It's been just shy of four years since the death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin thrust police violence into the national spotlight, and since then, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has proven to be far more than a hashtag. The rallying cry has inspired countless protests, as well as artistic creations from poetry to pole dance.
Yes, you read that correctly—pole dance.
Moved to express her support through performance, L.A. pole dancer and personal trainer Mia Shanté recently released a striking interpretation of the pain and trauma communities of color experience when faced with police brutality. In her video “Old Fight. New Dance: Black Lives Matter,” choreographed by pole dance icon Phoenix Kazree, Shanté and seven fellow dancers perform both on and off the pole to the tune of Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us. I spoke with Shanté about how this unique piece of protest art came to be.
First of all, I have to say, this is a very unique way to express the pain that many people across the country have been feeling in the wake of these high-profile officer-involved deaths. When did you make the choice to channel that trauma into dance?
Police brutality is nothing new to us. Growing up, my mom made sure to tell me, “even though you have lighter skin, don’t think they don’t know you’re black.” Even as a kid, not knowing anything else about the world, you know how to act when a cop is around you. That was my background growing up: Seeing my cousins being pulled over, taken out of their cars, slammed against the hood for not using their turn signal, or for nothing at all. That was our environment, and for some reason, we just accepted it.
Then Trayvon Martin happened. That case blew up. All of the sudden, there was this anger and frustration and this need to no longer sit down. The movement started, and now, instead of being behind closed doors, those cases are in the media. They’re being reported, so we can see, the same thing is happening over and over again. As an artist, I needed some way to let that frustration out.
The video is highly intertextual. The dance itself is to Michael, but there’s also audio of Martin Luther King, Jr, protest footage from the Civil Rights Movement, even some Democracy Now clips of recent marches. How did you choose the visual and sound elements to complement the dance piece?
A few years ago, right after Eric Garner died but before the footage was released, I was playing the Michael Jackson Wii game and dancing to They Don’t Care About Us. While I followed the movements on the screen, I could just feel it—I knew this was the song. Right after the [Garner] footage was released, I reached out to my friend Sasja [Lee, who appears in the video] and said I wanted to do a pole performance to the song, and that’s where it all started.
As far as choosing the footage…I wanted to show the parallel between past and present, to show that this isn’t something new. Police brutality isn’t new. The same tear gas is being used at protests now, the people who are protesting look the same, we’re carrying the same signs. I wanted to highlight that. It’s not just the murder that we’re protesting. It’s that the same thing keeps happening, and people don’t seem to care.
This type of pole dance is very different from what some people might expect. There’s a lot of power and athleticism here, but it’s definitely not a “sexy” video. What was rehearsal like, especially for the scenes where dancers are reenacting traumatic scenes like being handcuffed and beaten by police?
It was hard. You can see in the outtakes that there were moments of laughter and fun, but it was still really hard. Phoenix was really intense. For the handcuff scene, she came by and grabbed our hands and dragged us around, just so we could know what that felt like. She would say, “I want you to imagine what it feels like to have someone hit you in the back. How does that express in your face, in your body, in your movement?” There was a story in every scene, and she would walk us through exactly what was happening, how it would feel. That’s why I included the outtakes at the end; I wanted people to see that every movement in this piece was intentional and expressive. But it was hard. Every time we went through the piece, it just never got easier—even after rehearsal, even during shooting. It doesn’t quite leave you.
What do you see as the role of art in protest movements? What do you want this video to achieve?
[Long pause.] You know what? I just want as many eyes to see it as possible. I want to move people. I want to open people’s eyes to pole dance in a way they didn’t see before. When I created the piece, I was stuck in my house, frustrated and angry and sad and in pain and not knowing what to do with my voice or with these emotions. So I’m hoping that this video can provide an outlet for those emotions for other people, or be the fuel to inspire someone to do their own piece of art, or whatever kind of protest or agitation they can. I just want this to move people, whether it moves them to tears or moves them to action.
Whoever sees this, I hope they know they can do this same thing. I’ve never directed or produced anything. I’m not a political person. But I have a voice, and I chose to exercise that through my dance. Zero dollars went into this video—it was purely an act of love, from the dancers to the choreographer to the rehearsal space. The dancers, my PR people, my lawyer—everyone has donated their time to make this happen. If there’s a will, there’s a way.
Haylin Belay is a NYC-based writer and sex educator exploring the intersection between identity, sexuality, and health.