Personal Statement: Dancing in color

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Courtesy of Johanna Kepler

 

Monday, November 27, 2017 - 8:15pm

I always feel as though I was given a second chance. I was born in Guatemala City to a homeless mother who never had the opportunity to go to school. She signed my adoption papers with her thumb print because she couldn’t write her name. She told the social worker her one wish for me was a good education.

As I write this article I think about what her wish means to me. I attend one of the top universities in the world and I’m able to pursue my passion for dance. When I chose dance as my career path, I was unsure exactly of what that meant. I wanted to find meaning in my work, so I decided to combine my love of dance with my passion for social justice work, specifically on issues regarding racial injustice. Recently, I have realized my responsibility as a Latina artist — a responsibility to use my art to give a voice to those who may not otherwise have one in this country.

I grew up in a very white neighborhood in Brookline, Mass. that was very accepting of my family. I have two white moms and a younger sister who is also adopted from Guatemala. Growing up, I did not notice I was different from my parents. I remember a classmate in second grade asking me why my parents were white and I was brown. I didn’t understand what he meant. I did not see myself as any different than my parents. It was a harmless question asked by a curious 8-year-old, but this question sparked many questions I would have to ask myself.

I became more and more interested in learning about my country and its native language. My family and I started taking service trips back to Guatemala to expose me to the country in which my sister and I were born. I slowly started to realize I would have been living a very different life in Guatemala — I wouldn’t have access to a good high school or higher education, and most likely would have had to work instead of attend school. I started to recognize my privilege and, with that, my responsibility to give back to the place where I come from.

With this newfound recognition of what I wanted to do in life, I decided to invest in becoming an artist. I believe art can express things that words and text cannot. I started dancing later than the average dancer. I was 15 years old when I officially decided to give dance my all. Before I came to the University of Michigan, I only wanted dance for a professional company like Alvin Ailey. But over the past two years here, I’ve learned I can still dance for a large-scale company and still be involved in other outlets of dance — outreach, teaching and choreographing to name a few.

Right now, I am most interested in creating my own work, connecting my heritage to my choreography. I use my art to create social justice dances in which I can highlight racial injustice happening in the United States and in our own school. Currently, I am creating a piece that will be performed at “Marching Forward: A Scholarship Symposium,” a series dedicated to shedding light on social injustices on campus. My work, “Through Our Eyes,” highlights what it feels like to be a performing artist of color. The dance includes seven dance majors of color from the University, including myself.

I created a sound score to accompany my piece, featuring interviews with over 50 students on campus. I talked to Latino students about the writing on the Rock that targeted the Latino community. Other students spoke about being told to go back to their country when talking to family members on the phone in Spanish in public areas on campus. One LSA senior reported never being assigned to read a single book by a Latino author in all his four years as an English major. Another interview with a Black student revealed what it felt like having the word “N-----” written on his door tag in West Quad Residence Hall and how there was little to no follow up on the incident.

I use these interviews to dance and communicate what words cannot express. I believe in the saying, “actions speak louder than words” and dance, as well as other art forms, can inspire people to make a difference. Watching a dancer's body move on stage can tell an entire story without using words. It can evoke emotions in people they may not have had simply reading an article online.

Although racist incidents on campus have been disheartening, our communities are working to empower minority communities and fight back. I have been devoting my time to form groups within the School of Music, Theatre & Dance to talk about these hateful acts and what we can do to help people understand the severity of these them. We talk about how we can work as a school to react to these events more effectively.

This semester, I have started a group called “Arts and Color” along with a few more students in the Dance Department. This is a group within the department where undergraduates, graduates and faculty come together to discuss racial injustices within our community and plan events to have open discussions on race and racial injustice on campus.

Being a dancer of color at the University has its challenges and advantages. I am one of very few dancers of color and one of the even fewer Latino dancers in the Department of Dance. This lack of students of color is not just within our department but reflects the University at large. Latino students are less than 6 percent and Black students are less than 5 percent on campus in 2017. We must ask ourselves why this is and why our numbers continue to decline, instead of grow.

I create work for the fulfillment of my passion and for a whole race of people who are drastically underrepresented at the University, as well as Universities across the United States. I use my platform as a student and artist of color to bring awareness to racial injustices on and off campus.