Let Yourself Be Moved: Raising Compassion for Food Justice through Contemplative Dance Performance

Candice Salyers, Linnea Blakemore, Ayanna Coleman, Casey Collier, Kaylee Holley, Tarrah Mills, Margaret Pope, Dallas Robinson, Rodarius Washington

Responding to the Past

Ten years ago, I1 began creating dance performance marathons to raise awareness about food injustice and to benefit food banks around the United States. As a solo artist, I launched this effort because I did not have a copious amount of financial resources on my own to contribute to eradicating food insecurity, so I used the resource I did have in abundance—the ability to dance—to raise additional funds. For these durational events, I would perform for 4-8 hours at a time and encourage audiences to sponsor me with a financial donation to a particular food bank for each hour that I danced. Over the years, I have invited my students on college campuses around the United States to participate in these performance marathons with me. Currently, I teach at The University of Southern Mississippi, in a state whose citizens face serious issues of food insecurity. Following discussions with my students about these issues and the ways in which our work as artists can be acts of humanitarian service, I invited my current students to join me in a performance marathon to benefit our campus food pantry. Although my performance marathons in the past had satisfied certain aspects of my desire for dance to engage in humanitarian effort, I discovered that raising money and awareness in this context simply wasn’t addressing a larger problem. While these practices did support feeding people on a practical level, the performances did not necessarily make any fundamental changes in the ways that hunger was perceived in a community. From this realization, I began to consider how performance as a unique state of presence and awareness could contribute to changing perceptions of hunger, for both dancers and viewers. Instead of pursuing this transformation through a didactic message within the dance itself, I considered how the state of consciousness that performance evokes in the dancers could offer a contemplative atmosphere for the audience as well.

Contemplative practices have the ability to move us—intellectually, imaginatively, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and communally. Performance may not always be regarded as a contemplative practice, but the presence and attention it asks of both artist and audience can certainly promote a reflective and even transformative atmosphere through embodied state and intention. The following essay weaves together perspectives of nine authors, including eight of my students, who worked together to evoke this type of transformative state by creating a contemplative dance performance on our university campus. Exploring dance as an individual meditative practice as well as the capacity for performance to create a public contemplative atmosphere, we considered how moving our own bodies could inspire the movement of thought in the campus community as a whole. In particular, we focused on the intention to shift stigma and shame around issues of food injustice while dedicating our dance performance to raising funding and awareness for our campus food pantry. Through these practices, we found that we learned from the past, listened in the present, and emerged into a future in which dance transforms our perspectives beyond the performance space. Each section of this essay is framed by present-tense movement descriptions from the nine authors as we reflect on our experiences of the performance itself and the ways that the practices moved us to learn about ourselves, our campus community, and our desires to contribute to a more humane future for our institution.

Listening in the Present

Lifting my arms, I notice heaviness and resistance. I wonder how I can embody resistance in a positive way. While everyone has their own way of approaching these practices, we all receive something from them that teaches us, allows us to grow, or simply nourishes us with love and thankfulness. This practice always leads me to a greater understanding and appreciation for the world around me, my loved ones, my dancing, and myself. Doing these practices, I am able to listen in a way I have not done in a long time.

In its most recent report on food security, the USDA found that in the United States, “40.0 million people lived in food-insecure households,” in the year 20172 . Defined as, “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” food insecurity can include experiences in which individuals and families run out of food, cut or skip meals, have limited or no access to healthy food, and feel the need to choose between food and other necessities such as health care or housing3 . Within the state of Mississippi where the authors of this essay live, one in five people struggles with hunger4 . In addition, those of us who live and work on university campuses may encounter increased challenges with hunger as, “food insecurity among college students is higher than the national average5 .” Although food insecurity directly impacts so many people, and by extension, systematic food injustice affects the entire country, perceptions of hunger in the United States often perpetuate stigma and shame around who is hungry and why they are hungry. Not only do shame and blame affect emotional well-being and social interaction, but they also may prevent people from finding support, thus perpetuating and even exacerbating the difficulties that individuals and communities are facing. As anthropologist Lisa Henry describes through her interviews with college students, “Food insecurity among students is considered faceless, has no standard image, and is often silent. Most food insecure students were faced with issues of stigma and shame daily, which prevented them from seeking assistance6 .”

            At The University of Southern Mississippi, our campus food pantry seeks to change that stigma and to encourage all members of the campus community to both offer and receive support. Jennifer Martin, Social Work student and former manager of Eagle’s Nest Food Panty at USM, pointed out at the opening of our campus food bank, “We hope to reduce any stigma associated with food insecurity. We want to say if you are a student or staff member who goes hungry from time to time, we have your back. We’re here for you and want to see you through those rough times7 .” Yet, what can actually be done to change the stigma associated with hunger? The authors of this reflection have explored one way that we hope contemplative dance practices can help transform perceptions of food insecurity for ourselves and our campus community. 

While doing these practices in public, I discover a new perspective on life in general. At first, it is hard for me to let go of my outside worries of what people think about what I am doing. As time goes on, and I focus more on my personal practice, I allow myself to forget all of that and become more vulnerable for whoever is witnessing my practice. I soon realize how vulnerable I am while performing, and I appreciate the audience being attentive. While performing, I discover the love I have for connecting with the audience, and I discover that the energy in the room is healing for everyone. Through the public practice I gain more confidence with my purpose as an artist and human.

As described by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, “Contemplative practices are practical, radical, and transformative, developing capacities for deep concentration and quieting the mind in the midst of the action and distraction that fills everyday life. This state of calm centeredness is an aid to exploration of meaning, purpose, and values8 .” In developing a contemplative dance event at our university, we hoped to establish an atmosphere to “aid exploration of meaning, purpose, and values” for both performers and viewers.

Figure 1. Rodarius Washington, USM performance photo credit: Tiana Kargbo

First, the movement itself needed to be intentional, concentrated, and capable of evoking a “state of calm centeredness.” Then, we wanted to access the innate ability of performance to gather viewers into an experience of focus and attention—to “quiet the mind in the midst of the action and distraction that fills everyday life.” Finally, we provided a reflective exercise for viewers to consider after watching the dancing as a means of bridging the meditative movement with contemplative thought. This thought exercise further intended to help viewers explore their values and transform their approach to issues of food justice on campus.

Doing these practices on my own, I feel more connected with myself. I take the time to unwind the hate that I feel about myself and establish some control in my life. Doing this allows me to feel more confident in every action I take.

For this durational performance, we each developed an individual contemplative dance solo within a common framework of movement tasks. First, we chose five physical landmarks, or positions, to move through in a slow journey from lying on the floor to standing upright. Both physically and metaphorically, this rising up over the course of 10 minutes is meant to offer time for dancers and viewers to reflect on moving from passive to active, from fragile to empowered, from internally focused to externally aware. After arriving at standing, we each created a repeated turning sequence in which we chose to turn either to the left, with the intention of unwinding old habits of thought and perception in ourselves and the world, or to turn to the right with the intention of establishing new thought and movement patterns. Finally, we crafted a specific gesture with each hand—shapes that welcomed receiving with our right hands and shapes that inspired us with a sense of giving to the world through our left hands. Each of us committed to a minimum of two hours of continually performing these practices, and the group of 35 dancers sustained the practice for eight hours within a public space on campus. Dancers also found sponsors who pledged to donate to the university’s food pantry for every hour that they performed.

I discover how intricately my body can move—how my arm, leg, pinky finger, and other body parts move together or separately. I am able to think and feel more deeply than I have in a long time. Being in tune with my body this deeply allows me to also think about how my movement could inspire others. I discover how open I can really be. Some of the observers know me and some don’t, but I want to let all of the observers know they were welcome in on my explorations.

Figure 2. Linnea Blakemore in USM performance marathon, photo credit: Tiana Kargbo

The dancers’ physical efforts and contemplative intentions created a time and space for the campus community to be present together, and viewers were also offered a thinking process to move themselves through in conjunction with the dancing that they witnessed. This reflective practice intends to help viewers discover a small, surprising insight about themselves. Following this discovery, viewers are invited to use that self-knowledge as a way of moving back into the campus community with renewed compassion for themselves and others around issues of food insecurity. Our invitation for viewers to engage in this practice was posted at the entryway of the performance space and read as follows:

“You are welcome to stay and watch this performance for a few minutes or a few hours. After your viewing experience, allow yourself to move through the following reflection:

  1. Think of a moment or movement that you remember seeing in this dance.
  2. What qualitative words would you use to describe that movement? For example, would you characterize that motion as gentle? Strong? Peaceful? Subtle? Focused?
  3. Where else in your life is that quality currently appearing?
  4. What are additional ways that you would like for that quality to be present in you?
  5. How could you embody the quality you chose in a way that supports food justice? Make a commitment to take a small step towards that embodiment today.”

I open my eyes for a few seconds and slowly notice each dancer in the space, recognizing all that they are bringing to the atmosphere. We are peaceful, subtle, connected. I feel all of those qualities in my current outlook on life. I’m making an effort to notice all of the small things in life and how they contribute to the bigger atmosphere.

Although the dancers in this performance exhibit a range of different ages, roles, identities, and dance backgrounds, we shaped our practices for the performance together and shared the responsibility of generating a contemplative atmosphere for audiences over the span of 8 hours. As dancers, we also individually explored this five-step reflective process before, during, and after the performance, allowing the dancing to continually teach us about our own thinking and ability to transform. Taking inspiration from Randy Martin’s assertion about performance that, “It is here, in and through the work that the dancer is moved to act not as an individual, but as a social body. It is this social body that the audience will receive and return to their daily movements with,” we regard performance as having the potential to impact lives both within and beyond the moment of experience9 . Through our performance marathon, we wanted to encourage viewers to “return to their daily movements” with a renewed compassion and care for themselves and others, rather than shame and separation. The poetic, embodied practice of performance seeks to honor and respond to issues of food insecurity present on our campus as well as to provide a sacred space and contemplative atmosphere for us all to consider our existing mindsets about hunger in our community. By establishing a safe time and space to consider issues of food justice as well as the deepening of self-knowledge that contemplative practices can foster, the performance gave us an opportunity to enhance our approaches to respecting ourselves and to supporting each other with dignity. 

Emerging into the Future

I notice the timing changes I make and how that provokes a reaction in my body. The faster I go, the more out of control I feel. Even with the unstable feeling, there is some sort of stability too, making me realize there are always two sides—never get stuck in one side of something. I never forget what makes me feel out of control because it is also important. I have to figure out what parts of my body make the out-of-control feeling subside, but once I figure it out, I feel strong. I would like to embody my strength by sharing my own struggles with food insecurity and my family’s stories in order to let other people know that I have been in their shoes so that they do not feel so alone.


Figure 3. Maggie Pope and Jaylen Williams photo credit: Tiana Kargbo

When dance and contemplative practices unite, they possess a unique power for illustrating and igniting transformation. As a continual enactment of embodied change, dance inherently demonstrates the human capacity to transform. Dance scholar Randy Martin proposes that, “The body as subject in a social environment is both responsive to and a transformative element of that environment,” and in our dance marathon, the practice of performance was seeking to both respond to the state and campus where we live and to provide a sacred space and contemplative atmosphere for the community to transform together10 . The concentrated, quiet environment allowed both performers and perceivers the opportunity to slow down, to pay attention, and then to allow themselves to be moved—in thought and action.

Through these transformative capacities, contemplative dance practices can awaken non-hierarchical consciousness—an awakening that is essential for changing stigma around issues of hunger. Such non-hierarchical consciousness and the contemplative practices employed to experience it can sometimes seem to lie outside the purview of our academic institutions, yet perhaps they actually exist at the heart of educational pursuit. In his article “Contemplative Environmental Studies: Pedagogy for Self and Planet,” environmental scholar Paul Wapner astutely references Parker Palmer’s concept of a “divided life” to propose a means by which contemplative practices can bring universities back to a sense of wholeness, and we would suggest to a renewed humaneness, within themselves. Elucidating historical connections between educational institutions and contemplative practices, he reminds readers that, “Colleges and universities originally emerged out of monasteries, madrassas, yeshivas, and other places of religious learning11 .” Wapner asserts that, “by bringing contemplative practices to the academy I also feel that I am enabling the university itself to come full circle and assume a less divided identity12 .” The contemplative practices described in this essay also seek to bring a “less divided identity” to our university. Although our dance practices may not be bringing the university back into connection with religious origins, our performance hopes to develop a “less divided identity” within and among individuals as we navigate issues of food insecurity on campus—seeking to replace stigma and shame with compassion and connection.

Lying down on the floor facing the ceiling, I take deep breaths in and out, closing my eyes. As the music starts, I can feel so much tension throughout my body. Should I move? Should I use stillness? Questions run through my mind, and I slowly take two more deep breaths to calm myself. Focusing on the sound of the music and the movement of my fellow dancers gives me the courage to find myself and my own movements. I want to stop letting little things discourage me from starting—I want to take action to become fearless. Dance, regardless of where I am and who I’m with, is a safe place for me to explore who I am and who I am becoming.

1. The “I” referred to in this opening paragraph is author Candice Salyers. back to text

2. Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Matthew Rabbit, Christian Gregory, & Anita Singh, Household Food

Security in the United States in 2017 (256th ed.). United States Department of Agriculture. (p.9) back to text

3. Coleman-Jensen et al., 9. back to text

4. Mind the Meal Gap,” Feeding America, accessed March 14, 2019, http://map.feedingamerica.org/. back to text

5. Lisa Henry, “Understanding Food Insecurity Among College Students: Experience, motivation, and local solutions.” Annals of Anthropological Practice,41, no.1 (2017) 6. back to text

6. Henry, 14. back to text

7. Hanna Knowles. “Southern Miss Social Work Students Set to Unveil Campus Food Pantry.” Southern Miss Now. (September 2016). back to text

8. “Contemplative Practices,” The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, accessed March 30, 2020, http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices back to text

9. Randy Martin, “Dance as a Social Movement,” Social Text,12, no. 1 (1985): 56. back to text

10. Martin, 68. back to text

11. Paul Wapner, “Contemplative Environmental Studies: Pedagogy for Self and Planet,” The

Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, 3, no 1. (2016): 71. back to text

12. Wapner, 71. back to text

Works Cited

Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Matthew Rabbitt, Christian Gregory, & Anita Singh, A. Household Food Security in the United States in 2017, 256th edition. Washington D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, 2017.

“Contemplative Practices.” The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Accessed March 29, 2020. http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices.

Henry, Lisa. “Understanding Food Insecurity Among College Students: Experience, motivation, and local solutions.” Annals of Anthropological Practice,41, no. 1 (2017): 6-19. 

Knowles, Hanna. “Southern Miss Social Work Students Set to Unveil Campus Food Pantry.” Southern Miss Now. September 27, 2016.

“Mind the Meal Gap.” Feeding America. Accessed March 13, 2019. http://map.feedingamerica.org/

Martin, Randy. “Dance as a Social Movement.” Social Text,12, no.1 (1985): 54-70.

Wapner, Paul. “Contemplative Environmental Studies: Pedagogy for Self and Planet.” The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry,3, no. 1 (2016): 67-83.