These Twin Cities Dance Orgs Are Protesting Police Brutality—and Fighting for Their Spaces

Photo by Kathy Mcp, Courtesy of Ananya Dance Theatre

Bhangra, Brazilian, North African, Malaysian, salsa, Southeast Asian and traditional Scandinavian gammaldans.

Name a genre of dance, and you'll find its practitioners in the Twin Cities.

But in the wake of George Floyd's murder last month, several Minnesota studios have been damaged or destroyed, leaving dozens of dance teachers to mourn years of unfettered police brutality, while simultaneously scrambling to secure their own spaces for the future.

"We've got significant damage to our building, but thank God, it is still standing," says Cassandra Shore, an Egyptian dance specialist who manages The Cassandra School in a building next door to the 3rd Precinct police station in South Minneapolis. That building served as home base for the four the cops now facing charges related to Floyd's murder. Three nights after he was killed, protestors set it ablaze.

During the ensuing mayhem, Shore says, either rogue protestors or outside agitators broke into her building, a retrofitted firehouse, and attempted to torch it. Luckily for her and the two other nonprofits based there, the landlord installed a sprinkler system last year.

"We have some water damage, and we're significantly affected by smoke damage," Shore says. "All the buildings around us, most of them have been burned to the ground. Our neighborhood does look quite a bit like a war zone."

A blurry image of a boarded up building with a sign that says "Pray 4 U." The street is littered with debris.

The Cassandra School

Photo courtesy of Cassandra Shore

Even before they were allowed back into their building, Shore and several dancers from her troupe, Jawaawir Dance Company, had already been out attending vigils and demonstrating against police brutality. They became part of a neighborhood volunteer corps, distributing food and water and clearing out rubble.

"Hundreds of people from the neighborhood have been pulling things out of burned buildings and stacking up trash, taking it away and painting over graffiti," she says. "It's been amazing."

Since assessing damage and attempting to salvage computers from her studio, Shore has spent hours on the phone with insurance providers and stayed in close touch with her landlord. It's unclear how soon she'll be able to resume teaching classes via Zoom to generate income. Thankfully, she's received support from the Minnesota State Arts Board, and her landlord has been flexible, but the double disruption from the pandemic followed by vandalism is a serious blow to what was a vibrant dance community.

Shore specializes in teaching various forms of North African and Middle Eastern dance, but she also sublets her studio to teachers who practice a panoply of dance forms, for a total of 18 classes a week.

"Before COVID, we had hip hop, several different Asian groups, including Malaysian and Southeast Asian, Brazilian and Cuban-Latin salsa," Shore says.

George Floyd's murder may ultimately be a catalyst for positive change in Minnesota and beyond, but in the short-term, the local dance community has lost vital spaces and resources, including El Nuevo Rodeo, the cantina and dance club where both Floyd and his accused killer worked as security officers. By day, the cantina served as a rehearsal space for Latin American children's dance groups, and by night it was the place to salsa.

El Nuevo Rodeo was torched, as was MIGIZI Communications, an adjacent Native American community center with close ties to Native dance practitioners and advocates.

"MIGIZI Communications is gone," wrote Rosy Simas, a Twin Cities–based Haudenosaunee choreographer (Seneca Nation, Heron Clan), on Facebook. "My family and many others built this Native organization that has served the Native community for over 40 years. Archives are there. Yes, it is just a building. But to the Native community this is territory, a home we still had here. Our lands stolen. We built this place for all people and many communities were loved, educated and thrived at MIGIZI. I'm heartbroken."

Native dancers responded to Floyd's murder by staging a ceremonial jingle dress dance at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street, where Floyd was killed. Originally an Ojibwe dance of healing responding to the 1918 Spanish flu, the jingle dress dance served as a display of unity between the Native community and Black Lives Matter demonstrators.

"This kind of unity that's bringing people together, it's the kind of thing that's going to help us battle systems of oppression," one organizer told the CBC.

South Asian dancer and choreographer Ananya Chatterjea also visited that site with several of her students and dancers from her company, Ananya Dance Theatre. Although social-justice issues have always been central the company's mission, Chatterjea said it was still surreal to have Floyd's murder interrupt their preparations for summer outdoor performances.

"Right after Memorial Day, we said, 'OK, no rehearsal,' and we showed up at the protest at 38th and Chicago," Chatterjea says. "It was very peaceful."

That night she migrated with a group of protestors from the Powderhorn Park neighborhood over to the police station in Longfellow. "I saw firsthand how originally people were making speeches, singing songs, chanting, and then it suddenly turned violent," she says. "The police started throwing canisters, and then it was complete mayhem."

Chatterjea stayed on the street until her eyes and nose could no longer stand the smoke. The next day, she and Ananya Dance Theatre executive director Gary Peterson heard that the path of vandalism might also make its way down University Avenue in St. Paul, where a Target and other businesses had been damaged. That's when they realized it was time to worry about their own building, the Shawngram Institute for Performance & Social Justice, located in a refurbished former used car garage.

"We tried to get some of the files and valuable things out, and then we left, because it was getting really dangerous," Chatterjea says.

All night long, Chatterjea and Peterson stared at blurry security camera footage. They saw their windows smashed and feared that the studio's most prized possession, a sprung marley-covered floor, would be destroyed.

"Either because of the power of community or I don't know what, nobody came in," Chatterjea says.

Relief was quickly followed by anxiety, however. Chatterjea may be the accomplished founder of yorcha, a dance form fusing classical Indian odissi with yoga and other practices, but she has "no idea how to use a drill." Nor did she know where they would find plywood. But the Twin Cities arts community—including carpenters and other crew members laid off from their jobs at local theaters—showed up, and artists followed to paint murals on the floor-to-ceiling boarded-up windows, including an image of Floyd.

"We are going to have to use it as a set of some kind, because it's too beautiful," Chatterjea says. "It can't be thrown away."

4 people in masks paint the mural on the side of Ananya Dance Theatre that says "Justice for George Floyd."

Photo by Kathy Mcp, Courtesy of Ananya Dance Theatre

Building secure, Chatterjea and several of her dancers continued peacefully protesting, including an impromptu memorial involving a conch shell and didgeridoo. That's a spirit of improvisation she hopes to carry forward in Minnesota, even though she has no idea when her footwork-focused troupe will be performing in a theater again.

But that's OK. This is a time to pause, Chatterjea says. Immediately joining the calls for an end to brutal law enforcement is one thing—the company has protested against police violence before—but immediately creating a work of art is another.

"We've always been considered in our responses," she says. "This rush to respond with a particular innovation or a particular solution, this is part of colonialism's mode, of capitalism's mode, but we've been still. For the first time in our history, we have no rehearsals."

Right now, she's encouraging her students and dancers to continue demonstrating, to continue training and, most important, to continue checking in with one another.

"We have to be nimble and grounded," Chatterjea says. "We have to align our bodies with the cause of justice."

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