Dance Performances In Conversation with Banned Books

By Claire Charvet, Library Page, Jerome Robbins Dance Division
November 8, 2023
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Two male dancers lift women dancers over their shoulder

Lindy Hop showcase at the Renaissance Ballroom.

NYPL Digital Collections: Image ID 4034340

In 2022, the American Libraries Association (ALA) documented their highest annual number of attempted book bans since they started tracking these cases over 20 years ago. Of the over 2,571 targeted titles, the majority are for young people and feature LGBTQ+ voices and people of color. Titles I loved as a teenager occupy top spots in the ALA’s list of most challenged books. I would check out Looking for Alaska, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl from my town’s library without a second thought, and enjoy how they mirrored and validated my tangled thoughts, acting as the haven that books often do. In response to the recent increase in banning attempts across the country, The New York Public Library launched the Books for All initiative this fall to provide opportunities for teens across the country to access frequently banned books, participate in events, and exercise the freedom to read.

Censoring and restricting access to books denies readers—especially children and teens—valuable representation of themselves and their struggles, and a source of validation and assertion that they are not alone in their experiences. Lorraine O’Grady, artist and scholar, writes about agency and representation in her essay, Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Back Female Subjectivity, stating, “To name ourselves rather than be named we must first see ourselves.” O’Grady articulates how important it is to have opportunity for exploration and choice in the art you consume in order to return agency and expression to oneself. In executing bans, this agency is withheld, and power is transferred from the individual to those deciding what materials should be accessible. As a result, these groups control one’s self-conception and identity—or “naming.” 

As an art form, dance is often used to bring attention to marginalized narratives—from Katherine Dunham’s modernist pieces to choreographed and spontaneous dance during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Historically, dance itself has been targeted—the Lindy Hop, breakdancing, and even the waltz have been banned. The Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the Library for the Performing Arts carries original recordings of these dances and many others.

Dance’s personal, physical manifestation of narrative and emotion brings a new dimension to storytelling—making pairings with banned literature especially impactful to view. Pieces like Bebe Miller’s In a Rhythm, and Colorado Ballet’s Caged Bird Sings combine spoken word and dance to elaborate on themes introduced by their literary inspirations, while The Handmaid’s Tale at the Winnipeg Ballet and Of Mice and Men at Joffrey Ballet adapt their literary counterparts, bringing stories off the page and to new audiences—some of whom may not have even known they were engaging with banned content. Titles including Social Justice for the Sensitive Soul by Cheng-Tozun Dorcas and Social Justice in Dance/Movement Therapy by Laura Downey and Susan Kierr delve into these intersections of dance and activism, and are available to borrow at the Library for the Performing Arts today. 

In a Rhythm by Miller questions the meaning and significance of words through her dancer’s gestures. Each move is familiar, but presented out of context as dancers modify their space, interacting with and ignoring each other, all while the accompanying audio swings from Miller's voiceover to songs from the Commodores and Leonard Cohen. The piece, as Miller states in her introduction, is inspired by writers targeted by book bans, primarily Toni Morrison and David Foster Wallace. In a 2009 interview, accessible through the dance collections at the Library for the Performing Arts, Miller speaks about her work and life. 

Other artists have used the physicality of dance to amplify the impact of banned titles. In Colorado Ballet’s interpretation of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a solo dancer stays within the confines of a spotlight, moving beyond herself and traveling across the stage. She seems to try to break free from this border and take flight. This connection between the dancer and the story of Caged Bird Sings highlights the symbolism used in Angelou’s iconic words, and brings to life one of the most banned books of all time. Check out the circulating collection for materials on the Colorado Ballet at the Library for the Performing Arts.

Contemporary adaptations of banned titles also encourage the audience to connect stories from decades ago to today’s events and sentiments. Joffrey Ballet’s Of Mice and Men, and The Handmaid’s Tale from Winnipeg Ballet prove the relevance of these messages to today, and in doing so, indicate why we need to ensure that they are still told. The timelessness of these stories are highlighted when retold through dance, and their importance gains a new dimension. Seeing dancers emote and embody characters only represented in texts show viewers human consequences and open new routes for empathy with stories that some don’t want to be accessible at all.

In seeing these stories in a new light, audiences can call into question why they are targeted. Lorraine O’Grady believes we must first see ourselves to name ourselves, and what better way to see ourselves than through dance? Dance is a mirror and a mouthpiece, an escape and an inescapable assertion of humanity. As we continue to live through the book banning trends outlined by the ALA, and now coordinated efforts to restrict the stories accessible to young people, it is essential to ensure that these stories live on. 

Dance is an amazing medium to do so, and to give them the thoughtful and artistic platform they deserve.