Dance As Activism

Anyone Who Says Dancers Should "Stick to Dancing" Doesn't Know Their History

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.

Her post was met with a barrage of insults from commenters who felt she didn't have the right to share her opinion on topics "outside of her expertise." Unfortunately, dancers who are brave enough to share their political thoughts receive these comments all the time—so much so that former ABT dancer Sascha Radetsky wrote a whole piece about whether or not dancers should get political online.

But if we look back at some of the most captivating dancers and choreographers in history, we find that dance and activism have always been deeply intertwined:

Katherine Dunham

Had Katherine Dunham not been bold enough to tackle social injustices with dance, she would've never created Southland, her controversial ballet that confronted the enduring racism in the South and culminated in the contentious depiction of a black man being lynched. The ballet was performed twice abroad but never made it back to the U.S. as it was labeled "anti-American." Dunham's later requests for funding from the U.S. State Department were all denied, but the negative response to the ballet only reinforced the necessity of its message.

Katherine Dunham, courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

Dunham also shatters the idea that dancers can only be activists onstage. In 1993 she led a 47-day hunger strike to protest the U.S. deportation of Haitian immigrants. Following a performance in Kentucky, she announced to the audience that her company wouldn't return until the theater was desegregated.

Despite the endless backlash and attempts to threaten her into silence, Dunham seized ever opportunity she had to start a conversation about political issues, even if the world wasn't ready to have them.

Martha Graham

Like Dunham, modern dance legend Martha Graham never shied away from commenting on politics in her pieces, as we can see in her beloved Chronicle. This 1936 work was Graham's response to the rise of fascism in Europe and the consequences of war. That same year, she denied the Nazi's invitation for her company to perform in the Summer Olympics Festival in Berlin.

"I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time," she wrote. "So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted, have been deprived of their right to work, and for such unsatisfactory and ridiculous reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible."

Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey's politics shaped the very fabric of his company. After growing up in a segregated America, Ailey was determined to create an integrated dance company. "I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings and that color is not important," he said. "What is important is the quality of our work."

Ailey's Revelations, which he created during the thick of the civil rights movement, put the African American spirit on display like no choreographer had ever done before. Had he been too fearful of making a statement, we would've missed out on one of the most widely celebrated modern works in history.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Revelations. Photo by Gert Krautbauer, Courtesy AAADT

Onstage, dancers tackle heavy topics like war, racism and immigration. So why are we surprised when they're compelled to speak up about them offstage, too? We're not sure why some people have decided that being a dancer means you forfeit your right to activism, but no one should be disqualified from sharing political opinions just because they can do 32 flawless fouettés in front of a packed theater.

After all, they're just doing what dancers have always done.

Courtesy Macy's, Inc.

As you're prepping your Thanksgiving meal, why not throw in a dash of dance?

This year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is stuffed (pun intended) with performances from four stellar Broadway shows, the Radio City Rockettes and students from three New York City dance institutions.

Tune in to NBC November 28 from 9 am to noon (in all time zones), or catch the rebroadcast at 2 pm (also in all time zones). Here's what's in store:

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Sponsored by NYCDA
Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

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Rant & Rave
Sergei Polunin. Photo by British Broadcasting Corporation and Polunin Ltd., Courtesy Sundance Selects.

Last week, Variety reported that Sergei Polunin would reunite with the team behind Dancer for another documentary. "Where 'Dancer' looked at his whole life, family and influences," director Steven Cantor said, " 'Satori' will focus more squarely on his creative process as performer and, for the first time ever, choreographer." The title references a poorly received evening of work by the same name first presented by Polunin in 2017. (It recently toured to Moscow and St. Petersburg.)

I cannot be the only person wondering why we should care.

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Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

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