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A passion for dance and justice

{{youtube:medium:left|C_aEM7Va4PM, Dance as a lens on justice}}

Dancer, choreographer and anthropologist Pearl Primus declared, “Dance is strong magic. Dance is life.”

Dancer, choreographer and dance professor Leah Glenn wields that strong magic to teach, increase understanding and make all lives better.

And so it is no surprise that in 2012 when Glenn first considered designing a study abroad program to Cape Town, she knew dance would be more than a physical activity to complement coursework.

“I wanted to use dance as a lens to look at social justice issues,” she said.

Dance with a purpose

The connection between dance and social justice has always been a motivation and inspiration for Glenn, her art and her creativity. She has explored the connections and possibilities throughout her prolific career as educator, scholar and choreography and performer.

“As a dance professional — whether it’s teaching or performing — it’s so important to know the other — to understand — and that’s what feeds my choreography,” Glenn explained. “And I look at what’s going on around us, and it’s clear to me that not everyone is comfortable with knowing the other. So I’m interested in using dance to do that, but to also give to those people who may not know much about dance the opportunity to see how valuable movement in general can be.”

When Glenn considered leading a program to South Africa, never having been there herself, like the trained academician and disciplined artist she is, she did her due diligence. Before submitting a proposal to the Global Education Office at Reves, she consulted Robert Trent Vinson, Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of History and Africana Studies, and Berhanu Abegaz, professor of economics and public policy. Abegaz had initiated the study abroad program to South Africa a few years earlier, so she valued his opinion but wasn’t sure how he’d respond, but he embraced it immediately and enthusiastically.

“I encourage a many-layered approach to the program in order to make it more sustainable,” Abegaz recalled. “Dance is a universal language, so we’re not really ‘advantaged’ in this aspect because African music and dance are a strong part of their culture. It enables our students to meet them on a level playing field. As a result they get more out of the program because it is not a one-way relationship; it is a two-way exchange.”

Glenn’s next step was to look for dance companies with which she could partner.

“I just started researching companies in South Africa, and found JazzArt Dance Theatre,” she said. “It’s the oldest modern dance company, and their emphasis is on social justice.”

Leah GlennJazzArt Dance Theatre was founded in 1973 and is renowned both locally and internationally. Its mission statement says: “Dance is used as a transformation tool to integrate social awareness and cultural inclusiveness that embodies the nature of South Africa’s Bill of Rights. … Through training, performance and inter-disciplinary collaborations with diverse role-players we develop multi-skilled performers and create works that promote excellence, innovation and social change.”

Glenn had found her partner, resulting in a dynamic and long-lasting collaboration.

Glenn’s first time as a program director was also her first trip to South Africa. Was it at all daunting?

“It’s funny. People ask me that, and I guess as an educator I don’t go into a project thinking that way,” Glenn explained. “I think about how it would be great to have this experience. I think about the things I hope they will get out of it. I don’t go into it thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m responsible for these people. As educators, we’re responsible for students all the time. It didn’t deter me.”

That was 2012, and she took 16 students. She returned with 24 students in 2016 and this past summer with 12. 

The students in the program are a mix of dancers and non-dancers, which makes the program broader but also require more preparation ahead of time. Glenn welcomes the challenge.

Glenn recognized that there would naturally be some trepidation among the students who had no dance experience.

"So I tell them, ‘I’m grading you on what you learn from the time you walk in,’” Glenn said. “It’s a more holistic approach to dance. It’s not a typical technique class you’d see at William & Mary. This is designed to be a different experience.”

That said, everyone will have to dance, so she prepares them well before they leave for South Africa.

“As part of the pre-departure course, I give them some vocabulary,” she said. “We watch quite a bit of dance before we leave and we talk about specific African-American choreographers, especially those who have incorporated or used dance as a means for dealing with social justice issues. And I tell them what kinds of things to look for or think about and give them ways to describe dance as they start writing about their experiences.

“When we get to South Africa, they’re taking class with me and they’re taking class with JazzArt, so I’ll give them a real basic intermediate class. I’ll give those students who have more experience other versions of the same material. But they’re all together.”

Luke Erickson ’22, a sophomore studying finance, went to Cape Town with no prior dance experience.

“I chose this program because I felt that Cape Town seemed like an interesting city with a lot to offer, and I was really interested in observing the remnants of Apartheid and learning how South Africa was dealing with a history of injustice differently than the United States,” he recalled.  “I was really surprised that for our second dance class we were training with a company of professional dancers from a prestigious studio in Cape Town, but they were incredibly welcoming to us and I felt that I really learned a lot from working with them and building relationships with them outside of the class.” 

Experiencing the 'other'

Their first exposure to dance after they arrived, however, was a performance of Balanchine’s Serenade by Cape Town City Ballet. It is a professional company, traditionally all-white, but for that night’s performance there were also four black male apprentices.

“I wanted them to see the difference between the ballet and modern dance,” Glenn said, “the difference in quality of movement, the difference in focus from one company to the next. One of the things that they learned was that with ballet, you’re always lifting, and a lot of time you’re dancing on your toes. But with modern, it tends to be more grounded. Not that there isn’t a tremendous amount of overlap now. There is. But we had some really interesting conversations about it.”

They also had their first discussion about larger issues, as the students noticed that the only dancers who didn’t come out to bow at the end were the apprentices. They wondered if that were deliberate or for some other reason, or maybe had no specific significance all.

“And then we get to JazzArt,” Glenn recalled. “Our William & Mary group was primarily white students, and they were talking about what it felt like being the minority, and how inclusive the JazzArt atmosphere was in comparison.”

But these were the kinds of discussions Glenn had hoped would occur.

“Immediately we’re thrown into these conversations, and what is so beautiful is that the students bonded so quickly, they were able to have these sometimes uncomfortable conversations,” she said. “And they were making those connections between what was happening in front of them and what was happening at home.”

Kinesthetic empathy

When Nelson Mandela died in 2013, people around the world mourned him with tributes, testimonials and quotes from his many interviews, books and memoirs. Outside his home the mourners — his fellow South Africans gathered and danced. They danced his dance, “the Madiba Dance,” Mandela’s own particular invention  — a little bit twisting, a little bit swaying, rhythmic but relaxed, small in movement but expansive in joy. A spontaneous expression of delight that was his signature, instantly recognizable, beloved imitated by South Africans of all ages and a product of his life experiences, his history, his clan and his own sense of joy.

Instead of pretending that differences in culture and experience are not significant, Glenn recognizes and appreciates the differences and uses them to learn and teach and create dance.

“In 2009, I reconstructed a piece by Pearl Primus,” she said. “It’s called Buschache Etude — an African dance — and I didn’t have any students of color in the piece, but it didn’t occur to me to be worried about that, because I just wanted them to have the experience. And they had so much fun. I think they were intimidated by some of the movements at first, so you approach them using a more European way of breaking things down, and then you can show them how other people would perceive the movement.”

And similar conversations and approaches happened in the Cape Town experience.

“We talked about kinesthetic empathy, and I use that term throughout the course because it’s not just about talking to people and sharing stories verbally,” Glenn said. “We can do that through moving. But you can tell a lot about a person by the way they’re walking. By the way that they carry themselves across the road.”

Glenn teaches dance and choreography in the context of the influence of culture and experience.

“You’re going to perform a specific movement based on the experiences that you’ve had,” she said. “So, if you dance every day from the time you’re able to walk, there’s something that’s going to come to you with a certain ease. That beat. That joy. That reminds me of home. If you’ve never done that before, you may love it just as much, but you’re not going to feel the same way about the experience. And when I say feel, I mean kinesthetically, not so much emotionally.”

To explain what she’s describing, Glenn shows video clips she took during the trip of JazzArt dancers and then the William & Mary students dancing the same choreography. Her face lights up as she shows the two videos.

“They’re feeling it emotionally the same way, but they not exactly moving the same way,” she said. “But it’s OK.”

Everyone has something to contribute

Glenn was more than mere chaperone and administrator in Cape Town. She was herself a dancer, mentor, instructor and even student.

“I took class a couple of times with the JazzArt company when Sifiso E Kweyama, the artistic director, taught, and I taught some master classes, so it was a lot of fun,” she said.

Glenn taught a Horton-based modern dance class and a ballet class — two very different approaches — but with both of which she is knowledgeable and comfortable.

“Ballet is an extremely codified technique, and Horton is fairly codified as well.” Glenn said. “But what I love most about Lester Horton’s technique and work is that his philosophy was such that he really valued everyone’s input. Everyone has something extremely valuable to contribute. So he really valued all kinds of dance. His technique was created to prepare you to perform any form of dance.”

Glenn approaches her students similarly — with respect and openness, allowing them to find their own way of expressing the choreography regardless of age, training or ability.  With the young learners in Khayelitsha Township Middle School, with whom she and the William & Mary students worked as part of the service learning component of the study abroad program, Glenn began with improvisation and composition activities.

“I told them to choose six characteristics they would use to describe themselves, and they had to create movements inspired by those characteristics. They they tied all those movements together to create a dance phrase.”

From there she moved on to working with imagery.

“For instance, I’d say, ‘Pretend you’re a bird.’ Then, ‘Pretend you’re a bird with a broken wing.’ They would imitate those ideas,” she said. ”And then I’d give them these ‘problems,’ and they would divide into groups to create compositions.

Their composition projects were then performed in three groups comprised of W&M students and JazzArt dancers.

This kind of approach — incorporating everyone’s input — ensured that even experienced dancers were challenged and engaged. Grace Poreda ’21 is a public policy major with a minor in art and art history who participated in this summer’s program. She is also an accomplished dancer.

“I have been dancing for my whole life,” she said. “I began taking ballet classes at the age of 4.” She is a member of Orchesis Modern Dance Company on campus and has participated in other dance projects with Glenn.

“I chose to go to Cape Town because I wanted to experience dance in the context of a different culture,” Poreda recalled. “I think dancers are a distinct group of people, and I was glad to learn that this seems to be the case in Cape Town, too.”

The impact of the experience for Poreda went way beyond a connection among dancers, however.

“One thing that surprised me about Cape Town was that here are so many distinct cultures and subcultures within the city and the surrounding areas,” she said. “There are 11 official languages in South Africa and three distinct racial groups that remain intact in the post-Apartheid era. I came to learn that you could stay in Cape Town for years and have more to learn about the interesting people living in different pockets of the city.”

The students also fulfilled Abegaz’s hope for the program.

“In their final paper for the program, I ask them to talk about their experience as a whole and I ask them to think about how we use dance as a lens to look at issues of disparity, specifically as it relates to race, education, and resources in general. They did so well with them,” Glenn said proudly.

“So many of them talked about not just their own personal growth, but the growth that they saw in each other; the growth that they saw in the students that they got to work with in Khayelitsha; and, how dance and art in general can and was used as a way to level the playing field so that more difficult conversations can happen.”

Glenn’s technique also, prepares her students for any form of dance, any form of future action.

“At the end of the day, the end of the program, what I see from all three groups I took is that students are becoming more aware of their privilege and agency,” she said. “I challenge them at the end of the program: ‘How are you going to use this privilege and agency moving forward?’”

And for herself?

Glenn breaks into a wide grin. “It’s such a great job!”