Friday, October 4, 2013

Gibney Dance Center takes action for domestic violence awareness


In observance of Domestic Violence Awareness MonthGibney Dance Community Action will host a roster of public events throughout this month, beginning next Monday, October 7. See the schedule at the bottom of this post.

Amy Miller

Yasemin Ozumerzifon

Amy Miller (Gibney Dance Associate Artistic Director and company member) and Yasemin Ozumerzifon (Gibney Dance Community Action Manager) recently chatted with me about the Gibney Dance Community Action, a program initiated in 1999 by Executive/Artistic Director and choreographer Gina Gibney. Miller and Ozumerzifon spoke about the program's mission and methods as well as sharing their personal experiences of working with women and children survivors in New York City’s domestic violence shelters.


Yaa Asantewaa: Why does a dance organization care about domestic violence and domestic violence awareness?

Miller: Gina talks a lot about what domestic violence survivors need. They've had their sense of choice robbed from them. Oftentimes, a sense of self-expression has been buried away. Dancers and dancing bring that all together: it's all about self-expression, creativity, working with others and making choices. The two fit together very beautifully. We're bringing tools and prompts and asking them to creatively problem-solve--which is how a lot of choreographers work these days, with physical tasks, using more creative input as a way of developing movement. That's very similar to the model that we're using with the women, where they have a sense of ownership. Everyone is facilitating the workshop. It's not a leader and followers.

Yaa Asantewaa: Before self-expression, there must be self-knowledge. How does dance help restore a healthy sense of self?

Ozumerzifon: One of the reasons that Gina started this program is that dancers have been trained for a long time to listen to the body-mind connection. They have skills and techniques that they have practiced that should be shared with others to help everyone. Dance is a truly different outlet and leads to self-knowledge. You might be tense and not know that you are; you're not aware of it. But then you breathe and relax.

Yaa Asantewaa: That tension can be held or stored information about experiences and feelings. Do you, workshop facilitators, work with anyone with extensive knowledge about issues that can arise when a person begins to work with the body?

Miller: Yes. Each of the dancers goes through a training session brought together from the Gibney Dance model but also spearheaded by Beth Silverman-Yam, Clinical Director of Sanctuary for Families [a non-profit agency serving survivors of domestic violence]. What is domestic violence? What have the women experienced? What will their reactions be? How can we try to circumvent those reactions through various exercises? What to be aware of. Certain things to steer away from. Certain areas to stay sensitive with, and other areas where we can push forward.

We're not counselors. We're not trained to be therapists or dance therapists in any way. We're given a framework where we can use what we already know, which asks the women to look inside and take a second to focus on how they really feel, and then find ways to express that outward working together in groups. And then we always finish each workshop with a Take Care Card with exercises that the women can take away.

Yaa Asantewaa: Are these one-off workshops? Do you ever do a series with the same group of people?

Miller: We’ve started to work with the women in two-month segments so we would have them over a period of time. But women in the shelters are always shifting. Sometimes the turnover of clients will affect how long we get to work with them. Each workshop lives independently but can also live in an arc of diving in deeper if you have the same women.

Ozumerzifon: We’re currently doing 500 workshops a year. We usually go to each shelter once a week. It gives us an opportunity to build on things.

Yaa Asantewaa: Have you seen women experience breakthroughs as a result of your work?

Miller: I know that when I walk into a workshop, there are usually arms crossed. The body language is definitely slightly closed. They have no idea of what to expect or what's expected of them. Many times, they don't know the other women in the shelter. There's a sense of resistance in the beginning but, by the end of it, there's a lot of laughter and eye contact. They've opened themselves up a little bit, and there's a huge shift in the dynamic feeling of the group. They're in these shelters trying to find a job, find housing, trying to figure out what's next, and there's a lot of stress around that. This is an hour to do a little yoga, laugh, find out the name of the person who lives besides you.

Yaa Asantewaa: In a time when dance artists are struggling just to survive and make work, how does the Gibney organization--which is engaged in making and presenting dance, maintaining a large rehearsal and education center, and doing serious, sustained community work--juggle the formidable demands of each of its various components?

Ozumerzifon: All the three components of Gibney Dance--community work, space, the company--are all strongly bound together. It's bringing the possibility of movement to where it doesn't exist. Having a very strong mission makes it easier, because there's a cohesiveness about it. It comes together very organically.

Yaa Asantewaa: How does it work for you as individuals--as instructors, not just administrators?

Ozumerzifon: For my first experience, I went with Sandra, a survivor and mentor at Sanctuary for Families, who had taken our workshops. She really enjoyed movement and created a dance piece, under Gina's direction, called Here to Tell. We did a workshop in a shelter, and she performed it there. That was my introduction, and it was incredible.

Going into a shelter is interesting. Everything is confidential, anonymous. You have to sign things. It's not like going to a dance studios. But the women loved what we did. We giggled and laughed a lot--not what you would picture. Sandra performed, and the women talked with her about her experience. Very different from any workshop that I've taught in my life. [The methodology] is very firm but flexible and relies on your skills. There's room for growth. Actually doing the workshops complements what I do as an administrator. I should know what it is, particularly when I have to write about it.

Miller: In one workhop, I gave a yoga lunge: front leg bent, the other straight, the Warrior II pose. [She demonstrates this lunging pose with hands strongly jutting out in opposing directions as if pushing things away from the body.] The first time I did it, a few women sat back down: "I don't want to do this!" And they say that, too: "I'm not doing that. It looks too hard." The second time I did it, I said, "Well, why don't we, when we push away, think about something we don't want in our lives anymore?" And this woman jumped up and said, "I'm in this!" And she went into the biggest lunge I've ever seen! Pushed her arms really, really tight and had this awesome look on her face. And I said, "And now, let's come back and pull something toward us that we really want in our lives." In every one of them, you could see that the imagery of it became meaningful. That encapsulates the great part of this work.

One of my favorite parts about it is how grounding this work is for me as an artist. It gets me out of the mirror. It gets me to appreciate embodiment of movement, putting imagery to things, creating a narrative for myself in Gina's work. Even that story I just told--incorporating that idea into my own dancing. That's huge. The focus of this is helping me to direct my own choreography away from aesthetics and towards embodiment and meaning in real ways.

I also enjoy how it brings the Gibney company members together in a real way, too.

Yaa Asantewaa: How so?

I think, in the studio, ego becomes much more a facet of what's happening than we want it to, for different reasons, technical reasons, and to think out of the box in a certain way. This focus helps to let some of that settle down, and we can just see one another as people with different backgrounds and aesthetics--and all the differences are great! All of the different layers are accepted, and you don't have to keep pushing against them as much.

Ozumerzifon: I love the advocacy of this work. One in four women in the US experiences domestic violence. The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend, and I told him the statistics. He said, "That cannot be right," and we looked up a lot of the research. It's interesting how little we talk about it as a society, and how it's seen as more of a personal issue or that it's not our problem. So, I love going out there, doing advocacy and educational events.

We did a Bridal March where we walked from the Bronx to Manhattan [with Sanctuary for Families and various organizations]. People shout back at you: "Oh, yeah!" And you can see something changes. I really enjoy that part of it.

Yaa Asantewaa: In addition to your new workshops for children, how is the program growing?

Ozumerzifon: We have started to train others--dancers, social service providers--in the Gibney model. Last year, we started the intensive Institute for Community Action Training where you bring your own skills and learn about how getting them to where you want to take it next. Also, we're going global. We've done a residency in Montreal, but now we've also done a residency in Istanbul.

Yaa Asantewaa: What message does your special week of wellness events--the yoga and meditation sessions--have for the dance community?

Ozumerzifon: It's important to stop and take care of yourself, take that time for yourself. As dancers, we go, go, go, go, go all the time.

Miller: Taking care of yourself has repercussions for how you treat other people. Valuing your health and your well-being translates to how you interact in the world. We're reminded that, yes, taking care of yourself is not extravagant. It's necessary--for you and for everyone you touch in your life.

Ozumerzifon: A lot of what we do is in the shelters, out of the public eye. So I would encourage anyone who's interested and would like to see a little more of the work to attend one of the Open Studios we have on October 16 and October 21 (see schedule below) where we talk about our program, its history, and hear from a clinical staff member from Sanctuary for Families. We do a demonstration of our workshop. It's all open to the public and free.

Miller: And I'd just add that we're taking it out to Union Square Park with Joe Mangrum, the fabulous artist who does sand mandala installations there. We approached him, and he's going to make one with statistics about domestic violence. We're asking the public to join us, doing a brief call-and-response, improvised activity around that. So, if you're in Union Square Park on October 24, feel free to join in!


All Domestic Violence Awareness Month activities are free and open to the public. All--except the October 24 Union Square event--will take place at:

Gibney Dance Center
890 Broadway, Fifth Floor (between 19th and 20th Streets), Manhattan

Participants can register for and learn more about October’s events by emailing

October 7-11: Body & Wellness Week
6pm-7pm (Gibney Dance Center, Studio 2)

A series of free wellness activities 
including yoga, meditation and conditioning

October 8: Guess Who's in the Greenroom
11am-2pm (Gibney Dance Center Greenroom)

Maria Bauman, Urban Bush Women
Art, Action, and Equity

Sign up for a 30-minute advice session*

October 16: Open Studio/Community Action
6:30-8:30pm (Gibney Dance Studio 5-2)

Open Studio highlighting 
GDC's ground-breaking Community Action program

October 21: Open Studio/Community Action
6:30-8:30pm (Gibney Dance Studio 5-2)

Open Studio highlighting 
GDC's ground-breaking Community Action program

October 22: Guess Who's in the Greenroom
11am-2pm (Gibney Dance Center Greenroom)

Adrienne Glasser, Experience Wellness Group
Understanding Trauma and the Body 
through Neuroscience, Movement, and Role Play

Sign up for a 30-minute advice session*

October 24: Union Square Advocacy Campaign
2pm-6pm in Union Square Park

Gibney Dance Company interactive public dance
in collaboration with artist Joe Mangrum

*To reserve Greenroom sessions or for further information on these and other Gibney Dance Center programs and resources, click here.


Interviewee bios

Yasemin Ozumerzifon

After completing her primary education at the Royal Academy of Ballet, Yasemin moved to the US where she studied Dance and Psychology at Connecticut College. In order to combine her two passions, she pursued an M.A. at Columbia University in Developmental Psychology with focuses in creativity and human development. Yasemin was a research assistant for a study that evaluated the Guggenheim Museum’s “Learning Through Art” program and apprenticed at the New Victory Theater, where she created School Tool™. Yasemin is proud to be part of Community Action.

Amy Miller

Amy Miller, originally from Ohio, is thrilled to step into her new role as the associate artistic director of Gibney Dance. She is a former member of Heinz Poll’s Ohio Ballet, where she had the privilege of dancing leading roles in works by José Limón, Paul Taylor, Kurt Jooss, Antony Tudor, as well as Lucinda Childs, Laura Dean, Donald Byrd and Alonzo King among many others. She is a founding member and guest choreographer of Cleveland-based GroundWorks DanceTheater. Miller holds a BFA in dance and is also the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for her choreography. In addition to numerous university residencies, her creative work has been seen at Judson Church, Triskelion Arts, Mark Morris Dance Center, and Scandinavia House and has been produced at Spoke the Hub, West Fest Dance Festival, the West End Theater’s Soaking WET series, and Women in Motion. In keeping with her artistic priority of constantly developing new collaborations, such composers as the genre-defying Ryan Lott (aka Son Lux), guitarist James Marron, Oberlin College graduate Alex Christie, and Oberlin College professor Peter Swendsen have all worked with Miller on a wide range of musical scoring for dance. An avid teacher as well, Miller has been involved in integrated educational residencies within the Cleveland Public Schools sponsored by Young Audiences, an NEA sponsored intergenerational residency at Cleveland’s Fairhill Center for Aging, as well as summer residencies at Cleveland State University and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Recent performance credits include David Parker and The Bang Group, Collective Body Dance Lab, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.

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