Teaching Artist Spotlight: Sarah Dahnke and Sarah Pope of Dances for Solidarity

We recently talked with Sarah Dahnke and Sarah Pope, our newest additions to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Sarah Dahnke is the Artist Director and Sarah Pope is the Associate Director of Dances for Solidarity (DFS). Dances for Solidarity is a collaborative dance project where Dahnke and Pope, who both possess a professional and creative background in choreography and dance, co-create dances with people who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. Through the project, the artists at DFS 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. Dahnke and Pope speak on the vital nature of connection to those inside during the ongoing pandemic, the necessity of direct release for those most vulnerable in carceral settings, as well as the expanding role that art networks like JAC can play in remaining connected to incarcerated individuals.

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Sarah Danke and Sarah Pope with a group of their New York dancers. From L to R: Milton Jones, Sarah Pope, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, Benji Hake, Sarah Dahnke

 JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

SDBecause Dances for Solidarity already has an established practice of creating and collaborating through the mail, we are very equipped to deal with the distance this pandemic has warranted. However, even the mail is much slower, especially when it comes to receiving communication from inside. It took me about a month to hear from our most frequent collaborator, Dushaan, who is incarcerated in Texas. His letters usually only take about a week to arrive. Knowing how dire things are inside, this slow turnaround has me very nervous. If I don’t hear from someone, are they safe? By the time I receive their letter, they could have fallen ill. We also have our network of formerly incarcerated artists, who Sarah and I check in with regularly via text or phone call. We haven’t been able to create together in this time. Currently, DFS is collaborating with Black and Pink‘s New York chapter to connect people in the free world who want to establish new choreography-based collaborations with people who are inside. This is a slow process, but it is one way we are attempting to keep the core of the project going. And Sarah and I have been brainstorming ways we can act as a conduit for choreography already created behind bars pre-COVID19. The workshop we facilitated with JAC is an example of one way we are doing this work. We are also working on a packet of written materials and a series of videos that can be distributed through organizations that have direct relationships with prisons to distribute this type of content. DFS is always thinking about how to form connections with people inside then pull that outside of prison walls to have larger conversations about justice and punishment with public audiences. It will likely be a long time before we can have a live performance since it is more challenging for DFS performers to be a part of a process that requires collaborating via the Internet.

SP: A big challenge is access to the technology to stay connected. Access to the internet, the time, space and privacy to use it as much as you’d like, is not possible for those on the inside, not always possible for those recently released. Thus their voices are diminished even more.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

SD: This current moment has definitely highlighted the human rights crisis happening behind bars. When there is a pandemic that requires distance between humans and access to proper medical care, it becomes very obvious who has access to this and who doesn’t. The reports I’m hearing from inside are horrific. One DFS collaborator said the prison he is in is short staffed with no medical supplies. Infected people are sent to a quarantine room and left to recover or die. But I want to be clear: the situation in prisons across the United States has always been a crisis. In this current moment, I support efforts behind releasing a large number of folks who are serving longer sentences than their convictions warrant, juveniles and the aging. But I also don’t want this conversation to end once this pandemic is over. We need to take bold steps to completely re-writing what the criminal punishment system looks like in the United States, and right now is a great time to begin those steps.

SP: Releasing people, particularly the aged, from jails has been one step; prisons could do better. Fewer admissions to jails and prisons. Increased access to medical care, reduced copays, increased access to phone and video calls. As per [Prison Policy Initiative’s recommendations]: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/virus/virusresponse.html

JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

SD: Center those who have been affected. Ask them what they need. Even though we are all currently isolated, we should never be having conversations in isolation. 

SP: A supportive network is a diverse network, that is continually asking, who needs to be involved? Who do we need to hear from who we are not hearing from? Who is not being represented, that could be? And then the question of resources. Who is getting resources, and who is not. A supportive network would center the voices of those who need, and seek to supply, not just resources, but also power.

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Photo still from performance of Dancing Through Darkness at HERE Arts Center in 2019. Pictured are Benji Hake, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, and Milton Jones. Photo credit: Maria Cobb

 JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

SD: The ability to affect audiences and potentially affect change. DFS is a project, not an education effort, meaning we don’t go into prisons and teach art. We instead form one-on-one collaborations with incarcerated people. The work from these collaborations goes into a process with formerly incarcerated performers. And then this work is performed for public audiences. The real education happening here is with audiences. Each time we have a performance, I will have a conversation with an audience member, and often one who works in close enough proximity to the system that you would assume they understand the conditions of prison. And each time, their minds are blown. They are blown away to see the artistry behind bars. They are blown away to see the honest and authentic performance before them. Knowing that we are helping the public be more empathetic and see each individual as a human is incredibly valuable.

SP: Seeing the public encountering art whose origin lies with incarcerated artists, and witnessing a shift in perception of, and thus a change in language used around, people who are incarcerated. A shift to understanding a person who may be incarcerated as a person, an artist with a unique voice, instead of a nameless, faceless “other” who is only defined by what got them into prison. Change like this is slow, small, and incremental, being person-to-person, but it builds awareness by allowing members of the public to feel personally connected and involved, and may lead to bigger changes in community engagement, activism, philanthropy, and voting practices, which is bigger!

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?

SD: I hope it has made a lot of people wake up. Again, this pandemic has only highlighted dangerous and inhumane conditions that have always existed because prisons are inhumane by design. When this pandemic is over, prisons will still be inhumane. People will still be over-sentenced and tortured and silenced. What I hope is that the public will keep paying attention to what is going on behind bars in the future.

SP: I’m trusting that individuals who are currently isolated in their homes, will look twice, think twice about individuals who are a part of the carceral system. I’m hoping that a systemic shift will come in the future of health care, and workers’ rights, in the United States, that will also touch the rights of incarcerated individuals, and that the systemic shift will include valuation of life and not just of money, that will build more equitable systems for health care especially for those who have the least access to it.

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Photo still from performance of Dancing Through Darkness at HERE Arts Center in 2019. Pictured are Benji Hake, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, and Milton Jones. Photo credit: Maria Cobb

People can learn more about Dances for Solidarity at:
Instagram: @solidaritydance

Sarah Dahnke is the director and founder of Dances for Solidarity. She is a Brooklyn-based choreographer, multimedia artist, and arts educator. She creates performance experiences that often feature non-performers, highlighting and celebrating the nuances of natural, untrained human movement. She works with public school students to facilitate the creation of their own choreography and video projects, makes giant group dances to teach to the general public, and films instructional videos to disseminate dance sequences widely. 

Through Dances for Solidarity, Dahnke has been a guest lecturer/teacher at Tulane University, Princeton University, UCLA and New York University, a presenter at conferences such as Create Justice, Prison Outside, and NCA – Policing, Prisons & New Public Voices. She was an awardee of a residency/commission from A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans and is working to maintain an ongoing presence of DFS in the New Orleans area.

Sarah Pope is a Brooklyn-based dance artist, dance & fitness educator, and clown. She has worked with many dance companies in New York, most recently Mark Lamb Dance and Renee Gerardo Dances. Her clown character, SarahBesque, debuted new work at the NY Clown Theatre Festival at The Brick Theater, September 2016. As an educator she has taught in many NYC public schools with Together in Dance, as well as at Spoke the Hub Dancing and the Prospect Park YMCA.

 

Dances for Solidarity

by Sarah Dahnke
About the guest blogger: Sarah Dahnke is a Brooklyn-based choreographer, multimedia artist, and arts educator. She creates performance experiences that often feature non-performers, highlighting and celebrating the nuances of natural, untrained human movement. She works with public school students to facilitate the creation of their own choreography and video projects, makes giant group dances to teach to the general public, and films instructional videos to disseminate dance sequences widely. Her video work has been curated nationally by Dance Films Association, DCTV, Tiny Dance Film Festival, Hyde Park Arts Center, Ruth Page Center for the Arts and Gowanus Ballroom as well as internationally across The Philippines. Her choreography has occurred on stages, in streets, on the Internet, in music videos, on roofs, in galleries and more. Some of these places include The Kitchen, CPR-Center for Performance Research, Grace Exhibition Space, Dance Theater Workshop, The New York Transit Museum, Northside Festival and Lollapalooza.

Dances for Solidarity is my newest project, and it aims to create ephemeral connections between people who are in solitary confinement and those who are not through written correspondence and dance. Myself and my collaborators have created a 10-step written movement sequence, and this is included in a letter that we mail to those in solitary (an initial list was provided by Black and Pink). From there, we engage in more individualized correspondence with those who write back.

As a choreographer, I often create work that falls under the categories of “participatory performance” or “community-based performance,” where people who are not trained dancers end up as the main performers. I’ve been interested in working with incarcerated people for a long time, but I didn’t exactly know how we could make a dance together even if I were granted access to a prison.

In 2013, I saw a traveling photography exhibit created by Solitary Watch at Photoville, titled Photo Requests from Solitary. In this work, the project leaders wrote to people on in solitary confinement and asked what image from the outside they would like to see, then the artists crowd sourced these images and sent them back. These images then made up this exhibit. It was incredibly powerful, and it sparked the idea that one way I could create dances for and with incarcerated folks would me through written correspondence. After letting that marinate for a little while, this project manifested.

This project requires a lot of support, and I’ve been lucky to tap into a growing network. I’ve been granted space by Abrons Arts Center to hold weekly letter writing clinics. Culture Push awarded me the Fellowship for Utopian Practice, which offers logistical, moral and financial support. I have some dedicated artistic collaborators and regular letter writers. As we continue to write to those in solitary around the country, this network will also need to grow. One thing I’m working on is setting up satellite letter writing groups around the country.

The prison mail system is slow, plus not everyone who we write will necessarily respond. But responses are coming in, and so far they are really wonderful. Many people thank us for showing our support, for reaching out, for offering a lifeline to the outside world. Many people have terrible things to say about the conditions they are kept in, about how their prisons are short staffed and therefore unable to give them the one hour of recreation time they are supposed to have outside of their cell each day. But inside of these letters we are also given lovely descriptions of how this dance made people feel. So many of our pen pals felt awkward or silly doing a dance all alone, but once they gave it a try, it became fun or empowering or uplifting or transformative. One man told us a story about how he said “hell no I’m not doing this” but ended up doing it with six of his fellow inmates during their rec time.

I’m excited to see how this project continues to grow and the responses we continue to get, and I’m trying to get more people involved. If you are in the New York area, please follow us on Facebook to find out when we are holding letter writing clinics. If you are not in the New York area, you can contact me about setting up a letter writing clinic for Dances for Solidarity in your area: sarah (at) sarahdahnke.com.