Project Highway HabitUS: “THEY”

 In Dd Exclusive, Summation Dance: Project HabitUS

Kentucky proved to be the perfect place for Project Highway HabitUS to hunker down for our first week on the road. The Blue Grass State is centrally located, though identified geographically as the South, due to its position below the Mason Dixon line. Depending on who you talk to, however, there seems to be a discrepancy as to whether or not it is culturally the “South”. Those who have experiences in the deeper regions of the country tend to shake their heads at that notion. Either way, the state represents a unique intersection of the North and South in America, which is simultaneously fascinating and somewhat confusing.

Photo credit: John Suhar.

As Guest Artists at the University of Kentucky during this week, we created a piece on the students in the Dance Department exploring the various ideas behind Project Highway HabitUS. We began with a series of exercises aimed at uncovering who these individuals were using our growing list of “questions you’d ask a stranger“. From written responses to in depth conversations to movement generation, a piece emerged permeated by the spirit and perspectives of each individual artist. 

Photo credit: John Suhar.

We found ourselves discussing how language and colloquialisms can play a big role in our general (mis)understandings of things.  For example, we learned that “y’ins” is a synonym for “y’all” in Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas, and in Kentucky, a phrase such as “bless her heart” is actually a loaded phrase in disguise, mainly used in moments of condescension. Words in one region can take on an entirely different meaning in another region —  which is, perhaps, an illustrative metaphor for what is happening in the country. Much like color perception, we all “think” we’re talking about the same thing, but due to our own individual habitus, that’s not necessarily so. This idea encapsulates the very nature of the choreographic process. Whether it is a movement phrase that we are teaching, or a movement-generating exercise we are directing, the outcome is always inherently colored by the individual. So much is at play during this process: how do these dancers learn? which details become important to them? which details are overlooked? how are they translating what they observe into their own bodies? It’s quite spectacular how easily these ideas transmute themselves.

Photo credit: John Suhar.

Another poignant moment occurred when trying to keep up during a conversation in improvisation class. The dancers were talking about a group of people, the only identifier being the word “they.” As we were in a new place, with its own political identity, we did not immediately know who “they” referred to, nor did we fully understand who the “us” was or the underlying position of either group. We finally had to ask who “they” referred to, and it turned out to be a group of people fighting to “culturally preserve” the South by keeping Confederate statues and the like erect.
The use of this identification, of anything or anyone other than ourselves as “they”, has been coming up a LOT during our time on the road. In the course of this same conversation, the “they” switched subjects so often, it actually became comical trying to keep up. Frat boys vs. non-frat boys, in-state vs. out-of-state, north vs. south, conservative vs. liberal, etc. It became quite clear this dichotomy of “us vs. they” arises with frequency in our communities, but even acknowledging still left us with questions.
How many “us” groups do we all belong to, even subconsciously? How many groups do we unknowingly label as “they”? How do we seek to understand groups that we don’t consider part of our own, if at all? Is a label comforting or limiting? Our identity is ingrained in our “us” groups – our cultures, subcultures, families, friends, schools, careers – and these communities give us a sense of belonging and worth. These conversations, however, sounded limiting and isolating. Can the borders between us be more fluid? Can our language change to be more inclusive? Can we talk about different points of view without using us and they? If our language changes, do we soften the divide in between groups of people?

Photo credit: John Suhar.

We set out on Project Highway HabitUS this fall seeking to understand the country in which we live and the viewpoints of our fellow compatriots. Our week in Kentucky confirmed that we will be asking a lot more questions than getting answers.

Get involved with Project Highway HabitUS and send us your “questions you’d ask a stranger” by commenting below or getting in contact with us via our website!


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