Social Justice Dance is Healing

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Ananya Dance Theatre dancer and artistic associate Kealoha Ferreira. (Courtesy Mark VanCleave)

It’s never just dance, said Kealoha Alex Ferreira, a performer from the Ananya Dance Theatre. It’s hope, transformation and healing.  

The Ananya Dance Theatre explores identity and history through artistic excellence and social justice, which can eventually lead to healing. A healing that can be transformative, according to Ferreira, who has been involved with the theater since 2013. 

 “There was something about the depth of the work (at Ananya) that really scared me,” she said. “I was pretty afraid because I (could) sense how transformative the work was, and I knew that if I continued with this company, and with this form, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to turn around from it.”  

The theater was created in 2004 by Ananya Chatterjea, a professor of dance at the University of Minnesota. Chatterjea created a way of dancing for the theater that was based on people’s differences. She wanted to promote the idea that difference does not always have to be divisive and to create a space that allows dancers to creatively move and connect. 

“We’re all different from each other,” Ferreira said. “(We) find rootedness and also shared space … especially at a time when difference is seen with a lot of turmoil.” 

The dance theater is comprised of women of color. The dancers are constantly researching under-told stories from marginalized communities. They work to make their performances fully human and emotional for the audience. Sometimes the research digs up pain, trauma and difficulties, and sometimes it is hard to move on.   

“How do we move through that place of pain and get to a place of hope?” Ferreira said. “Hope is always what we hold on to, both for ourselves, and what we hope to inspire for our communities … So how do we do that? How do we get there? Through breath and breathing. Through tears, sweat and release.”  

The theater is also inspired by the Occupy Movement and has created its own response, #occupydance, which aims to use dance as a mode of civic action and empower people of color.  

“With your dancing you can occupy. You can occupy space, you can activate space … you can utilize your dance to stand for issues,” Ferreira said. “Dance as activism, dance to bring people together.” 

Dance heals, she said. Healing happens when dancers push their bodies, hold space for others and surrender to the pain together instead of letting it fester inside of them.  

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Dr. Alessandra Williams performs in Ananya Dance Theatre’s 2018 performance titled “Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds.” (Courtesy Randy Karels)

Dance can be a healing experience for dancers. It can also be a transformative experience for audiences. Ananya Dance Theatre’s audience is essential; dancers want people to reflect and think about how they are connected to the issues they are dancing about and feel a sense of hope.  

The theater’s next performance, for example, explores the concept of connection through spiderwebs and delves into people’s common histories. 

“How can maybe for just this night, only in this performance environment, can we move our audiences to a place of emotion, to a place where it touches humanity and human spirit, and use that as a motivator to continue the work and continue forward?” Ferreira said. 

At Ananya they are hoping to call the audience to action, whether the stories told through the performances inspire watchers to call their legislators, have talks with their local community or create new artistic work. They want observers to see themselves reflected in the dance and have a sense of rejuvenation and invigoration.  

As time goes on and minority groups continue to fight for inclusion, many people do not feel like they are being reflected in dance, according to Ferreira. As Ananya Dance heads toward its 15th anniversary, dancers continue to show that dance can also be fierce activism. 

“There’s also something that’s deeply empowering about owning our stories and being able to dance them on a stage to showcase them,” Ferreira said. “I think … there’s also an empowerment in this form that leads us to a place of being able to choose hope.”

Watch ThreeSixty student Josie Morss report on this story for ThreeSixty’s TV Broadcast Camp: