Dance series: Michelle Gibson

On Sunday, April 14 at 3 p.m., artist and activist Michelle Gibson hosted a dance performance in Memorial Chapel. To call it a “dance performance” feels like a simplification; it was a combination of solo dance, collaborative movement with the audience, jazz combo musicians, spiritual practice and community building. 

The audience faced Gibson and the instrumentalists in a semicircle. This setup allowed for easy interaction between the audience and performers, the boundary of which seemed to dissolve by the end of the hour. 

While both dance professors and many dance students of Lawrence were in attendance, I was surprised by how many members of the greater Appleton community were present, and especially at the wide variety of audience ages, including a number of children.

The performance did not feel like a traditional performance, and rightfully so. Gibson made it clear that her aim was to bring and recreate the New Orleans ritual of Second Line to campus, rather than to simply replicate a formal Midwestern concert. The fierceness, conviction and joy that Gibson brought to the stage were contagious. 

For those who are unfamiliar with the tradition of Second Line, Gibson described it as a spontaneous dance practice from Africa that follows a funeral procession. It is thought of as a celebration of life to send off the departed spirit. 

Michelle Gibson talks about the roots of second line. Photo by Alex Stanger.

As for Gibson herself: dressed in a striking suit and heels, she entered the space with an unmatchable regality in her presence. Her various dance combinations felt improvisational, unfolding from her stories or emerging out of the music. Despite her acclaimed skill with dance and choreography, Gibson redirected the attention to the audience on multiple occasions. 

This was most evident with the way she got everyone up and dancing. We were on our feet early on, clapping and stepping along to the beat set by Gibson and the musicians. Later on in the performance, Gibson had everyone get into groups and freestyle dance. 

By the end of the hour, most of the audience was dancing together in one big group, and it was clear that any feelings of self-consciousness had been tossed aside. A few pairs of people went into the center, each doing their own kind of movement and being cheered on by those of us on the outer circle. 

Gibson’s performance and personality reminded me of art’s ability to not only build community, but to build ourselves. To paraphrase Gibson, “art will heal the world.” This rings true for me, especially when we share that art with other people and foster a sense of community, not only within our social circles but within the world. 

Leaving Memorial Chapel at the end of the performance, I couldn’t help but notice that the audience’s energy and enthusiasm seemed to be heightened. Some stayed late to talk with Gibson; others kept on dancing past the end of the performance. It was truly an experience to remember.