Dances for Solidarity
Dances for Solidarity is a New York based choreographic letter-writing project started by Sarah Dahnke, a Brooklyn-based choreographer and arts educator. She holds regular meetings to write to men and women in solitary confinement in American prisons. There, alongside a personal letter, collaborators list a series of choreographic movements, for the inmates to dance in their cells, and for us to reproduce in our homes. This impactful project reaches out both to people “outside” as well as to the inmates, and allows for communication between the two. Letter-making has become a collective activity, as we gather to compose letters to people in prisons. Through these ritualistic gatherings, physical boundaries begin to dissolve, so do the socio-psychological boundaries that truly define prisons.
We spoke with Sarah to find out more about the project:
Dances for Solidarity is a dance-based collaboration with folks who are incarcerated in solitary confinement and those on the “outside.” We collaborate and correspond through the mail and written word, initiating conversations by sending a 10-step dance sequence to the incarcerated. All recipients receive the same piece of choreography and are encouraged to perform it with the knowledge that at any time, there could be another person held in solitary confinement performing the same set of movements at the same time. We began this project in early 2015, and since then it has grown considerably. In New York we are in regular correspondence with over 100 incarcerated people and have held exhibitions and performances of choreography and visual art created behind bars. We also have a sister organization, Dances for Solidarity-Denver, which is in correspondence and collaboration with several more incarcerated people. We hope to continue to expand this project and find more willing leaders of sister organizations around the United States, as the use of long-term solitary confinement continues to be a widespread problem in our country. We are using this project to creatively highlight the issue and cause those who may not be familiar with its use to confront it.
How did you get involved in the project? What motivated you?
This project was born out of a combination of ideas. I’ve never been an artist who is in conversation with social justice issues through my work, but the human rights violations that exist through the widespread use of solitary confinement has long been a concern of mine as a citizen of the United States. I’ve worked quite a bit with what is referred to as “community-based performance,” or, creating performances with specific communities of people who may not be trained to be performers.
I had a question in my mind, wondering if we could create some sort of a simultaneous performance with all of the incarcerated in solitary confinement, having them each turn their cell into a stage.
The idea felt poetic and like a way to energetically connect people who cannot exist in the same space. This project was also highly influenced by the work of Jackie Summell through Herman’s House and through Photo Requests from Solitary, two projects that proved meaningful artistic collaboration can exist through written correspondence and that highlighted issues in solitary confinement.
What are the practicalities of the project? How is it facilitated?
I guide the project, but I ask everyone to enter where they are. Some collaborators inside and outside of prison are more hesitant to be vulnerable through the act of dance, and some are more open and willing or have previous experience dancing in various ways. Dance can be a really scary thing for people who aren’t use to it, and especially for men in prison, looking like they may have weakness. The collaboration is a slow one, as we have to navigate the mail system and the prison system, but it allows time to establish trust between collaborators, which leads to collaboration in creating pieces of choreography.
How can ordinary people, from your country and abroad, get involved?
If people live in New York or Denver, they can join us in our regular letter writing sessions. People can also stay tuned to dancesforsolidarity.org to see where new sister groups are popping up. Anyone can feel free to email me at email@example.com if they are interested in leading their own group, and those outside of the United States can use the framework of this project to reframe it toward an issue that is prevalent within the incarceration system in their own country.
Featured image – Ari Joseph