Why I Dance? Because It Healed What They Tried To Break

Posted on March 8, 2015 in Gender-Based Violence, Interviews, Sexual Health, Staff Picks, Taboos, Women Empowerment

By Komal Singh for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Dance is an expression of our inner freedom. Our inner voice. A voice that cannot be stifled.

Why I Dance from Why I Dance Film on Vimeo.

This video isn’t just about pole dancing. It’s about women choosing to express themselves in a way that they love and feel empowered by. It’s about breaking barriers, claiming our bodies and not apologizing for the choices we make. It’s about acceptance. Freedom. Creating a safe space. And most importantly, it’s about knowing deep down that we have this choice. Whether we do something about it or not, is completely up to us. Not someone else.

The stories in this video are remarkable. They are about women who are teachers, psychologists, little sisters and activists. Women just like us. So when they choose to express their sexuality through pole dancing, it doesn’t make them any less, both as women and people. In fact, it makes them more. So much more.

Personally for me, it wasn’t enough to be moved by this video, then forward it to some of my girlfriends and eventually, forget about it. It was important to reinforce the feeling of power I felt when I watched it for the first time and write about it. More than that, it was important to let more people, both men and women in this country know about this piece of work so we can at least attempt to let go of the stigma concerning young women and their life choices.

Melanie Zoey Weinstein, the director of this video was thrilled to hear from us when we contacted her for this piece. An LA-based playwright, screenwriter, actress and director, when Melanie graduated from high school, she received an award that her teachers had made up especially for her: ‘Dedication to Artistic Expression’. Melanie is and always will be a storyteller, happiest when she’s creating something honest and purposeful.

We hope you connect with the video and this piece as much as we did. More power to you. Happy Women’s Day, ladies!

Q. What was your motivation to make this video?

A. My friends, fellow dancers, and co-producers- Amy Main and Sascha Alexander, conceived of the idea and vision for the film together in a serendipitous week, in which we were all driven to make a film about the movement we share together at our dance studio. We felt strongly about centering it around social justice issues, knowing that we are very lucky to have the freedom to dance in this way here in Los Angeles. That’s why my sign says “Because I Can,” because in a way, I also dance for the women who can’t. Beyond addressing violence against women, we also show women who are happy and healthy in our bodies, so we are also discussing the need for women to have the freedom to own their sexualities and sensualities, and to feel that their bodies are beautiful enough, exactly as they are. It’s about healing from the variety of traumas, big and small, that women are assaulted with, and the messages that tell us to hide parts of ourselves.

Q. If you could encapsulate the message of this video in two-three sentences, what would it be?

A.Why I Dance’ is a pole dance film about women who come together to reclaim their bodies and themselves. It is our call for social justice for women, to end violence against women and girls, and to set an example of women owning their bodies fully, and with love. We dance in celebration of all women everywhere.

Q. How did you connect with the women in this video?

A. The dancers in the film are all women we know from our studio, mostly friends of each of the producers. Now I feel that they are all my friends, which makes me so very happy to be surrounded by these incredible, authentic, courageous women. Most of the dancers in our video had expressed enthusiastic support for our kickstarter campaign, and reached out to let us know they wanted to be in the film. The remaining dancers we invited on board to help us to create a feeling of inter-sectionality and diversity, to support the film’s message about global women’s rights.

Q. When you got in touch with them first, were they apprehensive about being in the video?

A. Thankfully, all of our dancers either applied to be in ‘Why I Dance’, or enthusiastically said ‘Yes’, so we didn’t have to do any convincing! There were, however, some apprehensions along the way as we made the transition from the safety of our dance studio, to a crowded film set. We kept the set all female for that reason, which turned out to be a rare, wonderful and nurturing experience for all of us.

Many of our dancers had never danced in public, on camera, or in the light before. Our dancers had to push themselves to adjust to the circumstances of filming. I believe that pushing through that discomfort is why the creation of this film has been such a transformative growing experience for all of us.

Regarding apprehensions, one dancer opted to use a stage name for her own comfort. We did not ask why she did that, because it’s not really our business. It is our supreme priority to keep all of our dancers feeling safe and comfortable. We all were so courageous to bare our bodies and souls in our film, and we deserve to feel celebrated and supported the whole way through, despite whatever pushback we may face from media, press or even family.

One of our dancers has had to fend off shaming from colleagues who expressed concern about whether participating in this video was wise for her career. The mentor claims that men in the office won’t know what to do with her, and women would see her as a threat. This is a deeply sad outlook to me.

Another one of our dancers asked us to keep her name out of as much press as possible because the industry she works in remains sexist. It does make me sad that this type of expression still instils fear that would make my friends concerned that it would put their professional or personal lives in jeopardy. Our dances are so authentic and wholesome. I truly hope that we, as a global society, can look inward and move past this type of sexist discrimination. My deepest hope for this film is that we can all truly internalize that a woman’s expression of her sexuality does not negate her integrity, intelligence or autonomy (as said by my wonderful friend and Why I Dancer, Katie Johnson!).

Q. During the shoot, what were some of the most tender and moving moments for you?

A. I wasn’t expecting to dance in this at all. I was far too neurotic about making it as good as possible. I put the film first, and my dance last on the short- list. On the second day, when it was time to dance in my own solo dance, after two days of cheering my face off for other dancers: it was like an explosion of fire. I leaped in the air, whipped my hair, and had a full body tantrum while the whole cast and crew cheered me on. Total unadulterated self-expression and freedom. In that dance, I discovered that the story of my body is as equal in power to any other dancer’s on our shoot. Everyone has a powerful story in their body. That’s what our film is about – the collection of our unique stories, and the transformative power of bringing those stories to light.

Q. Also, it looks like you all had a blast. What were some of the most fun moments you all shared during the shoot?

A. We reshot the big group scene to make sure that we would capture a feeling of celebration that we had not captured the day before. The dancers were understandably tired, but we needed to boost morale and get some fire-y sass. The camera crew suggested I jump into the big group shot to bring some fire, so I ended up directing freestyle dance while I myself was dancing, literally shouting out improvised choreography and direction whenever my face was turned away from the camera. It was spontaneous and so much fun and the result really worked.

Another moment of utter magic was when we completed the shoot, and all of the women ran back on set, and jumped around, hugging and screaming. That footage is captured in the last minute of the film. It wasn’t planned. The camera team just let the cameras roll over our authentic celebration of what we had achieved together.

Q. The messages including ‘Because my body is mine’, ‘Because it fills me up’ and ‘Because it healed what they tried to break’ in the video are really profound. Who came up with them?

All the signs were written by the people holding them. The only feedback we gave was to keep it clear and under six words, if possible. “Because it healed what they tried to break” was written and held by Dwana White.

Q. Was it hard for you to decide on a track for the video or did you know all along that you’d use, Down in the River to Pray? Personally, what does this song mean to you?

A. We needed a song that was unlicensed, and Sascha came up with ‘Down in the River to Pray’, a hymn that was made recently popular in the movie ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’. I was not initially comfortable with the religious connotation and needed to come to understand what this song meant to me as a director in the context of this film. The more I sat with the song, the more I felt it was a powerful choice for our piece. It is a beautiful song, and Ben Stanton and Allie Feder did an incredible, dedicated job in writing a version for our piece (the track can be purchased here). It also works because: Our bodies are a prayer. Our bodies are holy. In the context of our film, the song becomes a call for sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers to come together to end sexual violence against women and all forms of assault on women’s bodies. Our dance, with our song, is a call for love, celebration and self-baptism by self-love. We give ourselves permission to be safe, to love and own ourselves, and our bodies, fully.

Q. How have young women from the US and all over the world reacted to this video?

A. I am heartened and honoured to say that we have had a global response, glowing with positivity and gratitude. Here are some quotes, though unfortunately I don’t know exactly where they are all from! Sorry!

“Melanie, I have taken a brief break from the 60th or so of my viewing of Why I Dance to send you a huge thank you! I am now stepping into a time of my own life where I am embracing my femininity and sexuality and to see this ignites that fire within me even more. Thank you for putting this out there, what you are doing for women everywhere is immeasurable. I am proud to be a woman and it was an honour to watch your video. Thank you thank you thank you! I wish you continued success.” – Kerri Crust

“I cry!! Yes, ladies, YES. This is sacred, badass, feminine art! Thank you for creating this video and taking a stand for women’s bodies. I was teary watching the beauty, grace, and fierce expression in each woman. Work itttttt!!!!” – Christina Dunbar

“This is amazing! Thank you for making this video and song. This renews my love for dance and movement and has me wanting to try pole dancing. I’ve gone through personal loss in the last year and have been searching for a way to heal. Watching these incredible women inspired me to get back to what I love and what makes me feel beautiful and strong.” – Tiffany Schwein

“The more I watch this, it becomes a manifesto for just being. Being a woman and expressing it in an unapologetic way. How amazing that is! Thanks again for this gift girls!” – Gabriela Gomez

“Thank you all, for being brave and free.” – Aurora Cervantes

Q. In a country like India where young women are made to feel guilt and shame when they try and fully claim their bodies (and that even applies to something as trivial as wearing a short skirt outside the house), what message would you like to share with them?

A. As a person who grew up as a relatively observant Jew, I want to be sensitive and respectful to all cultural and religious reasons for modesty, and acknowledge their roots. I also want to acknowledge that religion is no longer an excuse to control and silence women. Know the difference, and use your voice wisely.

To all women and girls: Your body is yours. Every inch of it is holy, sacred and beautiful, and it is your job – and only your job – to protect it as you desire, and to express yourself as you desire, in whatever clothing (or lack thereof) that you desire.

Your body is yours, yours, yours. Hug it. Hold it. Cherish it. Love it. Protect it. Move it. Dance in it. Claim it. Own it.

If you have been shamed, or abused, or know someone who has, please find the community and resources to heal, and see that your attackers are prosecuted. Find therapy. Find solace. It is not your fault. Take legal action. Other people’s narrow-mindedness and sexism are not your responsibility – your only responsibility is to make sure that you are safe. Please know that you are not alone. We are here. We are rooting for you. We are dancing for you.

To watch the kickstarter video, click here.