Nayani and I were wandering the streets of Kolkata, strolling languidly in the heat and chatting in a mix of Bengali, English and emphatic gesticulation. We stopped to purchase vegetable fritters popping in oil and Nayani asked me with an ironic smile what I wanted to be when I grew up. I grimaced self consciously; at 24 I was sure of my seemingly disparate passions for dance and global human rights but was unsure of my path. Without answering, I asked her what she wanted to be. “I wanted to be a dancer and I became one,” she said with a flippant shrug.
This friend of mine lives in a Muslim slum area deep within the crowded streets of Kolkata and was raised knowing that she would not gain an education like her brother and that, as a girl, she could not pursue her dreams. Despite the obstacles, she did it anyway, becoming a professional dancer and skilled dance movement therapist. At 27, I know undeniably what I want to do and what I want to become; Nayani ’s unapologetic confidence pushed me to believe in my passion to move against human trafficking and gender-based violence through dance despite the fear that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. She remains a guiding force to this day. I have returned to Kolkata to work for a second time with Kolkata Sanved, a non-profit organization which uses dance and Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) as rehabilitation for survivors of human trafficking and violence.
Kolkata Sanved’s main program, Saving Lives through Dance, is based on the belief that all individuals should live lives of dignity and respect and that this sense of empowerment can be accomplished through DMT. In 2011 When I first visited a shelter home with dance therapy practitioners from Kolkata Sanved to watch a DMT session, I couldn’t help but be skeptical. I am a dancer trained in the Western cannon; I grew up doing tap, jazz, and ballet with every intention of becoming a professional. Despite my own love of dance, I couldn’t banish the thought that these children would think dance was a waste of time. The DMT practitioners working at Kolkata Sanved are themselves survivors of trafficking and violence and have undergone the organization’s healing and recovery program and engaged in a two year training program to become skilled dance movement therapists, earning livelihoods as facilitators, artists, and activists. They were completely confident walking into the empty, cement-floored room that would be our dance space. As they began to dance, with 40 children copying every movement, my skepticism fell away and I saw that dance was not frivolous. On the contrary, dance was everything.
The organization’s founder, who has worked with survivors for two decades, has a deep understanding of what regional rehabilitation programs for trafficking survivors are lacking: trained counselors and a focus on mental and emotional health. Many programs offer tangible assistance such as food, clothing, shelter, and sometimes education and skills training. What is forgotten is the immense physical and emotional trauma experienced by many of these youth that is locked within their bodies. Especially in cases of sexual exploitation, the body becomes a source of shame; disassociation occurs between mind and body. The power of Dance Movement Therapy stems from the fact that the body is the tool for transformation, helping individuals reclaim their own bodies, build self confidence, and mend the mind and body connection. Through physical, cognitive, and emotional skill building and expression, DMT provides a non-judgmental and non-threatening environment in which youth living in shelter homes can heal and feel free. The use of DMT in group settings and for the express purpose of trauma release and healing is unique in India as well as across the world. Expressive arts therapies are utilized globally and more attention is being paid to their effectiveness as part of holistic healing programs. However, dance and Dance Movement Therapy are rarely mentioned.
Kolkata Sanved’s work is groundbreaking in the fields of rehabilitation, reintegration, social development, and international development at large. As the organization grows, their ability to make a global impact increases.
I don’t see dance only as an art form or as a tool for rehabilitation, I see it as an untapped force connecting humans across the globe that could change the way individuals and development practitioners alike approach empowerment, child protection, and peace building. It is not the academic jargon, horrifying statistics, or nightmare inducing stories of exploitation I hear daily that propel me to work for justice, women’s rights, and social change. It is the happiness, hope, and unadulterated power that dance and creative expression evoke in once victimized survivors of trafficking and violence that show the power of this work to change lives and that this is the work I must do.