Chanel DaSilva and the evolution of dance

Chanel DaSilvaThe Brooklyn-bred choreographer will present a new work with the Harvard Dance Project during ARTS FIRST April 26-29. She talks about the process, the history and the politics behind her dance career. 

By Sabrini Li '20

Dancing is not just a pretty art form. It’s a means of artistic expression that has suffered from social hierarchies, socioeconomic disparities and appropriation, but it also has had the power to be a catalyst for change and revolution. Chanel DaSilva takes all of this into account when she dances and teaches. Through her project MOVE(NYC), DaSilva aims to break down these socio-economic differences and the hierarchies amongst genres that are ingrained in a dancer’s education, but through her own dance and performance, she takes advantage of the art form. She believes it’s her duty to create dialogue, to create discomfort and confrontation. It’s these qualities that she brings to The Harvard Dance Project and what she instills in her students. Her work will be part of the HDP performances during ARTS FIRST April 26-29. The following is an edited and condensed conversation I had with DaSilva, who also taught a master class at Harvard on March 19.

How did you get started in dance?
I’m originally from Brooklyn, New York, and I started dancing when I was 3. I was really lucky when I was growing up in Brooklyn to have teachers who were not only specialists in the art of dance, meaning they trained throughout all genres: ballet, modern, jazz, but they also taught me West African, they taught me hip hop, they taught me tap. So growing up in Brooklyn I feel like I had the best training because of the mix of all of the dance mediums -- it wasn’t just one. I find that a lot of young dance students get access to one or two things growing up, when I had access to like 10. I really think that shaped me as an artist knowing that there is a multitude of possibilities for what an artist can be. It’s not just one box that you fit in, and it’s really informed who I am as a dancer and as a choreographer. My influences in West African and tap and hip hop influenced my work in contemporary and ballet. I was really lucky to grow up in the mecca of the arts, which is New York City.

Do you see dancers being exposed to different genres becoming more of a typical thing or norm? 
It’s kind of a catch-22. I find that a lot of young dancers are getting training in this idea of “contemporary,” which is really a hodgepodge of all things – it’s not specific. It’s a mix of ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop. It lives in a weird, ambiguous place. I think a blend is great. There are a lot of new pathways opening for new techniques to be relevant, but at the same time a lot of young dancers are learning this medley of techniques and they don’t know where they came from, like they haven’t studied pure jazz technique, they haven’t studied pure West African technique, they haven’t studied pure tap or pure ballet or pure modern. I think it’s important that as we move forward the blending of all these techniques and this fusion idea that we also know where it came from, the root of it, the history of it, so we’re not just appropriating certain techniques and saying: “This is West African. Look, I learned it yesterday.” And you don’t actually know what West African is and you don’t know what hip hop is.

Why do you personally think that dance has evolved in this way? I know you mentioned Beyoncé, and I personally have loved seeing dance videos on YouTube. I’ve seen dance movies going viral like Step Up – just all of these things coming into the forefront and the pop culture psyche. Do you see this as a big proponent in changing the narrative of dance?
I think that dance has always had its place in pop culture sort of but it wasn’t really celebrated. You know, I think of shows like Fame or I think of West Side Story – this idea of musical theater has always been around, but honestly, it wasn’t until the late ‘90s and early 2000s that So You Think You Can Dance? came out, and dance was forged into the homes of the average American. I think that’s when our society started saying: “Wow, dance is really cool.” Young dancers were being rewarded for making it to the end of a contest where you could just adapt to something two minutes at a time and produce something really quickly. The backlash is that our young dancers who grew up watching that and grew up seeing all these YouTube clips is that they think that instant fame and instant success with something like dance is a possibility when really it’s not. I want to quote one of my really good friends, Nigel Campbell, and he says, “You can’t microwave dance.” Dance is one of those things that you have to put in the oven for years at a time and then one day you will arrive at this excellence.

How have you seen your teaching experience at Harvard?
Before I even started choreographing, I sat my dancers down and we had a really intense dialogue about what my piece was going to be about, which has a lot of very layered emotional context. I was so blown away at the intellectual capacity of my dancers to open up and be vulnerable and discuss what art can do and how art can be provocative in a progressive way, not just because. And it really broadened how I even view my own art so I was really blown away by how intellectually capable my dancers are and how brave they are to dive in and talk about this.

What exactly do you want to get out of dance?
I think that art is so powerful. I think that artists of every medium are the real catalysts of change in our society. If you think about any major revolution or movement that’s happened, artists have been at the center of that. We’ve really been provocative. Nina Simone said this, “It’s out duty as artists to reflect the times that we live in.” I think now in this age that I am, dancing is not just for dance sake anymore.

What does the piece that you’re working on that’s responding to the current political climate and will be performed at Farkas Hall in April look like?
A lot of it centers around how our society has interacted with women now and always. A lot of what women were going through today has not changed from what women were going through in the 1600s, the 1700s and the 1800s, and I’m upset about that. I think that we as a society need to do better with how we engage with women, with how women are seen, with how women are viewed, what our place in society can be. And I think we really need to address men in power feeling like they can have whatever relationship they want to have with women and the normalization around that. Without giving too much away about my piece, I’m really challenging this idea of normalization and hearing certain things from day to day from men who are in positions of power and what kind of permission that gives to other men to feel like they can say, do, act whatever they want to as it pertains to women. I’m bringing that forward in a brave way that might make people upset, but I don’t care. You should be upset.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to say specifically to women, women in general and women of color, we belong. Our voice is needed. Our time is now – not tomorrow, not in five years, not after I have some kids. Right now. Our voices are needed now. We belong. If they’re closing the door, make it for yourself. #makeyourownshit

The dancers of the Harvard Dance Project will be performing work by Chanel DaSilva during ARTS FIRST April 26-29. Advance tickets available at Harvard Box Office.