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Embodied Activism: Finding Her Purpose Through Dance

Bhumi Patel '12

English Literature-Creative Writing

woman in black and white

Bhumi Patel '12

In 2008 when Bhumi Patel (she/they) became a student at Agnes Scott College, she remembers it feeling like a place where she and many of her peers at the time could really be themselves. She remembers the feeling of empowerment and support she felt walking with her Scottie siblings each year in Atlanta’s Pride Parade and how proud she was that her college had a Women’s Studies Department (now Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies).

“My identity as a queer person is so engrained in everything I do, and attending a historically women’s college was transformative,” Patel said. “There was a gentleness there that allowed me to unpack and explore all of my identities, and it empowered me to use my own unique voice to do whatever I wanted to do. There wasn’t pressure to fit into the status quo.”

The safe and supportive environment was what Patel needed to thrive. A double major in creative writing and dance, she performed with the college’s Studio Dance Theater every semester, was a member of Mortar Board, Pestle Board and the Aurora Literary Magazine, volunteered with the Writer’s Festival every spring and interned with the Atlanta Review. The concept of safe and inclusive spaces and the encouragement to engage with the economic and social challenges of her times had such a profound impact on Patel that now, almost 10 years after graduating from Agnes Scott, her work almost entirely centers around these themes.

She combines skills gleaned from both of her academic majors daily as a freelance dance writer and performer, and as artistic director at her dance studio pateldanceworks. With an M.A. in American Dance Studies from Florida State University and an M.F.A. in Dance from Mills College, Patel is also an Associate Professor of Dance at West Valley College in California, where she now makes her home. From striving to create an accessible learning environment for all of her students to choreographing and performing works that “center marginalized voices at the intersection of embodied research and activism,” Patel calls her work her activism.

“It sometimes feels like I’m making art to respond to the injustices I’m witnessing or the social change that I want or the future that I think we can co-create – dancing is my medium to discuss that,” Patel said.

“There’s this perception about what activism is or isn’t that I think is so unnecessary; Activism is any way in which we push against the status quo or ask the difficult questions.”

Igniting Her Passion

Patel had danced in high school, including on a competition dance team, but Agnes Scott was where her desire to also pursue a career in academia was ignited from taking a Labanotation class, a symbol-based dance that is essentially a system for recording human movement. Taught by Professor of Dance Bridget Roosa, Labanotation at Agnes Scott is one of the most popular dance classes among dance students.

“The rigor of the dance process and all the classes I took at Agnes Scott prepared me for having a career in the arts,” Patel said. “They challenged me to not be afraid to ask for a better world, to ask the difficult questions. I think I became an activist at Agnes Scott.”

Dance classes at Agnes Scott can range from 5-21 students per class, while there are between 10 and 20 declared dance majors in the Dance Program at any one time. The college’s Studio Dance Theater consists of 25 members and puts on two major dance productions per year. Roosa, who has taught dance at Agnes Scott for the last 20 years and was recently the college’s 2020 Vulcan Teaching Excellence Award recipient, describes her students as inquisitive, always hungry for more and open to trying new things. She intentionally teaches students how to use movement as a form of expression to engage the social challenges of their times. Most recently, in October 2020, the Studio Dance Theater produced a Facebook Watch Party performance entitled “for the people” in response to the current environment where racism, political unrest, and a global pandemic were at the forefront. Performers danced with “a hope for humanity, unity and positive change.”

woman dancing

Movement as Legacy

Patel describes dance as something she uses now for the pursuit of liberation, with a goal of “supporting marginalized and oppressed voices through performance and movement education.” “Movement can be healing, and a form of processing and digesting the world around us; plus, I feel good when I move – movement keeps me coming back to my physical body,” Patel said. “We learn about the world through our body, but as adults, we lose the bridge between our thinking brains and our bodies; my work seeks to rebuild this bridge.”

Her studio pateldanceworks is a project-based dance company with members who rotate on and off projects based on availability. Patel writes, choreographs, directs and performs dance works for the studio, including such social justice and equity-centered works as “divisions the empire has sown” and “all the things we’ll never be.” For the last three years, Patel has curated “fem(me),” a performance of femme-identified, radical queers for SAFEhouse Arts. Since its founding in 2017, pateldanceworks has presented works at over 15 destinations including LEVYsalon, The San Francisco International Arts Festival, Studio 200 and RAWdance’s Concept Series, and is, according to Patel, the accomplishment she is most proud of.

Among other things, Patel stays active in the San Francisco Bay area as a member of Dancing Around Race - a Dance Studies Association community engagement residency that has done such things as examining issues surrounding equity in dance and discussing how systemic racism shows up in higher education – and Cat Call Choir, which is a group of female-identified artists who create live performances about gender-based violence using satirical song, dance and physical theater. She has had her dance writing published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Life as a Modern Dancer, Contact Quarterly and InDance.

woman standing still against backdrop of lights

Empowering Creativity

In the fall of 2020, Patel returned (via Zoom) to Agnes Scott as a visiting lecturer to teach embodied improvisation to Professor Roosa’s intermediate/advanced Modern Dance class. Patel describes this sensation-based work as having been very important for students to “re-engage with their three- dimensional bodies” during the virtual learning settings that have come to be required as a result of the pandemic. Her goal was to get students to look away from their screens by inviting them to close their eyes and follow her prompts to imagine creating movement in their bodies.

Even if none of her students end up pursuing dance as a career, Patel expressed her satisfaction with having at least challenged them to be creative thinkers. “We need creative thinking in the world, it’s so necessary in every field, and it’s important that students feel empowered to engage with their work. We live in a world that moves quickly and tells us that we have to also move quickly. But my advice would be to take the time to give yourself the spaciousness to think deeply and really follow what you love, want and truly care about.”

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