"No matter how mighty and strong a tree is, it will always dance to the tune of the wind."
Electricity slices through the still air, throbbing with anticipation. Drumbeats pound, increasingly louder and faster, until your heart is forced to synchronize itself to their magnetic rhythm. The hair rises at the nape of your neck as you feel your soul escape and surround you, lift you, spin you into an alternate dimension of awareness that cannot be deciphered by a single sense, but all five working together to a create a spiritual synergy that transports you to the innermost core of your existence. Exposed, vulnerable, you exhale fear. Inhale life. Knowing that this moment -- this moment -- is the only one that matters, that has ever mattered, that will ever matter. Until it happens again.
From the bustling villages of Nigeria, to the irrepressible streets of Brooklyn, above and through the cacophony of scents, sights, and shouts, there is song -- and where there is song, there is dance. Whether it's the Electric Slide at the family reunion in Atlanta, the Waltz at the palace in Versailles or the Samba in Brazil, the ethereal, timeless quality of rhythm and motion transcends ethnicity, gender, politics and religion. Dance siphons all that is joyful, compassionate and loving -- all those emotions hidden behind facades of sophistication and nonchalance -- and pours it with child-like abandonment into the hearts of people who want to love, but can't remember how.
What if we could harness those emotions? What if we could dance with the rebels in the mountains of Libya, or with Al-Qaeda in the deserts of Afghanistan, or with soldiers on the borders of Israel and Syria? What if, through dance, we can have non-verbal intense conversations with each other, projecting our pain and suffering in a way that no words could accurately convey but that everyone understands?
What if dance can save the world?
Yes, that might seem like an impossible goal, an abstract, hypothetical statement that is meant to go in one ear and out of the other, soliciting a derisive chuckle or blank stare, or even angrily dismissed as an over-simplification before being placed high on the proverbial shelf with other ridiculous ideas -- but it's not.
In the third-grade, I was considered a problem child. Failing miserably in school, I would Pop-Lock, Headstand, Robot and Get-Down-to-Get-Up with James Brown, while Michael Jackson told the world to "Beat It" and "that the kid [wasn't] his son." Whether I was showing off for my Aunt Pat or out-dancing every kid who challenged me at my next-door neighbor's house, there was a constant beat in my head. It was then, in 1983, that I realized that each moment has a soundtrack. Every hand-clap, foot-stomp and beat-box on the school-yard built the foundation of my dance refuge, and I dwell there still.
My life's journey has taken a myriad of dips, spins and leaps, since Roxanne Shante took her "Revenge" in 1984. From choreographing the first West African number on the wildly popular reality show, So You Think You Can Dance, to performing in the Tony Award winning Broadway show, Fela!, I have witnessed first-hand the ability dance possesses to make us empathetic to all people and cultures around us.
There is a compelling reason why SYTYCD is a global phenomenon. Through the tears, laughter, screams and applause of the audience, between the collective release of pressure and the ebb and flow of emotion between the dancers and those experiencing the dance -- a strange thing happens. Each person explores a visceral interconnection with one another that through mere words might be left undiscovered. Enthralled by the sheer beauty of dance, people instinctively seek to understand someone else's story, in hopes that it gives voice to their own. Distinguishing characteristics -- ethnicity, class, gender, religion -- are rendered mute as people search for those intangible ties that bind, not separate.
Why, then, couldn't dance save the world?
I was honored to create choreography for Beyonce's smash hit, "Run The World (Girls)." We knew that the powerful, raw, compelling artistry of West African dance was the only genre that captured the spirit of victory and strength that radiates from women who embrace the power of their femininity. Together, we were able to create a magnetic message through movement that exhilarates and resonates with people all over the globe.
But the transformative power of "Run The World" is found not only in the video itself, but the creative process behind it. Beyonce is an artist who understands and appreciates the authenticity of dance. Tofo Tofo, the Mozambique African dance troupe that is featured in the video, was tracked down in a remote village after two months of searching. Since then, they have become well-known in the dance world and that experience has changed their lives in ways that they probably never imagined. As is usually the case with dance, the effects of that unexpected opportunity have the potential to be wide reaching and life-affirming.
What has honoring the rich culture of Mozambique in such a huge way meant to young boys and girls living there in poverty, surrounded by illness? By that same token, how deeply has being blessed with the gift that is Tofo Tofo challenged us to recognize the brilliance of Africa, the resilience of her people, and the hope and possibilities that are hidden in remote villages around the world? We search for ourselves in their movements, and when we find us, we toe-tap and head nod and swivel our hips in universal recognition.
YouTube has exploded with people young and old, gay and straight, black, white, yellow, and brown, dancing to my choreography from "Run The World," but one that touched my heart in particular featured a boy of about 8 years old. He seemed awkward and shy, but when that song came on, he transformed and danced the steps that came from my heart as if his life depended on it. Though I've been nominated for a VMA at this year's MTV Awards for my choreography, knowing that I gave that child's soul words to speak, just as dance gave me when I was an awkward 8-year-old boy... I have already accepted my reward.
That life itself is a dance is undeniable. We advance, we recede, we practice, we perform, we bleed, we cry, we love. We live. Through dance, I have realized that people are open to connecting with different worlds and cultures, open to experiences beyond their own. How different would the world be if we just let go and let dance? There is no judging through dance, there is no hate; there are only complex textures, thrilling and recognizable to the senses. Dialects are forgotten, agendas are tossed aside, violence becomes an afterthought, and spirit cleansing becomes a priority.
The heightened sensitivity that one experiences through dance transcends culture, time and space, allowing those who surrender to the raw vulnerability of the moment to decipher the hidden messages that have been encrypted in war and conflicts spanning the globe.
Nigerian Afrobeat griot, Fela Kuti once said, "Music is the weapon of the future," and dance is the ammunition that reverberates through racism, classism, sexism, piercing through the shell of humanity and once again allowing our hearts to breathe.
We have tried -- and failed -- to save the world through war; the time has now come to try dance.