Dancers for social change: CityDance and what our present moment demands of us
To junior Grace Myers, dance is many things: an artistic practice, a tool for community building and a vehicle for social change. Myers is the current president of WashU CityDance, an initiative to bring free dance classes to the St. Louis community. Beyond its primary objective, to provide access and foster creativity among students, CityDance is about transforming the immobility of the classroom into a dynamic environment filled with activity and interpersonal connection.
CityDance was founded by Wash. U. alum Emily Duggins in 2018. Since then, the group has hosted free dance workshops and classes at local schools and community centers. Their partnership with Unleashing Potential, a St. Louis nonprofit organization advocating for youth development and children’s education, brings after school dance classes to elementary school students in University City. This semester, the group hosts four sessions every week taught by Wash. U. dancers Myers, sophomore Tomás Quiroz and junior Leighanne Guettler-James.
Another component of CityDance is Saturday dance workshops in Metcalfe Park, which are open to all Wash. U. students. Last Saturday, which happened to be Halloween, dancer junior Grace Philion led a workshop to “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. All participants were masked and socially distanced.
About fifteen dancers attended, many of whom dressed in costumes to celebrate the holiday. Philion and two participants went as Disgust, Sadness and Anger from the movie “Inside Out.” Others contributed to the festive spirit with cowboy hats and animal prints, creating a lively and warm mood. The dance itself incorporated moves from the song’s original choreography, such as the zombie walk, body rolls and signature hand gestures, alongside Philion’s own inventions. After about an hour of workshop, dancers were able to perform the choreography almost perfectly, some even adding their own twists to the moves.
The workshop involved a fair amount of freestyling, during which participants grooved to the music and posed in their own ways. In fact, one of the best moments for me was when everyone crawled on “stage” in their own zombie impressions. The tableau of bodies contorting and rolling on the grass, limbs pointing in all directions and backs impossibly arched resembled a chaotic Renaissance painting. Rachel, one of the participants that day who is nicknamed “noodle” for her flexibility, gave a performance that was basically an acrobatic stunt. And yet, there was never a sense of competitiveness in these individual performances. These freestyling segments captured the community-building aspect of CityDance: it was never about showing off skills and gaining validation, but rather about the act of dancing together and enjoying the moment.
To junior Ella Holman, who used to teach for the program, the best part about CityDance is that it is friendly and fun as opposed to competitive. Holman explained that, in her experience, dance classes can sometimes make you feel insecure and self-conscious. “But CityDance is not like that,” she said. “Everybody is there to have a good time.”
Myers agreed. “I see dance as a person-driven and movement-driven practice,” she said, “a grassroots organizing tool.” CityDance, it seems, sees itself as part of a movement to center human connection in a money-driven world.
“Dance as a cultural space fights against the culture of individualism and quantitative economy,” Myers said. To her, what dance does as a mode of communication rooted in the body is synchronize and unite us, which counteracts the competition and alienation in a capitalist society.
The “politically radicalized dance group,” in Myers’ words, showcases their political consciousness on their Instagram page @washu_citydance. Amid national elections, a recent post reads: “Invest in your communities, redistribute the wealth in creative ways and, in your actions and relationships, engage pathways that attempt to move outside the bounds of inherently oppressive institutions. We hope to be one of those pathways. That’s what dance asks of us. That’s what history and our present moment demand of us.”