Witnessing on the Anacostia River

(Editor’s note: Dance Exchange started our Summer Institute yesterday, and our communications work/study, Bimbola Akinbola, will be blogging over the next eight days about her experience in the studio and out as we make a new work. To The Edge will premiere at ADI on June 15-16. Enjoy! –S.L.)

Summer Institute participants dance along the Anacostia River

I am not a dancer. I have called myself an artist, a scholar, and a lover of snacks, but never a dancer. This morning I felt a little delirious as I found myself rehearsing brand new choreography in a room of well-seasoned and talented dancers. My decision to participate in the Dance Exchange Summer Institute was largely connected to my academic research, as well as my longtime interest in dance as an art form. As a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, my research considers the ways in which marginalized communities in the United States have historically used performance and visual art to share narratives missing from “the archive.” Furthermore, I explore how these memories linger long after those who experienced the original trauma have passed.

The first day of the institute involved us going to the Anacostia Community Museum’s “Reclaiming the Edge” exhibit about what some have called  “D.C’s forgotten river,” the Anacostia. In the museum, institute participants were instructed to come up with four to five movements as we moved through the exhibit. Immediately the work of Michel de Certeau came to mind as I thought about his concept of “strategies” and “tactics,” and how the  bodies in our group moved through the space differently than the the museum’s design had intended. De Certeau argues that while institutions and structures of power use strategies to create unifying rules, consumers navigate those spaces using tactical methods that undermine the original intentions. For the institute participants, our tactics involved us allowing creative movement to guide us through the exhibit in new and sometimes nonsensical ways.

At one point, in front of one photo capturing two Black men pushing a hogshead of tobacco, I stretched my arms in front of me and mimicked  the action of pushing a large barrel, squatting low and moving forward slowly. Behind me one girl twirled and kicked in front of a fake bucket of fish. The museum guards watched us, amused, and in that moment I must admit that I felt not only like a bit of a dancer, but more importantly like a fully engaged museum-goer.

Most powerful was the improvisational work that we did on the river, which largely consisted of activities centered on exploring our edges and witnessing. The Anacostia River is full of history that is in many ways impossible to capture in a museum exhibit. It was remarkable to experience the ways in which dancing by the river–attempting to embody the stories, spirit, and degradation of the river– allowed me to engage the history of the river and of the geographical location in a more emotional and genuine way than I could have expected.

About Bimbola Akinbola

Bimbola Akinbola, is a doctoral student in American Studies at the University of Maryland, and currently engages with Dance Exchange on a number of projects and events, giving voice to the process through documentation.