My underground dance classes in Iran began in 1990. The teacher was one of my mother's friends, Nahid Kabiri, who had been in the Iranian Folkloric Dance Academy before it was dismantled in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution. Hidden from sight in the enclosed rooms of anyone who would allow us, she taught me and other women folk dances from the North, South and West of Iran, classical Persian dances, dances inspired by belly dancing and Azari folk dances.
Eventually, Kabiri established a performance troupe. Since we could be prosecuted for performing in public, she arranged her dark, damp and dusty basement into our performance space. A few women helped to clear the cobwebs and sweep the floors. Kabiri brought in old wooden benches that were joined together and covered by rugs to minimize cuts and scrapes from the rusty nails and wood splinters that jutted out of them. These rug-covered benches constituted our stage. She also borrowed what seemed to be over 100 rickety dining room chairs from her friends and neighbors to create the audience seating area.
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
The United States has never had a strong tradition of government support for the arts. But we take what we can get and, since its founding in 1965, American artists have gratefully accepted whatever the National Endowment for the Arts is willing and able to give. Though the NEA has at times been aggressively politicized, for the most part, we have maintained a delicate separation of art and state.
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:
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:
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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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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.