“I am that poor man often stared at oddly/You spy me slovenly as poverty draws me camouflage…I am that poor man you don’t understand/or ignore this but sometimes you pour porridge that meets these orphaned lips/and others see me as a torn page from a script of laziness to teach their children not to be like me/but as society denies me livelihood and sobriety and longevity so my children don’t have to live pathetically/before your eyes do the judging and condemning/know that you too can be that poor man.” – Vejea Speaks on Poverty, by Souljahz
A light from offstage casts a shadow on a young black woman’s face, Dachelle Johnson-Burke. Its glow burns bright enough to illuminate her dark complexion. Hypnotized, she dances to the rhythm of a spoken word on poverty. Her intensity and passion remain steadfast in each movement. Her thoughts revert to that of a poor single mother, working three jobs to feed her three children. She embodies the character’s mentality. You see her strength. She slows down and takes a deep breath. In that moment, you sense her weariness, before she begins again.
Two other dancers, once motionless in the dark, now move. One of the pair, Vanessa Sanchez, stares at Dachelle with disgust and arrogance. She represents society’s wealth, decked in gaudy jewelry. From an upright stature, she looks down at Dachelle, beating the ground with her fists. The other dancer, Tiffany Burnoski, mirrors her counterpart from a distance.
These three dancers represent the social hierarchy of America: the working class poor, the middle class, and the wealthy. An obvious inequality exists between them, and the lower class is affected the most by the power of the elite.
For the New Moves Dance December Showcase at SF State, I choreographed a piece that unmasks America’s classism. I called it “The Poor Man’s Struggle.”
“No matter how hard a poor person may work, he can’t always ‘pull himself up from his bootstraps’ when a dominant power structure within society suppresses him.”
Class struggle becomes easy to overlook when its smothered by America’s so-called prosperity. Fighting poverty does not seem to be a major campaign issue. The working class poor population is expanding, the middle class is shrinking, and the upper class remains disproportionately small. It is the poor who suffer the most under this hierarchy. In my piece, two dancers represent the middle class, three are poor, two are rich. In the end, a middle class becomes poor.
“It’s a little scary just thinking of the shrinking middle class,” says Vanessa Sanchez. “Where am I gonna end up with that shrinking?”
America’s poor do not get enough resources to alleviate their problems. The top one percent earn more money than the bottom 40 percent, and the gap wider than it has been in 70 years, found globalissues.org. The U.S. also has the largest gap in wages and inequality between the rich and the poor when compared to all other industrialized nations, reported Corporate Planet Magazine. Today, 37 million Americans are impoverished. Poorer communities are denied access to adequate education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 73 percent of Americans do not have government health insurance. Instead of health care being a privilege, shouldn’t it be a basic human right?
I started choreographing in the summer, and chose seven passionate dancers in the fall to represent each class: Tiffany Burnoski, Stephanie Castillo, Stephanie Hyland, Alexis Johnson, Dachelle Johnson-Burke, Jenna L. and Vanessa Sanchez.
To get them to really connect to their respective characters, I gave them movements—jumps, kicks, falls; and words—struggle, wealth, limitation; allowing them to create their own dance phrase. I asked them to consider the residents of Visitacion Valley, a section of San Francisco where many minorities live and violence is common.
“I imagined being frustrated, I thought of how frustrated it can be when I’m trying to get somewhere and just can’t get there,” said Alexis Johnson. “And I thought of my personal frustration of being a college student and trying to pay for school myself.”
In selecting the classes the dancers would represent, race played a key factor as it does in reality. Blacks and Hispanics suffer higher rates of poverty than whites and Asians. Around 25 percent of blacks live in poverty, as do 22 percent of Hispanics. The poverty rate decreased for non-Hispanic whites and increased roughly two percent for Asians from 2004 to 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I think [dancing in this piece] definitely exposed me to the frustration of the system and the struggle of what poorer classes have to go through,” explained Johnson. “I learned the structure of the economic system, how shameful it is, and how much people need to be educated about it, so they can learn to make better decisions—it makes sense why there are so many problems with poor families.”
In the choreography, the battle is obvious. The classes fight each other, but it’s no doubt the rich are still in power. In the end, the rich have total control over the poor, and survive although the lower classes have fallen. “Before, I was able to forget about it,” says Stephanie Hyland. “And now, I never realized how messed up [the class system is], how unfair and how it really affects life.”
“The Poor Man’s Struggle” is an amalgamation of many dance styles: hip hop, modern, Capoeira, and Haitian. All are derived from the histories of peoples living in arduous, oppressive conditions. Enslaved Africans on the Caribbean island of Haiti developed Haitian dance as a means of expressing themselves and maintaining their sacred customs and beliefs.
African slaves brought to Brazil in 1630 developed a system of fighting called “jungle war,” or Capoeira, to use against their Dutch and Portuguese colonizers. Capoeria, done to the rhythm of music and song, disguised the fact that the slaves were practicing a deadly martial art. It became their weapon of freedom and symbol of emancipation.
In the 1970s, Hip Hop culture was born in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City. As a marginalized group, black and Latino youth didn’t have any formal way to express themselves. They developed Hip Hop as a way to have fun, communicate their experiences, and criticize social inequality and poverty. One woman’s rebellion against ballet’s strict postures and steps gave birth to the modern dance self-expressive form.
I’m sick of our country’s relentless pursuit of capital, the idea that anyone can make it America, our individualistic mentality, how we exploit other countries for our own benefit, and how we overlook our own impoverished citizens, considering them lazy.
My firm belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ is what inspired me to create my dance.
Our American mentality is a far cry from what Christ stood for and a far cry from democracy, justice, and freedom. If you want to ask what Jesus would do, ask if he would give tax cuts to the rich. How can we claim as our nation’s slogan that it is God in whom we trust? If the U.S. was truly based on the Gospel, it would abolish the modern day capitalistic financial system.
We have forgotten Jesus’ heart for humanity and the common good, who fought to bring salvation and hope to a people oppressed by their religious institutionalized system. He reprimanded their leaders, constantly taught his followers to reach out to those in need and condemned those with a love of money.
How can we breed people into different classes, judge others by their skin color, deprive them of the bare necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—and expect them to thrive?
No matter how hard a poor person may work, he can’t always ‘pull himself up from his bootstraps’ when a dominant power structure within society suppresses him. Someday, I hope this won’t be true anymore.
Maybe then, we’d be living in a country where all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain, unalienable rights; the God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.