Dance As Activism
Quinn Wharton

Ingrid Silva's job extends beyond her performances with Dance Theatre of Harlem. The Brazilian native has made it her mission to push for greater diversity in dance. She participates in community outreach, performs as an international guest artist and even founded her own platform, EmpowHer NY.

"I never felt represented when I was younger—I didn't see anyone that looked like me in ballet in Brazil," Silva says. "Now I realize how important that representation is to shape the future of this younger generation."

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Dance As Activism
Kaha:wi Dance Theatre's Santee Smith in creation for her piece Skennen. Photo by Ian R. Maracle, Courtesy Smith

Most dance performances used to begin predictably: The lights dimmed, the curtain rose and the music started. But in recent years, some audiences have started experiencing a new kind of preshow ritual: Someone walks onstage—perhaps the director or an usher—and names the indigenous tribes that have lived on the land where the venue is situated, maybe offering some information about those people or taking a moment of silence to honor them.

Land acknowledgments like these have become a bona fide trend in institutions of all kinds—from business conferences to major universities to art museums—across the country. (And in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, where they are even more common.) But they've particularly caught on in socially conscious dance venues.

It's possible that this bandwagon effect stems from the embodied nature of our form—as dancers we physically feel our connection to the land and the space we occupy. Or perhaps it's just a matter of people wanting to jump on a trend. Either way, their rising popularity in dance raises questions about who these acknowledgments are really for.

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Dance As Activism
Students at Loco-Motion Dance Theatre for Children have tackled issues like race, police brutality and immigration. Photo by Jennie Miller, Courtesy Loco-Motion

More and more, students are speaking out about the issues that matter to them, whether that's climate change or gun violence. For young dancers, the studio or stage can be the perfect place to express these interests. But if you're a teacher who has never tackled difficult topics in the classroom, getting started may feel daunting. Here's how to introduce activism in a way that is safe and age-appropriate.

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Hansuke Yamamoto in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker at San Francisco Ballet, which features an exciting and respectful Chinese divertissement. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

It's Nutcracker time again: the season of sweet delights and a sparkling good time—if we're able to ignore the sour taste left behind by the outdated racial stereotypes so often portrayed in the second act.

In 2017, as a result of a growing list of letters from audience members, to New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief Peter Martins reached out to us asking for assistance on how to modify the elements of Chinese caricature in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Following that conversation, we founded the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge that states, "I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages."

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Dance As Activism
Allegra Bautista in Nevertheless, by ka·nei·see | collective. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

An audience member once emailed Dallas choreographer Joshua L. Peugh, claiming his work was vulgar. It complained that he shouldn't be pushing his agenda. As the artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Peugh's recent choreography largely deals with LGBTQ issues.

"I got angry when I saw that email, wrote my angry response, deleted it, and then went back and explained to him that that's exactly why I should be making those works," says Peugh.

With the current political climate as polarized as it is, many artists today feel compelled to use their work to speak out on issues they care deeply about. But touring with a message is not for the faint of heart. From considerations about how to market the work to concerns about safety, touring to cities where, in general, that message may not be so welcome, requires companies to figure out how they'll respond to opposition.

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Broadway
Max Clayton of Broadway's Moulin Rouge! with the "Merde" bag. Marques Walls, Courtesy Scenery

Jennifer Kahn knew the theater industry could do better. As a professional stage manager for 17 years she worked on regional, off-Broadway and Broadway shows. Nearly each time a show closed, something unsettling happened: "I would watch them throw away our shows. All of the beautiful artwork by my friends in the paint shop would go in the trash." The elaborate backdrops? Gone.

But she had an idea: What if the material used in the backdrops and legs could be upcycled into something new? And what if theater lovers could literally keep a piece of a beloved show?

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Dance As Activism
Courtesy of the author

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.

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Dance As Activism
From Dance of Urgency. © Ekvidi

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.

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Dance As Activism
Courtesy #Dance4OurLives

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.

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Dance As Activism
Batsheva's U.S. performances are often met with protests, like this one outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Photo Courtesy Brian Schaefer.

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.

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Dance As Activism

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. Courtesy Meredith Harper Houston

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

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

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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