Students instinctually remove their shoes as they enter. At first there isn’t much to see, the space is grand in size, but is mainly empty. It’s filled with 8-foot high mirrors, and the students are welcomed by gray walls and non-natural lighting with the power to warp anyone’s sense of time. Yet it is not the lack of light that prevails most powerful. 

A girl enters the space, one in a crowd, and she begins to prepare for class. She pulls her hair into a ponytail, and sheds the layers of clothing which had kept her guarded in the outside world. She was home, she finally felt safe. 

With a single,“Okay… and!,” the teacher begins class, allowing dancers to use their bodies to speak. To speak about their pain, frustration, happiness, and hone their abilities to tell stories and revolutionize. In spite of the dialogue and the music, the studio is there to listen. The girl’s body visibly relaxes into the movement, and in a split second she is overwhelmed with emotions. While it was easy for her to repress her thoughts, and not always speak her mind, her body spoke for her, and she could no longer hide in her mind. 

These dancers are not merely dancing, but preparing for battle.

In dance, the body is so often the most expressive aspect of the work, and the visual aspects of dance often speak for themself — which is why dance lends itself so well to protest, activism and dissension. Natalie Gotter, visiting assistant professor of modern dance and dance education at Muhlenberg College, focuses her teaching on the fully embodied intellectual and somatic understanding of movement, in addition to the social relationships of the body. For Gotter, the significance of dance as protest is equal regardless of the formality or informality of the setting.  “When we live in a society that oppresses bodies as a way of controlling people, it only makes sense that the body becomes the tool of protest and activism,” says Gotter. Arianna Tilley ‘22, a dancer and choreographer at Muhlenberg College, believes this form of activism is even more important because of the accessibility of dance. Tilley believes that dance is so accessible in meaning and interpretation in ways that other forms of artwork are not. “People self tune out words. You can’t really tune out movement, you can’t really tune out emotion or feeling,” says Tilley. “If you close your eyes, would you not feel the energy of the dance and of the space?”

Using the body as a way to protest opens up the amount of people who can understand and connect through activism. Language can create barriers between people who do not speak or understand the same language, and as a result, often limits the way activism can exist among different cultures and different societies. Yet, in dance, the body and the movement of the body creates its own language. Even if the audience can not identify the dance terminology and language which exist in the movement phrases, they can identify the emotionality and the humanness present in the dance. The versatility of how dance is used and the accessibility of dance is a result of the connections we form through our emotions. 

Groups of dance students chatter in hushed tones as they gather in the audience of Baker Theater, bonding through their complaints of homework, and weekend planning. As the room darkens, a screen illuminates, and the students fall silent, listening as George W. Bush’s voice fades in, watching as what began as a black and white film fades into a colorful scene, and dancers of all different identities are brought together to utilize their bodies to tell a story. Their bodies reveal the emotional reality of the past year — the toll of the pandemic, and the toll of the continued impact of racism. The theater is full for a screening of Earl Mosley’s Unconquered. Unconquered is Mosley’s recent screendance, a dance film created with the intention of the choreography and performance being viewed on screen, rather than filming dance created for typical spaces like theatres and studios. Screendances, especially Unconquered, situate the world of dance in our everyday society, rather than in separate dance-only spaces. Unconquered spawned important discussions about human connection, and about making change in the community. Mosley is the founder and artistic director of Diversity of Dance, and developed this screendance after finding inspiration from the natural and organic dancing observed in the streets during protests. He does not consider Unconquered a choreographic piece, but rather an opportunity to use his choreography to unite people and ignite social justice and conversations. “We need to use our art as a service to make change.”

In 2020 and 2021, amid the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, dance became an even more powerful tool for justice and social change. Yet, the roots of dance activism have existed long before. Around 1928, New York’s New Dance Group advocated for dance as a “weapon in the revolutionary class struggle.” However, the origins of dance protests began as early as the 1860s, with the emergence of the CakeWalk as a new dance style. The CakeWalk developed from southern plantations where enslaved Black people would imitate the dances they saw the plantation owners performing (called cakewalks because the winning dancers would win a cake). The dance is an expression of Black pride and joy, and is one example of Black dance being used to protest against systemic racism. Many other racially focused dance protests have existed throughout history, most recently seen after the death of George Floyd in 2020, with a gathering by the organization Dance for George in which they performed the Electric Slide. Another racially focused dance protest was seen after the death of Ezell Ford in 2014, when dancers gathered outside the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters to learn social dances created in Black communities, using this joyful connected movement as a protest. In June 2020, hip hop dancer, MiRi Park, created a public Google document which included an extensive list of dance protests across the country, and further research on the history of dance protest and social movement studies.

A native of Philadelphia, Robyn Watson finds she is always in a space of protest. As a dancer and dance educator, her work in tap dance is focused on telling stories. Her recent project The Blackbird Suites included the narrative of life as a Black woman from a historical point of view. “Being socially identified as a Black woman is already an act of protest when you maneuver into spaces that at times are not originally designed for you,” says Watson, a visiting lecturer of tap at Muhlenberg College. “And the protest is not receiving or seeking validation from those cultivators of that space, but in myself when I’m secure in what I’m doing.” Tap dance combines visual aspects of protest, with auditory aspects as a result of the sounds of the shoes, which, when combined, can amplify and intensify the statement the dance is making. 

Watson finds it is most natural for her to lean into protesting and responding through her dance. “If we look at the definition of protest being a statement of something that you are for or against, and if you are identifying dances dialogue, then your dance can be the dialogue of the statement of something that you are for and against.” While protests often evoke thoughts of a specific image of loud chants, signs, and marches on the street, Watson adds that protest can be more intimate than we think.  

And for Tilley, her recent choreography from Muhlenberg College’s Reset: New Dances, titled “Living Color: As Told By Us,” explores the connection between people of color who have the same or similar experiences that she has had. She created the work to emphasize the feeling of community found in dance, as seen through her dancers. Their pain, frustration, fears, and joys are expressed through the use of their voices onstage, but when they are together, their faces show their strength, and the power they hold together, dancing. 

Meanwhile, as students walk past the quiet studio the dancers’ protest goes unnoticed until a sudden chorus of claps emerges from inside. The students finish their class by thanking the teacher, the music, and each other. In spite of their sore bodies, the dancers float out of the Dance Studio Theatre, some of the weight of their frustrations alleviated in the 80 minutes. The dancer begins to reapply her clothing layers, each layer adding the weight of work, of injustice, of reality. Though she will go to her next class and most likely avoid participating, she knows she has said all she had been wanting to say. “Dance as protest is a way of saying ‘I’m here, my experiences matter, I matter,’” says Gotter who believes the primary role of dance is to serve as a reaction to social, religious, and political oppression. “It can be joyful, it can be painful, but it is always powerful.”


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