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pioneer: special projects director

reaching the surface: dance, spoken word and music to increase awareness of stigma

Reaching the Surface was performed in June 2010 in two highly impacted communities in Northern Miami-Dade County. Our plan is to continue this project over time. For now we're adding photos, videos of the performances, interviews, news articles and more to keep our project supporters up to date. 

photos and more

Below is a montage of pictures from the June 5th performance at the Little Haiti Cultural Center.  Click on any picture to enlarge it in a separate window.  Photography by Jess Thomas.  

Photos of the June 4th performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art are available at www.axmanpictures.com (select Gallery, then Reaching The Surface)



Although the audiences loved the performance, they were just one group that this project intended to reach. Our objective was to impact the performers as well. 

We conducted a focus group with the dancers the week after the shows and asked them two questions: 1) what impact did performing in Reaching The Surface have for you, and 2) where do you see this project going next? Their responses were transcribed verbatim:

Q1  what impact did performing in 'reaching the surface' have for you?

 I learned a lot. This was an educational experience on a lot of levels. I’d always had the right idea about HIV but this brought it to a new level. While I was dancing to raise awareness, I raised my own awareness and raised everyone in my circle’s awareness. I feel like I have a richer life now.

 It changed me emotionally. It’s easy to close your eyes and ignore certain situations like stigma and how that stigma can affect unity. It was good for me to dig deeper. 

 For me it really just opened my eyes to different ways of getting the message out to people who don’t really want to hear it or are not interested in hearing it. I wish there would have been more people there [in the audience], especially people that may not be interested in the arts or dance. They are the ones that can be reached on a psychological level because it’s all about perception and how they see things. Obviously, reading about it is not working, putting it on advertisements or on TV is not working, even seeing people around them get infected is not working cause they’re still not facing these issues. I think it really helped me to see different ways of getting the message out there through my art form. I would love to use the things that I’ve learned to better my future.

 I’ve always been encouraged by people to put my energy into things that make money but don’t really stand for anything, but I don’t really think that’s who I am inside. It was so awesome to be part of this. I just loved it.

 Thinking about stigma socially and culturally, I found myself looking at my own reactions to everything. It’s easy to call everyone else racist but then you have to think about “well – do I have these same thoughts?” [My involvement with RTS] made me have conversations with people that I would have not had before. For example, I was talking to a friend of mine and she was going on a date and I was like “Use protection!”  She was like “Ha ha – you’re doing this project” and I was like “I AM doing this project!”  I can’t be everybody’s condom police but my eyes were really opened by the statistics.

 The last time I dealt with HIV was someone I dated a while back.  I got scared. I haven’t dealt with anyone [with HIV] since, until I met Ronderrick. When I first started dancing with him I would think “Oh – he has HIV.”  But by the end of the project we got so close together and we all learned that this is not an infection that we can ignore. We were all hugging by the end. It was love. By the end I forgot that he had HIV. I loved this so much.

 There’s a label for everyone. I’m a wife, a mother, an executive director, a Jew, a this or a that, but a person last.  But after we worked together and we got to know each other, those other labels, whatever they were, fell away and you ended up with the person. That’s what made this project so powerful.

 Being a part of this project has definitely affected me in several ways. I’m part of a group that is stigmatized so I understand that for myself in that way at least. So coming into the project and also being close with a lot of people who have HIV specifically, I kinda “got” that side of it. I had compassion already. I already had a viewpoint on that from first-hand experience with the people in my life. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to be part of the project in the first place. I think also that anytime you’re part of the creation of something from its inception, you grow with it and you change and you learn as a person. I think I was changed as a dancer, I was changed as a person, in all these different ways.

 I think that you walk away from a lot of things with “OK – I’ve been there, done that” and it’s part of my history and move on. This for me was something where I’ve taken things with me.  

I’ve been at [a club] having conversations with media people about HIV and they had no knowledge about some of the stuff that I was learning. I’ve talked to people in very different communities: gay people, straight people, older, younger and it’s insane how much misinformation there is because of the inundation of stuff that we get bombarded with and then we just turn ourselves off. 

 It was interesting to reach a lot of people. The main thing is that I’ve started going deeper into my own action. No matter what, I think that everybody’s a little bit racist, a little bit sexist, everybody’s a little bit [of something] cause you’re part of yourself. Whatever makes up “you” – you look at life from your eyes out. So I’ve tried to look back inside a little bit. None of it [labels] really matters because at the end of the day we’re all people. Everybody that I’m trying to date is somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter or maybe somebody’s mother. All the people I’m trying to fight is somebody’s son. But they all have the same fears and feelings that I do. I’m trying to make my actions to be the change I want to see in the world. I could tell people – but by doing it – I can make a difference. Even for me.  If I change me, that’s the best thing I did.

Q2  where do you see RTS going next?

 I really would like to see this happening in high schools. I believe sex education is happening but with the spoken word [and dance] it’s educational on many levels.  I feel that in high school we’re forced to learn things and are spoon-fed this education - we’re like “OMG this isn’t gonna benefit me.”  But even if we could impact a certain amount of people after they walked in saying “oh here we go – we have to go to this assembly” – even if [RTS] changes their perception at that age, which is such a changing age, a drastic age for people, I think it would be great. I really would like this project to be seen by people that don’t really want to see it. Who don’t want to hear about it. I think that [RTS] would be a great way to infiltrate [this message] into society.

Just based on the demographic of people at risk by nature of the statistics and by my own upbringing and lack of knowledge, I think that bringing it [RTS] into the inner-city would have an impact.  Maybe there’s that one kid in the audience who’s quiet, afraid to speak up, who doesn’t know about all this stuff and is tempted to go with the group – but doesn’t – just because of this performance, that would be amazing.

 Will the schoolboard let us? When I was in high school what I learned was abstinence, I learned no sex until marriage, then they showed us a video on STDs. I think that this show has all the pieces to totally reach a group of high school kids, but I don’t think their parents would be good with that. I come from a family who wasn’t educated and a town that wasn’t educated. I know towns – cities – of people who would probably say “no” to this [RTS performance] just because of what they think it’s gonna talk about.

To me, this isn’t HIV or sex education.  It doesn’t promote sex.  It talks about the consequences of stigma. It could be stigma about fat people, stigma about black people, or Jews, or whatever – because stigma is stigma is stigma.

 Our gut reaction and the audience had been saying “get into the high schools”.  Everybody wants to change the kids. Fix the kids and the problem will be fixed. Well they’re not too far off.  This is where stigma begins. In the family and in school. This is the timeframe in the lifecycle where adolescents begin to separate from their parent’s belief systems and develop their own. This may be a really good pivotal age group to work with.

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