Gibney's Institute for Community Action Training

Scott Shaw, Courtesy Gibney

3 Tips for Dancers Who Want to Explore Activism

Are you passionate about social issues, but unsure of how to incorporate them into your work? Yasemin Ozumerzifon, director of community action at Gibney in New York City, offers advice to beginners:


1. Get Specific.

A view from the stage. As modern dancers perform, a seated audience of young adults looks on.

Gibney's Hands Are For Holding program.

Scott Shaw, Courtesy Gibney

Choose a particular cause. "When we're addressing something really large and systemic, it might be hard to know where to start," Ozumerzifon says. "There are so many issues in the world, but find that passion or key connection to whatever you want to address." Whether it be climate change, race or gender-based violence, start your project with a conversation, a new partnership or a phrase of choreography. "It's okay to start small. You're still making a difference," Ozumerzifon says.

2. Partner Up.

Two men and women sit in a semi-circle facing a woman with blond short hair. They're all listening and smiling.

Getty Images

Ozumerzifon notes that dancers are already experts at taking care of their bodies and at building community with those they work with every day—two critical skills when it comes to social action. But you can't expect to do the job alone. "Artists, lawyers, social workers—anyone you can think of—all have a part to play," Ozumerzifon says. Think outside the dance studio and leverage your network. "We can't play all the roles, and working by ourselves is so much harder."

3. Practice Advocacy Offstage.

Women of various ages and ethnicities sit on the floor in a circle with notes.

Gibney's Institute for Community Action Training

Scott Shaw, Courtesy Gibney

Your work towards a cause doesn't only have to happen onstage. "Whether we're explicitly doing socially engaged work as artists, or if we're holding rehearsals or teaching, we can be leaders in our communities at any moment," Ozumerzifon says. Ask yourself if you're promoting the world you wish to see by the way you interact with your peers, colleagues or students. "Are we building and listening to one another?" Ozumerzifon asks. Social change begins with your day-to-day interactions.

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Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West

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But Fonte's husband encouraged him to "just listen and get a visceral reaction." He did. And Bolero turned into one of Fonte's most requested and successful ballets.

Not all dance renditions of similar warhorse scores have worked out so well. Yet the irresistible siren song of pieces like Stravinsky's The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, as well as the perennial Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, seem too magnetic for choreographers to ignore.

And there are reasons for their popularity. Some were commissioned specifically for dance: Rite and Firebird for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; Boléro for dance diva Ida Rubinstein's post–Ballets Russes troupe. Hypnotic rhythms (Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel) and danceable melodies (Bizet's Carmen) make a case for physical eye candy. Audience familiarity can also help box office receipts. Still, many choreographers have been sabotaged by the formidable nature and Muzak-y overuse of these iconic compositions.

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