Dancing is such a standard as part of the nightlife and music culture we live and breathe, we inherently take it for granted. Here at NEST HQ we’ve been so focused on the creators of the music itself, we’ve hardly delved into the nuances of what’s being created on and for the dancefloor. Enter Vandana Hart, humanitarian activist, United Nations advisor, and creator/host of the critically acclaimed We Speak Dance series currently on Netflix, which follows Vandana to five countries where she dives into local dance culture to learn about how it serves and is used within different communities. She has become our tour guide to the world of dance quite literally; the above video was shot at a renegade dance party we co-hosted on a Sunday afternoon with We Speak Dance at the Venice Fishing Pier last month.
“We Speak Dance is not just a show, it’s really a movement,” Vandana explains. “This is where media in the 21st century can really have a big impact, I think most people are done raising awareness and want to do something.”
Russian-born Vandana was forced to flee with her family to Sweden as an infant to seek political asylum because her father was outspoken against the Communist government keeping political prisoners. She was enrolled in and kicked out of her first dance class at the age of three in Sweden, a ballet class, because her dancing was “too wild” and the teacher recommended she be put into an Afro-Caribbean class. Her family emigrated to the U.S. when she was four and moved to California, where she was enrolled in dance class with an Afro-Caribbean teacher per her snobby ballet teacher’s recommendation. She was nurtured by an incredibly diverse dance crew at that studio growing up, which solidified her foundation as a dance rebel bound by no singular culture.
In high school, she moved to Portland where she participated in a public school desegregation program where white kids were sent to predominantly African American schools, which landed her in the Jefferson Dancers, where she trained intensely in tap, ballet, hip-hop, and contemporary with world-renowned choreographers and even toured around the world. She then moved to New York City to train at Alvin Ailey, a historically African American-dominated dance theater. It was during that time in New York that she took her incredibly diverse background in dance and decided she wanted to figure out how to apply it in the social impact space.
“I have this background of fierce activism in my family,” she explained, “ and I really felt like dance wasn’t enough to make a real change and that I needed to go beyond it. So I transferred to NYU to study politics. From there I emailed the UN a billion times and finally got an internship at age 23, and a month later they wound up hiring me and I was working on adolescent girls’ reproductive health rights.” She’s worked on programs focused on reducing violence towards women by redesigning public space from transport to markets, to make them safer for women and girls. All the while, she continued to dance for fun on weekends, but stopped her formal training.
“I’d stopped taking ballet but was battling and dancing at parties on the weekends with my friends who were hip-hop choreographers in the underground scene, while working at the UN,” she explains. “So I’d giggle to myself everyday, I had this one life as an activist and women’s rights leader working at the UN designing programs for social impact, and then by night I was this underground dancer. But I thought of them as very separate and never something that could go together.”
She ended up moving to London to earn her master’s degree in global politics at London School of Economics, which is where she fell in love with a local salsa dancing bar. “In one night I could dance with literally every single country in the world,” she said. “London is so diverse, and I learned about so many different cultures just by dancing with them. And you could feel all these differences in that person’s individual personality and maybe their culture too. I felt like I was learning more about people just from a few minutes of dancing with them than I could by speaking with them for hours.”
After London, she moved to Nairobi, Kenya where she worked on setting up safe cities for African women and taught dance. This eventually landed her as a judge on the Kenyan version of So You Think You Can Dance, which made her realize the conversation about dance worldwide is centered predominantly around competition. “I’m more interested in why we’re dancing the way we are,” she said. “What do these dance styles say about the direction of the country? Once I started to bring dance into my activism work I started connecting with people very differently. So I became obsessed with this idea of combining politics and dance. Anthony Bourdain was blowing up at the time, Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ music video was popular in every country, and I started to see, yes! There is a space to do this.”
The very first We Speak Dance episode was shot in Nairobi. DIY episodes were filmed in Nigeria, Ghana, Cuba, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic, with limited investment. Along the way, Vandana met like-minded dance activists across the globe who shared the idea of using dance as a means of resistance against socio-political oppression. It’s easier to bring people together around fun, shared experience (dancing) than around protesting societal oppression (which is important, but sounds admittedly less fun than a dance party).
“Raising awareness is something that’s very common in the non-profit sector to draw attention to a problem,” she said. “Shifting from raising awareness to mobilization is the next phase, unfortunately most of the social impact space stops at raising awareness. It takes a lot of time and resources to get people to understand what’s wrong, but that’s not inspiring and it’s not bringing people together – primarily it’s highlighting victimization and that can sometimes reinstate a sense of hopelessness,” Vandana explained. “Taking up public space with movement is pretty powerful.” When it comes to protesting oppression, it’s a lot more fun and sustainable than chanting and holding signs alone.
And clearly Vandana was engineered by both nature and life experience to emerge as a leader at the intersection of pop culture and social impact using dance to mobilize activism. Learn more about her in Yes Theory’s mini-documentary about the We Speak Dance project and watch the show here.