How Dance Is Still A Weapon for Social Change

From the earliest days of her career, Martha Graham directed social and political observation into the creation of a radically new philosophy of movement and dance. Her dances were revolutionary on every level. In their review of her company’s latest program, “Political Dance Project,” which presents politically-themed dances by Graham and other choreographers, The Washington Post says:

“Few choreographers today put politics onstage. In this post-postmodern era, the field has shied away from the provocations of the AIDS works of the 1980s and early 1990s, which was perhaps the last time dance wrapped itself around an issue. Individual dancemakers may take on topical subjects, as Doug Varone did in “Alchemy,” inspired by the Daniel Pearl beheading, or as Paul Taylor’s “Banquet of Vultures” crucified George W. Bush. But such works are rare in an art form that, broadly speaking, has settled comfortably into self-consciousness. Dance is mostly about dancing.”

This is certainly true. But why has dance abandoned its role as an artistic agitator? There’s no doubt that the performing arts, dance and theater, are no longer the vanguard of everyday thought. They have fallen victim to the way people view art vs. entertainment.

Popular, i.e., the “dominant” culture is a rapacious machine that pretends to entertain when in fact what it does is eat away at artistic expression. It overwhelms those who would try to bring any message to larger audiences. This is especially true for dance.

Viewers are more interested in watching the spectacle of Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance than the pieces of Martha Graham or Jane Dudley.

On some level it is fun to watch Chad Ochocinco shake it. But we have to go further and push harder as artists and as a community supporting artists. Whether through modern dance, ballet, or hip hop, the human body is the perfect instrument to make a statement about what it’s like to be alive, and to die, or what it feels like to be poor, or to fight in a war. Don’t we owe it to these artists to pay attention to their work?