In the Fall of 2014, as I was exiting a Yoga to the People class in Williamsburg (where all millennial lead-ins begin), a fellow practitioner approached me with advice for how I could improve my practice. This friendly sage of yoga tips was a United Nations Advisor named Vandana Hart.
At the time Vandana was focused on her career with the UN, but had also begun exploring promoting human rights through dance and movement. Though she did not realize it at the time, those initial exploratory bursts of imagination and conversation would manifest themselves 3 years later as her Netflix series, We Speak Dance.
Vandana, along with director Chris Keener, traveled from Indonesia and Vietnam, to France, Nigeria, and Lebanon to uncover how dance is being used as a political weapon.
I attended a screening of We Speak Dance on Wednesday night, hosted by The Lightning Society in Bushwick. As a community of artists and changemakers, TLS’s mission is to:
“Engage with each other in immersive experiences designed to foster passionate individualism and collective expansion by hosting celebrations and thought leadership events throughout year and sharing the results of those collaborations with the world at large.”
This was certainly true of the event I attended last night.
From Alvin Ailey dancers to architects to UN advisors, the room boasted figures from all professional and creative walks of life. After a brief and humble introduction, during a screening of Episode 2, “Vietnam,” for the next 22 minutes you could hear a pin drop.
The rolling of “Vietnam’s” credits were accompanied by an uproar of applause followed by a Q&A session. I attempted to ask few questions, but was never called on—most likely because I had already peppered Vandana with questions for this piece. I sat down with her last week to discuss the origins, current state, and future hopes for We Speak Dance. Each episode explores a different aspect of value that dance provides to its local communities. Vandana shared how she built each narrative around this framework,
“We would follow the news cycle and the dance vibes. France, for example, had a recent close election between an extremist neo-Nazi party and a more forward-thinking globalist party. So we decided to ask the dance community how they felt about the French identity and how dance was a reflection of current affairs. That really resonated with people.”
The more we spoke, the more I realized that Vandana must’ve drawn massive inspiration for the project from working for the UN while simultaneously being a judge for Kenya’s version of So You Think You Can Dance:
“Having these responsibilities occur at the same time allowed two worlds that were really important to me to exist at the same level, and it made me realize my work with dance was making the same, if not more, of an impact. At the UN I was working on Women’s Rights and I noticed there was often competition around which social issues got attention or funding. But the beauty about addressing global and local problems through art is that there isn’t competition. Art gets people excited; whatever the issue, time or place, people will want to connect with dance.”
This unique separation from the pack goes beyond inspiration. Beyond We Speak Dance, there is virtually zero coverage of dance politics in a TV format and the little that does exist is largely commercialized. Vandana believes showcasing the marriage of dance and politics has been a missed opportunity by the entertainment industry,
“There’s a void. I wanted to create something I hadn’t seen before. Dancers are the most marginalized artists on the planet—we are paid the least and have unhealthy relationships with the business because we are exploited. It’s been rewarding to have dancers talk about using their craft for a greater purpose. The dancers who don’t have experience in activism have really taken to this movement—it has opened up a space to connect their art with issues they care about. It’s a process of awakening when your realize that your body is not just for entertainment, but can be a literal and symbolic weapon for change.”
And for those of you with a creative vision who are looking for a potential partner, she has a recommendation:
“I see Netflix as more of a tech company than an entertainment company. With everything that’s being revealed regarding being a woman in the entertainment industry, it’s nice to have a partner that is a ‘newer kid on the block’ and has a huge global reach. With Netflix, its not about the boy’s club and who you know–it’s purely based on data and metrics. Literally, ‘who is watching? How many eyes are we getting on this content?’”
As for the dances themselves, it is clear from the footage that Vandana tried out every local move she came across and as adept as she is at picking up most dances, a few prove more difficult than others. She told me about the hardest style of dance:
“The Balinese dances, hands down. They spend their whole lives perfecting this and all of the poses are the opposite of ballet. In ballet the spine is aligned perfectly, but in Balinese dance it is completely arched back. The toes are flexed up, the hands are flexed back. And your toes are off the ground, which is also the opposite of classical ballet. I couldn’t get it at all!”
Oka Dalem, Balinese Dance Master
“Also, dance everywhere is not just about the technique, its also the energy and the intention behind the dance. It’s about the stories of the dance—in Bali, dance is a prayer and an offering to the gods.”
I also found myself wondering (as I’m sure the readership has as well) …Bali, Vietnam, Paris, Lagos, Beirut — who partied the hardest? Who was the most litty? Vandana said it was a tie,
“Oh man! They all partied super hard. This is tough, but I guess it’s a tie between Lagos and Beirut. I saw sunrises in both places. People take it really seriously [laughs].”
I had a variety of questions, but much like the dancer I was interviewing, I was most preoccupied with her next steps:
“Season 2, more dancers, more cities. Live We Speak Dance events and creating the ‘UN of Dance’ with local and international dancers teaching dance empowerment workshops in the most marginalized parts of the city, building creativity and hope for our next leaders.”
For those of you in the NYC area on Saturday night (1/13), if you’re interested in challenging the We Speak Dance creative team to some friendly battling you can find them at the East Coast Launch Party at Le Bain.
As you’re getting loose to Afrokinetic’s beats, just remember: you may end up catching a glimpse of yourself in Season 2.