Dance as a tool of social justice

April 1, 2022


When Spider senior Kinme Reeves attended the University Dancers performance last February, he had never set foot on a stage. A year later, he performed a dance he choreographed with two other students for the company’s February showcase.

“I like putting my own movement style into something and bouncing ideas off the other dancers,” Reeves said, “because we all have our own styles and how we interpret different understandings of history.”

He along with seniors Kayla Schiltz and Isabel Brazzel spent weeks listening to stories from some of the first bus drivers for the Greater Richmond Transit Company in Richmond from the 1960s. They created specific dance moves that correlated to the stories of the men and women who began driving in the height of the Civil Rights Movement, for a performance based on a University exhibit called Through It All.

“In one move, I lift my leg, push my hand into my chest, and there’s a recoiling of my body,” Reeves said. “This shows progress and resistance because you're about to take a step and something is pulling you down.”

That move was inspired by the story of a woman named Jenny, one of the first female bus drivers, Reeves said.

“She would always try to make progress in the system, but she would always be held back, while men advanced,” Reeves said. “It was always a struggle for her to actually make progress. I connected with that, so I created that movement.”

“We learned a lot about ancestral history and how systems of capitalism and colonization and patriarchy built upon each other to construct the world that we have today,” said Brazzel. “A lot of the work that we're doing is unpacking our histories.”

Alicia Díaz, associate professor of dance, directed the piece, in partnership with Patricia Herrera, associate professor of theatre, who spearheaded the research into GRTC’s history.

“Our work is making stories that are often invisible, visible — using the arts,” Herrera said. “The work that we are doing is with history that has been excluded. It has been erased or intentionally submerged. The arts can play a really significant role in bringing visibility to these histories that are not in the archives. And the performance itself becomes its own sort of archive.”

“We thought through, ‘How do we become good ancestors ourselves in undoing the harm of racial injustice?’” Díaz said.

This multidisciplinary process of immersing oneself in the history and creating a living archive of the drivers’ experiences drew in Schiltz, a double major in psychology and dance.

“I wanted a good balance between science and academics and dance, because that's what I've always been doing my whole life,” she said. “We did our research and that set different prompts for different choreography. This has been a collaborative process, and it’s something that I think everyone should experience.”