The Story Behind The Latest Dance Show to Hit Netflix
Even as a teen, Vandana Hart knew she wasn't headed for a cookie-cutter dance career. "Growing up with a family that really cared about social change, pursuing dance as a standalone career—without linking it to something more—felt like I wasn't completely fulfilling my purpose," she says.
Linking dance to "something more" is just what she did: In her downtime from her role as a coordinator for UN Women's "safe cities" initiative, she has choreographed and taught dance around the world. Now, she produces a Netflix series called "We Speak Dance," in which she travels the globe to learn new dance styles and the deeply human stories behind them.
Vandana Hart. Image courtesy "We Speak Dance"
Hart's life has been multicultural from the start. Born in Moscow, her mother is Russian and her father is an American who worked to free political prisoners during the Cold War. After living in Sweden and India (she was raised Hindu), her family moved to California and later Oregon.
Her early dance study was no less eclectic, ranging from ballet to Afro-Caribbean. Though she was accepted into the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, her academic pursuits led her to switch to the certificate program at Ailey before entering New York University the next year to pursue a BA in global politics.
During this time, she was also getting into New York's underground hip-hop scene and was taken under the wing of legends from the Moptop/Elite Force crew. "I was getting classical training during the day at Ailey, then going to dance parties at night," she says.
Upon graduating from NYU, she took an internship at the United Nations and was hired after a month. A few years later, after receiving a master's from the London School of Economics, she took a risk that would change her life. "I had been to Kenya as a tourist and fell in love with it," she says. "So I got a one-way ticket and moved there. Without a job."
Once in Kenya, she picked up consulting work for the UN—but dance found its way back into the forefront of her life. "The first question I ask everywhere I go is, 'Where do I find the best dancers?' " she says. This led her to board a bus for a two-hour trek to a neighborhood in Nairobi, where she met a crew that asked her to choreograph and dance in their music video the next day. Little did she know that this crew was actually pretty famous—and the song would be number one in East Africa for most of that year.
Image courtesy "We Speak Dance"
Hart received calls to choreograph for many other groups and was asked to judge "So You Think You Can Dance" in Africa. During one trip to South Africa, she received an invitation to a house dance party and traveled an hour out of Johannesburg to a harsh township built during apartheid. "They never have foreigners come there, and did not want to give me any trust—which is understandable given the history," she says. She decided to just observe, but soon became so overcome that she jumped in the circle. "It became very bright, and I looked up, and everyone was filming me," she says. "They were like, 'Move here!' "
The experience reconfirmed Hart's belief in the power of dance. "That was a pretty monumental moment of how dance can overcome boundaries, class divides, all these things," she says. This power is what Hart hopes to bring to the world through "We Speak Dance," which features interviews and performances from dancers across the globe, and follows Hart as she learns their traditional and urban styles.
The show was born when Hart received a grant that enabled her to hire a team and film pilots in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. After shopping the show in West Africa, every network she approached made her an offer. She then shopped in the U.S., looking for the right outlet to bring her multicultural passion to American audiences. "All of the dance shows have been competitions," she says. "Not about culture—about how dance brings us together." And for Hart, that's what her career is all about.
"We Speak Dance" airs on Netflix on January 1.
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.