The performance of protest / When performers protest

A day or two after the 2016 election, See Chicago Dance held its quarterly convening. Rather than focusing on what was supposed to be the topic of the day—how to be better at social media, or something to that effect—a faction of Chicago’s dance community sat together in a circle to talk about their feelings.

Many of the people in that room expressed anger, dismay, confusion and sadness at the results of the election. Some were fearful about the future, understanding that even the best case scenario would mean a corrosion of social and political norms. Several said they wanted to do something; more than one committed to shifting their choreography to dances about/for/including groups of people who were likely to be further marginalized by Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies.

We were asked to state two words that summed up how we felt about the election. Mine were “no” and “comment.”

You might think I’m going to say I grew up in a house where it was impolite to talk about politics. Some people in that room probably thought I voted for Donald Trump. 

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. And politics were frequent table talk at our family dinners. My parents fervently disagreed with one another. My father is a card-carrying libertarian and my mother, at the time, was usually a center-left democrat. We engaged in open debate and free-flowing conversations. It was never assumed that my brother and I would blindly agree with either of them.

I’m not afraid of sharing my opinions. I suspect this is not news to you, reader. But I’m not usually inclined to talk about my political views, even when I know that politics, policy and people are inexorably linked.

However, this American president has so harmed the nation that the most bipartisan dignitaries and even ex-administration officials can no longer stay silent. “This fight transcends partisanship,” reads a tweet from the Lincoln Project (a newly-formed consortium of Republican and ex-Republican lawyers and strategists). “Being against Trump doesn’t make you a liberal, it makes you a patriot.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s brutal, public murder—and with a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests nationwide spurred by his and countless other senseless deaths including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery—many white politicians; majority-white university administrations; and white-led corporations, retailers and non-profit organizations crafted their on-brand messages of solidarity. Many went further and vowed to do something. In our weekly staff meetings, See Chicago Dance is talking about how to turn our statements into tangible action items that lead to needed progress within our organization.

Dance companies and presenters likewise concocted paragraphs aimed at striking a balance between outrage and sorrow. Many carefully tuned their language to show support for the protests while steering clear of rhetoric that might turn off some funders or subscribers more likely to be concerned by defaced property and looting than by the daily threat to black and brown lives in this country. 

As protesters filed into the streets, a barrage of formulaic posts and emails—white text on a black background, usually—flooded our feeds and inboxes. A few days later came more posts and emails about how organizations aren’t posting or emailing on #BlackoutTuesday. “To say nothing is to be complicit,” undoubtedly ran through the heads of every team tasked with composing these statements, simultaneously knowing full well that a paragraph is meaningless if organizations don’t know how or don't intend to enact transformational change.

While naval-gazing social media posts aren’t really my thing, my impulse to be quiet about politics means I’m part of the problem. I sometimes mistake my passivism for pacifism. That is not to say that social media isn’t an incredibly useful and galvanizing force which drives many social justice movements. Yet there’s also little difference between passivity and performative allyship.

Let the carefully curated optics of our solidarity statements not distract from the real work of dismantling systemic inequity, which does, of course, require discourse. Too often, political discourse looks like pointlessly shouting into an echo-chamber, or “cancelling” people with whom you don’t agree.

Last week, Chicago’s tap dance community called out Lane Alexander, founder and artistic director of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project. In an open letter signed by more than 600 people (as of this writing), M.A.D.D. Rhythms artistic director Bril Barrett, a long-time collaborator with CHRP, denounced Alexander for implying that members of the tap community were advocating for violence while participating in Black Lives Matter protests. A concurrent cascade of social media posts laid out a variety of additional accusations related to Alexander’s business practices and treatment of others over his 30-year career.

In a phone conversation, Alexander expressed sincere remorse for his statements, and wrote a public apology to Barrett on Facebook for having prioritized his anger and frustration about looting and property damage over the Black Lives Matter movement. “I stand shoulder to shoulder with the black community,” he said. “Black lives matter. Although I was feeling the outrage, I didn’t express that. I continue to be committed to doing better and to be in service in the community. I continue to work to eradicate racism.”

The very form Alexander, who is white, has worked tirelessly to promote is an African American art form. To write off the justifiable anger and pain of Black tap dancers is, ironically, to diminish an extraordinary art form’s reason for being.

Dancing is a political act. From the origins of court ballet as a form of state-sponsored propaganda, to hip-hop cyphers on the streets of American cities, to the jazz clubs of Harlem, dancing bodies are a tool for expression, community, resistance and protest. 

A Chicago-based dancer and choreographer messaged me earlier this year to ask about a review I wrote on a show about race. She asked me why, in her view, I seemed more critical of pieces that address race, culture and identity. “Which work made by a person of color regarding race, culture, etc. has genuinely moved you?” she said.

Watching thousands of people march up Clark Street moves me. NFL players and protesters kneeling—an act of reverence so violently abused to snuff the life from George Floyd—moves me. I see dance in the protests as Americans exercise our right to assemble when the risks of doing so are higher than ever. I’m moved by the Cupid Shuffle and the Macarena. By krumping. By this grand jeté. And I’m moved when members of the Chicago dance community show up for each other. May we continue to try to do so.