Dance As Activism
Dancers want you to vote! Screenshot via Dance for Democracy video.

The midterm elections are less than three weeks away on November 6. If you're registered to vote, hooray!

But you can't fully celebrate before you've completed your mission. Showing up at the polls is what matters most—especially since voter turnout for midterms doesn't have a fabulous track record. According to statistics from FairVote, about 40 percent of the population that is eligible to vote actually casts a ballot during midterm elections.

Many members of the dance community are making it clear that they want that percentage go up, and they're using social media to take a stand. Here's how they're getting involved:

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Dance As Activism
The Swan Within teaches ballet to girls in juvenile facilities.

They say that not all heroes wear capes. It's true: Some, like Meredith Harper Houston, wear leg warmers.

A few years back, Houston, who is black, began thinking about how none of the students at her Los Angeles dance studio looked like her. Her desire to use dance to serve her community eventually led her to found The Swan Within, an outreach organization that teaches ballet to girls in juvenile detention centers, many of whom have been sex trafficked.

"I've been a dancer my whole life," says Houston. "I started at the age of 5; ironically the same age that I was sexually abused. I used dance as my vehicle out of the house." Today, Houston wants to give girls the same opportunity to escape their past, and use dance as a springboard to their future.

We talked to Houston about what it's like to teach students who've experienced trauma, and how ballet is transforming her students' lives:

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Dance As Activism
Agnes Anglade and Eryn Orsburn in a still from "Too Many Bodies." Photography by Daphne Wu.

Dance has a long history of social activism. Heck, our website even has a whole section devoted to it. But tackling social justice causes has typically been the territory of mature dance artists and brainy college students.

Not anymore. This year, teenage dancers throughout the country have started getting involved to highlight an issue that directly affects them in the worst way possible: gun violence. And they're doing it through dance.

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Dance As Activism
Jody Sperling dancing on ice in the Chukchi Sea. Photo by Maria Pisareva, courtesy Sperling.

A dance performance and rising carbon dioxide emissions might seem to have little to do with one another. But choreographers may be able to influence climate action in unexpected ways. The physical, interpersonal nature of dance has the unique ability to transform people's understanding of the world around them. Movement can lay the foundation for a sense of connection with the earth.

"The problem is getting people to act on what they know," says Jill Sigman, director of New York City–based jill sigman/thinkdance. How, then, to mobilize that action through dance? Six choreographers tackling environmental issues share their approaches.

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Dance History
President Obama awarding Bill T. Jones the National Medal of Arts. Photo by Pete Souza via Obama White House Archives

Every year since 1985, the President of the United States has recognized our country's greatest artists with the National Medal of Arts. Many dancers and choreographers—from Martha Graham to Tommy Tune to Edward Villella—have received the award.

But President Trump has yet to award any artists (the deadline for the 2016 medals was last February, and historically the ceremony has been held later the same year). Though the White House says it will "likely" issue awards later in 2018, this is the longest gap between ceremonies since the founding of the award—and it speaks to the current administration's general disinterest in the arts.

Since taking office a year and a half ago, President Trump has held no dance performances at the White House, and aside from the military band, no performances whatsoever. He has frequently disparaged artists, from Meryl Streep to the cast of Hamilton. The fate of the National Endowment for the Arts has also come into question. If the President does indeed continue with the award, we wonder how his attitude toward artists will affect who is chosen—and whether artists will even accept the honor. (Carmen de Lavallade and several other Kennedy Center honorees skipped the White House reception last year to boycott the President.)

None of this will stop us from continuing to celebrate worthy dance artists—or from remembering the many dancers and choreographers who've been honored by past Presidents:

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Dance As Activism
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Revelations. Courtesy of Knight Foundation

At a time when the political climate is increasingly divisive, it's no wonder people want to compartmentalize. Some want their pirouettes separate from their politics, and can be quick to protest when dancers challenge that both on and off the stage.

Most recently, American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston was scrutinized when she shared this post on her Instagram.

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Dance As Activism
Maedeh Hojabri has become the face of the new resistance movement. Photo via Instagram

In May, Iranian authorities quietly arrested four women. Their crimes? Posting videos of themselves dancing on Instagram.

Modesty laws in Iran forbid women from dancing in public. Last week, one of the four women arrested for her videos, teenage Insta-star Maedeh Hojabri, made what many believed to be a forced confession on Iranian state TV, according to the BBC.

But the authorities' attempt at public shaming backfired: Since the confession aired, Hojabri has become the face of a new resistance movement.

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Dancer Voices
The author in Nick Mauss' Transmissions at the Whitney Museum. Photo by Paula Court

During a period when I was intentionally taking a step back from performing, I was especially sensitive to the question, "So, are you auditioning for things?" Besides the insecurity of being a freelancer not hustling in that way, I also rankled at the complexity of what it means for a non-binary performer to audition.

To put it bluntly, there aren't many safe opportunities for us. That's because so many audition listings include gender-exclusionary phrases, so trans and non-binary artists either aren't eligible to show up or aren't sure whether or not they'd be welcome.

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Dance As Activism
Rebecca Warthen teaching at a public school in Dominica. Photo courtesy Peace Corps

Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.

But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.

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Dance As Activism
Indumba investigates an African cleansing ritual. Photo by Ken Carl, via bam.org


When Kevin "Iega" Jeff saw Fana Tshabalala's Indumba at the annual JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience in South Africa, he immediately knew he would ask Tshabalala to set the work on his company.

"There's an ancient energy in Fana's movement, a deep and trusted knowing," says Jeff, director of the Chicago-based Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. "Because I witnessed the raw humanity of his dancer's souls, I wanted my dancers to have that experience."

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Dance As Activism
via YouTube

You don't need to convince us that dance can be a powerful vehicle for change. But in case you had any doubts, Dance Theatre of Harlem's new promotional video is all the proof you need. As part of their 2018 New York season, DTH will be hosting a gala on April 4 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (this inspired the founding of the company by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook less than a year after his death).

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ballez class staples include no mirrors and barres arranged in a circle. Photo by Elyssa Goodman, Courtesy Pyle

A flock of polyamorous princes, a chorus of queer dying swans, a dominatrix witch: These are a few of the characters that populate the works of Katy Pyle, who, with her Brooklyn-based company Ballez, has been uprooting ballet's gender conventions since 2011.

Historically, ballet has not allowed for the expression of lesbian, transgender or gender-nonconforming identities. With Ballez, Pyle is reinventing the classical canon on more inclusive terms. Her work stems from a deep love of ballet and, at the same time, a frustration with its limits on acceptable body types and on the stories it traditionally tells.

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Dance As Activism
Nathalia Arja as the Novice in Jerome Robbins' The Cage. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Miami City Ballet

The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.

This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.

Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.

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Dance in Pop Culture
Screenshot via YouTube

If you hadn't heard of inclusion riders before Sunday night, you've almost certainly heard of them now.

At the Oscars, Best Actress winner Frances McDormand ended her speech with: "I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider."

Since then, everyone has been talking about the term: What does it mean? Could it actually be implemented?

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Dance As Activism
Glass looks at what happens to women who live under glass ceilings. Photo by Chelsea Robin Lee, Courtesy The People Movers

It's a standalone dance film series, a nuanced examination of contemporary feminism and an evocative teaser trailer for an upcoming performance—it wouldn't be a project by Kate Ladenheim, artistic director of The People Movers and one of our "25 to Watch," if it wasn't daringly ambitious. Glass is the multi-hyphenate's latest creation, a four-pronged project about women living under glass ceilings that, in its most widely accessible form, is a five-part video series, the third installment of which was released today.

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Dance As Activism
Shanghai Dance Theatre's Soaring Wings, photo courtesy Keith Sherman & Associates

Lunar New Year brings celebratory Chinese dragons, drums and dance to the streets and stage. But throughout the year, Chinese dance-theater productions have become a frequent presence on American stages. In New York City, the visits are so regular the Chinese seem to outpace dance from much closer nations.

Behind the frequency is a cultural-diplomacy effort designed to increase trust and understanding. What's unclear, though, is whether or not contemporary Chinese creative output is actually reaching a diverse group of Americans. Ironically, the New York-based dissent group Shen Yun may be reaching a broader audience—with a message opposed to the Chinese regime.

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Dance As Activism
Dancers interact with the sculpture for FishEyes. Photo via heididuckler.org

Dancers are taking over Culver City's Baldwin Hills this Saturday. The scenic overlook is playing host to a day's worth of site-specific performances, free dance workshops and other events, all curated by Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre for a festival called Ebb & Flow: Culver City.

The purpose? To use dance to highlight society's impact on the environment.

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Dance As Activism
Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Dance As Activism
Arthur Mitchell in class, 1960s. Photo by Milton Oleaga. Arthur Mitchell Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Collection, Columbia University.

Throughout his remarkable career, the fiercely determined, intelligent and energetic Arthur Mitchell has become accustomed to being called a trailblazer. "Being a typical Aries, I like being the first," he says, laughing. "That's what I've been doing all my life."

This is true, especially when it comes to the discussion at the forefront of today's national dialogue about dance: diversity in ballet.

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Dance As Activism
Photo via unsplash.com

Last Saturday night, Dance/NYC, Gibney Dance and the Actors Fund hosted a conversation on sexual harassment in the dance world. The floor was open for anyone in attendance to share whatever they wanted: personal stories, resources, suggestions.

The event brought to light some of the questions the dance world is facing, and though we don't yet have all the answers, it helped lay out the areas we need to address:

What would dance-specific sexual harassment training and policies look like?

Corporate harassment trainings tend to tell employees to avoid touching coworkers and to not wear revealing clothing in the workplace. Obviously, these rules aren't applicable to the dance world. Many in attendance agreed that everyone in the dance world should undergo training, so what should it include?

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Dance As Activism
Gert Krautbauer, Courtesy AAADT

In 1960, America was in the midst of a social transformation. The Supreme Court had ruled "separate but equal" unconstitutional six years prior, but the country's response was slow and turbulent as desegregation incited violent responses. Surrounded by powerful civil rights momentum, a 29-year-old Alvin Ailey created an ode to the resilience of the human spirit: Revelations.

"Alvin was making a statement about African-American cultural experience, saying, 'Hey, this is who we are, we live here, we were born here,' " says Judith Jamison, artistic director emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "It was a brave action. Civil rights were roaring, and our protest was our performance."

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