Thousands in New York City showed their support for racial equality with a march on Juneteenth this year. Among them, about 20 dancers, co-organized by Elisa Monte Dance, International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/NYC, joined to passionately give voice to issues of racism in the dance world.

All images of New York's Juneteenth march, by Cesarin Mateo. Captions provided by Avichai Scher.

The Power of Dance as Political Protest

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words ring true for Americans facing two pandemics: the coronavirus and systemic racism. After the brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, demonstrators nationwide took to the streets, and some danced as they marched and chanted "Black Lives Matter," "No justice, no peace," "Say their names" and "I can't breathe"—the dying plea of Mr. Floyd. Voiced and danced memes give vent to frustration when there seems no other way to be heard.


Brit-Chardé Sellers, a freelance triple threat, said she wants to see room for more BIPOC performers. "People of color should not be competing against each other for the one spot for a performer of color," she said. "Open the stage up to celebrate all of us."

Dance as protest has a long history, onstage and off. During the plantation era, the cakewalk was danced on command by enslaved Africans to entertain the white folk. The owners didn't realize it was a subtle parody of their own high-falutin' mannerisms in aping European aristocracy. Mocking "Massa's" pomposity was a safer way to protest than openly challenging his authority.

For 20th-century Black choreographers, protest through dance became a way of life, with a host of inspiring works. Examples include Pearl Primus' Strange Fruit (1945), a heart-wrenching reflection on a lynching, and Hard Time Blues (1945), on the plight of African-American sharecroppers. Talley Beatty's Southern Landscape (1947) graphically portrayed a farm community decimated by the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. In 1951 while on tour in Chile, Katherine Dunham premiered Southland, on the lynching of a man falsely accused of rape. (The American Embassy in Chile was outraged, and the U.S. State Department ceased its funding and sponsorship of Katherine Dunham Company tours.) In 1976, inspired by Angela Davis' experience as a fugitive, Denver's Cleo Parker Robinson Dance created Run Sister Run. The list goes on.

J. Bouey, a dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, said that they'd like to see two changes in the dance world: "More Black bodies on the stage, and more money for Black forms of dance instead of everything going to Eurocentric styles."

Danced protests in the streets—without the safety of a theater—began gaining traction in the U.S. in the 2010s, accelerated by the visible proof of police brutality provided by cell phone videos taken on the spot. Choreographers often organized in partnership with community-based social-justice groups. Marsha Parrilla's Danza Orgánica created protest actions around women's rights in Boston in 2014. That same year, Brittany Williams, Germaul Barnes, Candace Thompson-Zachery and Brooklyn-based Brother(hood) Dance! created Dancing for Justice in response to the killing of Michael Brown. Tamara Williams of Moving Spirits joined the process, which led to demonstrations in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago and Tallahassee. The movement was born.

Fast-forward to 2020. A pandemic. Lockdown. Unemployment. The excruciatingly slow murder of George Floyd captured on video and gone viral. All combined to create widespread discontent in this crucial election year, and dancers heeded the call and took to the streets. Here are but a few examples:

May 31: Six days after George Floyd's killing, Jo'Artis Ratti, co-creator of krumping, danced a solo in front of a line of armed policemen in Beverly Hills, California, with a group of demonstrators some distance behind him. Featured in newspapers and online videos, he explained, "our dance krump is our way of coping, it's our way of creating and fighting back. How else do we cry [out] to the grotesque? … How do I show hurt … for it to still be peaceful?"

May 31: Protesters in Newark, New Jersey, exuberantly performed the Cupid Shuffle, a popular line dance that emerged from the rapper Cupid's 2007 album, Time for A Change. The words on one demonstrator's poster read "Let Justice Flow Like A River."

June 2: At a downtown Los Angeles demonstration, protesters moved in unison and breakout solos to the ever-popular Cupid Shuffle, which was becoming the dance signature for the 2020 protests.

June 7: An enormous gathering performed a "Dance for George" in Harlem, New York, along 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, dancing the Cupid Shuffle "to remind everyone of the culture that has kept this world thriving," and to honor George Floyd, explained one of the organizers.

June 19: In downtown Manhattan, a cohort of dancing demonstrators celebrated Juneteenth in front of City Hall and demanded police accountability for refusing medical care to people in custody.

August 1–28: Street Dance Activism—a project spearheaded by Dr. Shamell Bell, d. Sabela grimes, Myshell Tabu, Sharlia Gulley, Shalom Cook, Dr. Dominique Hill and Bernard Brown—partnered with Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Versa-Style Dance Company, CONTRA-TIEMPO, Rennie Harris Puremovement, Marlies Yearby and Sankofa.org to create an entire month of virtual movement, music and meditative events in order to "raise vibrations as a global collective and dance to embody Black liberation," according to its website. The initiative was timed to align with Black August, as well as the 2020 Black National Convention and the Virtual March on Washington.

"We cannot remain silent," said Carl Ponce Cubero, a former member of Ailey II. "In dance education, Black styles, such as West African dance, are offered as an elective, not required learning. That's wrong."

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Ricarrdo Valentine, co-founder of Brother(hood) Dance!, speaks of "the freedom and transformative states that movement generates, not only personally but potentially for the world." Expressing a range of emotions, dancing protesters challenge the rigidity of a phalanx of policemen, grimly or joyfully responding to the unyielding stance of authority. Dancing in defiance of systemic injustice is a liberating alternative to oppression and a dramatic, possibly game-changing, resource in the "undoing racism" tool kit.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021