When one thinks about raising awareness for sex trafficking victims, symposiums or academic papers usually come to mind. However, senior interdisciplinary studies major Alexia Petasis wants to address important social justice issues through a different forum: dance. Petasis has been interested in dance since she was young, but it was in college that her interest in advocating for social equity and women’s issues began. She decided to use her individualized studies major (with a concentration in choreography) to merge these two passions and is dedicating her senior capstone project to raising awareness of human trafficking in the United States with a dance performance that she choreographed.
Petasis, a dance minor, recruited four fellow dancers for this project, and their rehearsal began during this past winter break. She has been working on this capstone for a year, though the idea for the project began two years ago when she was volunteering with The Samaritan Women — a Baltimore City organization that serves victims of domestic human trafficking. Through this volunteer work, Petasis learned that the majority of women being trafficked were from the United States, which inspired her project.
As for her choice to use dance on this project, she felt that dance is perfect for portraying the victims and survivors of trafficking in a sympathetic way, saying that “dance can create and portray stories that are sometimes really nuanced and complex to an audience and to build that empathy with communities that the audience may or may not identify with.” Petasis adds that “dance has the ability to create a community,” and she explains that the dancers and the audience are all equally invested in the story on stage and that the role of the audience is to listen.
Jess Myers, the Director of the Women’s Center and an advisor on Petasis’s project, personally experienced this phenomenon last year, when she saw Petasis’s choreographed dance based around the experiences of a sexual assault survivor. She was moved by a particular scene where the perpetrator turns their back to the victim. “For me, having done so much work around sexual violence and supporting survivors, it’s not often where I feel emotional about the work anymore,” Myers says. “But it was the first time I felt emotion about it in a long time … It felt very compelling and important.”
Petasis hopes this project can not only show why we need to be compassionate to the victims but push for compassionate laws. “Not being a dancer myself, it has been really cool to be on this journey with her to learn about different skill sets and just the strengths people can use to do social justice work,” Myers emphasized, “So everybody should come!”
“Becoming Survivor: Understanding Human Trafficking Through Dance” will be performed on March 1 at 5:15 p.m. in Room 337 of the Performing Arts Building. There will be a panel featuring Petasis and several prominent members of the community afterward: Kay Chernush, President and Director of ArtWorks for Freedom, an organization that promotes art to raise awareness about modern-day slavery and human trafficking; Barbara Amaya, an author, survivor and advocate; and Mia Rickenbach, a UMBC student that uses art for social justice causes. This event is being sponsored by the Women’s Center as part of their Women’s History Month program calendar beginning on March 1. In the end, though, Petasis only wants one thing for anyone that comes to see her piece: “Now that we have all [become] aware of this [issue] we all have the duty to see what each of us as individuals can do moving forward.”