Bear with me as I try to paint a picture.

Aaliyah Christina on Ananya Dance Theatre

...I am surrounded by smoke… then shadows. As the smoke rushes in around me, I begin to breathe it in, then the shadows come approaching. Hues of blue, maroon and white straggle in alongside the fog as if to indicate a silent alarm. Although darkness becomes us — us sitting there on the black marley floor — the shadows make themselves ever more clear. As the shadows take shape, whispers jump from one ear to the other. The shapes become bodies -- bodies moving in succession, but not unison. These bodies are not where the whispers are coming from.

They perform an accumulation and an acceleration. As they tack on one movement after the next -- rife with flexed feet where the toes can almost touch the ankles, bladed hands cutting through the air, and broken wrists with strained fingers -- their motions become quicker and quicker. Not all at once do they accumulate and accelerate though. The shadow-turned-bodies enter the space around me one (sometimes two) at a time. I hear their breath. I feel the drafts of their swinging limbs. I trace the sweat falling from their some pale, some brown faces.


Now I don’t want to give a play-by-play, but damn, is it hard. The early introduction of accumulation and acceleration pushes Ananya Dance Theatre’s Shyamali: Sprouting Words (“dark green”) at the forefront of captivating and evoking continuous curiosity. When the womyn on stage (the shadows I mentioned before) abruptly move into a collective, a synchronicity, their arms raise up on both sides of each of their heads. Then, they scream. They wail at the top of their lungs in every direction. They’re each facing their own path. Their voices producing a harmonious inflection, not driven by song, but by communal chant. This chant perhaps cannot be understood by colonized ears. Thoughts of chants I’ve spoken came to mind: “Water is Life,” “Estados unidos, nunca serán dividido,” and “Black Lives Matter.” Combining energies of (justifiable) exhaustion and (undeniable) fierceness beams from them.

Social justice dance and choreography does not just address the issue of representation, but it also creates an understanding of space and time.
— Ananya Chatterjea

Ananya Chatterjea herself posed a question in a Columbia College course, Creative World: Performance Theory & Practice, taught regularly by Dance Center faculty Darrell Jones and Ellen Chenoweth. Chatterjea led a lecture alongside Kealoha Ferreira (Ananya Dancer and Artistic Associate) and Dr. Hui Niu Wilcox (Ananya Dancer). She asked simply, “What is social justice dance?” She repeated the question again after some silence from the room full of undergraduate students from all spectrums of creative majors including dance, film, and creative writing. “What does it mean to use social justice choreography?” The responses were a bit lackluster but, I must highlight a few words and phrases spoken by the Ananya trio as well as two unknown students.

“Social justice dance and choreography does not just address the issue of representation, but it also creates an understanding of space and time.” Space as in access to and/or how much is awarded. Time as in the exact moment or period of any given event. It addresses the figures that exist to oppose and defy the status quo. When I say status quo, I am speaking strictly about the systemic oppression threaded into every fiber of our racist, capitalistic society. Social justice art in general can be a formidable display of defiance in terms of joy, pain, curiosity, and resistance. We in the room then decided to identify examples of social justice art or dance/choreography for context.

Hip Hop stood out as an obvious choice. Hip Hop isn’t just about the music. Hip Hop began as a movement for folks living within the marginalized intersections of low-income, black/brown, and, some(often)times, queer and womxn. It continues to hold space through music, dance, and prose with clear intentions of its African-American roots remaining at the center. Whether some (most) of us still believe it stands the test of time or even if it has kept its integrity in protesting systemic violence is irrelevant.

Yorchha, a dance developed by Chatterjea, works to achieve this same cultural significance within the American dance framework. This style gleans influences from classical eastern Indian dance, yoga, and an eastern Indian martial art known as Chhau. “Shyamali” doesn’t delineate from the philosophies of social protest organizing and enacting that through choreographed movement. We could argue that Chatterjea even took notes from protests from around the country (past and present) including sit-ins, die-ins, “hands up, don’t shoot,” marching with arms locked, and on and on and on. All of this sums up a call to action for audience members and artists alike.

Another moment Chatterjea demanded our attention in her talk revolved around energy. This came right after we ran off course into a conflicting discussion about copyright in dance. She questioned the realness, tangibility, and effect of energy. Though we often think of energy as a transparent force, I believe that we see its forms everywhere. Energy isn’t just one thing. It doesn’t look the same in each moment. I think of it as a shapeshifter. We can see energy in body language (eyes, hands, and feet). We can hear energy in our voices and bodies (clapping hands, stomping feet, heaving breath). We can feel energy (our eyes closed, our mouths shut, our minds open). Ananya Dance Theatre radiates energies of warriors, both ancestral and living. Remnants of past struggles experienced by womyn of color inform current constructions of armor and actions against the continued system(s) of oppression/repression.

Not all heroes wear capes & not all soldiers wear camo.

Aaliyah Christina curates, moves & writes in Chicago, IL via Ruston, Louisiana. She graduated with a B.A. in dance from the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago in 2016. She specializes in dance improvisation and curating tranquil and welcoming spaces for her burgeoning Chicago communities. She founded and created catalyst movmnt (2017), a curating collective designed to highlight emerging movement artists and dancemakers of color. She also frequently contributes to Performance Response Journal. At the moment, she works with Sweet Water Foundation as a Human-in-Residence & Project Tool as an ensemble performer.