UA Students Perform Where the Dream Is Still King
Dancers Kennedy Thomas and Kevyn Butler represented the University in events commemorating the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in Alabama.
When thousands of people met at the steps of the Alabama State Capitol last week in remembrance of one of the most important moments during the civil rights movement, University of Arizona dancers Kennedy Thomas and Kevyn Butler joined in a performance choreographed for the event.
The trip came after the office of Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley extended an invitation to Melissa Lowe, a UA School of Dance professor.
Lowe then had conversations with Quinton Ross, an Alabama state senator, and award-winning actress Tonea Stewart, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Alabama State University, to finalize plans for the performance.
The commemorative event was held in honor of the 50-year anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The 1965 march, depicted in the Academy Award-winning film "Selma," released in 2014, would catalyze support for what would become the Voting Rights Act.
"This trip is not only important to me because of the opportunity to be an artistic presence in the celebration of civil rights activists and movements," said Butler, a UA dance and Africana studies major from Oakland, Calif.
"Often times oratorical forms of art or poetry get to be present at these types of events, but being able to represent the School of Dance and the University is extremely important," he said.
Lowe helped coordinate the trip and selected Thomas, Butler and Barbea Williams, a UA adjunct professor, to attend and represent the University and the School of Dance. Williams contributed choreography for Kennedy's solo performance and for the closing duet.
"This is one of my high points in all of my years of teaching," Lowe said.
"When we can send a dancer to an event that is of national importance, it not only provides great visibility and prestige for us, but it is a great opportunity for our dancers," she said. "They also get to share with children of the region how they are able to use their art. What this means for their futures — we are very excited."
Others who attended the March 25 event and spoke during the ceremony included: Bernice King, King's daughter; Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of Alabama's former Gov. George Wallace Jr., who opposed the voter registration campaign in 1965; Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange; and Bentley.
The dance Thomas and Butler performed to Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" was an extension of a dance titled "Free My Soul," which Butler choreographed and presented at the nationwide Black Life Matters Conference, held at the UA in January.
Butler's piece illustrates the suffering and violence African-Americans have historically experienced.
"Often times with these issues everyone only wants to talk about ways to fix the problem. Hardly do we have open spaces, specifically in the arts, to process these issues and how they affect us emotionally," Butler said.
"My choreography addresses and depicts just that sentiment. I get angry. I get tired and discouraged. But I am inspired and rebellious, too. All of that is to say that as young people, we see these things and have feelings about them. Those feelings need to be released in order for true healing and mending to happen within our society."
With Thomas adding to the piece, the dance ended with a charge to continue the work of the movement.
"I would describe this dance as uplifting, encouraging and happy," said Thomas, a UA dance major originally from Montgomery, Ala. Simone sang to Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965.
In addition to two performances during the commemorative week, the UA trio participated in and attended other activities, including lectures and other discussions about the march and the history of the civil rights movement.
"It has been wonderful to meet influential, intelligent and brave people, and I have been learning the value of community, education and black leadership," said Butler, who also serves as co-president of the Black Student Union at the UA.
Thomas said the trip has helped to gain a better understanding of what happened in the past. It also is helping her to imagine her future.
"I understand what happened in Montgomery, and I once again get to walk the trails of some the greatest civil rights leaders in history," Thomas said.
"Montgomery was one of the pinnacles of the civil rights movement and played a major role in the opportunities that are now open to me," she said. "This trip has allowed me to see my hometown in a different perspective. I have performed in Montgomery numerous times, but this performance is one I will remember for the rest of my life. I am so glad that Kevyn and Barbea got to share this experience with me."
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