Stand in Their Shoes

Syhem Belkhodja’s Dance Workshop

By Meredith Lawrence

“Can I give you something?” asked Rhea “Wiildkard” Nance as she eased her way through a crowd of people pushing up the stairs from the basement theater at New York’s French Institute, where Nance had just performed. She handed a woman in a cherry-red blazer and matching skirt a black and white headshot of a woman, printed on plain paper.

In a packed elevator headed for the Skyroom, the woman in red looked up intently at Nance as she told her the story of the woman in the picture, a dancer Nance had encountered in a workshop taught by Tunisian choreographer Syhem Belkhodja and conducted over four days in the week before the show. The elevator was headed for act three of the performance, which was presented by local street-dancers from It’s Showtime NYC, like Nance, and a troupe from Tunisia led Belkhodja. The two women talked back and forth, quickly, animatedly, effortlessly, leaning close together like old friends catching up.

“It felt like I’d known her for a week and we’d sat down and had coffee, talked about the entire world,” Nance said a few days later. Fresh from the workshop, which focused on being open to the stories and experiences of others, Nance felt that she could speak freely with this stranger; there were no barriers between them.

Syhem Belkhodja: Dance is a universal language Photo: courtesy FIAF/Crossing the Line

Along with the five Tunisian dancers she brought with her, Belkhodja worked with the New-York-based dancers, guiding them to tune into the experiences of others and to be their authentic selves. The workshop and performance were part of the French Institute’s Crossing the Line Festival and Bridging Project, which aims to “explore issues of equality across cultures,” according to the festival’s brochure.

Over the course of three acts presented in separate spaces, dancers brought to life the themes of the workshop. In the first act, a single woman performed a traditional Tunisian dance with modern elements, signifying the isolation of Tunisia; then the It’s Showtime NYC dancers explored themes of anger and hostility between young people and the police through a mixture of modern dance and hip-hop; finally Tunisian and New York-based dancers, dressed all in white, performed a dance of hope and unity.

Belkhodja has watched her country become more conservative in recent years, and resents how isolated it is and the ways her people are restricted from traveling. When people are constrained by race, culture or borders, they often internalize this seclusion and turn it into violence, she says. And yet, she asserts, over and over, Tunisians have the same bodies as everyone else in the world, and should not be treated differently.

She considers dance a universal language, and believes that by liberating the mind and the body through dance, and learning to be themselves, young people can escape their restricting neighborhoods, find opportunities to travel and make better lives for themselves. This is how you fight ISIS, Belkhodja avows.

“You say to them that anything is possible. You give them means so that anything is possible. Because they have everything inside of themselves,” Belkhodja adds. She teaches her students that it is most important to be their authentic selves and not follow anyone else.

Brazilian-born dancer Cora Laszlo, who participated in the workshop and danced in the third act of the Crossing the Line show, appreciated the different stories and dancers she encountered. “In dance, and in life, it could be a barrier for us, but the way Syhem [Belkhodja] did the whole workshop, we saw how close we were to each other, and how our dances melted to one another,” she said.

During her workshop, Belkhodja arranged the studio’s ballet bars into a rectangle. She assigned the students roles, asking most of them to stand inside the bars, as immigrants, and several to stay on the outside as police.

Nance played a police officer. She thought about authority, how safe she felt being on the outside, not having to try to run and jump over the bars; she felt an allegiance to her fellow police officers. She thought about her native Chicago where people are often afraid of the police.

“I put myself in their shoes and their fears, and I became their fears,” she said.

Over the four days of the workshop, Belkhodja encouraged the dancers to work on being receptive to the experiences of others. In one exercise, she had students form a circle in the corner of the room and each took turns standing in the corner, facing out into the circle. The other participants shone cell phone lights onto each of them. The idea was to look at each person and to imagine being in his or her shoes.

The dancers from It’s Showtime NYC chose to incorporate this gesture into their performance. In a dark theater, the dancers, dressed in uniform blue jumpsuits, shined their cellphone lights on each other and the audience as Nance sang and the dancers worked their way through a series of black elastic bands stretched across the stage. Nance sang from deep within herself. Although Belkhodja provided the dancers with several choreographed segments around which the performance was organized, she emphasized authenticity above all else because, she said, if the dancers felt connected to their emotions, the audience would too. In rehearsals Nance couldn’t find a song to sing that felt right, so she made it up as she went along, putting whatever melody fit together with the words right there on the stage.

At the end of the performance, Nance stood alone on the stage cutting the black elastic bands. One by one, the bands thwacked dully as the scissors sliced them in two and they sprang to opposite sides of the stage.

Black and white photographs that the dancers had taken of each other lined the front of the stage. Near the end of the performance, the dancers picked up the photos, trying to connect with the person in the photograph and the story that person had shared in the workshop. After the house lights came on, the dancers filtered out into the audience carrying the photographs to recount these stories to the audience.

During the workshop, Belkhodja put the dancers in a circle for a second time. The lights in the room were off, sunlight filtered in, and gently she would tap a student on the shoulder, ushering him or her into the circle to offer a story. One student stepped into the center and spoke about how, as a white woman, she had been asked by her employer to be more culturally aware of her white privilege. She danced in an invisible box, trying to escape and failing. She broke down crying and a member of It’s Showtime NYC moved to embrace her.

“She was talking about white privilege and here was this black man stepping out to hug her,” Nance recalled. It was beautiful. Vance wished everyone in America could have the bravery to speak that honestly about their struggles and their fears.

“It was sharp, pungent and funky” Nance said. “And I loved her for it.”

This was the story she told the woman in red in the elevator at FIAF, the story that instantly connected the two woman, old and young, tall and short, black and white. The elevator doors opened, and the women were hustled out into the room by the crowd. “I’m so glad I met you,” they told each other. They stopped, hugged, and parted ways.