Anthony uses dance to inspire, empower girls at Iowa Juvenile Home
Friday, December 6, 2013

Jessica Anthony knows her moves. The Iowa native has boxed up her belongings more than once to take her passion for dance from coast to coast.

As an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle, she volunteered as an elementary school dance teacher for the local Boys and Girls Club. When the time came for a move to New York City and work as a professional performer, she found her way to Harlem and shared her art with underprivileged youth.

But something was missing. “I felt a desire to learn,” says Anthony. “I wanted to communicate movement in ways that were meaningful to the populations I was working with, and offer dance experiences that were not dependent on previous training. I didn’t want to just teach ballet technique.”

"Dance is a way to re-claim agency over the body. By virtue of moving and creating, these girls can recover something they felt has been lost."
Jessica Anthony

That desire led to a few courses at Columbia University Teachers College, and ultimately the University of Iowa MFA program in dance, where Anthony found herself with the support, tools, and resources to help others tap into their individual creative potential.

A new way to groove

Inspired by a practicum on prison outreach she took with associate professor Rachel Marie-Crane Williams in the School of Art and Art History, and the Department of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies, both in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Anthony embarked upon a project to bring dance to displaced and incarcerated youth.

But it wasn’t until she participated in the UI Obermann Center for Advanced Studies' Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy, that Anthony was able to commit unreservedly to the endeavor.

The institute helped her finalize plans to partner with the Department of Dance and the Iowa Juvenile Home (IJH) in Toledo to launch a nine-week movement workshop – one she hoped would inspire its residents and encourage collaboration between diverse groups.

It did. The workshop is now in its third iteration, and alumna Anthony continues to spearhead the program as an adjunct dance professor.

“The Obermann institute gave me the opportunity to talk about performance art with people who were non-dancers. Those conversations made me think about what would make my work powerful and important. Without that input, I don’t think a workshop would have been my first inclination,” she says.

For one hour each Saturday, the IJH workshop participants form performance circles, contorting their bodies into concurrently curved and angular formations that accentuate varied levels of emotion and movement.

“I’ve been impressed with the way these girls take risks and engage and create,” Anthony says of her 13 to 17 year-old students.

A different kind of classroom

The all female troupe studies both formal and improvisational dance components, focusing on the many ways movement can communicate ideas. Together they explore their bodies’ range of motion and share stories behind the movements they’ve invented.

Sometimes those stories tell of a dark and painful past. And while many might shy away from such candid communication, Anthony knows it’s a testimony to the power of movement and the courage of her dancers.

“Dance is a way to re-claim agency over the body. By virtue of moving and creating, these girls can recover something they felt has been lost,” says Anthony.

Part of that reclamation is a sense of community and trust. For the last two semesters, the girls at the juvenile home have worked with UI undergraduate students who co-facilitate the workshop with Anthony and supplement their practicum experience with weekly reflections and readings.

The groups learn from one another, setting aside fear and bias to create a safe space in which to stretch their muscles and speak their minds.

Discovering common ground

Through formal opening and closing dance rituals, the workshop invites the girls and women to leave whatever events have preceded their time here at the door. “It’s an opportunity to make a choice about who we want to be for that hour," says Anthony.

For senior biology major Michelle Sullivan of Urbandale and junior dance major Taylor Gillhouse of Davenport, that choice has meant becoming more aware of themselves and their place in the world.

“It’s changed my view of populations that have been displaced or are behind bars,” says Sullivan who was initially nervous about the reception she would get from the youth. But from goals and dreams to celebrity crushes, “I realized I have so much in common with them.”

Anthony couldn’t be happier. She sees that undergraduate participation in the workshop has leveled the playing field, and made for a more comfortable and equitable exchange of knowledge. But that doesn’t mean she was without her qualms at the start of the semester.

Moving to the music

“I’m always worried my music isn’t going to be cool!” she laughs, poking fun at her playlist and admitting she often recruits students for advice.

Still, despite her repertoire of Michael Jackson and percussive instrumentals, her youth and undergraduate students have formed a community. As Sullivan explains, “We’re not going in and dictating a workshop. We’re shaping one.”

Each participant has the opportunity to build and lead dances, to implement their ideas and make movement based on emotion. In doing so, they have created a space to release tension, to learn, and to grow.

“These girls open up to us about their pasts,” says Gillhouse. “So many [narratives they put to dance] are hopeful and powerful.”

For Leslie Finer—director of the UI outreach program Arts Share that helped make Anthony’s workshop possible—the inspiration that stems from community engagement is invaluable. “We say that arts are life enhancing. But in this case they can be life altering.”