Seventy University of Michigan students and Ann Arbor residents gathered in the Regency Ballroom at the Graduate Ann Arbor hotel on Thursday evening for an event titled “Home Is Where the Heart Is.” Hosted by SAPAC’s Consent, Outreach & Relationship Education program and sponsored by Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and Central Student Government, the event was intended to encourage love and healthy relationships.
The event featured performance duo Nia & Ness, a couple based in Rosendale, N.Y., performing their piece “home.” Through their work in poetry and dance, they address themes such as trauma, self-harm, self-love, healing and happiness. The pair has toured nationwide and received multiple honors for their work.
The opening piece of the program delved into the problems within the world of Black lesbians, from within the Black community and from the outside. Ness’s poetry, paired with Nia’s sharp and striking dance told a story of all the people who have either sexualized, threatened or became aggressively jealous toward the couple.
Nia and Ness performed their stories of coming out, and how people reacted to their love. They expressed the anxiety of needing to come out to people time after time and the anger with which people responded.
“Everyone’s eyes seem to ask, ‘How dare you two Black women be happy?’” Ness said. “‘How dare you two Black women be happy on your own? How dare you two Black women be happy together? How dare you two Black women be happy without us?’”
The pair addressed the stereotypes pushed upon them due to their race. Ness spoke of how their bodies came with a price, and they were paying the price every day. She expressed how every moment alive is spent fighting, not only against stereotypes but also against traumas, whether personal, ancestral or cultural.
“We see our ancestors,” Ness said. “We close our eyes and we hear them speak. They tell us not much has changed since they were in chains. We feel the tension, the pain in our bodies weighing us down the way they were weighed down.”
Ness spoke about the oversexualization of young Black girls. She explained to the group that Black girls are viewed by society as sexually available, regardless of age. Younger girls are being made to act as though they are twice their age because this is the way the world sees them, Ness said.
“She’s still here in her body, a body becoming increasingly desired, but only if covered in white skin,” Ness said. “She’s worn the same outfit as a white woman with the same build and been told to take it off because it’s too sexy on her. But the white woman? She was praised.”
Mid-performance, Ness held the floor to herself and expressed how much she wanted to be happy and how difficult this can be. She spoke of how much of a challenge this was for her after she had come out. She said she had learned to keep joy in and not to express it, which caused her great pain.
“I don’t know how the sun does it,” Ness said. “How it just gives so much energy and it doesn’t burn out. It just keeps giving without getting anything in return.”
By the end of this piece, she realizes she is not supposed to be the sun for others anymore.
In her solo piece, Nia shared the story of her own childhood and her experiences of sexual abuse.
“When I was 12 years old, my body was taken from me,” Nia said. “I’ve been trying to get it back ever since.”
She told the attendees how she eventually stopped saying no to her abusers and how this led to her blaming herself for what happened and to self-harm. Nia concluded by saying she does not feel like she is as strong as people believe, and how she feels as though she has failed herself.
The pair also expressed how traumatic memories will stay with survivors, no matter how hard they try to forget. Ness explained how people store all of their memories in their bodies as well as their minds, causing additional pain. She recounted her own experience, how she forgets what it feels like to be calm or soft and how to love without constantly preparing her heart to be broken each day.
Nia & Ness shifted the tone at the end of the performance to focus on their own loving relationship. At this point, Nia’s dancing made a dramatic shift from sharp and quick to soft and flowing movements.
The pair told stories of their relationship together, expressing how these are the stories they will one day tell their kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They want them to see the happiness within their relationship, not only the hardships they faced.
“We want them to see this,” Ness said. “We want them to know this. Us. It’s real, it’s possible, it’s history. It’s her story. It’s our story, it’s part of theirs.”
Following a brief intermission, Nia & Ness returned for a question and answer session.
In response to a question about learning to love someone else, despite not loving oneself, Ness said this is often found in the joy the other person brings to the relationship.
She said she believes her partner’s confidence and happiness allow her to be confident and happy as well. Nia said she has gotten through difficult times by thinking about how much her work has done for others.
“Sometimes it’s easier to live for other people than myself,” Nia said. “Realizing how many lives we’ve touched, I fully realize that my life is bigger than just me. Me being alive, being here on this earth, (Ness) being alive and being here on this earth is bigger than just us. We carry so many people with us wherever we go every day.”
The couple also discussed finding true and authentic love. Ness emphasized the need for people to be their own authentic selves and the importance of working on growing as people. Nia expanded on this by explaining the need to find someone who supports self-growth and is willing to grow as well.
Nia & Ness answered a question about intersectionality within relationships. Nia’s main point was focused upon the need to step back and notice when prejudice is taking place towards and make sure it is not ignored. Ness emphasized being knowledgeable about the differences between both partners.
“It’s not assuming that you know what the other person is going through just because you both have things that oppress you,” Ness said. “It’s not necessarily the same. It’s just not making assumptions.”
LSA junior Sidney Aloisi, co-coordinator for CORE, found the lack of understanding between different groups to be the most interesting part of the program.
“There’s just such a lack of knowledge and respect for people that don’t look like you,” Aloisi said. “The biggest thing that I learned was that while a lot of people, myself included, think we have something that is so compelling and hard. I mean, look at their relationship and what they go through.”
Aloisi also spoke about how happy she was to be able to allow the duo a place to perform this piece comfortably.
“The most beautiful thing that I saw was that they were able to be in a space where they felt respected enough to be open,” Aloisi said. “I think that it wasn’t just a trust thing but a comfortability thing, which I think was just amazing.”
Contributor Kara Warnke can be reached at email@example.com.