For Jessica Anthony, dance is not only an art form, but also an expression of self that can happen both inside and away from the studio.
Anthony—a U of I MFA candidate in dance with an emphasis in choreography—used her approach to personal growth during a community engagement project at the Iowa Juvenile Home/Girls State Training School (IJH/GSTS) in Toledo.
A Bettendorf native, Anthony made six weekly trips to the juvenile home last spring and introduced the girls to movement explorations that illustrate the compositional components of dance. She returned to the facility for eight weekly workshops this fall.
Anthony’s goal was to empower the young women, who range in age from 12 to 18, to tell their stories. By teaching them how to use creative tools to compose and then communicate their personal narratives, Anthony sees the potential for youth to assume greater control of their bodies and lives. The girls will use writing and dancing as catalysts to create personal “movement portraits.”
“Part of it is the mystery of art making. Some of it is the theory behind the intelligence of the body,” Anthony says. “The more you’re opening up channels of communication between your body and your brain, the more input you’re going to receive about who you are. Also, what’s important about the body is it offers a practice of a new way of being.”
Anthony developed the project idea as a 2012 graduate fellow at the Obermann Center’s Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy. This project also ties into her MFA thesis concert, scheduled for spring 2013.
Her research examines ways dance is uniquely suited for use as a tool for social action to promote equity, justice, and community building. Anthony explores ways in which she can empower other dancers to develop as artist-activists equipped to facilitate meaningful and relevant dance experiences in diverse communities.
“I have thought about what is the world going to do with all these dance majors?” Anthony says. “I think it's important that dancers are encouraged and empowered to leave a university setting with the tools to engage the community in meaningful ways, whether that’s teaching various populations in the community or doing volunteer work.”
Anthony says seven or eight girls attended each session last spring, adding that they embraced the project by taking a risk, trying hard, and exhibiting a positive attitude.
The workshops, which will continue this fall, help the young women to reimagine their lives in a safe, creative environment. What do strengths feel like? What does it look like to stand my ground? What does it look like to be generous and forgiving? The girls address these and other key questions during the sessions.
Anthony will begin her thesis choreography project this fall by holding an audition for interested undergraduate dancers. As part of the rehearsal process, she will take the undergraduate dancers with her to the juvenile home for the workshops.
“I want the Iowa students to feel like composition and movement are tangible tools for reflection, which is important when you’re in diverse settings,” Anthony says. “They will create alongside the young women.”
“Learning doesn’t move in one direction. Everyone will be learning together, so this will not be therapy,” Anthony adds, with a nod to noted American choreographer Liz Lerman, whose work Anthony admires.
Anthony is hopeful these workshops will be the first step in building a relationship between the University of Iowa and the Iowa Juvenile Home. She would like to see future partnerships develop based upon on how dance can support the needs and goals of the young women and the juvenile home.