“Finally, a summer not spent in retail or on the farm. Finally, a chance to do something with my Humanities training.”
Between cleaning fitting rooms and helping my dad raise bison, I was always employed but rarely fulfilled. When I moved from eastern PA to Iowa City last August, I was already looking to bridge that employment-fulfillment gap for the upcoming summer. The Humanities for the Public Good offered just that connection. Hancher’s Student Engagement internship particularly aligned with my desire to foster community through art, and since March I have been looking forward to connecting with undergraduates at the Farmers Market, the Jazz Festival, and other summer events.
Like many people right now, I am adapting my plans. So far in my internship, I have reveled in learning about tentative performers and brainstorming for the Hancher Presents podcast. As my knowledge expands, however, my social disconnect becomes more acute. Instead of spontaneously exchanging ideas, I have to tuck away my thoughts until the next Zoom call.
One such idea is that I have a voice. So accustomed to writing, I hardly speak, and if there is no online meeting, I may not utter a word during the day. While in retail, I would cringe listening to myself repeat the cashier’s script:
“Hi, how are you? Did you find everything alright? Would you like to save 15% today by applying for our Mastercard? Okay, without the card, it will be $49.99.”
Of course there were genuine interactions too, and it is that authentic voice that I seek. As I participate in the Hancher Presents podcast this summer, my unique thoughts take shape. The simple vibration of my vocal cords reminds me that I am human.
That humanity depends as much on an active voice as on a dynamic body. Well-trained, the body can accomplish air-defying stunts all while conveying grace, as any ballet and circus performance will demonstrate. Comparing the professionals to myself, I am even more impressed by their poise.
Other than childhood ballet, my dance experience comes from Zumba. The first time I tried to merengue, I flushed with embarrassment at daring to move my hips. Now, Zumba allows me to turn off my brain and to take up space. The Rec Center’s dance instructors graciously host nightly classes on Zoom, a much-needed source of normalcy during quarantine. Behind my laptop or in the Mac Gym, during dance sessions, my individual body fuses with that of the Zumba community; we misstep together, we smile together, we exist together. We don’t need many words, just music.
From amateur fitness to professional performances, communication is most authentic when the body moves freely. Given current travel restrictions, it is easy to remain stagnant, but we need dynamism, especially those of us who live alone, to stay in touch with our humanity.
Granted, I can reach this optimistic conclusion because of the privileges I have enjoyed from a small-town childhood to graduate studies. My frustration with silencing and restriction pales compared to the systemic censorship that Black Lives Matter is bringing to light. On racial, gender, economic, educational and so many other levels, society has constructed “in” and “out” groups. The one to manifest its voice and its body most forcefully maintains power, but that group does not always reflect the population, take for example the majority of white, heterosexual, middle-aged males in Congress and the actual demographics of the U.S.
Hancher addressed the numerous factors contributing to identity in its 2018 Embracing Complexity Series. Continuing on a smaller scale today, the series recognizes that labels such as man, woman; white, black; Christian, Muslim help us organize relationships but also reinforce hierarchies. In my own studies, the power dynamic between vocal men and silent women shines in Hélène Cixous’ 1975 article “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Gender equality, Cixous argues, depends on women writing themselves into history, thereby creating a more nuanced image of woman than the projection that male writers have historically cast.
As both Cixous and Hancher illustrate, one value of art is allowing silenced, restricted bodies to manifest themselves. Similarly, the current protests draw on textual, visual, and physical mediums to give a voice to victims of police brutality. In short, fostering connections despite systemic and COVID-induced isolation has been the first something to emerge from my summer.
Featured image of Hancher courtesy of Bill Adams