Forecast invited 2016 Mid-career Project grantee Marcus Young to write a blog for our website reflecting on a recent “Don’t You Feel It Too?” activity.
Thanks to a 2016 Forecast Mid-career Project Grant, Don’t You Feel It Too? (DYFIT) is gearing up for a big season which includes a new type of activity called “Welcome to the Fire.” This new activity will explore bringing DYFIT dance right into the hot zones of social conflict. One example of this is the work developing around the issue of women’s health care and abortion focused around Planned Parenthood. (The entire season of activity which runs April through September 2017 will be announced later this month.)
On February 11, 2017 the ten-year public dance practice DYFIT invited dance-activists to be present as a third energy among the thousands in attendance rallying for and against Planned Parenthood on Vandalia Street in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was a learning experience preparing for a bigger DYFIT action planned for Friday, April 14, 2017.
DYFIT’s founder and behavioral artist Marcus Young, who could not attend on February 11, interviews two long-term practitioners who did go. The interview features Diane Hellekson, a writer and landscape architect living in St. Paul who has practiced Don’t You Feel It Too? since 2010 and Theresa Madaus, a queer dance-maker, performer, and arts administrator who has practiced Don’t You Feel It Too? since its beginnings in 2008. This interview was done over email.
Marcus: It was an early Saturday morning. How did you feel when you first arrived and first started dancing?
Theresa: I spent a good 15 minutes looking for parking, circling the area and seeing the faces of the people and wondering about their intentions, affiliations and presence there. I walked past the Pro-Life Ministries rally area, and as I passed their speeches and supporters, I felt a well of resistance rising in my chest. It lives there as tension and pressure, kind of like a lump or a bar pressing across my heart and internal organs.
When I started dancing I immediately felt a relief from that bar. The pressure could flow out of my body. I felt energized and in touch with my anger and the fierceness of my own love for my body, for my freedom and agency over my own body, and the sanctity of my body’s ability to move itself, express itself, control itself, and be a worthy and living part of the world.
Marcus: That’s very powerful! “Fierceness…sanctity…worthy…” It sounds like you transformed the negative pressure into a positive resistance. Would you say that?
Theresa: I think that’s accurate, though I’m realizing I have a hang-up with the word “anger.” I associate it with negativity, and since my anger remained, I have a moment of thinking it didn’t transform. But I am also thinking that it’s not about transforming anger into joy. It’s maybe more important for the anger to remain and for the way that anger exists in me to transform. And in that case, yes, definitely! Transforming negative pressure into revitalizing and powerful resistance.
Diane: Beautifully said, Theresa. I’m always amazed when I hear how dancing allows someone’s body to give power to the mind, encouraging our thoughts to do right by us. It’s as though dancing makes the mind tell us the truth. I also felt anxious, but it was a healthy anxiety—getting ready for something important. I hesitate to say it, but internally, I felt a bit like a boxer in a ring, loosening my body, psyching myself up.
Marcus: And did it feel like boxing after you started moving?
Diane: At first, I was timid in where I chose to dance—or perhaps strategic like a boxer, circling, feinting, sizing up my “opponent”—the charged protest space.
We always have choices of where to go when we dance, but this felt unusually fraught, since it was almost like “choosing sides.” I felt comfortable around the pro-choice sign-carriers, who more often acknowledged my presence with curiosity or a smile. It certainly could have been my own energy that made this seem so, but I found very few of the anti-abortion demonstrators engaged visually with me. They tended to look off in the distance, or down, in prayer. Perhaps there was a perception that wild dancing was not devout?
About 20 minutes in, I saw Theresa in her pink cap, right in front of the building, her body close to both sides of the protest; I felt buoyed by her bravery. She looked so happy, and while I had been enjoying dancing, I was still concerned about how things were going down, and keeping my distance from the epicenter of the protest. My playlist at that point was tough, loud, adversarial music that informed my moves. I often dance to punk and hard funk, and I had intentionally chosen protest-tinged tunes to give me strength. Later on, I explicitly turned on Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” which always imbues my moves with a degree of generosity.
Theresa: It sounds somewhat silly, but my bright pink sweater and hat gave me courage. I needed a non-textual symbol to link me to PP supporters. Or maybe more importantly, to distinguish me from the pro-lifers. I really needed to feel like my dancing couldn’t be mistaken for a religious, misogynistic, patronizing or patriarchal expression.
My dance, after all, was a kind of prayer and “pro-life” stance—one that is explicitly not anti-abortion, but for life—my life, other women’s lives, the interconnectedness of humanity. In order to be in close proximity, I needed symbolic distance from their version of prayer and “pro-life” stance—one that is narrow, fetus-centered, and invites misogyny, shame and violence.
I’m especially interested in this because I really delight in the beauty of the mystery of DYFIT—that so often, you really can’t articulate exactly what or why someone is dancing. And I believe the dancing speaks for itself. So I want to dig more into why I felt a danger in that slippage here and also how to maintain the integrity of the practice in a way that respects both my clarity of values and the mystery of the dancing.
Diane: Yes to all that! The night before the practice, I bought a half-dozen pink bandanas to have available as “identifiers” for any of our group who wanted one. I tied one around my neck, seeking to reduce the possibility of being seen as an anti-abortion zealot, dancing some sort of fetus worship. When I offered a bandana to two DYFIT dancers, both declined; one was explicit about being there as a neutral party, just to spread love unconditionally. Me, not so much. I did feel that in my dancing I could seek to defuse tensions, which were palpable, even from across the street from PP. One woman walking by asked what I was doing; when I said, “Don’t you feel it too?” she replied, in a resigned tone, that, yes, she did, and found it sad that “everybody hates each other” at these protests. I don’t know which “side” she was on.
I began feeling like a provocative interrupter in part because I was in extreme contrast to the scene—we were the only ones, perhaps, whose motives weren’t entirely clear. I didn’t mean to be confrontational, but rather to be true and warm and myself, and hope that was something that this group, this milieu, might accept and benefit from, however subtly.
Which is not to say that I was all generosity. The national context of the PP protest was very strong for me, and I didn’t really want to let my righteous anger go. I danced a few yards behind a group of young men (sign-carrying, anti-choice), pumping my fists (they didn’t notice). I mixed neutral, aimless movement with pointed fierceness. At one point I dug up a move we did a few summers ago in Peavey Plaza—a sort of wide-armed sweep, which I have come to think of as “casting a spell.” And I did try to put a spell on a few people, to see if they could understand why we like subsidized health care for women, to see if I could soften their thinking. I’m quite sure it didn’t work. But I know I had a much richer, more emotional time than my friends who were confined to the pens, basically marching in circles.
When we had stopped dancing and were gathered on the sidewalk, a young woman stopped to ask us what we were about, and to thank us. She was so enthusiastic about the energy we brought—I believe she used the word “art”—and felt we provided a relief to the serious proceedings, injected a note of grace and delight. It was hugely heartening to know that we’d been seen that way.
Marcus: Ah, so is that the theory of change here? Or is there more to it than “a relief to the seriousness”? Diane, you talked about behaving unlike either side. Your intentions were not easily readable, perhaps even mysterious. Theresa mentioned the mystery within DYFIT, and whatever that mystery is it seems to allow prayer, anger, love, hate, politics, self-care, and many other things to be in the same embodied space, all in dynamic relation. So what is the theory of change in ourselves? And how might it affect beyond us, into society in this moment of societal face-off? What is the point of this mystery, this “useless” or subtle spell, this dance? Theresa says the dancing speaks for itself.
Theresa: There is something freeing about dancing because it is speaking in a different language than the one that most of the arguments are in. If and when I try to engage people in a discussion around abortion, women’s and gender-non-conforming bodies, healthcare, misogyny, etc., I don’t feel like it will go anywhere. Mostly people hear just what they want to hear and dig deeper into already entrenched views.
Dancing my truth is a way of expressing without participating in the mind-numbing back-and-forth verbal disagreements. There is no narrative. You can’t respond to my living, moving body with a treatise. It is temporal, physical, non-linear, sensory, encompassing the mind while also escaping all around it.
I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind with my dancing, but how we live and breathe and move our bodies does shape the world around us. So perhaps something else is changing. Maybe it’s leaping ahead a bit—beyond the argument, straight into creating the world I want to live in: a world where my body is liberated. I know this is most transformational for me as participant, but I have to believe that it jostles the rigid container of those witnessing as well. Our liberation is connected.
Diane: I have many friends whom I consider true activists, and while I admire their doggedness in making statements, posts and art about their concerns, I do sometimes question the effectiveness of it all. Fulminating on the wrongs can be cathartic, especially now, but it does get to feel like an echo chamber; less like change than angry panic. All these words, often sounding just as judgmental and self-righteous as those of their opponents. I find that using my body as my vehicle for expression, protest and public “speech” feels safer and more peaceful.
It’s interesting that I can say “safer”; that is a privilege. I recall something that came up around Black Lives Matter a few years ago, when people in the movement were asked how white people could support them. One way was to for white people to put our bodies on the line, to use our whiteness as a shield. I found that to be really smart, to ask us to deflect threats physically rather than making statements.
So, change…On some level, I do believe that thing that yogis and New Age thinkers espouse, that by bringing peace and kindness into your daily life, you can shift some larger trajectory. But while I do appreciate that approach, it doesn’t fully suit me. I want and need something wilder, more complex to feel that I’m making/expressing/ disseminating positive change. And this strange public dance gives me that. It lets me retain some of the anger and awkwardness and sorrow I know is in me, while making an outward expression that is generous and non-confrontational.
Marcus: This may be a bit off-topic, but in gearing up for our next dance action, also at Planned Parenthood on April 14, I wanted to ask you about the time in between dancing? After a practice session, we go back to our non-dancing lives, so full of things to do, worries to worry about, away from the single-minded, all-embracing, full-bodied, exuberant practice. Do you feel DYFIT is with you somehow in those many non-DYFIT moments?
Diane: It is with me, as an invisible spine, a reminder of what I’m about even when daily life and job feel mushy-prosaic. The memory of DYFIT is also a bit of a stick in the side, an occasional reminder that I’m not living my potential, being my best self much of the time. In that sense, it’s an irritant.
So of course when I dance, it’s almost always a relief, even when I have to struggle to show up. It’s a richer version of what I feel when I make the effort to get on my bike or in my kayak. I imagine it’s also the way believers feel when they show up at a place of worship—perhaps they had to drag themselves, but they feel good that they did, and the benefit follows them.
Between practices, I also think of the individuals I dance with; there are images in my head of particular motions, expressions, interactions. I find this very warming, a reminder that the action of DYFIT would not work so well without the group, the relationships. Even though I don’t know you all very well, I do feel a sweet bond, and that enriches me beyond the practice.
Theresa: In the same way that how we move our bodies shapes our world, it also shapes us. I definitely feel the way that DYFIT has shaped me. My sense of myself as a liberated body (or liberating—it is always in process) stays with me. My capacity for joy and generosity remains stretched after dancing. I feel more solid in who I am and how I want to be in the world. I have a sense of possibility and power that helps support generosity and direct me towards other liberation movements. DYFIT helps me show up more, even when I’m not practicing it—at protests, at work, the way I relate to authority figures from the police to my boss, the way I perceive myself.
Marcus: I really appreciate how daring, open, and thoughtful you both have been. You’ve shared a lot about yourselves and your insights into the practice. I’ve learned a great deal. Even after all these years, it feels like there is still so much to explore.
Here’s a final question, perhaps ending on a doozie. Do you want others who think very differently, who even have strong beliefs that are opposed to yours, let’s say Pro-Lifers, do you want them to try this dance?
Diane: Absolutely, yes! This practice is not meant for one particular coterie; it is open to anyone who is willing to embrace it. So far, our group has seemed to attract people who hold similar beliefs, particularly on issues of diversity and justice. If some people who diverge from our thinking would try DYFIT, perhaps it could initiate a bit of cross-cultural conversation, which so many of us are saying we need these days.
Theresa: 100% yes. I think it could be scary and difficult for us to dance together. There is a lot of distrust and anger, and this practice can be so open and vulnerable. But if we can trust each other to show up in that vulnerability, if we practice openness together and have the container of DYFIT to guide us, I imagine beautiful things could happen. What if we could start conversations not from a place of discussing deeply held beliefs, but from a temporary shared experience? What if it’s not about the conversation at all, and it’s just the experience of powerfully tapping into the richness of our human selves?
For more information about Don’t You Feel It Too? visit their website dyfit.org.