending workshops like the ones mentioned above. Yes, some groups have actually performed street dances in the middle of a protest.
What Can I Do?
What is your preferred method of expression? Do you have a gift or talent? The answers to these questions can guide where to start. Activism doesn’t have one image; it is a collective of images. Emotional responses to issues don’t always come in the form of words. Sometimes people feel pain and concern in their body and as a result need to move it out. Some people see the pain and need to draw it out. Some people hear the pain and need to sing it out. Regardless of how you experience it, your voice and method of communication matters. Not everybody is going to connect with just one designated way. So add your voice to the mix in whatever that may look like: research, performing, teaching, learning, or simply talking about an issue.
Did we miss a form of dance activism that you or someone you know does? Let us know in our social media.