BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATIONS BY VIDA VILJOEN
My first week of grad school, I found myself in an elective called LACE Theory, a four-hour class comprised of only five students in which we fervently discussed the use of art as an agent for social change. LACE is an acronym for Liberation and Community Engagement, and the principal technique the syllabus focused on was Theatre of the Oppressed, an approach to bridging community through theater. At the end of class a few weeks in, I felt so moved by the course material that I voiced the sentiment, “Sometimes I think dance could change the world.” I remember feeling a little hokey saying it… as if dance was equal to infrastructure, education or medicine in its ability to bring about social change.
To my surprise, I looked up to see the professor and other four students nodding at me with a vigor that was at once encouraging and obvious. They were nodding, “duh,” as if I’d just said, “I think exercise can lead to better health.”
Hitherto to grad school, the pursuit of dance had been personally defined as bettering oneself through the study of technique and seeking out choreographic experiences that felt invigorating and innovative. But as my time in San Francisco drew to a close, I felt like a charade was falling apart. The dance community around me seemed paramount to a contest of betterment and innovation, but within a very small bubble. A choreographer might do a work about something meaty and current, but the audiences reached and the dancers used were all of the same system. Dance felt blunted. So what if I was really good at technique; if I understood several choreographic influences of the past century; if I was well-rounded in my training; if somebody liked the company I danced for enough to fund our Kickstarter or grant us a small grant? It felt like screaming in a void. Global warming, income disparity, endless wars to no purpose, food deserts, police brutality, corporate monopolies, on-and-on-name-your issue was getting worse every year, and all I could do was dance about it. To sum it up: there were too many lemons, and all the sugar in the world couldn’t mask my mounting bitterness.
It was with this feeling of criticality and despondency I started to write about dance. I began to interview and enlist the perspectives of dance artists in every practice and situation I could think of. Imagine my delight at finding myself in a grad school course that not only reinforced that art – and by extension dance – can have bigger ramifications, but pushed me to think how far those ramifications might extend.
Through the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted with dancers over the past four years, I’ve come to realize there’s an insular dialogue in the dance world. Though I still love and pursue dance with the same rigor (I scarcely go a day without finding myself in the studio), I’ve come to understand that the application of dance is and can be bigger than the dialogue found in the pages of a local dance review or Dance Magazine.
I am proud and excited to share this month the interviews of folks who, like my grad school peers, react to the phrase “Dance could change the world” with a “duh” and mean it.
Yes, the pursuit of mainstream Western dance is relegated to the privileged elite whose backgrounds afford and support the pursuit of it. Yes, there’s a narrative around dance that centers on a very narrow definition of success.
But what if dance could save the world? There are no answers, no recipes, but the path to making lemonade always starts with a few good lemons and the desire to make something sweet and shareable.