Water, Water Everywhere as Hundreds Dance Around the World

Global Water Dances event on June 24, 2017 in Flint, MI. Photo: Shawn Lent.

Seneca Lake. near Buffalo, NY, is threatened by propane gas storage spaces near salt caverns. Artists live there. The Gowanus Canal, in Brooklyn, NY, is a designated Superfund site and one of the most polluted US waterways, with sewage overflow problems. Artists live there, too. The Alton Natural Gas Storage Project looms over the Stewiacke area of Nova Scotia, where artists also live. Contained in the water from the pipes without a corrosion control phosphate branching from Michigan’s Flint River is notoriously dangerous levels of lead. And, yes, artists live in Flint.

Artists are human beings — and, as such, they need water. Artists are people. They drink water and often live near waterways. Dancers, specifically, have a right to join their local neighbors to protest for safe water. They also have a right to take that dance demonstration to an international level. They have a right to help embody what it means to us all.

Global Water Dances 2017 on the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo: Angel Prince.

In May 2016, I was selected by University of Maryland staff to gather with other dance activists, therapists, analysts and educators to discuss the impact of our individual projects and to explore potential collaboration as dancers without borders. We sat in a circle as Vannia Ibarguen explained Global Water Dances, a biannual international day of dance activism on a single matter: water.

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The project is the brainchild of an international group of individuals certified by the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies who attended a conference on dance and the environment in July 2008 at England’s Schumacher College. Global Water Dances thus serves a global community of choreographers and dancers to inspire action and international collaboration for water issues through the universal language of dance. As Vannia went on to describe the dozens of locations participating in Global Water Dances 2017, I stepped up with a question: “What about Flint”?

Home to one of the worst water crises in US history — where lead leeching from corroded pipes exposed thousands of children to illness — Flint is the nearby sister city to my hometown of Saginaw, MI; my gut told me this event was made for such a context. I reached out to Karen Mills Jennings of the Flint School of Performing Arts / Flint Youth Ballet with a generalized proposal. She responded with a keen interest and we soon chatted online. As Karen explained:

Your call to invite us to participate was well timed! The Flint Youth Ballet dancers had been asking for a community engagement project. Global Water Dances provided us an opportunity to have a community discussion about water, including the Flint Water Crisis, without the young dancers being exploited for media advantage.

Karen described how the victimization of Flint, including the dancers, was in some ways as exhausting as the constant concern for finding safe water for drinking and bathing. It was important that this dance project be both empowering and locally led.

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Karen then reached out to other Flint artists and arts educators, including Adesola Akinleye of Dancing Strong, who told me:

I wanted to be involved because I feel it is important for dance artists to offer their skills to support people in describing their experiences in movement (as well as words). There has been a lot of talk about water and Flint, so it was important to have some dance about it, too.

Emma Davis, along with other dance and theater faculty at University of Michigan-Flint, and local artists from Vertical Ambition Dance Company (which specializes in Modern and B-boying), stepped up as collaborators and even offered the use of their theater, in-kind.

Emma added:

From the college perspective, UM-Flint dancers engage in community-based courses each year through our program, but the best part about our partnerships in Global Water Dances was connecting with other dancers in the community. This is something that hasn’t been done too much or enough. It was nice to have a mutually beneficial topic/theme.

Global Water Dances 2017 Philippines. Photo: Alvin Joseph Veneracion.

After months of workshops, rehearsals and artistry, The Flint community joined the nearly 110 locations around the world on Sat., June 24. It was simultaneous dance activism on an international scale. The solidarity felt online — from Peru to Jamaica to the Rockies to Mexico to Rome to St. Louis to the Gowanus Canal — was palpable.

All dance styles and traditions were embraced. Each site included a moment of ritual, choreography and music by local artists, audience participation, and an international phrase that is learned and performed by all locations. Bhangra dancers led the audience at the Halifax Waterfront in Nova Scotia. A pregnant dancer and her colleagues presented a Womb Water Dance in Rockport, ME. On the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, the dancers used colorful props.

Here are some individual voices from around the world on the power of this project.

Akinleye, Flint:

Water is what connects us: flows between and through us all. To move and talk and exchange ideas about water is fundamental to the language of the body. Dance is a way of exploring and communicating lived experiences — in some ways ‘dance activism’ is all dance. Dance has always been a form of resistance.

Sherry Greenspan, New Jersey:

It has well worth the effort, time, energy, sweat. We danced about issues of fracking, pipelines and pollution near the Navasink River, Deal Lake and Atlantic Ocean — we danced by the ocean. The dancers, witnesses and activist speakers from Clean Ocean Action, Food and Water Watch, Deal Lake commission and WATERSPIRIT expressed deep gratitude and excitement, feeling so moved and bolstered by the event.

Lori Mercil, Minnesota:

Dance can get people engaged on an emotional level, inspiring more action than if they are only engaged on an intellectual level. Dancing together globally sends a powerful message that water connects us all, and is something that needs to be appreciated and protected.

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Amy Bush, NYC:

There is a hazard to our waters. The dancers danced with the intention of promoting the crucial need for clean water. We are looking forward to doing this again and it has motivated myself and others to take more of a stand for taking care of the only earth we have.

María José Pérez Castro, Mexico:

I resonated with the sense of dancing for the care of the water. This year we danced with the Magdalena River, the last living river in Mexico City, Mexico. For me, the art of the body in action is poetic activism. The transformation is felt in the body, in the fluids, in our inner sea. We dance for safe water everywhere, because dancing together empowers, gives voice, builds community.

Global Water Dances proves that dance activism is a powerful tool for an individual, for a group, for a neighborhood, village, city or nation — and ultimately, for addressing or bringing awareness to an international common cause. Looking forward to Global Water Dances 2019!