Advocating Through Dance

Original Performance Art Embodies Coping with Racism

Be accommodating. Smile. Slouch a little when they see you. Confidence scares them.

As the five dancers on stage spin and run, stretch tall and then cower, the sound of recorded messages, corrections, and warnings from different voices fills Callahan Theater at Nazareth College.

Love Letter to Brian, Lisa, and Michelle

    Watch a 1-minute excerpt of the dance performed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018

    Do not fit the description. Your hair is loud just like you. Keep it tamed and hushed down. Let them touch it when they ask. Do not cry.

    Hettie Barnhill — a Broadway actress, a director, and a choreographer who is a visiting assistant professor of theatre and dance at Nazareth — choreographed the expressive piece, first performed at Nazareth's Movement and Dance (MAD) Weekend in November. In January, the dance kicked off the College's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day event.

    "I think everyone has their 2 cents to put in about how people should deal with oppression, how you should deal with the bullies, how do you deal in a world that's unfair," Barnhill says. Do you pray, turn the other cheek, or fight? Do you accommodate, put your hands up, and silence yourself and your emotions?

    She echoes author Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates: "All of us have our ways of coping, and sometimes it just becomes a little too much."

    Do not have accidents or get into arguments. Be good. Cross to the other side of the street so they don't have to. Don't be a statistic.

    Barnhill performed the dance piece with three Nazareth students and a recent graduate. Dwight Young '21, one of the dancers, says it was powerful to hear and feel the weight of the spoken messages, especially as they accelerate and the dancers' pace quickens.

    "We're speaking the poetry with our bodies," says Young, an acting major who grew up in Brooklyn and in the Caribbean country of Grenada. He hopes the piece prompts conversation and greater understanding of how words, attitudes, and even body language toward others can weigh heavily on them. As dancers, he says, "We're basically advocating with our bodies."

    Through history, few theatrical productions have had black main characters. "I wanted to give a chance to these students who are crazy talented," says Barnhill, who regularly tackles issues of race and gender through her art.

    "I was trying to be honest and give the audience a chance to look into some of the issues that black youth — black culture — is going through right now," says Barnhill. "It's small things and bigger things. It happens on a daily basis."

    The piece embodies microaggressions and racism through modern dance with inflections of African dance, hip hop, and liturgical/lyrical movements. The title of the piece — "Love Letter to Brian, Lisa, and Michelle" — is a subtle reference to the letters BLM in the Black Lives Matter movement.

    "I do art that speaks to what's happening in the world, and what's speaking to me," Barnhill says, adding, "It was so powerful to do this on MLK Day" — a day focused on equity and the humanity of all people.

    The spoken words are from "Da Rules," a poem by Marvin Hodges, Em Allison, and Saidu Tejan-Thomas.

    Do not wear hoodies or walk in white neighborhoods in Texas, Arizona, and Florida. Why are you people always shooting yourselves, in the chest, while in handcuffs? Don't you know that black bodies are weapons?

    The dancers have their hands up. They move forward, then back up. In a line, they cover their ears. They look right at the audience.

    Wait, I've always been black. I've always been black. I've always been black. But I didn't always know it.


    • Hettie Barnhill, visiting assistant professor
    • Amya Brice '21, dance studies major
    • Christopher Peterkin '18, musical theatre major
    • Najzma Williams '17 communication sciences and disorders major, dance studies minor
    • Dwight Young '21, acting major

    About Barnhill

    In addition to teaching, Barnhill is an experienced Broadway actress, a director, a choreographer, and the founder of Movement & Characters — a school dedicated to providing high-quality classes in the performing arts for students of all ages, levels, and financial backgrounds, located in the Hudson Valley and New York City.

    • Nominated for a 2017 New York Innovative Theater Award for Outstanding Choreography.
    • Performed on Broadway in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, the Tony Award-winning FELA!, and the Tony Award-nominated Leap of Faith.
    • Other selected credits include The Metropolitan Opera's Romeo & Juliet, Elektra, and Lulu; Dallas Theater Center's FLY A New Musical, Face-Off Unlimited Improv NYC's BATSU! and Pillow Fight (choreographer); The Muny's (St. Louis) Hairspray, Aida, Camelot, and Meet Me in St. Louis; Riverside Theater's La Cage Aux Follies; and St. Louis Black Rep's Guys and Dolls.
    • Television and film includes Law & Order SVU and The Knick.
    • Received many awards for her outreach and community service.
    • Co-founded Create A Space Now (2016), an interactive social platform that uses performing arts and multimedia to further discussion around #blacklivesmatter, recent events, and race relations in America.
    • Her website:


    The spoken words are from "Da Rules," a poem by Marvin Hodges, Em Allison, and Saidu Tejan-Thomas.