Making a Mark: Dance and Social Justice


By Melanie Feilotter

“People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.”
Jane Jacobs from The Death and Life of Great American Cities

In an unusual commingling, the boards and communities of a dance company and a social justice center gather to watch a live performance. A metallic, steady backbeat breaks the silence, and as the lights come up, three lithe young women appear, hands linked, jutting across the stage with sharp-edged, angular motions that contrast starkly with the gracious ballet pink dresses they wear. The dance is called “Save the Children,” with choreography by Randy Duncan, and it clearly speaks to themes of both innocence and empowerment, alternating as it does between child-like pirouetting and primal pounding. That conflicting imagery takes on special meaning in this context, where the children’s troupe is kicking off a “groundbreaking collaboration,” as a board member of a social justice organization puts it, between the very different groups.

In the past, such a performance, in this case by the Tennessee Children’s Dance Ensemble (TCDE), might have been the beginning and end of the encounter, offered for fundraising purposes, or public awareness, or some combination thereof. But increasingly, community outreach is just the tip of the iceberg, and artists and social justice organizations are finding mutual benefits to deeper and more prolonged partnerships. That deliberate choice of engagement, as opposed to outreach, seeks to erase some of the traditional hierarchies between dancers and community members.

Companies like Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers (ABD) in San Francisco, Ananya Dance Theatre in Minnesota, and TCDE in Knoxville are representative of those in the field assuming more risk and responsibility by actively seeking to facilitate change in their communities. To Ananya Chatterjea, artistic director of Minneapolis-based Ananya Dance, this brand of community partnering is a paradigm shift. “I want to say to audiences: ‘Come, occupy this space of action.’ We’re not coming from a view of audience engagement, but from a view of being taught something about our times.” Anne Bluethenthal, founder and director of ABD, agrees: “Art is going back into the trenches,” she laughs. “As part of this paradigm shift, we don’t look at art as a consumer product anymore. We need to start to dissolve that line between product and process.” All three companies have been engaged with social justice work, some for decades, and, in an interesting parallel, all find themselves now at a critical moment of change.

“The first problem for all of us is not to learn, but to unlearn ...” Gloria Steinem, feminist, journalist, political and social activist

After years of performing and teaching children in communities in Knoxville and around the world, TCDE’s decision to partner with a Family Justice Center at home in Tennessee seemed a natural fit, an extension of the values it imparts to its ensemble. The federal network of Family Justice Centers (FJC) originated in California in 2002, borne of a need to offer a complete array of services, such as housing assistance, counseling, legal aid, and child care, for example, to battered women and children, in one centralized place. Now more than 80 such centers exist nationwide. The Knoxville FJC’s executive director, Amy Dilworth, invited the troupe to perform for the center’s five-year anniversary, hoping to make a splash , and activate community (and board) understanding about the commonality of FJC’s mission to that of the young dancers. TCDE impressed the board and other community leaders; in turn, the dance company found an easy ally in Dilworth, herself a trained dancer and dance therapist. She began talking to the TCDE’s managing director, Judy Robinson, about the possibility of a more extensive collaboration. 

Robinson and Artistic Director Irena Linn adhere to a simple set of rules with their young charges: not touching what doesn’t belong to them and respecting the limits of physical contact in dance. Commitment, too, is an imperative. The newest members, at age eight, have six months to decide if the ensemble is for them. If so, they commit to stay through high school (or age 17), when, Linn says, “the level of expression begins to change.” These rules provide the foundation for their creativity. The language of boundaries, Robinson and Dilworth agree, translates well into a vital lesson for victims of abuse. Movements that push and pull become vehicles to understand resistance, but in a safe and non-threatening way, according to Dilworth. As Linn describes it, the overarching goal with the ensemble mirrors that of the FJC families: to teach skills and re-patterning of behaviors through the subtleties of dance. That initial performance led to plans for TCDE to host workshops three times per week over six weeks at FJC for parents and children. TCDE hopes to distinguish itself — and the center — by helping to break family cycles of violence. The process is potentially transformational as families learn not only to express themselves, but to regulate that expression. Linn points out that these families are at a highly transitional and fragile juncture in their lives; the rigors and routine of dance provide a stability and structure otherwise lacking at that moment.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou, poet and author

Of course, not every social justice organization has a former dancer for a leader, so while community non-profits are often eager to find new ways to address old problems, dance and other art forms may not be high on their agendas. Chatterjea was gratified when CAPI, a coalition of eight organizations that implement anti-poverty programs, approached her to work with Refugee and Immigrant Women for Change, a group of African, Asian, and Latino refugee and immigrant-led community-based organizations. “We had been educating our colleagues that what we do is not just entertainment,” she says. “We are producing knowledge about the very work they speak about. It’s emotional intelligence.” 

Like TCDE, the all-female troupe addresses violence against women, but from a different social context. As she sees it, violence stems from global battles over land, oil, gold, and water. In other words, the story of one woman is important for its own narrative, but also for its relevance to the narratives of so many others. “People relate to a single act of violence,” she says, “but they don’t understand how it’s actually systemic.” In a series of workshops, professional writers documented the stories of refugee and immigrant women, and dancers, with the women, retold the stories. Chatterjea, who is also head of dance at the University of Minnesota, reverses the conventional view of history as a series of events that happen to people, understanding it instead as coming from within: “Women’s bodies in particular tend to hold a lot of history and performance is a way of documenting that history.” Beyond documentation though, Chatterjea ultimately aspires to change how the relationship of women of color to history is understood.

She sees the current model of community engagement as an exchange of ideas. “We have written a couple of grants together,” she says of her work with CAPI, “but what we’re really sharing is expertise.” The partnership came at CAPI’s beckoning, but only after years of contact and informal education from Ananya Dance. The challenges of any collaboration are a given, but what of jump-starting that partnership to begin with?

“You can’t start a movement, but you can prepare for one.”  Vincent Harding, historian and scholar of religion and social justice

Community partnering has the potential to change funding as well as operating models, but as ABD’s Bluethenthal points out, “We have to educate funders as to the intricacies of this paradigm.” In 2008, ABD partnered with Oasis for Girls, creating a performance to celebrate the often unnoticed and silent work of women as “carers and repairers.” She cites this as a turning point in her career, after which she began to shift the focus so that the community subjects assume the primary voice in the work, instead of her own artistic statement. Now, after a year of familiarizing herself with the residents of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Bluethenthal is initiating a project in one of its most distressed neighborhoods. Collaborating with choral director and singer/songwriter Melanie DeMore, who specializes in civil rights songs, she will create a neighborhood performance with dance and a spontaneous choir this June. Unlike some of her previous work, or the workshops or residencies fashioned by Ananya Dance and TCDE, this project will come and go more in the vein of a traditional performance. She will use a videographer, not with the goal of recording for posterity, but rather as another angle from which to view the experience. As Bluethenthal astutely points out: “Change happens in different ways. I can’t impose by desire too much on the situation, but I’m going in to see how I can draw attention to the needs in this neighborhood, and bring honor and justice to these residents.”

For every dance leader described here, the process of entering these delicate collaborative relationships became an education in itself, and part of the art. As with any living thing, change begins in infancy; Dilworth notes that the mere knowledge that dancers will enter the FJC space has helped to remove some of its institutional feel. The slow and sometimes arduous process of educating, familiarizing, and, finally, intertwining two disparate entities possesses a value perhaps even beyond that of the so-called final product. What these dancers have in common, despite different target populations and geographies, is the commitment to foster programs that give license to the community itself, and a willingness to be open to a more democratic artistic process.

The outcomes of that process are as yet unknown. TCDE last year received county funds to start implementing the program at FJC, and as always, further funding will be contingent on meeting certain benchmarks with respect to audiences, demographics, and communities served. New metrics for their work with FJC will have to be established. Helping to improve quality of life or communication skills might be tough to document, but Robinson believes that through follow-up with families who participate in the program, it will be possible. This type of scrutiny can only help legitimize these kinds of collaborations, with funders and the public alike. Community leaders support the partnership, and as Dilworth works with local government to open at least two (and possibly more) Family Justice Centers across Tennessee, her hope is to emulate this model across the state.

“The more you move, the stronger you’ll grow...” Ha Jin, contemporary Chinese-American author and poet

Public awareness and reception will also help determine the fate of many of these collaborations. As Chatterjea says, “There is a stigma attached to much social justice work.” Performance is one level of involvement, but the private moments when choreographer and dancers become enmeshed with their subjects are delicate ones and can look dubious to the untrained eye. Excellence, Chatterjea agrees, is extremely important and difficult to sustain when bringing a community of non-professionals on board for a project. How does the process remain of high artistic quality without crossing into the territory of amateurish or therapeutic?

Linn argues that dance is therapeutic regardless if undertaken by professionals or amateurs. True, but few professional companies wish to be represented onstage by amateur performers. The solution, as Chatterjea sees it, means going willingly into the community as equals, or facilitators, and acknowledging that difference between professional and amateur. “There are gestures and dramatic devices that don’t require dance expertise, but in the end we must remain the dancers. There is definitely a separation. Some people’s contribution is simply in the realm of storytelling.” Of course, thousands, maybe more, artists are creating high-quality work that never reaches a stage — this is true in every art form. “I still have standards,” says Bluethenthal. “It’s a highly refined vocabulary that I use when working with professionals, and a very different vocabulary when working with residents in the Tenderloin. How I put together their words and gestures is my offering to them.”

The collaboration of dance with social justice manifests itself in a shared belief that art is not separate from the time and place in which it is created. In other words, with social justice work, cultural context is part of what drives and defines the dance. The public being embraced by these artists will judge their success more intimately than the dance critics. And the dance companies stand to gain not only from contributing to the betterment of their communities, but by moving past the marginal and into the spotlight of pressing forward with social justice work.

Top: Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble performing "Save the Children," performed at the Justice Center with Gracie Corapi and Karlie Budge, photographer Kenton Yeager.
Ananya Dance in "Tushaanal Fires of Dry Grass," which concerns the gold trade in Africa, photo by V. Paul Virtucio.
After the performance at the summer children's program of the Public Defenders Office of Knoxville the Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble does a post-performance activity.
ABD Dance in "Oasis for Children," courtesy ABD Dance 

Melanie Feilotter is a freelance writer in Knoxville, Tenn. She was director of information and learning services at Opera America in New York City from 2009 to 2011, and was a multimedia journalist and TV producer for Bloomberg News from 1998 to 2009. Feilotter holds an M.A. from McGill University, and studied music history and piano. She writes regular features for Knoxville's Cityview Magazine, and has written for Opera America Magazine, Philanthropy News Digest, Grantmakers in the Arts, and the Grove Dictionary of American Music. Feilotter also does professional development and advocacy work for the Arts & Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville.
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