"I was a pretty traditionally trained dancer, very technique-based through my childhood and into college where I majored in dance performance. Creating something with community was not really something that I had experience with or that was on my radar."
"There were other seeds that planted my interest in sort of interrogating the American prison system."
"...something that you could feel, something you could experience.
What does that look like on a page?"
"Who has dance knowledge? Everybody is a dancer, you know, everybody does have this embodied information, and just needs a way to access it, or needs a space to access it."
"The challenges have been making sure that everybody has access to everything they need just to be able to show up in the room."
"Implied hierarchies. Where can those kind of be broken down so that it feels safer for everybody?"
"We've been trying to think of, since we have so many scores and so many pieces of movement, ways that we can invite people into the project with other types of solidarity actions."
Stace Gill and Maria Nilsson Waller (Flora Fauna Project, Glendalough, Ireland)
Sarah Dahnke (Dance Choreographer and Visual Artist, Brooklyn, NY)
Stace Gill: So Sarah, welcome to ROOM and thanks for being part of this project.
Sarah Dahnke: Yes, thank you for having me.
Maria Nilsson Waller: Yeah, so we're just gonna dive straight in there. So, tell us, what in your life and your dance work led to this kind of radical idea? And what, yeah, what inspired this project? What made you do it?
Sarah: Sure. Um, and the answer to that really is not one path. There's lots of seeds that were, I guess, planted inside of me through lots of different experiences through time. You know, I was a pretty traditionally trained dancer, very technique-based through my childhood and into college where I majored in dance performance, and creating something with community was not really something that I had experience with or that was on my radar.
[Teaching in Public Schools]
A big shift for me, just as a person is, um-- I had been teaching dance for awhile when I was living in Chicago, and I started working with an organization that was teaching dance inside of public schools, but it was not technique based for the first time. All of the other teaching I had done was technique based. And it was really about using tools and exercises to find space for the students to create their own movements and their own choreography. And that was a big shift for me, in terms of what I started feeling like was missing from my dance life up until then.
And I continued doing a lot of that work in Chicago, and then again when I moved to New York, and really was finding it to be such a powerful experience each time. And often these experiences, they would be like six weeks, eight weeks, ten weeks-- they wouldn't be extremely lengthy. And it was always something where we would like, we would form this community, and it was really based around all of these new invented movements that the kids would make. And then we would have to say goodbye and I would never see them again. But that really made me interested in other ways that those tools could be used in the world.
I started doing little pop-up performances, like street festivals and things like that-- I did one at a museum-- but they were all based around, like sort of these easy entry points for the public to come in and dance together. And that experience of dancing together and that experience of feeling like you didn't have to know something about dance before you've stepped into it felt really powerful. And you can see the joy and you can see, you know, all of these people that would never be coming together suddenly having this experience together. And again, it was fleeting, you know, dance is ephemeral that way, it's like we have a thing, and then it goes away. But in that was a seed in terms of realizing that type of work was something I was really interested in.
[American Prison System]
There were other seeds that planted my interest in sort of interrogating the American prison system. Some of that was through other work that I had seen that I thought really creatively engaged with the system. Never through dance, but through other art forms. So for example, one work that I think is really powerful, is an artist who's based in New Orleans now. Her name is Jackie Sumell, and she did this really beautiful collaboration with Herman Wallace, who was incarcerated in solitary confinement and built basically his dream house, or the blueprint for his dream house through a series of written correspondence over time about what that could look like. And, you know, they created blueprints, 3D models, like they really went through a process together. So that was all about imagining. So that sort of set a precedent for the communication.
[Coughs] Excuse me. I-- you know, I've had family members that were incarcerated and sort of grew up with some understanding of what that process-- what that looks like. And I also, I had an experience when I lived in Chicago where I was the victim of a crime that really gave me another point of view about the the police and the policing system. I had some really bad experiences that were overtly racist. Police really trying to, first of all, just saying very racist things about who they were assuming committed the crime, but also the way that they really pressured me to press charges-- to do that, without being 100% sure who the perpetrator was, there were a lot of things that really opened my eyes to another side of what the system looks like. So again, like planting, planting these other seeds. A lot of the kids I was working with at the time were in schools where in that neighborhood, they were highly policed, and way more than other neighborhoods and predominantly black neighborhoods. So it was the same sort of cycle of like, assumption of guilt, pressuring police not really caring, how poorly you're treated.
So that sort of like politically set up my framework for being interested in another way of seeing the system, and really being interested in a way to engage with the individual rather than, we're sort of seeing this black box of prison, right. And like, these are prisoners, or these are inmates or these are people that like, we don't have names, they are faceless they are-- they are [seen as] less than. So once I started sort of framing these questions that I had around Dances for Solidarity, wondering if these connections were possible through dance, like using a vocabulary, using the tools that I'm really-- you know, that I've spent so much, so much time honing in my life. Is there an intersection here? And really going in without any assumptions that it would be some-- that it would work [laughs]. But being curious, and being influenced by all of these other experiences, sort of led me, led me to the path.
Maria: Yeah. And what did you find there? How did dance and all that sort of knowledge, all that intelligence-- how could you use that language in this project? You know, actually, what did you find?
Sarah: Yeah, um, well, I mean, even that original creation of that dance, the first dance score, right, that went through a few iterations, because of the knowledge that we wanted it, I wanted it, but also the folks I was working with wanted it to be something that really could be embodied, that it wasn't something that you are going to have to like, tell about right, that it was something that you could feel, something you could experience. What does that look like on a page? Right? That's like a different translation of movement. How do you do that without using dance language? Right? So that doesn't feel like that barrier exists, you're not telling people to do a plie you are, you know, it creating a different world that you can come into something that feels like it can be adaptive, right? Something that feels like, if I envisioned this feeling or looking a different way in my body than you do, that it's okay. Right? That, that I didn't do it wrong, because I think often technical dance can be very rigid in that way.
[Piloting Dance in a Women’s Prison]
Sarah: So, there was this sort of understanding of what an embodied experience should feel like or like, what the hope what the ideal hope would feel like, and needing to pilot that too. You know, writing down language that we thought was, was headed in the right direction. And at the time, I had a friend who was teaching a course at a women's prison that wasn't that far away from the city. And she would take some of the dance, like a piece of the dance score, and sort of give it as a voluntary homework, you know, they-- it was a creative writing class so dance wasn't necessarily related. But she was like, if you want to try this out, like, here's a little thing you can take with you, and then they'd come back the next week and be like: This one really worked and I really, you know, I was able to do-- I was able to find myself, you know, feeling the mist on my skin. Maybe there would be some wording in another line that didn't work as well. So there was this little a little bit of like research and investigation.
But with a-- I feel like, you know, where my-- where my dance foundation came in was the knowledge of what that embodied experience could ultimately be. And it is something that is always being refined too. It's like, how do you do this with languages? It's just it has to be the means-- the means of entry. But how do you do it without so much language that you're like, overwhelmed with the language? And it feels like it's a, it's a box that you can't get out of, you know? How can you use that and then then move through it?
[Everybody’s A Dancer]
Stace: And it sounds like you similar to the process that myself and Maria have been in the last few years working with untrained dancers, it sounds like you took it to the extreme that you had that experience, and that you couldn't help but follow it for some reason. I mean, we could talk about that ourselves all day. And then you followed it, and then it leads you to create a collaboration between the people who really need this most. So you're working with untrained dancers who I just think, are-- everybody's a dancer. And yeah, it becomes-- it becomes a really important part of your own practice of your own art form. It became a very important practice for me from the very beginning, was sharing the keys and being in a room with people who haven't been trained, who haven't been in any way conditioned or told what the right moves are, and was more interested in the natural intelligence. And I'm wondering, what-- how has this project, how have the incarcerated people and the people writing the letters maybe-- because there's people dancing on both sides-- how has this informed your own artistic output and your own artistic practice?
Maria: Even the understanding of what dance is and can.. yeah--
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, it's really it has-- I think, because the project resonated and it has felt like there is a, you know, a pathway for it, um, has sort of opened up how I've thought about creating new work in general. I have a couple other projects that are community based in the ways that they are, in the ways that like that, in very similar ways of Dances for Solidarity, I guess, is what I'm trying to say. I have one project that is in collaboration with people that have recently immigrated to the United States and it very much centers around those narratives. And this, just this process of like, coming in as a lead artists, but really with a bunch of questions or loose ideas and wanting to go through a process with the people in the room to devise what that actually looks like coming up without assumptions, has been really a different way of working before I was doing Dances for Solidarity. You know, there is this very, like typical way that a choreographer will like, make a bunch of choreography and then come in, and then you and you teach it. Or maybe there is some sort of collaboration happening in the room, but it is very much like, fitting the performers into your vision. And it's really shifted what I think is important, and also the assumptions of like, who has dance knowledge, because just like you were saying, everybody is a dancer, you know, everybody does have-- does have this embodied information, and just needs a way to access it or needs a space to access it. And I've been really trying to work to make sure that those spaces are, are created in future work that I do. Rather than just creating choreography and having people dance it and then we move on.
Stace: Why is that important to you? Why is it important to have? Because, I know the feeling myself. Maria knows it. What is it for you that - what's that feeling? What is that thing that makes you want to have to incorporate people who have this-- because I find it exciting-- they have this information in their body and nobody has given them the keys yet. So in a way for me, it's like you get to be there the first time they access this. It's quite beautiful and intimate and it is a very communal. That's what makes it very communal, actually, almost-- it's one of the things. So I'm just wondering, what is it that draws you to being in the dance space more and more with untrained dancers?
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, I think so much of it is just about there, there then get to be more voices. You know, um, our-- I mean, New York has a huge dance community, but it's still very small. And it's very restricted. You know, like, who gets to be part of it is this whole other conversation and especially, I think right now in the midst of a pandemic that has created a financial crisis and there are racial uprisings and everybody's realizing all of the inequities that have always been here, you know, going to school for dance is expensive, too. So there's, there's a privilege in that. And it means only a certain people get to do it, even though it's a very low paid job. So, but why? Why does that? Why does that have to be the case, especially if we all do have something to offer. And part of that can just be through the artistry of movement, but there's also all of the narrative, narratives you can embody through the art of movement, and, you know, if I can create spaces that more people get to be part of that conversation, more people get to experience, the-- the feeling you get when you perform, when you when you perform dance specifically... You know that that is what I find to be so important.
Stace: Very valuable, actually, which probably leads us on to our next question.
Maria: Probably our last.
Stace: Yeah, this might be our last question, unfortunately, because we would love to talk to you all day. Because there are so many-- we have had discussions about the eliteness of the dance world and access to that, and all our work keeps leading us kind of alongside those issues. And we're very passionate about them. And we try to convert our experiences to tackle some of that. But yes, so, um, do you want to ask the last question?
Stace: What the most rewarding outcome from this project? And what was the biggest challenge--
Maria: So far
Stace: So far, yeah, because it's been an ongoing thing.
Sarah: Um, there have been so many different rewarding moments. Like I think every time we do a performance and just see the, the way that the performers feel after the performance, the way the audience has reacted to them, like realizing that they're, they're both kind of seeing that together. Every time is very rewarding. I think one of the biggest rewards for the-- the biggest thing that is immediately coming to mind is our choreographer Dushaan [Gillum] who's incarcerated in Texas. He came into the project pretty early on, so the first summer that we started writing letters in 2015. And he just took to this, his way of understanding how to translate movement into text is something that just came so naturally to him. And as a result, he has created more dances than we have been able to actually share with the world. And has really found his voice as a choreographer and would not have even thought about dance. He writes this in many of his letters that like, just dance as an art form was not on his radar, it was not something that he had experiences with, it was not something that he saw himself in. And, but was-- did see himself as an artist and was engaging in other forms of art. So he was very interested in being creative, but this has unlocked something so new for him where he like, he is not only a choreographer, but he has a choreographer who has like, shown work in multiple cities across the United States and on video, you know. He, he um, has not, he-- the really unfortunate part is he's not been able to witness any of it. But he is aware. He is aware of the impact that his work has had. So that's super rewarding.
[Practical Challenges and Hierarchies]
Sarah: You know, challenges, I think, are very systemic. I think especially, like thinking about a rehearsal process with a group of folks that are maybe recently out of prison. You're already dealing with so many challenges, just navigating life, and maybe you have to report to a parole officer on a regular basis. Maybe your housing isn't very stable yet. Maybe you don't have employment, maybe all of those things are kind of happening simultaneously. Maybe you've been in prison for so long that you know, something like the computer is not super familiar rehearsal schedule via email, then it might have taken you a few days to even, you know, see the update about whatever's going on with rehearsal. You know, things that I think we take for granted, because it's part of a process of like, "Oh, yeah! This is how we communicate, this is how we engage." And then we all just sort of show up in a room together. And that's how it happens.
It's the-- the challenges have been making sure that everybody has access to everything they need just to be able to show up in the room. Or if they don't, that they feel like they can at least express like, "Oh, I can't get to rehearsal because I have to meet with my parole officer," or "I can't get to rehearsal because I suddenly don't have childcare" or, or "Can I bring my kid with me to rehearsal?" Things that are like, really no big deal. But I think the, being in a space that has been so oppressive for so long where you don't get to ask for permission for things and you don't-- you're not empowered to, you know, be a whole person, it really trying to make sure that the process isn't, is not creating that same hierarchy that a rehearsal process sometimes does, where it's like, I'm reporting to-- I'm reporting to this person, or I, you know, that I'm trying to make sure that I'm not seen as the authority figure or somebody that will be upset, if there is, if there is a blip, you know? If you can't, if you can't get out there that day, or be part of the work that day, that it's okay and it's not going to be a detriment in your life.
So just kind of rethinking what that looks like, what that looks like in a rehearsal room, what that looks like, when you move into a theater. And, and you know, you're just like going through all of the things that you are, you know, the whole technical rehearsal part, places where they are just implied hierarchies, where can those kind of be broken down so that it feels safer for everybody? It's a, it's a challenge. But something that I'm, I'm really happy is being interrogated. Because it benefits this work. But I think it benefits other work that is not dealing with the incarceration space too, you know.
Stace: Can I ask one last practical question?
Stace: There are a few different elements to this. So is there an ongoing Dances for Solidarity happening, where dates and times are set aside so that everybody knows that they're doing them at the same time? Is that still happening? Because I know that was part of the initial launch of the project. And then the second element of it is that there are people performing the Dances for Solidarity on, on the outside as well. And then there's the letter writers, there are people who are corresponding. So is there is there an ongoing date and time where people can regularly access this space?
Sarah: Not right now. A lot of the initial ways that the project began, sort of fell away, just because we were the volume of people that we were writing was not incredibly sustainable. So some of, some of those sort of mass solidarity actions fell away. But there are a few that will be-- the letter writing in particular, bringing in some new folks who are incarcerated into the project is something that is about to get started this fall. We'll be writing to way fewer people, just so that we can have more meaningful quality collaborations, rather than the the volume of collaborations that were happening, or really it wasn't, it was they were not all collaborations before. And that's sort of the the problem. So letter writing will be starting up again. And because we are not able to gather in the way that we used to, as like a letter writing group, I'm interested in the ways that that can actually bring people that maybe are not in the New York area, you know, other people that want to write letters with the project, but are somewhere else this time will actually benefit that. And we haven't done a single day at a time, or like everybody do this dance at a certain time in awhile. There have been kind of individual actions that happened. So, you know, in solidarity of one person for a week, maybe. Like the most recent one I can think I was there was a there was a man who was wrongfully incarcerated and there was another organization that wanted to bring a lot of awareness to his particular situation, and so they invited everybody to do the dance every day for a week in solidarity of this one person. And things like that.
But we've been trying to think of--since we have so many scores and so many pieces of movement--ways that we can invite people into the project with other types of solidarity actions. Dushaan, who I just mentioned he created "Dancing Through Darkness," which was the movement score for our last performance, but he created it in this really beautiful booklet. And there was a time earlier this summer, I'm trying to remember when, maybe June or July, that we did seven days of "Dancing Through Darkness," because it's a seven-step down score. And so every day, we would invite people through social media to do whatever, whatever the stuff was that corresponded with that day. So that, sort of changing what those solidarity actions look like and what movement is used for them.
Stace: Wow, amazing. Thank you for sharing all this with us. Congratulations on an insanely innovative, creative project that created a community where it seemed almost impossible. You know, how do you make somebody who is incarcerated and completely alone embody and feel part of anything? Ehm, it really is, it's an incredible path and solution for that. So yeah, well done. We really admire the work, creating community outside and inside and then joining those two communities together. It's incredible. It's a really, really amazing example for what room is all about. Yeah, so thank you for being part of this.