I have been juggling emotions and grappling with words since learning of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. It feels so far away, so foreign, so completely unbelievable. How, in 2017, is this happening? I realize that even this reaction reveals my privilege: I have lived a life largely untouched by racism. I can only ask the question “How is this happening?” because I’ve never had it happen to me. I am aware, of course, that racism still exists because I am cognizant of the world around me. I hear stories from my friends and read accounts in the media; I’m not blind to the evil in the world. But I am still personally unaffected enough by the day-to-day realities of it it to react with shock, horror, and disbelief when things like this still happen.
Sometime on Wednesday, in between being disgusted by the events, feeling helpless, and wondering what kind of world I’m about to bring a child into, this quote from poet Alice Walker crossed my mind:
Hard times require furious dancing. Each of us is proof.
What I am about to write is my own loving interpretation of Walker’s words, and how they have impacted by life. In my opinion, that is what good art is for: personal interpretation and internalization. For more from the author herself, I like this interview. But now, for my take:
I am not as political as I aspire to be. I hold on to my beliefs dearly, I try to live out my values, and I participate in the process in the ways I find effective: voting, educating myself on current events from a variety of sources and trying to detect and eliminate bias, signing petitions, and contacting my representatives about issues that are important to me. But I’ve always been uncomfortable with today’s brand of activism, so much of which takes place on social media. I get truly upset watching those in my digital circles “screaming and meme-ing” over each other on Twitter and Facebook. Sure, I appreciate a witty, thought-provoking meme as much as the next guy, but so much of what gets posted on social media is either: 1.) outright false, 2.) grossly and deliberately misrepresented to serve a particular agenda, or 3.) bounced around the echo chamber of like-minded individuals, without reaching the audience who needs most badly to hear it. It is simply too easy to share something without researching it, allowing it to blindly further your version of the story created by these digital half-truths. If someone posts something you don’t like, it is too easy simply scroll past, unfollow, or unfriend and move on with your life. With similar ease, you can comment away, angry and uncensored, letting the veil of the internet protect you from the common decency that would normally govern social conversation. I’ve seen too many people, some of whom I admire, say some of the most hateful, vitriolic things to others online. I understand, in some ways, because it’s easy to let our hurt, our frustration, and our anger take over. How, in 2017, can we still be arguing this?
Yes, it is easy to let our emotions control us, but from everything I’ve seen and experienced in my life the easy way will never lead to lasting results. When emotions take over reason, poor decisions are almost always the result. Clever insults, salty memes, and public arguments are not the way to change hearts and minds. And right now, changing hearts and minds is the only path forward, the only one that I can see anyway. We can’t legislate our way to true equality, laws won’t change how people feel. Counter protests seem only to fuel the flames, bringing the kind of increased attention that these hate groups thrive on, rallying their base even further, and providing the opportunity for them to play the victim. (How many times have we heard, “We were the ones with the permit…” in the last six days?) Removing all the offensive statues in the world will not remove hatred from others’ hearts. (Although, side note: I don’t think celebratory statues of Confederate figures, most of which were erected decades after the Civil War in protest of advancements in civil right belong in our public parks and town squares, either.) You can post all the HuffPo articles and retweet all the activists you want, but if those messages are not getting to the people who need to hear them most – or if they are presented in a way that is deliberately inflammatory and hurtful, automatically getting their defenses up – then what good are they really doing?
Research, by the way, has also shown that the above don’t work in the long term. (I highly encourage you to read the linked article. I think it’s enlightening.) What does work, according to the research, is coming together, face to face, one on one if possible, non-judgmentally, recognizing our shared humanity and actually talking through difficult issues. Does this feel impossible, or at least impractical? Yes. Does it mean we have to put our emotions aside and be the bigger person? I think so. But if it is what will work, then why not at least try? But how to put these good intentions into reality can be another story.
That’s where Alice Walker comes in for me. I feel like I have been literally throwing myself into my work this week. It is a deliberate distraction, in many ways But there is also something incredibly healing about dancing (and even conducting dance related arts administration, I’ve found). Dancing is a release – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It is an escape, yes, but escaping is not always a bad thing. Retreating into the things that make us whole, strong, and more human steadies us for the difficulties with which we are confronted in the real world. Dancing provides a way for us to figure the world out, by allowing us to wrestle with difficult topics through the most basic of means: movement. Movement pre-dates language, dance pre-dates the written word. Our (common, shared) ancestors danced to relate to one another and figure out the world around them, they danced for the harvest and to celebrate the changing of the seasons, they danced to bring good things to their lives and keep the bad things out. Movement was our first tool for engaging in the world as babies; rooting for our mother’s breast, reaching for things we desired, pushing and pulling and creeping and crawling toward our next accomplishment. Moving and dancing with others enables us to connect with them, in a genuine way, outside of the weird and twisted world of social media. It helps us get to the heart of another person outside of the pretexts of coded language and expected conduct. It helps us make something new and beautiful together – something that can’t be achieved alone. As Jonathan Larson put it (perhaps a little cheesily), the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation. When we create dance, or any kind of art, we engage in the ultimate rebellion. Hard times do, for me at least, require furious dancing. And I think if we all engaged in a little more of it, the world might be a better place.
Is this line of thinking naive? Probably. Is it stated from my “single-storied” perspective as a cis-gendered, straight, white, suburban middle-class woman? Of course. But I truly believe that we all need to acknowledge our own truths, so that we can share them with others in a way that leads to productive conversation. Whether you agree or disagree, I’m happy to engage with you in honest discussion, in sharing and airing of concerns and grievances, and in full hearted, full bodied dance sessions.
And so my protest, however small, will not take the form of social media posts or insult-laden comments on news articles – although I understand why others choose that path, it’s not for me. My protest, will, however, involve lots of dancing. It will be in moving my swollen, slow, pregnant body through space and time joyfully, defying the hurt and hatred in the world and introducing my child to the wholeness that comes with dancing. It will be in creating bright, beautiful, vivid art in a world that would rather only see black and white. It will be inviting others to the dance, into their bodies and into relationship with one another. It will be in how I teach my students, all of them, in a way that promotes self-empowerment, empathy, wholeness, and genuine love, respect, and compassion for all people. Because what I believe most is that the next generation deserves so much better. They deserve not to have to ask themselves, “How is this still happening?”