How College Dancers Can Marry Their Passion to Activism

January 14, 2022

Maria Simpson will never forget watching Hillary Clinton’s 2016 concession speech on her office computer as students and faculty crowded around the screen. “People were weeping,” recalls Simpson, director of the dance department at Bard College. Many of her students asked, “Why should I be dancing now? Shouldn’t I be doing something more ‘serious?’ ”

In the midst of a turbulent political­ climate, racial injustices and a global pandemic, a lot of dancers might find themselves asking the same questions. But rather than abandoning the arts, college dancers are discovering ways to marry their schoolwork with activism, using movement to respond to the world around them. “Dance has always been a radical act, even if it was covered in gauze and tulle,” Simpson says. 

Arts & Activism 101

There are many ways to start diving into activism as a college dancer. 

Check the course catalog. Some universities have started incorporating classes that merge arts and advocacy into their curriculums. Bard College created its The Artist as Citizen course, the University of San Francisco offers a Performing Arts and Social Justice major, and Marymount Manhattan College has a dance studies concentration specifically for students who want to be artist activists.

Focus your schoolwork. If your program requires you to complete a senior project, use it to respond to a social issue through research and movement. Or use student choreography opportunities to highlight a topic that’s meaningful to you. 

Use internships strategically. Search for organizations that are tackling social justice topics through the performing arts, and reach out to see if they hire interns.

Join a student-led club. At Loyola University Chicago, students formed a dance honor society to engage with their community. From preparing food for local women’s shelters to starting a fund that supports Loyola dancers in need of supplies, the group gives students a channel for merging their craft with social justice, says Sandra Kaufmann, founding director of Loyola’s dance program.

Mobilize your peers. Invite other dancers who are passionate about the same issues to be part of a flash mob, or reserve studio space to start your own choreography incubator. Activism doesn’t have to be formal to be meaningful. “It’s finding the margins of the place that you’re at and bringing light to those places,” Simpson says.

A woman in a diaphanous blue dress kneels with one leg extended side. Her arms form a V overhead, palms upturned, as she gazes up into a stage light, blonde hair flying.
Sandra Kaufmann. Photo courtesy Kaufmann

Know Before You Go

If you’re a high school student and you already know you’d like to incorporate activism into your art form, look for colleges that embed this into the curriculum. Read their mission statements. Ask what kind of coursework and special concentrations or clubs are offered. Research the faculty members to see if they’ve done any social justice work that interests you.

Finding Meaning in the Movement

For years, Leslie Morales danced for the pure joy of it. The Bard College senior relished the way that dance made her feel—happy, powerful, understood—until the pandemic upended her life. At the height of COVID-19, Morales and her whole family in the Bronx were infected­ with the virus and having hard conversations about vaccine hesitancy. “It just made me think, Why do some people question this stuff?” she says. The experience prompted her to investigate medical ethics and moments in history that have made marginalized groups wary of medical treatment, particularly the way impoverished Puerto Rican women were used to test birth control pills in the 1950s. Now, Morales is using her senior project to research unethical medical practices and then express her findings through dance. “A mixture of my own experiences and what’s happening around the world led me to put more activism into my performance work,” she says.