Victoria Phillips of Columbia University was present at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts on Oct. 6 to present information regarding the power of dance to create social change at the “Friends of Dance Lecture – Dance is a Weapon: Choreographing Protest During the Great Depression” event. | Photo Courtesy of Emory Dance Department

“Friends of Dance Lecture – Dance is a Weapon: Choreographing Protest during the Great Depression” was an interesting lecture-performance held at Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts on Monday, Oct. 6. To educate students and adults about a new dimension of dance, the Emory Dance department called upon Victoria Phillips from Columbia University to spearhead the event by explaining the role of the “Time is Money” choreography in its historical and activist contexts. The presentation featured a performance by Martin Løfsnes and Yuko Suzuki Giannakis, both former members of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

The lecture addressed how the inspiration behind the “Dance is a Weapon” choreography was the Great Depression, a period when the stock market fell. In consequence, the country faced a 25 percent unemployment rate. Low or no income, bread lines, bank runs and men seeking employment were common sights.

“So what were people looking for? Maybe some hope. There was no unemployment insurance, there was no Social Security and with such desperate situations, people relied on charity,” Phillips said.

With these drastic situations, a change seemed imperative. Communists of the time, including choreographer Jane Dudley, believed in reform and in the addition of social programs. Founded in 1932 on the lower east side of New York City, the New Dance Group (NDG), from which ‘Time is Money” derived, began as a radical communist-linked organization. The artists followed dramatic scripts published in the Workers Theater magazine and joined forces with musicians’ leagues. They often took up social themes such as worker strikes, oppression of farm workers, sharecropping and fascism.

“NDG’s performing units included workers, ‘shock troupes’ and folk dance groups and performances by professional dancers,” Phillps said during her presentation.

As the NDG progressed and gained recognition, they evolved with upcoming generations and revolutions. The group also came to realize the importance of individual choreographers. Soon, Dudley made her first influential work called ‘Time is Money” based on a communist writer’s poem. This moving work, which added rhythm to the poem through dance, was a way of rising voices against the oppression of workers.

This very choreography of ‘Time is Money” was enacted at Emory on Monday. The aim of such an empowering performance was not only to illustrate the past but also to allow individuals to view art as a medium of protest: “dance as a weapon.”

This particular performance also seemed to touch upon two interesting aspects of dance: forms and shapes. The group efficiently voiced their message that dance can be done by anybody. A man with a great physique and a strong posture – Løfsnes – followed by a small woman with a thin body – Giannakis – performed the same choreography on identical musical and lyrical accompaniment.

According to Director of the Emory Dance Program, Lori Teague, “There are many ways that dance is political, either directly or indirectly. Movement can raise social consciousness around a particular issue. This lecture was inspired by the ‘Politics and the Dancing Body’ photo exhibit at the Library of Congress. We wanted our students to learn who these artists were and how dance can be created as an act of social change.”

Much of the presentation focused on the central theme of integration as opposed to segregation. Integrations of workers, lower socioeconomic groups, bisexuals and different races in the past allowed dance to be perceived as an inclusive art form. Along with this idea, the discussion explored the ways in which dance can be used as a medium to address issues.

“It is important to express ideas and emotions authentically through movement. Stillness, marching and walking are forms of protest that have been effective in various situations because they are driven by a clear intention,” Teague said. “When intention is fully realized in choreography, it is incredibly powerful. Dance has a unique way of embodying the human condition that is transformative when witnessed, experienced or shared.”

While the use of the body – together with that of the mind and heart – as a form of emitting a message might be a vulnerable thing to do, it is also a powerful medium of expression. The performance combined dance with history and activism to produce art as a “weapon.”

–By Sumera Dang, Contributing Writer