Can we create lasting mutual aid structures?
The Dance Community Responds Part 2
On May 14, I sat down at my tiny table to listen in on “REAL TALK!” the first public discussion of the “Creating New Futures” document. The CNF document is an urgent response to the wave of COVID-19 cancellations that have decimated the performing arts, assembled by a group of choreographers, producers, funders, and others within the dance world. As facilitator and noted choreographer Maria Bauman-Morales opened the evening, she called in the legacy of revolutionary anarchist and labor organizer Lucy Parsons as one of the ancestors we can learn from in this moment.
I was stunned. I’ve revered the life and work of Lucy Parsons for years, but never heard her mentioned in the same breath as justice within the performing arts. I think my surprise was a form of longing and recognition. That is what I’ve waited for: The acknowledgement of dance work as an imaginative, cooperative form of social reproduction and the understanding that we already possess the tools we need to remake the world.
I humbly acknowledge that while the idea of dance labor as integral to a cosmology of care and world-building is new to me, it is not a new idea.
“Creating New Futures” states that capitalism is organized abandonment, so the only possible response is organized care. To me, that means mutual aid—non-transactional exchange based on a sense of safety, trust, and collective liberation. Mutual aid rejects scarcity.
Dance artists often self-congratulate for doing a lot with a little, or nothing at all. We’re experts in artistic scarcity. But my community is more than survival tactics. My practice honors intuition and emotional intelligence. I cultivate heightened sensitivity while listening to physical impulses around me. I give thanks to the ground underneath the floor, which holds me up.
I don’t think dancing creates a utopia free from the poison of white supremacy, capitalism, and settler-colonialism. Indeed, when I say “dance,” I mean my own background as a white woman primarily trained in ballet and contemporary dance. These forms reinforce the very systems of fear and obedience I, and those around me, currently seek to eradicate. Dance labor can also generate accountability, deep listening, and, possibly, trust—in defiance of systems of control. There’s a similar defiance in the streets right now, an explosion of embodied joy and rage. The rebellion for Black life and an abolitionist culture differs quite drastically from labor within a dance studio, not least in terms of the immediate stakes. But both can include a conscious revolt against hierarchies of power and a celebration of abundance. Dance labor in the studio helps me build skills for being in community, in the streets. Perhaps we’ll eventually tear down the distinctions between the two. Dance labor can be mutual aid can be future-building.
I want to start archiving the mutual aid work that's happening, that has always been happening, within my dance community here in Mannahatta (aka Manhattan) and Brooklyn, on occupied Lenape and Canarsie homelands. There's already an ecosystem of mutuality around us, but we need to tend it.
Five of the “Creating New Futures” Phase One authors—Karen Sherman, Yanira Castro, Laura Colby, Tara Aisha Willis, and Sarah Greenbaum—spoke with me via Zoom. I prompted them with a few questions, but it was mostly my privilege to listen to their conversation among one another. Their contributions are in italics.
Greenbaum: From inside an institution, I think there’s been a realization. Because of COVID, we found that we can, in fact, “stop.” Then there was this additional call: that we absolutely must change our approach. But quickly, we started asking, “How can we fill up our programming again?” and pushing that change somewhere into the future. How do we balance these many outstanding commitments with the necessity to slow down?
Sherman:That’s how we’ve been trained. That if we pause, our careers end.
Colby: It’s a competitive field from the first moment one enters it. The circumstances are competitive. We’re always aware that there are people to replace us. Same with companies that are looking for engagement. There are always 200 more companies behind them.
Most of my peers are gig-based and we regularly deal with wage theft and unsafe working conditions. New York designated the performing arts as firmly non-essential in the scheme of the pandemic, yet many of our side-hustles were also COVID-cancelled, leaving us feeling helpless. Meanwhile, state-sanctioned police murder, state-sanctioned medical neglect, unstable housing, food deserts, subpar education, and environmental chaos reign over us. Coronavirus exploded into these concentric crises and fissures emanated from its impact, turning into chasms drawn sharply along racial and socioeconomic lines.
Willis: I want to underscore that in this moment, everything that’s visible was already there. Everything that’s weak in our systems, it was already happening. It just wasn’t as massive. That both disturbs me and gives me hope. If this moment is lost, it’s because our attention is pushed elsewhere. We have to translate this moment into an understanding of what’s constant and what’s consistently problematic.
Mutual aid lays bare the false equivalence of obedience and safety. Communities experiencing incredible loss have stepped up to feed, house, and care for one another. People battling the police have carried critically injured strangers off the front lines, stood ready to wash away the effects of chemical weapons and risked their own lives to actively de-arrest others.
Greenbaum: It’s the idea that we keep us safe. We’re not looking to the government or the police to do the work of community safety. It’s neighbors supporting neighbors. I don’t know how that looks in dance.
Sherman: I see care beyond aid. Thinking about the dance and performance world in relation to what we’re living, I think about the levels of hierarchy and how damaging they are.
Castro: There are power structures around the idea of mutual aid. Horizontal structures, not hierarchy.
Colby: There’s a huge shift in seeing people take responsibility for one another under changing, dynamic circumstances—especially in this country where we have a very individualistic legacy. I get that it's a big leap from meeting basic human needs to solidarity within performance. But I can see how the spirit of mutual aid could permeate our daily work, in terms of leveling hierarchy.
Nearly everyone I know is out of work, yet we're emotionally, financially, and materially supporting one another—not to mention participating in and creating our own networks of material and emotional care. Dance labor is no longer confined to the stage or the rehearsal room.
Sherman: The hierarchies only ask one thing of you but in reality, we all have more to offer. One person I talked with for the document said “‘I’m here if you need me’ are beautiful words.” It allows you to be more than what's expected of you. How do you be present with an offering, without being in the way?
Willis: It's about duration. We need to tend these moments over a lifetime. I want to think about a reparations approach to mutual aid. The structure of mutual aid in Chicago is the North Side bringing support to the South and West Sides. It reinstates the inequities in geography. It's really clear-cut where the resources are and where the damage has been done. The question of mutual aid, at least in Chicago, is a reparations approach to resource sharing. I don't think mutual is the way to go. It hasn't been mutual. We need to undo the lack of mutuality.
It hasn't been mutual.
It hasn't been mutual.
It hasn't been mutual.
Reparations is a first step toward naming and addressing the centuries of pain, anguish, and exploitation wrought by white people and white supremacy culture. Redistributing financial wealth and relinquishing unearned power could release white institutions and white people into the possibility of trust, of ecosystem-tending instead of gatekeeping.
An ecosystem could look like: My health and wellbeing are fundamentally tied to the health and wellbeing of everything around me. I don't exist at the expense of others. The vitality and vibrance of those around me brings forth vitality and vibrance within me. There's enough to go around. And if there isn't, those with reserves share their excess. They are comforted to know that it will come back around when they're in need.
Greenbaum: It means: I'm part of the network. I don't just serve the network.
Castro: It's very visual to me. I imagine all kinds of lines of communication and action that are circular and come back around to themselves.
I see it as a feedback loop, within a larger ecosystem of infinitely complex feedback loops. Each is dependent on all the others, but not every loop is constantly working at full capacity. Just as ecosystems change pace with the seasons, so too must community care remain dynamic.
Willis: This document creation was a mutual aid structure in some forms. We talked less about consensus and more about getting things done. That meant that some people were doing more, people had different trajectories, and there was trust that everyone was doing what they could.
Castro: It makes me think of theaters opening their doors for other purposes. The idea of the theater as a commons. It should be free, people should be able to enter and go, that's really exciting. I hope those spaces don't close back up again. I hope we can investigate how these can be a commons, and what that means.
Sherman: Think about all the things that suddenly became possible in response to COVID that we were previously told were impossible, like unemployment for freelancers. I question why we don’t have simpler solutions in the dance world as well. There's a tendency to consider institutions as financially stable, well run machines, and that’s just not true in the dance world. Each one is so precarious.
What if you were free from precarity, scarcity, and fear? What would you make and what would you do if all your spiritual and material needs were met? Play a little make-believe and picture abundance. How do you feel? Dream beyond what's considered a given; dream into what was previously considered impossible. Given is crumbling around us; possible is exploding outward.
Sherman: I would do less. I would see other people's work more. If I could just pick up and go see someone else's show, that sounds amazing to me. And I want everyone to have access to a studio space where they can experiment and make things but which they can also ignore and neglect. To step outside of the production and delivery mode and be fallow and slow.
Castro: Shows should be free, they should be happening at all times, you should be able to come and go. It should be social. I want people to eat while they’re watching. There’s a certain freedom of mobility that I yearn for.
Greenbaum: I think if this question came up six years ago, I would have said I wanted to give dance-making a thought. But I took my BFA and went into an internship. I have a lot of love and joy for this work, but it would involve a lot more seeing work and a lot less doing the hustle. I want to craft programs over years that are artist-driven and not under a time crunch.
Colby: I would do some scholarly research work, deep dive into many American female choreographers—women who have decades of incredible work. I would love to be back in the studio every day, moving with these choreographers and other dancers. Feeling the body in space, the tissue and flesh investigation, there’s nothing like it.
Continuing work that began in Phase One of the Creating New Futures document, this July choreographer and performer jumatatu m. poe will be hosting imagining laboratories with Black and Indigenous artists in the lands currently called the US and Brazil about what they have, what they want, and especially where to go from here. Tune into Study Sessions: FIELD STORIES, every Monday at 9pm ET: Be.Live/@jumatatupoe