The Power of Dance as Political Protest

October 28, 2020

“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 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.