“Those that got it, can’t hide it”. I couldn’t think of a better way to introduce Sydney Skov’s Free Body Project than to lead with Zora Neale Hurston’s words. Because when you’ve got the changemaking gene, you do the thing you’re compelled to, born to do even. No matter the hustle, no matter the trials. MC, editor
To anyone who has never heard of Free Body Project, how would you describe what you do, what it stands for?
I usually say, I’m passionate about work at the intersection of dance and social justice that happens around the world. Through Free Body Project, I’m looking to help dancers and activists change the world through movement. Then the person I say this to gives me an expectant look. Let me give you an example of what I mean, I say.
For several years I worked with an incredible organization in Kolkata, India which uses dance and dance therapy as psychosocial rehabilitation for survivors of human trafficking and violence. Through this work I realized a few things:
First, that dance and movement are exceptionally powerful tools. Outside of being fun, joyful and freeing, they can provide the kind of critical mental and emotional health outlets necessary for young people, or anyone, who has survived immense trauma. Movement helps individuals release anger, heal, rebuild body-mind connection, live positively in their own bodies, and nurture confidence, just to name a few of the positives.
Second, that this resource is underutilised. We all use our bodies to move and express ourselves. Every society and culture has dance embedded within it. Dance, in my opinion, is a universal truth and a human phenomenon which can be tapped into to make the world a better place. Especially since violent conflict and human rights abuses remain rampant at home and abroad, there is a need for accessible mental health care for survivors of trauma and violence everywhere.
Third, that organizations who are already tapping into dance and movement as tools for change are often unrecognised and misunderstood. Humanitarian donors dismiss dance as frivolous. Dance donors are looking for performances, not social change. Through Free Body Project, I’m looking to build a community as well as a tangible field so that this work might be recognised and supported in the way that it deserves to be.
And what made you want to give back?
There wasn’t any one thing or moment that made me want to do something positive for the world. I was curious about other cultures and how other people lived. Over time and through various experiences, this curiosity turned into a realisation of what reality looks like for the majority of people on our planet. Life is a struggle for survival for so many.
I think my commitment to working for social change was cemented when I began to amass a mental list of how women are oppressed in diverse and systematic ways around the world. The more I learned, saw and experienced by working with nonprofit organisations in different countries, the more I realised that no other kind of work would matter to me in the same way.
You’ve worked with organisations such as Kolkata Sanved, which uses dance as a form of therapy for survivors of trafficking and abuse. At what point did you realise dance could be a force for empowerment and social justice?
I grew up dancing. It turned out that my vehicle for curiosity, inquiry, and connecting with people of different experiences, backgrounds, countries and cultures was dance. No matter where I traveled, I always found a family among dancers and those who love to move. This was my first clue.
The more I learned, saw and experienced, the more I realised that no other kind of work would matter to me in the same way.
I also worked with an inspiring nonprofit organisation in Senegal many years ago. During my time there, I was struck by the prevalence of dance when hundreds of people from many communities had gathered to celebrate human rights and talk about issues like Female Genital Cutting. I knew then that there was a subtle connection between dance and human rights but I didn’t know how these puzzle pieces would fit together until I went to work with Kolkata Sanved. I’ve since learned that there are many fields of inquiry, both artistic and scientific, dedicated to dance, healing, trauma and empowerment. There’s always more to learn, which is why I find this path so fascinating.
What does your day-to-day look like?
Every day is different! I try to balance creating and growing Free Body Project with other full time employment and staying in shape as a dancer. Currently, for Free Body Project, I’m dividing my days between filmmaking and editing (we’re in post production on a dance and documentary film created in collaboration with Kolkata Sanved) and planning the 2017 Dance + Social Justice Conference which will take place this December in New York City.
In terms of skills needed, which did you already have and which did you have to develop?
If you can call confidence a skill, that is one that I’m constantly working on developing. Confidence underlies so much of this work because I often feel that I’m learning everything while doing. For example, we make films but I’m not a trained filmmaker. I’ve been extremely lucky to find as well as work and collaborate with brilliant artists who are excellent in their fields and are similarly inspired by the vision that drives my passion and Free Body Project. I’ve also only worked in the nonprofit sector so I’m great at thinking about creating impactful projects but not so great at thinking about things like a business. This is a skill that I’m also working to build.
If you had to start over, what would you do differently? What words of encouragement or advice would you give yourself?
I’m not sure I could have done much differently – I’ve recognised through this journey that I am the kind of person who needs time to marinate on ideas, that I won’t build something massive overnight, and that this is okay.
If I could go back, I would tell myself to be more forward in putting my ideas and thoughts out into the world and I think I would warn myself to build early defenses against comparison. I would remind myself that everyone has their own path and that, just because someone seems to be more “successful”, it does not have any bearing on my own passion, vision or journey. Just continue to make things and be authentically yourself.
Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome? If so, what are they?
One of the challenges is the feeling that once I say the word dance, people take me less seriously. But I’ve become better at talking about what I do and why I’m passionate about it, which helps people get on board with the idea.
Another personal challenge is balancing Free Body Project with work that grows my career in other ways while also having a personal life. Artists are always hustling and juggling things and I suppose this is just another version of that! There simply need to be more hours in the day.
What’s the greatest impact you’ve seen Free Body Project have so far?
It’s the excitement and energy it can create. I feel it from people I speak with about Free Body Project and those I meet at our events. I am constantly reminded that this project is needed; there are plenty of dancers, artists and activists who want to do work in this field in some way but don’t quite know how and there are many individuals and organisations doing this work that want to connect with each other but don’t know who else is operating in the space because it’s not clearly defined. There is so much passion and potential and I’m not alone in feeling it.
What does the future hold for Free Body Project?
We are working on building an online platform so that more people and organisations can connect with each other and learn about the diverse and fascinating work that is taking place at this intersection of dance and social justice around the world. We’re growing our conferences, planning our next participatory film projects as well as their distribution and putting tougher various resources to support dance activists. Our vision is a big one: a world in which all bodies are free from trauma, oppression and exploitation and where movement is an integral tool for healing and social change. I envision dance and social justice living as a recognisable field, alongside fields like sport and peacebuilding. There’s a lot to do.
What advice do you have for people who want to create something that might be totally new or is not a concept others might be familiar with?
I think my biggest asset in this journey has been passion. When I speak with people who are skeptical or don’t understand what I’m going for, I’m almost always able to engage them through a palpable passion for this work and an understanding of how it connects to other fields that are more readily understandable. The same passion keeps me from being deterred when I feel overwhelmed, scared or frustrated. Know your audience but regardless of who they are, speak with your heart.
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