Exploring the Power of Dance with Sydney Skov

By Danielle Echols

Sydney Skov is the creator of Free Body Project.  She is also a lifelong dancer who is dedicated to helping others, working with nonprofits in the field of international development in countries across the world.  After studying French and African Relations at New York University, she was set on discovering how she could combine all of her loves to create a career.  She traveled to Kolkata, India and worked with a nonprofit organization using dance and dance therapy as psycho-social rehabilitation for survivors of human trafficking and violence.  Out of this experience grew a greater appreciation for what movement can do.  While dancing professionally in her home state of Oregon, Sydney started Free Body Project, an initiative that supports the individuals and organizations around the world using dance as a primary tool to address violence, inequality and the ramifications of trauma.

Recently she shared a bit of her journey with Design Dance.  See her story below:

What is a little bit of your history with dance?

I grew up dancing, the standard tap, jazz and ballet.  In high school I had the opportunity to train and perform with a pre-professional company called the Jefferson Dancers which was a life altering experience.  I owe so much to those dance-filled years.  I then attended NYU and created my own major, French and African Relations.  Professors were telling me to take dance courses but there was so much more I wanted to know about the world; I distanced myself from dance, focusing on academics.  I spent a year in Paris studying Francophone literature. In the end, I translated my studies into a career in international development and worked for a time in Dakar, Senegal with Tostan, an inspiring nonprofit empowering communities through human rights-based, non-formal education programs.  After this experience, during which I danced quite a bit with local artists, I knew I wanted to do work that somehow combined dance and human rights but wasn't sure how.  I came upon the name of an NGO in Kolkata, India - Kolkata Sanved - doing dance and dance therapy work with survivors of human trafficking and violence.  After reaching out and receiving one simple email response that said "yes please come,”  I got a visa and went to volunteer.  I spent 6 months with Sanved and realized what they were doing was incredibly powerful. Upon returning to the U.S., I told the law school where I'd been accepted that I wasn't coming.

When did the idea of the Free Body Project start to emerge?

In 2012, after returning from Kolkata and changing course, I spent a year in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.  I danced with a wonderful company, Polaris Dance Theatre and started Free Body Project as a way to figure out my own path to doing work at the intersection of dance and social justice, a phrase that has become the backbone of Free Body Project.  I built a small team of brilliant filmmakers and together we created a dance film as a statement of solidarity with the amazing dancers I worked with in Kolkata.  I was also teaching movement classes to survivors in Portland and ended up asking around 100 local dancers to perform throughout the summer to raise awareness of the human rights which are violated when a person is trafficked.

I then went back to grad school for a degree in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University and was able to spend two years (2014-2015 as a Boren Fellow and 2015-2016 as a Fulbright researcher) back in Kolkata, working with and learning from Kolkata Sanved.  I also began to grow Free Body Project, producing the first Dance + Social Justice Conference at the Martha Graham Dance Company studios in NYC in June of 2015.

Thanks to Fulbright and my film team, we are now in post-production on a participatory dance + documentary film highlighting the work of the dance therapy practitioners of Kolkata Sanved who are survivors, artists, activists and community role models.  After moving back from India last June, I produced the second Dance + Social Justice Conference in December 2016 at NYU and Gibney Dance and am now based in the Bay Area, working as a program manager with a small nonprofit while growing Free Body Project.

What initially drew you to dancing?

I think I can analyze it now but when I was younger I was just hungry for it. I wanted to learn and grow and be the best; that drive blinded me to everything else, like when I was told to quit ballet because I wasn't built for it.  When I’m dancing, it is one of the few moments in life when I am fully present, completely engaged mentally and physically.

What do you still love about dancing?

I used to enjoy the spotlight but I don't anymore. I stopped auditioning because I lost the drive to compete.  I just wanted to do it because I loved it.  I wanted to move away from the negative aspects that come with the extremely competitive environment like a skewed body image, self-judgment and constant comparison.  Now I am fascinated by the academic elements of dance: the movement languages of various techniques, how our brains change when we dance, the neurological and psychological components of movement in trauma healing and conflict resolution, the history of movement and how it is so integral to cultures, both past and present, how dance plays into resistance through art… the list goes on.  

What was it about the spirit of Kolkata that inspired you?

Kolkata is a magical place.  It is a historic city with a storied, art-filled history (including the legacy of the iconic Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore).  It is a place of kindness and celebration but it is also a place that suffers from many social ills including human trafficking and some extreme violence against women.  I love Kolkata but it was the people and the power of the work that drew me and still does.

Why do you think dancing in therapeutic especially in cases of trauma?

I don't believe.  I know.  There is some fascinating neuroscience research on the topic, and I've seen with my own eyes how programs that use dance sensitively and in conjunction with other therapeutic resources can help individuals change their own lives.  So many people experience trauma in various ways.  We lock stress and harmful memories away in our bodies.  Our brain can't process some things that are too difficult or distressing into language, the things that sever a connection between the body and the mind including physical abuse.  Movement allows you to access some of these traumas that have bypassed processing in the linguistic centers of the brain, that have been stored in a physical space, and work through them abstractly, without words which can be triggering.  It's an ongoing, sometimes lifelong process.  Movement also allows for the processing and release of emotions.  Channeling negative energy into a positive outcome helps one rebuild a body mind connection and perhaps find acceptance of the full self.

How does Free Body Project speak to the power of dance?

I created Free Body Project because I recognized the impressive power and potential of Kolkata Sanved's work as well as the lack of support that they received because a wider public, including donors and foundations, don’t understand the connections their work is making between movement, empowerment and social change.  "It's just a dance class," they think.  My vision for Free Body Project is to create a tangible space for the field of dance and social justice so that organizations across the world like Sanved can get the support they need to do their amazing work.

In Kolkata, many vulnerable youth have experienced immense trauma and yet do not have access to care for mental health or emotional well being.  In India for example, there are many programs focused on livelihood skills training and providing formal education which is fantastic.  However, mental, emotional and physical health and well being are mostly overlooked.  How can these other great programs truly be effective and supportive if children and youth are dealing with post traumatic stress, anger, feelings of confinement, betrayal, self-loathing or abandonment?  The work that Sanved is doing directly addresses these issues in a way that is engaging and powerful, they are nurturing active citizens and changemakers and there are other organizations around the world who have tapped into the power of movement to do something similar.  Every culture and place has dance or movement.  We all move to express ourselves.  It's relevant, it's accessible (when some therapy is still very taboo) and it's joyful.  It's a huge untapped resource.  The work that is already going on must be fully recognized, understood and supported and I hope to do this through Free Body Project.

If you would pick a feeling or word to summarize where you are in life now, what would it be?

The word I always use to describe myself is ‘curious’ but in my life, I am learning to accept that my path is my own and shouldn’t be compared to another’s.  Where I am is ‘in progress’.

Sydney will be speaking at our Acceptance Tour in LA on Monday, May 22nd.  For more information on Sydney and Free Body Project, click the links below.

Sydney Skov:

Facebook: Sydney Skov  

Instagram: @sydskov

Twitter: @SydSkov

Free Body Project:

Website: http://freebodyproject.org/

Facebook: Free Body Project

Instagram: @freebodyproject