Staff Writer Grace Novarr overcame her fear of public dancing at a workshop hosted by Barnard’s Movement Lab.

Life can be gloomy, especially right now. The pandemic rages on, and even though more adults are getting vaccinated, case rates are shooting up. I personally experienced the effects of this a week ago, when a contact tracer from Barnard contacted me and informed me that I had to quarantine for ten days, right as the weather was beginning to shift into spring. In circumstances like this, it can be hard to access joy.

Enter Sydnie L. Mosley, BC ‘07. With her collective, SLMDances, Mosley aims to use dance and movement to advocate for gender and racial justice. She works in and around New York City, and on Friday, March 26, she brought her talents to Barnard’s Movement Lab, for a workshop called Radical Joy.

While I certainly felt that I could use some joy, I was apprehensive going in, having absolutely no background in dance beyond having participated in my kindergarten ballet showcase. I can’t even touch my toes except on a good day. However, the atmosphere of the workshop was very welcoming, and while I was one of the few attendees with no background in dance, I wasn’t completely alone. People of all ages were there, with all sorts of affiliations to Barnard and Columbia. 

We entered the Zoom meeting and began by relaxing our bodies and loosening up. Mosley instructed us to find space in our limbs and body parts. Her voice was soothing, and I felt myself release some of the tension that had been inhabiting my body. While we sat quietly, relaxing and breathing deeply, Mosley read aloud some passages from Audre Lorde’s essay “The Uses of the Erotic.” “The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies on a deeply female and spiritual plane,” she read. Mosley ended with Lorde’s call to “do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.” 

Next, Mosley introduced herself. She is originally from Baltimore, Maryland, but she came to New York for Barnard and has stayed here since then. She described her mission as a dance artist and educator, saying that she sees her work in the legacy of bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ntozake Shange, among others. She described SLMDances and its most recent project, PURPLE, as a multi-project universe that focuses on the power of deep sisterhood for social change. 

Mosley explained that one main goal of her collective is to “hold each other accountable to experiencing radical joy.” Joy, according to Mosley, is not the same thing as happiness: joy is a source for creative change, an embodied experience. Through movement, we can access the embodied power of joy.

After going over a community agreement, we split up into breakout rooms and introduced ourselves to each other. We were asked to describe how we see ourselves with “a word and a movement,” and to share something that brings us joy. I explained that I was feeling stressed, with an accompanying shake of the shoulders, but cited the fact that I was only two days away from being allowed to leave quarantine as my source of joy for the day. My breakout room included a fellow Barnard first-year, a retired teacher and Barnard alum from Portland, Oregon, and a graduate student at Teachers College. I appreciated the diversity of life experience in the room, and after introductions, we fell into chatting. 

When we were called back to the main session, it was time for a word game. Mosley gave a letter, and we raced to list a famous person, an animal, a place, and an object that started with that letter. One participant won almost every single round, which was the source of much laughter.

At this point, we were all warmed up and ready to access our joy. We split up again into breakout rooms, this time to participate in a “storytelling circle.” Mosley explained that civil rights leaders used storytelling as a tool for organization since it helps people access shared experiences. The prompt for the circle was to share a specific memory of joy in sensory detail.

The memory I shared was from a few months ago, when there was a big snowstorm in New York and I went sledding on a hill in Riverside Park with my friends. There were two other women in my breakout room; the first described her memory of the first time she ever ate pizza, and the second described a time that her friend unexpectedly sent her a present of two ceramic espresso cups. 

Back in the main session, Mosley asked us to go on a “scavenger hunt” in our homes to find an object that reminded us of that memory of joy. I didn’t have access to snow or sleds in my apartment, but my eyes turned to the bookshelf next to me. The friends that I had gone sledding with had been in a ninth-grade English class with me where we had read Catcher in the Rye, which happened to be sitting on the shelf only a few feet away from me. I grabbed the book.

Mosley prompted us to consider the object that we had chosen and pay attention to its sensory details. I noticed the smell of the book; it had that comforting scent that I associate with libraries and classrooms. Mosley asked us to get up and try to embody the sensory detail that we had fixated on. As I watched, my fellow workshop attendees got up and started contorting their bodies, swaying and bending and, in some cases, jumping up and down. 

It was then that I became acutely aware of my lack of past experience in movement, but I decided that it’s never too late to start. I got up and tried to figure out how to embody the smell of an old book. As I started to move about, I realized that I was incredibly stiff, so I began to swing my limbs wildly, trying to loosen them. I realized eventually that this didn’t seem to have anything to do with Catcher in the Rye, so I reined it in, trying to figure out the right combination of movements that would strike the same emotional chord as the dusty smell of Salinger’s classic. It was like trying to speak a language that you’ve never even heard. Nevertheless, as I practiced, I began to feel like I was figuring it out. Watching the other workshop participants on the screen, I admired their ease and confidence as they moved around.

Mosley called us back and instructed us to explore the sound of the object through the movement of our bodies. I held Catcher in the Rye up to my ears and rustled it, hearing the satisfying swish of the pages flipping together. This one was a little easier for me to figure out how to embody than the smell. I swayed my body around and moved my hands through the air, emulating the rustling sound of pages turning, which I realized sounds almost like ocean waves or like a gust of wind. 

Finally, Mosley asked us to put it all together and make our very own joy dances. At this point, I felt like an expert. I danced with abandon in my living room, hoping that my parents were too busy with their conference calls to come in and investigate why their usually lethargic daughter was suddenly jumping all over the floor. I waved my arms around like pages of a book being flipped; I rolled around on the ground as if I were speeding down a hill; I hugged myself tightly as if I were being comforted by the smell of a library. I will admit that I kept my camera off for this part because I was self-conscious, but everyone else in the workshop seemed too focused on their own joy dances to notice what I was doing.

It was time to go back into our breakout rooms and share our joy dances. Our dances all looked radically different from each other’s, but they all contained the distinct element of joy. I admired how all different styles of dance were represented in our breakout room; one woman was a dance educator herself, and her dance seemed almost professional, but another woman’s dance, which was connected to memories of her son, seemed personal and intimate, as if she were giving herself a hug. Everyone seemed shy as they presented their dances, but the atmosphere was very welcoming and supportive. 

When we returned to the larger group, Mosley read another passage from Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic,” and then, with the remaining twenty minutes of the workshop, we had a group conversation about what we had gotten out of the workshop. All the participants seemed enthused about what had transpired. One woman shared that she appreciated hearing the stories behind the joy dances as much as seeing the dances themselves, and several people nodded their heads. Someone else shared that she thought her takeaway from this workshop would be a heightened sense of how joy is an embodied experience as well as an emotional experience.

Mosley closed the session by reminding us that it is important that we are able to experience the full range of human emotions, and that includes joy. She acknowledged that those who are from oppressed categories must be able to acknowledge the negative feelings that arise from marginalization, but that that makes it all the more important to be able to access joy at a moment’s notice. 

As for myself, I definitely felt more lighthearted and relaxed as the workshop concluded. Even if I didn’t know how to dance, I was grateful that I had been provided a space in which to experiment and practice the art of movement. I had been able to dance for dancing’s sake. I had met some fascinating people and seen some amazing dances. The weather in New York was eighty degrees, and I felt like a little more dancing around was in order. 

Creative partners of SLMDances via Barnard Events