Courtesy of Kionna Willingham, CoC marketing chair

This Sunday, the University of Michigan’s student organization Creatives of Color hosted a powerful discussion and movement workshop, which was moderated over Zoom by Dr. Antonio C. Cuyler, associate professor of arts administration and director of the MA Program at Florida State University, and Lawrence M. Jackson, associate chair and associate professor of dance at the University of Alabama. The conversation was centered on how dance can serve as a vehicle for social activism. 

CoC was created by student and filmmaker Drew Metcalf in 2017 through OptiMize’s Social Innovation Challenge. The intention was to unite and foster a community of artists of color across campus. The event began with a speaker introduction by LSA senior and current CoC President Tiffany Harris, who introduced the viewing of the dance film “Say Her Name… Too.” Choreographed and directed by Jackson, this short screen dance combined cinematic elements with choreography to explore the lives of five Black women who died at the hands of law enforcement: Natasha McKenna, Sandra Bland, Michelle Cusseaux, Atatiana Jefferson and Breonna Taylor.

In the compelling six-minute performance, each of the five University of Alabama dancers embodied their respective “character” portrayals through intentional movement and the use of symbolic props. The organic emotion of the dancers and their interpretations inspired an engaging discussion surrounded in love and empathy for the rest of the event. 

As Jackson explained, “(dance is) an embodiment of all the arts.” 

Each solo section was introduced by reiterations of each of the killed woman’s last words, a creative decision made by Jackson, as he later explained, to attribute the lives of Natasha, Sandra, Michelle, Atatiana and Breonna to their respective dancer’s flow. 

Jackson and the dancers sought to give life to these women and their voices, explaining that they were  “not ever trying to speak for them, but having them speak for themselves.”

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Following the viewing, Jackson and his dancers demonstrated the creative process that went into their performance by leading the attendees through an immersive movement workshop. 

For Jackson, it was important to find a common thread among the women portrayed in this piece and all people of color brutalized by law enforcement at large. Upon choreographing the piece, he found this connection through a three-step movement phrase. 

Movement phrases, he said, act similarly to literary phrases with a beginning, middle and end. Dancers use these movement phrases to convey the meaning of certain words and experiences through their art, using them as a starting point in formulating their movements. When he considered the encounters that these women had with law enforcement, he came up with three foundational words to visualize the emotions they had likely experienced: “what?”, “me” and “arrested.”

During the demonstration, Jackson guided the viewers through his choreographing process word-by-word, connoting a physical movement with each phrase. For “what?”, he instructed the audience to put their hands up: the typical, intuitive response following being confronted by the police. The next movement represented the word “me” and was communicated by pointing his index finger to his chest, encouraging the audience to do the same. Finally, he portrayed the phrase “arrested” by curling his hands into fists and crossing his arms across his chest to represent the action of being handcuffed as audience members mimicked his movement. 

While the three-part phrase is constructed of rather mundane movements he described as “pedestrian,” Jackson explained how these simple steps could be transformed into more complex dance moves as well as manipulated and stylized to convey different emotions by altering the pace, energy and space used to perform those gestures. 

According to Jackson, movement explorations served as a crucial component that Jackson and his dancers utilized to cultivate a largely virtual creative process. Through Zoom, they were able to use movement phrases while collaboratively experimenting with in-time movements, angles and facial expressions through remote rehearsals. 

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During the discussion, Jackson emphasized the importance of dancers doing their “due diligence” as visual artists, which involved thorough research on the lives of the women they were portraying in order to create an authentic representation of their experiences. However, he also noted that though it’s easy to get caught up in all the research, they must never lose sight of humanizing these women and connecting beyond whatever information is found through news articles or other sources — not only capturing who they were as people but also expressing how they may have felt by recounting their own lived or understood experiences with injustice. 

Jackson expressed that in their work, the individuals the dancers perform as will never be characters, but rather portrayals.

“I use the word portray when I (describe) these women, because we will never play them,” Jackson poignantly explained. “We will always try to portray and capture the essence of who they were, and not be who they were … We will never be able to do that.”

Some of the dancers spoke on their findings when learning about the lives of these women, and the methods they used to resonate with their shared humanity.

University of Alabama senior Eryn Cade connected with Breonna Taylor and the fact that Taylor was a first responder, imagining the exhaustion that such an occupation entails. 

“When I get home, I’m tired… I want to be in bed,” Cade reflected. 

She said she imagined the fear and frustration of being in bed after a long day of work only to be met with something as brutal as being killed by law enforcement in your own home.

While learning Sandra Bland’s story, University of Alabama sophomore Jaylin Martin said that she came away with two adjectives: “nervous” and “anxiety.” She shared that she recently had her first encounter with law enforcement and was overcome with an immediate sense of dread. Through this, she found herself better able to resonate with Bland’s experience, musing that “she probably felt like this, or even just worse.” Martin explained how crucial it was to draw in those daily occurrences of fear and anxiety into her tribute to Sandra Bland, as that allowed her to better resonate with the emotions that bonded them together.

When reflecting on her research of Michelle Cusseaux, University of Alabama junior Maurgan Haynes explained that she “wanted to know who (Michelle) was as a person prior to her last day on this Earth … I wanted to get to know all the things that made her, her.” 

These personal accounts from the dancers demonstrate the team’s tireless efforts to wield the learnings from their research, and channel similar experiences from their own lives to accurately portray the victims’ experiences.

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During the second half of the event, Cuyler facilitated a Q&A segment to connect art, and specifically dance, to its presence in social activism. He began by explaining the impacts of art and culture. 

“There are six intrinsic impacts to art and culture … spiritual awakening, aesthetic enrichment, captivation, emotional resonance, social bridging and bonding and intellectual stimulation,” Cuyler said. 

He asked the artists involved in the film which of the six impacts they felt their work affected. After some consideration, Jackson definitively settled on “spiritual awakening.”

“(We wanted to) capture (the victims) speaking from the spiritual world,” Jackson responded. 

Jackson explained that he included each victim’s last words before each segment, intending to bring them back to life and reinstill their humanity. In doing so, Jackson intended for the essences of the individual women to live on and their unjust death be honored. However, as the choreographer discussed, this task proved to be critical as the team had to find ways to allow these individuals to speak for themselves instead of speaking for them — giving voice to their lives rather than to the injustice done to them alone. 

Cuyler subsequently asked, “What does this kind of activism do for dance?”

“Dance is more than a form of entertainment … (dance) speaks to people in ways that other forms of communication cannot,” Jackson answered. 

He explained how self-expression through dance is unique in its ability to inspire empathy within its audience. According to Jackson, dance comes from a more emotional and psychological place, granting therapeutic and cathartic release to both the dancer and the audience. For him, it’s a way to process the grief and trauma of something that is far too familiar for much of his community. 

“Last summer was very difficult … race is something we always dealt with,” Jackson acknowledged. “This isn’t a new topic, but maybe this is the first time that it speaks to you.” 

Jackson and Cuyler reflected on how this power of artistic intervention could be implemented in diversity and inclusion efforts, noting the very linear and academic nature of current bias training may not speak to its viewers the way art does. Art transcends emotion into an ethereal realm, giving it the power to affect internal reflection. According to Cuyler, Black art specifically demonstrates creative resilience illuminating experience and struggle beyond grief. 

And like Business senior and CoC event coordinating chair Anthony Coffie chimed in, this resilience in art is the “special ability of Black people to still smile and show love in their work.”