Moving Justice // A Conversation between Noemi Segarra and Sarah Dahnke

Clarinda Mac Low: We felt that this would be interesting to bring you two together for a conversation because [in your Fellowship projects] both of you were working with movement practice as a mode of intervening with social systems. Let’s see what happens if you just talk about what led you to doing what you do, and see whether there are some overlaps.

Dances for solidarity at franklin street works   Image courtesy of franklin street works

Dances for solidarity at franklin street works

Image courtesy of franklin street works

Noemi Segarra: I’ve been saying that movement is more my first language than Spanish--before I could speak I was moving, I’ve also been really considering how my practice is claiming my space in the world, so obviously I have to take it out of those theatrical settings. This is about something bigger. It’s ambitious, and it’s intersectional. I thrive in chaos. The first institution is the family and mine was broken up right away, and I’m from Puerto Rico, a colony in a post-colonial world. My first memory of movement came from my mom in the kitchen, and I’m in the living room and my dad is in another room, and they’re screaming at each other and I’m in the middle making a little dance, making a little home to be safe. So, in a way, that’s the beginning of my practice, That’s why, when I went back to PR, I went back to my living room to make a platform for my personal practice that immediately started to connect to fellow movement artists.  It’s claiming space in this reality as it is now--it’s anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist. It’s a practice of freedom.

Sarah Dahnke: In what ways are you using movement very tangibly right now in the world?

N: It’s really simple. I created this [actual] platform in my living room, a new floor, or piso. It is an elevated dance floor above the pavement around my home. As dancers we need that cushion, or that support, that is softer or allows us to carry out this commitment to a practice where we’re not going to injure ourselves, and in a way that’s a metaphor, but it’s also very real grounding. Piso has this double entendre,--piso is the dance floor, but piso is also a verb, meaning  “to take an active step in the now,” “yo piso.” I’m taking a step towards my dream, or utopia, I had that platform, it was 20 by almost 10 feet. Then I started doing this mobile practice, and in New York and we would carry a 2 by 2 panel, with [a] cushion. So wherever I go I can do an intervention, I can have a relationship with a place. Then I self-document and I take that with me. That’s the practice in a nutshell.

S: That answers my question, if the floor is necessary anymore. But the floor has been embodied.

N:  I’m okay with bringing it in because it really grounds [the practice] in a visible, real plane, but evidently the practice and the project is bigger than that. The project is the rediscovery, and reinhabiting the body as a site of potential and of change, and that’s the best technology I’ve ever seen.  

S: Because a practice could be your whole life, it could be everything you embody, and the ways that practice comes out over time, may look different. I know with me it’s looked very different throughout time, and probably will continue to. Movement is always somewhere there in the center. I’m thinking about the word intervention, because something I’ve been noticing when I’ve been writing about Dances for Solidarity, or in conversation with the folks who collaborate who are incarcerated, and just hearing about how movement has had the effect that it’s had, or the changes it’s [made], what I’ve started to think about is movement being an integration instead of an intervention, which I think is maybe a utopian idea. I actually feel like I realized what I was striving for, was hoping would emerge, this integration. Movement is a conversation, but I think that for most of us it is not part of a daily practice, or even a thought. So I don’t know what that looks like, when more of us have that language, and if that changes the type of conversations I’m interested in having about movement or not. 

N:  What is your practice? 

S: [Movement is] this reminder of what it really means to be human, the basic elements of being human.

We’re privileged, because we’re able to move [consciously] and we take it for granted, we forget that we’re breathing, we’re able to move, we’re able to enact something against systems of oppression - Noemi Segarra

N: we’re privileged, because we’re able to move [consciously] and we take it for granted, we forget that we’re breathing, we’re able to move, we’re able to enact something against systems of oppression. I’m moving all the time--thought is movement, breathing is movement, circulation is movement, I’m alive. How to get people involved to think outside that box of what we’re brought up with, and what’s already there. 

S: [There is] something so lovely about a group of people just moving together without there necessarily being a leader or dictator in that situation. I feel like a lot of times I’m striving to create a situation that is a container, where we can just all do this thing together. And I don’t know that I’ve thought incredibly deeply what that means for change. I think of isolated incidents as interventions, but when I think of them as integrations … what if this was just life? What if that was what we all just did?

N: This is great because it brings to the conversation the topic of words and language, and discourse and how going back to movement as my first language, freedom! I think of Noam Chomsky, who is an anarchist, and how somehow his research has to do with how language shapes knowledge and that implicates power structures. That’s why silence and moving disrupts the status quo or order of things. It’s generating the space for other languages. We talk about unity and diversity, we know it conceptually, but how do we embody that and allow it to happen? 

C: I’m interested in how that specifically relates to Dances for Solidarity. [Dances for Solidarity is a project that co-creates choreography with incarcerated people in solitary confinement and those on the outside through a series of long-term letter-writing correspondence.]

photo courtesy of noemi Segarra

photo courtesy of noemi Segarra

S: With that project specifically, dance as freedom is such a core principle. You [Noemi] said the very same thing, that dance, movement is freedom, and I feel like that is something I may have taken for granted, just as a feeling I’ve always felt with movement. The collaborative element of creating these dances together is also creating spaces where movement might not always exist, where that freedom could exist, but I think there are maybe several steps in between getting from where you currently might be to getting to this feeling of dance as freedom and removing the boundaries that might prevent you. That might be physical, that might be mental, they might be architectural and they might be a combination of all of those. when I was hearing you describe this suspension of what’s possible, is “oh maybe there is something more to the process.” What does it mean to work together, not just with dance as freedom or movement as freedom but what are things necessary to get there? I don’t know if I’ve ever really dug into that.

N: I think in PR we live like that, out of necessity for survival, and I’ve been really insisting on this idea that conversation is part of the strategy for survival, in the Caribbean region not just PR. Right now I feel that my work is to hold my ground and speak my truth, wherever I happen to be. That’s a practice, and because I’m embodying that, I allow other people to think that they might be able to do that. But that takes guts and practice and commitment. Making a safe communal space because that’s the only way you can heal. You’re not going to heal in isolation, you’re going to thrive and heal in community and that’s what we’re here to do. The job is to connect and to expand. I need to let that move through me, and no matter if I happen to be in a colony, I can find space I can still be fucking free because that connects me to a bigger whole, which are my ancestors, my real voice, my gut feeling, and that again is intersectional. I don’t think we’re taught enough information about the invisible, and the mystical, and the magical. Which is again connecting to this highly feminine mysterious forces that are not patriarchal. That needs to be a language. I’m here to thrive. I need to connect, and my powers have nothing to do with capitalist culture, or patriarchy. They’re completely different I cannot even comprehend in an appropriate language and that’s why I need to move.

I think the reason for people moving together is just the connectivity and the empathy, and whatever we do together after that could be a million different things - Sarah Dahnke

S: I feel like I’m trying to figure it out. The ways in which I either create or intersect with movement or perform movement--I have my own personal motivations for why I’m connected to it, or why I like creating it, or why it’s my language, but I know that I’m in a group of people who are moving who might not have the same thoughts or feelings... This is the power of humans moving together. I think the reason for people moving together is just the connectivity and the empathy, and whatever we do together after that could be a million different things.

N:  I’m always in a state of becoming and learning and knowing. I don’t know it all and I’m not complete without surfacing to other people. We’ve been talking about bridging the diaspora of PR and the effort [after Hurricane] Maria—that’s not just building an architecture. It’s how you keep it alive, the exchange of ongoing activity.

S: Architecture and movement influences so much of what our options even are, how people move. And I’ve heard that conversation more and more when people are interrogating the criminal justice system or this whole plan to shut down Rikers [Island Correctional Facility] but to make different jails. There’s going to be a whole new architecture, but it’s still an isolation. I’ve been in a few really interesting conversations around architecture, and movement and just how important those two things are when designing a space that’s supposed to contain people, and yes that applies to a jail but that also would apply to a bridge or—

N: —everyday life because there’s architecture everywhere.

S: It forces the way you have to move.

N: Right, it’s a choreography. But that’s when I think this whole conversation intersects with the conversation I’ve been having with Clarinda, which are systems and structures. We cannot be resisting forever. I’m in a colony, and resisting has me in a constant state of fight or flight and that’s unsustainable, so how do we really change it? It cannot be just up to designers, architects and artists. I need everyday citizens to get involved. I don’t have it solved, it’s not perfect, I’m on the fringe, but I’m getting people involved. I also feel that we need support. This is a really big part of the conversation and that’s when finding each other, having this intersection, is important. It can be exhausting.

S: I know, and that’s why I think it’s hard to maintain that. I think a lot of us exist in that fight or flight all the time, and all of these things that just make it harder to do the thing that you want to do or are trying to do. So there is a sustainability of that connection that I think is the most difficult part to, but how do you—

N: —not get burnt out.

S: not get burnt out.

N: But that’s when we need to find each other, otherwise it’s unsustainable, and we’re feeding not just food. Self care is really important. That was one of my biggest concerns after Maria--care is going to be really a long term thing.

S: What are you wondering, Clarinda?

C: I was interested in this line of architecture and the body, I also think there is a deep distinction between being free but not free. I’m curious about your [Sarah] experience talking to different people about that difference, and what your thoughts have been around it.

S: While the project [Dances for Solidarity] has engaged a lot of people, everyone is in a different place in their relationship to movement. It was definitely a big question when entering the project, if this was something that would resonate with enough people who were in such a restricted space, if that was a conversation they were willing to have. And luckily many people have been willing to have that conversation, but not everybody’s idea of movement, or relationship to movement, is as deep as some of the other folks. I’d be interested in figuring out why, but I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do that research. Why [has] Dushaan [Gillum] contributed so many different movement scores, and is such a willing and excited collaborator? He was originating his own choreography without needing a lot of precedent and we were able to have very easy conversations. He was someone who has articulated this feeling that, when he performs with the movement scores in his cell, he has a relationship to freedom and he knows that [he’s] free, but it’s just for that moment. And Michelle transitioned gender while in prison, which is a whole other thing with the body that is happening in this incarcerated space, but I know that, pre-transition, she used that language too. And I think Michelle is interesting because we haven’t really created any movement together, but she has always been active in other ways, like understanding what the project is doing.

I think there’s been, sometimes, a sense of excitement or joy or something else, some other positive feeling around dance, but I think more of it is about the connection--this opens up a connection that didn’t previously exist - Sarah Dahnke

Performers and audience write collective letter to Dushaan after performance in New Orleans.  photo courtesy of Sabree Hill

Performers and audience write collective letter to Dushaan after performance in New Orleans.

photo courtesy of Sabree Hill

From what I understand Michelle is improvising trying to bring other people into that idea of improvising, who are around her. I think that’s where some moments of freedom were coming for her. I know those have been fleeting, because of all of the issues around transitioning when you’re incarcerated. I will say that those are the only two collaborators who actually used the word freedom. I think there’s been, sometimes, a sense of excitement or joy or something else, some other positive feeling around dance, but I think more of it is about the connection--this opens up a connection that didn’t previously exist. Without putting words in their mouths--I don’t have any language from them that states that that connection is necessarily movement based. We’re creating the movement in such a disconnected way, we’re not in the same space together, which I think makes it even more surprising to me when I read a letter from Dushaan, where not only does he describe dance as freedom but has choreography that is embedded in the narrative too, so it shows this real connection to the same idea. He’s interesting because throughout the duration of us collaborating these past few years he’s always been in solitary confinement, but in a few different prisons, and always in a structure where some of the cells face each other, they’re in this more a circular shape. At 4 pm every day they have what they call empower hour, so even though they’re all still separated, at 4:00 they all teach other something. They trade jobs, and they can choose any topic they want, anything they’ve been studying or thinking about, and sometimes Dushaun teaches dance.

N: Did they invent that?

S: They invented that, and they’re not stopped. He said in this particular unit the corrections officers lets them do their thing.

N: That’s amazing

S: It’s not like other units. It’s a facility where a lot of the men have been there for around the same amount of time, and a lot of them have the same mentality that, “we’re not going to let this break us the way that they think that, we’re not going to have that mentality anymore,” which I don’t know I’d be able to overcome. They’re holding each other up in this way, in a space that deliberately separated them which I think is really amazing. And then they have rec time and that’s also separated outdoors. They’re in cages, but they can also see each other. So they now have been figuring out ways where that can be a way of connection. And when Dushaan was telling one of the guys about Dances for Solidarity, He thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if we all could dance together when went out to rec time.” I was like “yes that’d be so cool, please let me know when you do that!”  So that’s also a relationship to architecture, coming back around. 

N: Survival, people have to connect.

S: The ways that people will find points of connection in situations where that is deliberately being taken away. I was incredibly impressed, this is a new thing they just came up with recently, because I think they all realized they were all studying something, or they were all learning something and they were all doing this on their own and they were like, “wait we can teach each other, we can do this together.” So at 4pm, they’re on Central Time, I always think, “what is in empower hour today?” They even built in accountability measures, like if people don’t hold up their end of the positivity, they have to do push-ups, or things like that. They have an agreement. They’re all doing this together. They have to hold it up. 

C: Are there any last things you’d like to say?

S: I feel like just thinking about the impetus as connection and empathy makes so many of the things that are overwhelming feel less overwhelming.

N: Agreed. How to translate this to real life, how do we talk about becoming more human or sensible, empathic, and vulnerable?