performing arts supporting AIDS

The Dance Activists

(photo of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zanes’ earliest dances for AIDS)

Harsh discrimination against AIDS victims and death counts continued and many among them being a part of the dancing and theater community, as shown by Michael Shnayerson’s article on of the lose famous musicians and artist in the 1980s by AIDS. It was at this time the performing arts community stepped in to fight this injustice and raise awareness for AIDS activism. Performing arts became one of the earliest activist groups on the fight against AIDS. One of the earliest dedicated performance to AIDS was showcased 1984, documented by Gia Kourlas, an expert journalist on dancing culture. But these were no ordinary dance shows but a form of dance that would hold significant political meaning in AIDS activism.  In a NY times article by Joseph Carman, a highly respected journalist on dancing culture, states that choreographers used their sorrows from losing loved ones to AIDS and turned into an energetic performance on the reality of the virus. These dances presented a new light in fighting the AIDS epidemic by expressing true emotions and feelings that brought awareness to how the virus effects the hearts and minds of not only the victims but the loved ones around them. Choreographers all throughout the 1980s and 90s created and performed dances that could dazzle and mesmerized the crowds, Bill T. Jones, Arnie Zane, and John Bernard became pioneers in this new style (Kourlas).




(David Gere’s book on AIDS history told through dance)
(early form of AIDS activism through contemporary dance)

The new style that emerged was a new form a contemporary dance, it reshaped the way that a message could be said through dance and body movements and it galvanized the audience. In Joshua Chambers-Leston’s review of David Gere’s inspiring novel on AIDS history told through dance goes over how this new style came to be and the way it changed the lives of HIV infected victims. Chamber-Leston states how choreography changed “by focusing on how bodies were choreographed for political means (107)”. The review states how “choreography constructed networks of meaning, transgression, affirmation, mourning, and transformation through the organization of bodies, in this case, those of gay men affected by HIV/AIDS (Chamber-Leston 107)”. Dances in this style made a speech on the reality of AIDS and instilled the audience with the emotions and pains that the choreographers felt inside of them. These performances were so powerful that during the dance it “describes the dancer covering [their] bodies in the saliva of his audience (Chamber-Leston 108)”. A metaphor to how the dances were so moving that audience were drooling all over their performance like pack of hungry lions.


(All AIDS cast of a dancing group from San Fransisco doing their performance “Carry me home”)

Originally this form of contemporary dance in this time period was created by Choreographer to settle their sorrows through dancing as stated by Joseph Carman “Not about AIDS. It’s about moving on”. But despite their original intentions the dancing community created a new form of political activism. Dances that presented such moving messages and political meaning to the audience is called “Speech Act-performance” as explained by David Gere. The objects of Speech Act-performance were to transform “concert dance to avant-garde performances, funerals, public disruptions, and activist actions (Chamber-Leston 107)”. Choreographer used dances as a way to support the AIDS movement and actively protest against the discrimination of gays that were being targeted. Jennifer Dunning, a published journalist and author who was written many books and articles about dancing culture and the AIDS dance movement, writes about the “Not-About-AIDS-Dance,” performance and say that it showed “not only the horror of death, illness and disappointment but also the meaningful ways in which life does doggedly continue”. Dunning writes in her article that AIDS dancing shows were not about the AIDS disease itself but portraying the effects and struggles that real people deal in the age of AIDS. The reason why gays were primarily discriminated was because in the 1980s AIDS was thought to be a virus that only effected gays and that it was God’s punishment for being homosexual (White). But what the dancing community tried to achieve was take the idea it was a “gay disease” away from public mind and present the notion that people are dying and struggling but nothing is being done to solve it. Once that idea fit in place dancers were able to challenge the AIDS crisis and present awareness and truth to the struggling victims of the virus and raise support for the greater AIDS movement.