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Black Americans Harness the Power of Dance as a Tool for Change

For Berkeley High School senior Shayla Avery, dance is powerful. Avery, a student in Academic Choice, is both a dancer and an activist — often at the same time.


For Berkeley High School (BHS) senior Shayla Avery, dance is powerful. Avery, a student in Academic Choice (AC), is both a dancer and an activist — often at the same time. Far from being only a liberating form of self expression, dance is also a tool for protest and change. 

Last summer, Avery and a handful of other BHS students organized a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest on June 9, at which dance took center stage. Protestors flooded Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., carrying signs and instruments as they marched towards BHS to participate in speeches, performances, and the painting of a BLM mural in front of campus. During the painting, several drum circles formed, surrounded by people dancing and clapping. 

“Dance is powerful,” Avery said. “Sometimes [there are] not words in the human language that can express what we’re feeling, so we need to show it with our bodies.”

For hundreds of years, dance has been used as a form of protest by Black Americans. During the plantation era, enslaved people performed the “cakewalk” for white people’s entertainment. The audience, however, failed to realize that the cakewalk dance was actually an understated parody of their own behaviors, and a subtle form of protest. During the 1900s, dance took a more pronounced role in activism, as Black choreographers created works like Strange Fruit, by Pearl Primus, and Southland, by Katherine Dunham, both mournful reflections on lynching. In the early 21st century, dance began to rise in popularity as a form of demonstrative protest.

When George Floyd was murdered in May of 2020, millions of Americans rose up in defiance against police brutality and systemic racism, with many dancers leading the call to action. Whether choreographed or spontaneous, celebratory or grievous, the BLM movement has been bolstered by dance. “To embody an idea means to give it life. … Dance is the perfect tool for a BLM protest because it is a mechanism that Black people use to express themselves,” said Dawn Williams, the Afro-Haitian Dance teacher at BHS. 

Beyond protests, dance is a form of connection to tradition and culture. Williams said, “Dance is a vital part of my identity as a Black woman. … The way I move is my connection to my ancestors. … It is how I move in this world with grace, pride, and dignity.”

Avery, who organized several of the BLM demonstrations that took place over the summer, said that dance was also a way for her to celebrate and acknowledge the history of her ancestors. Avery said, “For me, as a Black woman, dance is something that came down from our ancestors, something they weren’t always allowed to do, and now we can [use to] freely express ourselves.” 

Ny’Aja Roberson, a junior in AC, choreographed dances and artistic performances for many of the protests. “I’m standing on top of shoulders that fought, that ran, so that I can walk,” she said. “The way I practice activism is with dance. … When I go to protest, it’s my way of expression. … I feel like I tell a story best through movement,” Roberson explained. 

Both Roberson and Avery are members of Destiny Arts Center, a performance art company focusing on social change and activism through movement. While planning a “Pay Your Dues” protest, intended to explore Berkeley’s legacy of racism and how it must reinvest in the Black community, Avery asked Roberson to create a dance piece. “I didn’t really choreograph a lot of that piece because I didn’t want it to feel too rehearsed; I just wanted to let my body flow freely,” said Roberson. “From there, me and other Destiny Arts [Center] members started coming to protests together, and doing a bunch of dances during and after the marches.” 

For Roberson, dance is also a way to remain in touch with her community and with current events. “My purpose when I’m dancing is to connect not only my mind, but my soul with whatever is going on. … I find my inner peace and then I just let my movement come out however it comes out,” explained Roberson. This sentiment was shared deeply by Avery, who incorporated several forms of art in each of her protests because she wanted to give people the opportunity to express themselves and be present. Williams said, “If music can call people to the dance floor, it can beckon people to the protest.”

“Being an activist is expressing yourself and fighting for what you believe in. … It’s a collaborative thing, and that’s an art in itself,” said Avery. Roberson said, “A lot of people’s activism may not be shown so plain and brought out. … Maybe it’s within something else, maybe it’s within something they’ve created, or just within their actions towards other people.” 

Roberson highlighted the importance of this type of subtle activism: “I think people should really look at all aspects of Black culture and all aspects of Black people — especially during Black History Month,” she said. “Black is more than just what is headlined. … Black is growth, Black is power, Black is beautiful.”