When racial justice protests swept the country in June, 16-year-old Shayla Avery chose her school in Berkeley, Calif., as the location for her first protest.
She planned it all: Protesters would march about a mile from San Pablo Park to Berkeley High School, joined by drummers; she accompanied them, standing in the back of a flatbed truck, playing music and leading the chants through her megaphone.
On the day of the protest, his plans came to fruition. Hundreds of young people from the East Bay showed up, including classmates and staff from his high school, as well as dancers from his youth group at the Destiny Arts Center in Oakland.
With the music pounding and the drums pushing the marchers, the Destiny Arts dancers couldn’t help but dance.
There were hip-hop and Afro-Haitian styles, as well as freestyle dancing with local movements from East Bay, like the smeeze, created by an Oakland dancer named Chonkie. Soon the young dancers were at the front of the crowd giving the energetic momentum of the march.
When they arrived at Berkeley High, the walkers formed a circle; One by one or two by two, the dancers moved to the center, where they had a moment to show off their moves to the cheers of the crowd.
“You have to have grades for the protest,” Ms. Avery, who is entering her senior year of high school, said over the phone. “Some people need music and some people want to walk and sing. Some people want to dance.
The dancers of the teenage company Destiny Arts, of which Ms. Avery is a member, have long learned that dance and social justice are interconnected. This year, for their year-end performance, they were preparing a feature film called “The Black (W)hole”. It combined dance, poetry and film, as a celebration of the lives of six young people who died in the Oakland area.
But nothing went as planned in the world of live performance this spring, and the play, financed by a to agree from the Hewlett Foundation and written by choreographer and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph was forced to evolve – twice.
First, the pandemic has made it impossible to produce a classic proscenium stage. Instead of canceling the production entirely, one of Destiny Arts’ founders, Sarah Crowell, suggested the team look to a film version that would allow dancers to perform the choreography outdoors.
Then, after the police killing of George Floyd sparked widespread and sustained protests, the project was transformed again. The filmmaker hired for the project, Yoram Savion, began following Ms Avery’s organizing work, and the film became, in part, about how young activists reacted to the killings of black people in real time.
In June, Ms. Avery organized another protest, a march against gentrification in Berkeley; this time she decided to make it a more intentional part of the dance. She invited her fellow Destiny dancers to perform some of the choreography they had prepared for “The Black (W)hole.” They danced outside a BART station in South Berkeley, where the march began.
It was the first time the tight-knit group of teenagers had performed the choreography together in person since the pandemic began in March; for months they had been rehearsing in their own confined boxes over Zoom, warming up and learning the choreography at the same time but in separate spaces.
One of the studio teachers provided music from his phone and they danced on the sidewalk with a semi-circle of onlookers standing around them.
“I feel like I’m dancing a lot harder knowing why I’m dancing,” said Dinah Cobb, 15, who performed that day.
Ny’Aja Roberson, 16, performed a praise dance that was mostly freestyle. She said she wanted the move to come to her in the moment rather than being planned.
“When I was dancing, I felt like I was bringing all the spirits of these people – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin,” Ms Roberson said. “I felt like I was dancing for all the young lives that couldn’t be with us at that time.”
Then the march moved north to Berkeley Hills with the dancers ahead of the crowd.
At the center of a march on local racial justice issues were local dance movements, said Isha Clarke, 17, a Destiny student who was at the protest. She is also an activist who last year starred in a viral moment in which young people tried to persuade Senator Dianne Feinstein to support the Green New Deal.
During the demonstration in Berkeley, the young dancers freestyled the smeeze and the dance of the thistles by Mac Dre, a Bay Area rapper who was shot and killed in 2004.
For walkers, it felt like both a sober call to action and a joyful celebration.
“I think joy is a game-changing emotion,” Ms. Clarke said, “especially in these really difficult apocalyptic times that we’re living in.”
In another protest, in mid-July, Ms Avery placed dancers outside Berkeley Police Department headquarters, where protesters camped out from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. There were hip-hop, modern and freestyle dancers, spoken word poets and visual artists drawing with chalk in the street. Ms Avery and other organizers projected images of police brutality onto the wall of the building.
Dance studio staff members watched their students’ demonstrations and also helped with some of the logistics, like providing the projector and masks for the dancers who said “Breathe.”
“I was beaming with pride, hope and excitement,” Ms. Crowell said of the students’ use of dance in their organization. “They had made the connection between the movement and the social movements.”
As the young dancers organized themselves, “The Black (W)hole” rotated outside, near the white pillars of Oakland Technical High School, and inside a disintegrating abandoned train station with high ceilings and good air circulation.
Mr Joseph, who is also vice president and artistic director of social impact at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, said he wanted the film to show what it is like to have a performance suddenly disrupted by world events.
“The way I thought of it at first was like ‘Lemonade’ meets ‘Homecoming’ in Oakland,” he said.
The young dancers from Destiny Arts aren’t the only ones featured in the film. The same will be true for the dancers of the Elders Project studio, made up of women in their 60s, 60s and 80s. In particular, the video highlights 71-year-old Arisika Razak, who performed for the film in her backyard and at a rose garden in Oakland.
Ms Razak said she has long seen dance as a force in racial justice movements, citing the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, where toyi-toyi dancing was both a tool of protest and an expression of celebration.
“It’s how we get the body up to stand in front of police and tear gas,” she said. “These music and dance technologies are almost always how oppressed people have managed to survive.”
For Ms Avery, having her fellow dancers at protests served as a personal support system at the first three protests she staged. “I felt like I had my community with me,” she said.