When St. Catherine University faculty and staff convened for the Teaching and Learning Network, a day-long seminar for professional development, on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, they were welcomed by a revitalizing talk by Hui Wilcox, Ph. D.
Wilcox, a Professor of Sociology, Women's Studies and Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity, at St. Kate's, first asked the group to join her in a quiet meditation, as an embodied exercise to set the stage for her talk. Then she led faculty and staff on a tour of her experiences with dance, pedagogy and social justice, as she delivered the Sister Ann Joachim Moore Lecture.
Learning through dance
For the last five years, Wilcox has danced and performed with Ananya Dance Theatre (ADT), a women of color dance company in Minneapolis with the mission to create and present dance theater works that emerge from and exist at the intersection of artistic excellence and social justice.
In frequent and extensive rehearsals, the women of ADT come together to recount experiences from their own lives related to race, class and gender. They combine emotional intensity, physical technique and theatrical storytelling to convey these experiences to larger audiences through dance.
Wilcox's work with Ananya Dance Theatre, in her own words, has shaped and continues to shape who she is today. She integrates her work as a dance artist with her work at St. Catherine University, with the hope of inspiring students to work toward change, through their own creativity and through their community.
Wilcox draws many parallels between the themes of the ADT dances and the field of sociology. For example, the dance company's current production, Estuaries of Our Desire, is the final movement of a four-year project exploring violence against women of color in communities internationally.
A person in transience
Wilcox's personal story began in China, where she experienced injustices based on her class and her gender. Even when she first came to the U.S. as a graduate student of sociology, she still identified as a working-class Chinese women.
"As I spent eight years in grad school, I came to see myself as an immigrant women, a border crosser, a person in transience. But a women of color? I was not sure how to relate to the term despite diligent studies of race and ethnicity at the university. The readings and discussions were strewn with jargons and statistics that could not relate to my experience of isolation and marginalization," said Wilcox.
"The women in ADT got to that topic fast. We talked about our relationships to each other and our relationships to whiteness. At times, ADT gatherings felt like graduate seminars. We shared not only conversations, but also booklists on race, class, gender and sexuality.
Along her journey with ADT and St. Kate's, Wilcox came to identify herself as an immigrant woman of color — a distinction of pride that the professor says is infinitely different from being an immigrant woman.
"The transformation happened amidst many hours of warm-up sequences, footwork and drilling of choreographies. It happened when I tried to help students understand race, class and gender," said Wilcox. "Self-reflection about identity is an important part of teaching and justice work."
The circle is always open
Wilcox referenced the works and stories of many other women and scholars in her talk, some of which she encountered through her work with Ananya Dance Theatre.
"The circle is always open," said Wilcox. "The most powerful encounters are encounters with scholars, poets and activists, who insist upon challenging dominant modes of knowing, and insist on telling stories not just with their words but also with their bodies and souls."
In 2010, Wilcox traveled with ADT to perform at the National Women's Studies Association conference in Denver. In her interactions with others, she reaffirmed that the classroom is a sacred place with individual souls entrusted to the care of their teachers.
"The faith that everyone needs to be free and whole is precisely what I need in order to keep teaching and dancing with passion," said Wilcox.
As part of her talk, Wilcox showed the video, "Artistic Excellence; Social Justice," that provided a glimpse into the space in which Ananya Dance Theatre works and the interactions that occur in that space.
"Just knowing the possibility for wholeness is enough," she said.
Start from a place of healing
In her talk, Wilcox expressed empathy for the injustices against women that are suffered across the globe. While acknowledging how many causes call for activism in so many countries, she challenged her colleagues to examine the method they use to confront these issues.
Wilcox posed the question, "What would happen if we start from a place of healing instead of a place of injury?"
"ADT is a space of healing precisely because the community has the courage and capacity to open up the space to reveal painful contradictions and to seek truth and beauty simultaneously," said Wilcox. "Friendship, happiness, solidarity. These are the things that sustain ADT's anti-racist work. Our work is living proof that the true, the good and the beautiful all reside in the Estuaries of Our Desire — the desire to live, to be human, to dance and to walk with each other.
"In the end, it is the spirit that sustains our work and gives us hope. And it's the tremor of the souls touched by our dance that leads to action and change."
Wilcox's lecture entitled "The Desire to be Whole: Meditation on Dance, Pedagogy, and Social Justice," garnered a standing ovation from faculty and staff.
It set the tone for a new semester at St. Kate's, with respect to spirituality, pedagogy and the call to social justice.
"Hui seems the perfect recipient of this lectureship this year, because this lectureship is about where academics meets activism, where justice meets intellectual inquiry," said Professor of English Cecilia Konchar Farr.
About Ann Joachim Moore CSJ
The Sister Anne Joachim Moore lecture at the University's annual internal conference, the Teaching and Learning Network (TLN), is a faculty prestigious honor each year.
A 1937 graduate of St. Mary’s School of Nursing and a 1947 graduate of the St. Catherine nursing program, Sister Anne Joachim was founder and the first and only president of St. Mary’s Junior College, which merged with the then–College of St. Catherine in September 1986 to form the Minneapolis campus.
Her work in the 1960s and ’70s to transform St. Mary’s School of Nursing into a thriving two-year college earned Sister Anne Joachim a Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa, in 1989 and a place of honor in St. Catherine’s “Centennial 100” in 2005. She also served as a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. She died in December 2010 following a brief illness.