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Moving Through Trauma
In the spring of 2001, I sat in a room at the VA Hospital in New York City, surrounded by five war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
I was a member of Tamar Rogoff Performance Projects, and we were working on a dance-theater piece about the psychological effects of war. These men told us stories about dropping bombs over Vietnam and being held in POW camps during World War II.
I was terrified. What did I—a 23-year-old dancer—have in common with them, and how could I gain their trust?
The process wasn’t easy, and the veterans were occasionally resistant. But over nine months of get-togethers and interviews, I became very close with John McCarthy, the WWII veteran I was “paired” with. He told me about being blown out of a plane and being held over a cliff by an enemy soldier, stories he had told almost no one. And while the piece wasn’t meant to be therapeutic, it was healing for both the veterans and the dancers. John died a year later, and his nephew asked me to dance at his funeral. Never had I felt the transformational power of dance so strongly.
For decades, choreographers have been making work with—or about—victims of disease or war; and teachers and dance therapists have been using dance to help people heal from trauma, torture, and abuse. I spoke with three choreographers who have worked, respectively, with children living in post-war Bosnia and Rwanda; survivors of domestic abuse; and ex–child soldiers in Sierra Leone. While the three have very different approaches, they all agree on a few points: Know why you want to work with a specific population, what you have to offer, and why you think dance would be of service. Educate yourself before entering a community: What have these people been through and what are they facing now? It helps to be guided by social workers and/or an elder in the community. And lastly: Be flexible. That said, all three concur that this kind of work is tremendously challenging and rewarding.
Rebecca Davis became interested in teaching children in war-torn areas after choreographing a work about Darfur for her company, the Philadelphia-based Rebecca Davis Dance Company. “When I made Darfur, it was very fulfilling to see an issue that I cared about transform the dancers and audience,” she says. “But I wanted to understand on a deeper level how genocide can come about.”
In 2008, she traveled to Rwanda with Global Youth Connect, a human rights organization that held seminars for the volunteers before they worked with them.
Davis taught jazz dance to boys who lived in a child-headed household. (All of the childrens’ parents had been killed in the 1994 genocide.) Twenty boys, ages 10 to 17, were living under one roof. Despite the tragedy of the situation, Davis says, “What’s so shocking and powerful and optimistic is that you walk in and see these kids—some are Tutsi and some are Hutu—being forced to live together, because it’s their only chance. No one will take care of them.”
Davis admits that they were surprised to see a white woman put on jazz shoes and lead them in a warm-up (women do traditional dances in Rwanda but not contemporary styles) but says the boys loved it. “You put on music and everyone starts moving,” Davis explains. “It’s how they’re able to handle their aggression and channel their emotions. Dance is a part of their culture.”
A master’s student in international relations with a concentration in peacekeeping at the online American Public University System, Davis says she “gained an understanding of how important dance is in post-conflict countries. Working with these boys, I learned that dance is what they do: They go to school and then they dance.”
The trip inspired her to go to Brcko, Bosnia, last summer, where she developed a program for students 4 to 18. Fourteen years after the war, ethnic tensions are still high, and Serbs, Croats and Muslims rarely interact beyond what is required. But Davis found that the two best dancers in her teens class were a Serb and a Muslim. The girls had to dance together so much that they became friends. At the end of the workshop, the Serbian girl asked the Muslim girl to celebrate Christmas with her family.
Gina Gibney and her company, Gibney Dance, have been providing movement workshops to survivors of domestic violence in shelters for over 10 years. But Gibney was very clear from the get-go that they were not doing movement therapy. “My interest has been to take what dancers are naturally good at,” she explains, “and apply it in a broader more inclusive context.”
Gibney developed a program in conjunction with Sanctuary for Families, which assists survivors of domestic abuse and their children. “We identify the women’s needs and issues,” Gibney says, “and figure out how those dovetail with the skills that are intuitive to dancers.” The company members go through a rigorous training program, learning everything from what these women have faced to what life is like in a shelter.
Once trained, each company member travels alone to undisclosed locations around New York City. Most of the time the dancer works with a support group that has a trained mental health professional on-hand to address anything serious that comes up.
“The class gives the women tools to open and inhabit their bodies and to overcome resistance they have from being physically traumatized,” Gibney says. It starts with a gentle warm-up, which helps the women uncover where they are tense. “It gives them a chance to think about their own lives—where they’ve been and where they want their feet to take them.” It also gives the women a sense of self-worth: “These women have been told the worst possible things about themselves,” Gibney reports, “so to hear a room full of women shout what is great about them is an unbelievable experience.”
For most of the 15 years that David Alan Harris was dancing and choreographing in New York City, he also worked as a writer for Human Rights Watch, a national group dedicated to protecting human rights. “I remember sitting at my desk one day, and having the idea to become a dance movement therapist to work with torture survivors,” Harris says. He imagined that dance could be healing to survivors because they often undergo a mind/body “split.” When a torturer inflicts bodily pain in order to gain access to the victim’s mind—and thus gain control over him—the pain is often so unbearable that the victim will divorce himself from his body (what clinicians call “dissociating”). “The task of healing for torture survivors is reintegration,” he explains. “I intuited from years of focusing on my own body and working improvisationally, that reintegration would mean working at the body level as well as the psychic level.”
While pursuing his degree in creative arts therapy at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, he worked with a group of resettled “lost boys” from Sudan. He asked them to teach him their traditional dances. “I put them in the role of expert and me in the role of recipient,” he explains. “It helps to undo the stigma.”
Four years later, he traveled to Sierra Leone and worked with ex–child soldiers. “These teenage boys had lived in a unit under a commando where if they did the wrong thing, they’d be shot,” Harris says.
Harris began the session in a circle, with Sierra Leonean hip hop playing on a little battery-operated stereo. He asked the boys to follow his movements. As the warm-up progressed, leadership would change hands organically, encouraging the boys to stay attuned to the group and trust each other, which is particularly difficult for ex–child soldiers.
“In the first session, we found ourselves on our stomachs looking around,” Harris recalls. “I said, ‘What are we doing?’ Somebody replied, ‘We’re hiding from our enemies.’ This is five years after the war! These kids are orphans—they’ve been shunned and they live on streets. But they found a way to symbolically reenact the central conflicts of their existence. I believe that in doing so, they find a way to tolerate their memories.”
Harris worked with the boys for several months. Although the emphasis was on process (and healing), the boys decided they wanted to perform for the community. Most of the village watched the boys reenact the roles they had played in the war; they even depicted a scene in which a boy is ordered to shoot a gun into the corpse of his father and sister. “One boy who had been forced to kill his parents went to the village elder and asked to be welcomed back into the community,” Harris says. “At the end of the performance, the elders stood one after the other and welcomed the boys back. People who had feared these guys said they weren’t afraid anymore. It was the most amazing thing that’s ever happened in my life.”
Harris feels that this work required everything of him—in the same way that dancing once did. “It involves the integration of mind and body, passion, spirituality. It’s holistic. It gives me a sense of hope, of creatively building a new future.”
Abigail Rasminsky is an MFA student in writing at Columbia University.
Illustration by Tifenn Python.
Season 2 of World of Dance is almost here! The new season officially kicks off on Tuesday on NBC, and it's bringing a whole new crew of talented dancers with it (plus, some old favorites). Dance pro judges Jennifer Lopez, Derek Hough and Ne-Yo are back, too, with Jenna Dewan serving as the show's host.
Obviously we'll be watching, but just in case you're not completely sold, here's why you're not going to want to miss out:
JLo Might Be Performing
Earlier this week, JLo (who serves as the show's executive producer) posted this insane promo clip to her Instagram. Dancing to a mashup of Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" and her new single "Dinero," JLo reminded us all of her dance skills while also leading us to believe she might just hit the stage herself for a performance.
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Considering we practically live in our dance clothes, there's really no such thing as having too many leotards, tights or leggings (no matter what our mom or friends say!). That's why we treat every sale as an opportunity to stock up. And thanks to the holiday weekend, you can shop all of your dancewear go-tos or try something totally new for as much as 50% less than the usual price.
Here are the eight sales we're most excited about—from online options to in-store retailers that will help you find the perfect fit. Happy Memorial Day (and shopping)!
Now through Monday, Danskin's site will automatically take 25% off your entire purchase at checkout. Even new items like their Pintuck Detail Floral Print Sports Bra and Pintuck Detail Legging (pictured here) are fair game.
"The sun may be shining brightly, but we are not in a very sunny mood today!" said New York State assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal during yesterday's rally for the Artists of Ailey.
The dancers and stage crew are demanding increased wages and more comprehensive benefits, what they have termed "reaching for the standard" and "fair wages."
Pain is an inevitable part of a dancing life and dancers have a high tolerance for it, according to Sean Gallagher, a New York physical therapist whose practice includes many professional performers. "So when dancers complain, it really means something," he says.
But women and men experience pain differently, and tend to be treated for it differently as well. Female dancers need to understand those differences before they go to a doctor, so they can make sure they get treated promptly and effectively.
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.
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.