Making a Connection Between Movement and Social Movements

By Julia Jacobs

“People protest in many different ways,” a young activist in the Bay Area says. For her and others in her performance group, one way is dance.

Taking a stand by moving around: Ny'Aja Roberson, 16, performed a freestyle praise dance at a protest in June.
Taking a stand by moving around: Ny'Aja Roberson, 16, performed a freestyle praise dance at a protest in June.Credit...Beatriz Escobar, via Destiny Arts Center

When racial justice protests were sweeping the country in June, Shayla Avery, 16, chose her school in Berkeley, Calif., as the site of her first demonstration.

She planned it all out: The demonstrators would march about a mile from San Pablo Park to Berkeley High School, joined by drummers; she would accompany them, standing in the back of a flatbed truck, blasting music and directing the chants through her bullhorn.

On the day of the protest, her plans came to life. Hundreds of young people from the East Bay showed up, including classmates and staff members from her high school, as well as dancers from her youth performance group at the Destiny Arts Center in Oakland.

ImageShayla Avery (with bullhorn) organized a protest that drew young people from the East Bay and featured dancers from her youth performance group.
Shayla Avery (with bullhorn) organized a protest that drew young people from the East Bay and featured dancers from her youth performance group.Credit...Beatriz Escobar, via Destiny Arts Center

With the music pumping and the drummers urging the marchers on, the Destiny Arts dancers couldn’t help but dance.

There were hip-hop and Afro-Haitian styles, as well as freestyle dancing with homegrown East Bay moves, like the smeeze, originated by an Oakland dancer called Chonkie. Soon, the young dancers were at the front of the crowd providing the march’s energetic momentum.

When they got to Berkeley High the marchers formed a circle; one-by-one or two-by-two, dancers moved to the center, where they had a moment to show off their moves as the crowd cheered them on.

“You have to have levels to the protest,” Ms. Avery, who is going into her senior year of high school, said over the phone. “Some people need music and others want to march and chant. Some people want to dance.”

The dancers in the Destiny Arts teen company, of which Ms. Avery is a part, have long been taught that dance and social justice are interconnected. This year, for their end-of-year performance, they were preparing a feature-length piece called “The Black (W)hole.” It combined dance, poetry and film, as a celebration of the lives of six young people who had died in the Oakland area.

Algerion Bryant II, whose performance name is KrowtheGod, is a local dancer with a team called H.E.A.T. Credit...Beatriz Escobar, via Destiny Arts Center

But nothing went as planned in the world of live performance this spring, and the piece, which was being funded by a grant from the Hewlett Foundation and written by the choreographer and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph was forced to evolve — twice.

First, the pandemic made a classic proscenium stage production impossible. Instead of canceling the production entirely, one of the founders of Destiny Arts, Sarah Crowell, suggested that the team pivot to a film version that would allow the dancers to perform the choreography outside.

Then, after the police killing of George Floyd sparked widespread and sustained demonstrations, the project was transformed again. The filmmaker hired for the project, Yoram Savion, started to follow Ms. Avery’s organizing work, and the film became, in part, about the way the young activists were responding to the killings of Black people in real time.

In June, Ms. Avery organized another protest, a march against gentrification in Berkeley; this time, she decided to make dance a more intentional part of it. She invited her fellow dancers from Destiny to perform some of the choreography they had been preparing for “The Black (W)hole.” They danced outside at a BART station in South Berkeley, where the march began.

It was the first time that the tight-knit group of teenagers had performed this choreography together in person since the onset of the pandemic in March; for months they had been rehearsing in their own confined boxes on Zoom, warming up and learning choreography at the same time but in separate spaces.

One of the teachers from the studio provided the music from her phone, and they danced on the sidewalk with a half-circle of viewers standing around them.

Dinah Cobb: “I feel like I dance a lot harder knowing what I’m dancing for.”Credit...Sophie Becker, via Destiny Arts Center

“I feel like I dance a lot harder knowing what I’m dancing for,” said Dinah Cobb, 15, who performed that day.

Ny’Aja Roberson, 16, performed a praise dance that was mostly freestyle. She said she wanted the movement to come to her in the moment rather than be planned out.

“When I was dancing I felt like I was bringing in all the spirits from those people — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin,” Ms. Roberson said. “I felt like I was dancing for all of the young lives that couldn’t be with us right then and there.”

Then, the march moved northward to Berkeley Hills with the dancers at the front of the crowd.

Central to a march about issues of local racial justice were local dance moves, said Isha Clarke, 17, a Destiny student who was at the demonstration. She is also an activist who last year was a star of a viral moment in which young people tried to persuade Senator Dianne Feinstein to support the Green New Deal.

At the demonstration in Berkeley, the young dancers freestyled the smeeze and the Thizzle Dance by Mac Dre, a Bay Area rapper who was fatally shot in 2004.

It felt to the marchers both like a sober call to action and a joyful celebration.

“I think that joy is a revolutionary emotion,” Ms. Clarke said, “especially during these really hard apocalyptic times that we are living through.”

At another demonstration, in mid-July, Ms. Avery placed dancers outside the Berkeley Police Department headquarters, where protesters camped out from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. There were hip-hop, modern and freestyle dancers, spoken word poets and visual artists drawing with chalk in the street. Ms. Avery and other organizers projected images of police brutality on the wall of the building.

Staff members at the dance studio attended their students’ demonstrations and also assisted in some of the logistics, like providing the projector and masks for the dancers that said “Breathe.”

“I was glowing with pride and hope and excitement,” Ms. Crowell said of the students’ use of dance in their organizing. “They had made a connection between movement and social movements.”

Ms. Roberson, foreground, says: “When I was dancing I felt like I was bringing in all the spirits from those people — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin.”Credit...Beatriz Escobar, via Destiny Arts Center

As the young dancers were organizing, “The Black (W)hole” was filming outside, by the white pillars of Oakland Technical High School, and inside a disintegrating abandoned train station with high ceilings and good air circulation.

Mr. Joseph, who is also vice president and artistic director of social impact at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, said he wanted the film to show what it’s like to have a performance suddenly disrupted by world events.

“The way that I thought about it at first was like ‘Lemonade’ meets ‘Homecoming’ in Oakland,” he said.

Destiny Arts’ young dancers aren’t the only ones who will be featured in the film. So will the dancers in the studio’s Elders Project, which is made up of women in their 60s, 70s and 80s. In particular, the video highlights Arisika Razak, 71, who has performed for the film in her backyard and at a rose garden in Oakland.

Ms. Razak said she had long seen dance as a force in racial justice movements, pointing to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, where the toyi-toyi dance was both a tool for protest and a celebratory expression.

“It’s the way we rev the body up to stand in front of police and tear gas,” she said. “These technologies of music and dance are almost always how oppressed people have managed to survive.”

For Ms. Avery, having her fellow dancers at the demonstrations served as a personal support system at the first three protests she organized. “I felt like I had my community with me,” she said.