Dance can set you free. It can liberate your body and liberate your mind. That is what I have learned in my own life and that is the lesson I remember while working with women who have been taught through violence to see their bodies as disgusting, shameful, or ruined. Every day I see dance undoing this shame and setting individuals free.
During the early years of my life, I grew up in a village outside of Kolkata before moving into the city with my family. When I was 13, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I was an only child; I spent three years watching her die. The only dance lessons I had ever had were in a strict academy and I couldn’t stand the rules; I am a born rebel. However, three months before my mother passed, I started to dance in my own way, finding my own style. I saw then that dance is not just about aesthetics or entertainment. It is about something deeper; it is about freeing the body to express itself, releasing whatever is within you. I danced through my mother’s death.
I went on to train with an influential Indian dancer late Dr. Manjusri Chaki Sircar who was known for incorporating feminist theory into dance. In university I studied sociology, focusing on violence against women and criminology; I kept returning to my belief that dance could be used to deal with some of the human behavior about which I was studying.
Then one day in 1996, I was walking through the Kolkata Book Fair when I saw a poster put up by the anti-human trafficking organization, Sanlaap. On it was a picture of a girl and a poem that ended with the words, “I am no more bride to be. I am no more mother to be. I am no more future to be.” These words struck me. I thought maybe dance could be a tool to help these women. I volunteered with the organization and as I got to know the women there, I discovered that survivors of abuse, rape, and violence often become separated from their bodies. They have been taught by their abusers that their bodies are sites of shame; the women were cutting themselves off from their bodies so as not to belong to them.
I began to work with these women in a creative dance process. It wasn’t about saying, move your leg here, put your arm there. It was about helping them to find a way to express themselves and to see their bodies as the source of their power. I saw women who had closed down come back into their bodies. Much of the pain that was locked away in the body began to be released. Women who had been rescued from sex trafficking told me their bodies were impure and filthy. Through dance, they began to see that their body is theirs, that it is a creative tool that nobody can ruin or pollute.
Could more women find this freedom? Could I somehow provide needed job opportunities? With the help of five survivors who I had met while volunteering, we decided to create a group called Kolkata Sanved that would take this dance therapy to abused women throughout the city and train them, in turn, to teach it to more women. We wanted to give individuals a tool so they could change themselves. We wanted to create a wave of dance that would wash through society. Very often in when working with survivors, physical power is overlooked and individuals are seen as victims. This is something that must change. At Kolkata Sanved we see individuals as proactive advocates who can find empowerment through a process of struggle, freedom, and change.
I remember a girl who used to come and warily watch my classes. She wouldn’t make much eye contact and she was sullen, detached. After the class, she would try to persuade the other girls that it was a class for mad people. I went and sat with her. Slowly she began to tell me the story of her life: her parents had died when she was young and she was sent to live with her grandmother where an older relative raped her. “I can’t see anything positive in life,” she told me. “Whatever happens, I only feel terrible and ashamed.” There are hundreds of stories like hers.
After we spoke she began, tentatively, to join in with some of the movements. As months passed, she began to feel dance liberating something within her. It made it possible for her to talk about her pain and to overcome it. The bonding that occurred among students in the class and watching others overcome their pain were crucial experiences for her.
Today, that girl is one of our senior dance movement therapy practitioners. She did something she thought she never could; she got married and now she is pregnant. It is difficult to explain this process with language. Dance is about making it possible to love your body and to love yourself. Without talking, you can convey a message and find autonomy; you can reclaim your power. Our entire approach is based on Dance Movement Therapy process including discussions, group feedback and self reporting so that children and individuals have a space in which to have their voices heard.
I am thrilled to be part of One Billion Rising. It presents a way to take our philosophy to the global stage. Our goal is to see the one billion women on this planet who have been abused rise up as one. I know some people think, why dance? Why not something more “serious” or more political? I know and the women I work with know that dance is both of these things; dance is a symbol of all we wish to see in the world. I believe that women across the world can dance until we are free.
As told to the One Billion Rising team.
1 in 3 women across the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. That’s ONE BILLION WOMEN AND GIRLS. Every February, we rise – in hundreds of countries across the world – to show our local communities and the world what one billion looks like and shine a light on the rampant impunity and injustice that survivors most often face. We rise through dance to express joy and community and and celebrate the fact that we have not been defeated by this violence. We rise to show we are determined to create a new kind of consciousness – one where violence will be resisted until it is unthinkable.
This year we are rising for Revolution. We are initiating a new series, “Building to One Billion Rising Revolution,” where we will be sharing stories of extraordinary activists who embody the creative radical shift in consciousness required to bring about CHANGE.
Grassroots Activists who fight for justice and liberation with passion and joy.