fbpx The disruptive power of dance | Phillips Exeter Academy

The disruptive power of dance

In a marriage of arts and activism, members of PEA's Dance Company use their talents to raise awareness and help support a local shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence. 

Genny Beckman Moriarty
May 1, 2017
Dancers pose together against a staircase railing.

Meghana Chalasani '17 (third from left) with fellow PEA dancers. “Arts are a means of expression that provide inspiration and induce solidarity. Coming to a dance concert like ours entails leaving behind previous thoughts, watching and listening, and taking something away from the performance,” says Chalasani.

Upper Maria Heeter's clear voice voice climbs high above the audience, echoing off the ceiling above the Main Stage in Fisher Theater: “Know you are the type of woman / who is searching for a place to call yours. / Let the statues crumble. / You have always been the place. / You are a woman who could build it yourself. / You are born to build.”

As she recites the lines from Sarah Kay’s poem “The Type,” the spotlight shifts to stage right, revealing a group of dancers clad in black. They begin to move with purpose and precision across the stage — reflecting the words from the poem in their movements, forming a response to them, and delivering a message of empowerment and self-confidence — while the spotlight moves back and forth between reader and dancers.

Their performance piece was part of an interdisciplinary educational Winter Dance Concert centered on empowering women. The theme for the concert, which was driven by the interests of students and the Dance Department faculty, aligned with the goals of One Billion Rising, the worldwide campaign launched in 2012 by V-Day, a global organization that seeks to harness the joyful, transformative and potentially galvanizing powers of the arts to raise awareness about — and help put an end to — violence against women and girls. (The OBR name has its origins in a startling United Nations statistic: “On average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of a lifetime.” Given a world population of 7 billion, that works out to nearly 1 billion women and girls whose lives will be touched by violence.)

For the second year in a row, Sarah Duclos, a former instructor and interim director of dance at the Academy, organized more than 80 professional and student dancers from across the region for a One Billion Rising fundraising dance event at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire — with all of the proceeds going to benefit Haven, a local organization that provides crisis counseling, courtroom advocacy and safe shelter to victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence in the Seacoast area and educates nearly 10,000 local students through violence- prevention programming each year.

Committed to using the arts to help students engage with important social issues, Director of Dance Allison Duke says she and her colleague Amberlee Darling were eager to have their students participate in this year’s OBR event when the opportunity arose. “We welcomed the chance to have the students connect with members of the community beyond campus over issues many of them cared deeply about.” Wanting to enrich the dancers’ experience and raise awareness within the school community as well, the department planned the complementary Winter Dance Concert — reaching out to the deans and student advocacy group such as Exonians Against Sexual Assault and the Fem Club during the planning process and inviting students to choreograph dances around relevant themes.

Student Choreographers Learn the Ropes

Heeter, whose voice alternately embraced and challenged the audience in Fisher Theater, became involved in the Winter Dance Concert at the invitation of her friend Elianne Lee ’18, a co-captain of Dance Company; the two had taken the Poetry Stage elective together the previous year, and Lee suggested they collaborate on a poem set to movement. Heeter chose Kay’s poem for its flowing rhythms. “It doesn’t seem to have a real breaking point or end point,” she says, “and I thought that would be cool to dance to.” In addition to Heeter’s piece, for which accompanying dancers choreographed their own movements, there were two other student-choreographed dances at the concert, along with video screenings, vocal performances by two of Exeter’s a cappella groups, and three dances designed by members of the department.

A nondancer, Heeter was surprised by the amount of work that went into the performances and moved by the way all of the genres came together at the concert. She admires the way artists make the political feel more personal by engaging the audience on the level of feelings rather than intellect. “People sometimes get tired of hearing the same ideas being pushed into a political argument,” she says. “But even if you have a hard time understanding arguments online, no matter who you are, you can still understand or hear the emotion behind a poem or dance or song.”

Carolyn Girard '18 poses on the stairs.In designing their dance, “Side by Side,” good friends Emma Ibbotson ’17 and Carolyn Girard ’18 wanted their audience to feel inspired by a sense of possibility, not discouraged by dismal statistics. Interested in the idea that having the support of others can instill greater confidence and independence in individuals, the pair chose an upbeat song and choreographed a high-energy piece with a lot of jumps and turns, selecting movements that would highlight “the joys of working together as well as working alone,” as they wrote in their choreographer’s notes. “We really wanted the partner interaction,” Girard says. “We don’t really stop moving, and a lot of our movement involves doing things [together] and going off on our own.”

Student choreographers go through a formal application process at Exeter, submitting their ideas for music, costumes and lighting to their instructors, who help to shape the concepts, monitor progress, and make themselves available to offer suggestions throughout the process. But once the ideas take shape, the young choreographers enjoy a fair amount of artistic freedom. “We might ask ‘Would you consider different music?’ ” Darling says. “But after that, [it’s] in their hands to create.”

Katrina Schmitt ’19 has been dancing competitively since she was 10, but she had never choreographed her own work until she came to the Academy. She is grateful for the opportunity to design her own dances, and she can see herself making a career out of it. “I love dancing, but I know  that performing dance is a very short career,” she says. “You don’t age out of choreography.” Schmitt, who participated in the Women’s March for America in Boston in January, believes dance is a great outlet for speaking out about women’s rights and social justice. Passionate about both, she spent most of her available free time last term designing a dance for the Winter Concert. The Theater and Dance Department is working toward making it possible to offer course credit to student choreographers, many of whom, like Schmitt, put in long hours outside of the formal dance curriculum.

For her piece, “I Will Be,” performed to Florence and the Machine’s song by the same name, Schmitt was inspired by the power of solidarity. The piece opens with a row of dancers who are facing a solitary dancer in their center, her back turned away from the spectators. Wearing ethereal costumes that fade from white to gray, the chorus of dancers lead their single counterpart forward while echoing her movements and lending encouragement throughout the piece. The dance ends on a triumphant note: As her friends hold her aloft above their shoulders, they turn her to face the audience and she smiles, her arms confidently outstretched.

Schmitt’s objective for the piece was to motivate members of the audience to find the courage to speak out. In her designer’s notes, she writes: “One person may not feel like they have the power to ignite change, but if everyone encourages each other to stand up for what they believe in, those who choose to remain silent can find their voice.”

Embodying Feelings, Advancing Change

One of the benefits of participating in The Music Hall event was the opportunity for Exonians to interact with other members of the Seacoast community. During the first off-campus rehearsal in Portsmouth, a week ahead of a snowstorm that would postpone the concert until April, students immersed themselves in the New Hampshire dance scene, coming together with more than 80 professional and student dancers and choreographers of all genres and ages (“from tiny little girls with no dance experience to women upward of 50,” as one dancer put it). Before the practices began, each of the choreographers had a chance to talk about their pieces, providing a glimpse into their creative process and inspiration.

Meghana Chalasani ’17, who joined Dance Company her lower year and now heads up Shakti, Exeter’s Bollywood dance club, enjoyed the sense of fellowship she found with the other performers in Portsmouth: “When we rehearsed with the other dance groups, I was entirely taken aback by the amount of talent, dedication and hard work that came together in the making of the One Billion Rising event. I walked away inspired and motivated to keep dancing and reminded that we are never alone in our battle.” 

Chalasani, who has been dancing since childhood, adds, “Arts are a means of expression that provide inspiration and induce solidarity. Coming to a dance concert like ours entails leaving behind previous thoughts, watching and listening, and taking something away from the performance.” She suggests that the audience takeaway is heightened by the absence of language. “Sure, you can read an article or have a conversation about the exploitation of women,” she says, “but there is something powerful in experiencing the embodiment of the issue through dance.

A portrait of Michael Garcia '18.Michael Garcia ’18, who participated in the Winter Dance Concert and rehearsed for the OBR event before it was postponed, has been studying ballet and jazz as well as hip-hop, tap and modern dance since he was a first-grader inspired by his sister’s dance recital. His experience has given him firsthand knowledge of how the arts can put a human face on an issue that might not seem relevant. “It has definitely been interesting being not just the only male dancer in Dance Company but the only male dancer in a performance focused primarily on women’s empowerment,” he says. Garcia couldn’t necessarily relate to all of the same struggles as his fellow performers, but their presence onstage together made him feel more intimately connected and aware of how these issues affect all of us. “I know now why it is important for all men to fight against violence and abuse in whatever way they can,” he says. “For me, that was through dance.”

Dance Activism — Rising up Together

Garcia’s experience, and his belief that “feelings are the compelling force in advancing any cause,” echo the principles behind V-Day and the OBR campaign — the hope that a change of heart will in time help to shape new behaviors as well. Last year’s OBR event, which traced the narrative arc of a woman’s life, was a powerful one for participants and observers alike. Several men in the audience shared with Sarah Duclos afterward that seeing their wives’ and daughters’ experiences reflected on stage helped them view the issues in a completely new, and profoundly personal, way.

For many of the dancers, the OBR experience has been transformative as well: “Just by sheer numbers — 74 percent of people working in the dance industry are women — we know we have survivors involved in our cast who have undergone these forms of violence,” Duclos says. “To have that physical connection to the work, to take that pain, that strife, that history of abuse — to take it into your bodies and turn it into something so beautiful and communicative, something that makes people think — that is just so powerful,” she adds. “And it’s really started a conversation in our community.”

Exeter’s dancers were honored to help continue such an urgent conversation: On a clear night in early April, they appear on stage inside the historical venue in downtown Portsmouth, in front of hundreds of supporters and dance enthusiasts, for the benefit concert featuring everything from ballet, modern dance and belly dancing to West-African drumming and dancing, an impressive hip-hop group, and musical accompaniment by local performing artists.

Between performances, an offstage voice proclaims the dancers’ reasons for “rising.” As nine Exonians approach the stage for their first set, the announcer declares: “I rise for the women in their white sashes. They marched, they fought. They were jailed, they were beaten, and some lost their lives, but the battle was won. I rise for all who demanded a woman’s right to vote.” An empowering piece, “We Are,” designed by Darling, is based loosely on the history of the American suffragette movement. It celebrates the courage and sacrifices that paved the way for many of the freedoms contemporary American women take for granted. 

More somber in tone, the Exeter dancers’ second piece, “Kathréftis” (Greek for “Mirror”), traces a young woman’s journey of self-discovery as she begins to realize her own self-worth within the confines of an unhealthy relationship. Choreographed by Duke, the dance is announced by the words, “I rise for all of the women who are one half of the seemingly perfect partnership. The public and the private can so often be worlds apart.”

The 14 other dances that evening express a complexity of experiences and emotions as well — some bearing witness to moments of struggle and pain, others reveling in the joys of solidarity and freedom. Taken as a whole, they reflect the dancers’ common goals. Exeter dancers say they were inspired by the experience of coming together with fellow artists from across the state to help create a world free from violence and exploitation. Their combined efforts raised $7,000 for Haven.

Describing the event afterward, Ibbotson says: “It took people of all different ages and walks of life and brought them together to show what we can accomplish when we work together. I believe this issue is well worth fighting for, and to be included in the conversation as an individual and a school was an honor. Being part of such an inclusive, kind and caring environment, especially when every dancer is so different, gave me so much hope for the future and what we can accomplish if we put our heads together.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.