National Water Dance Flows Through The Mill River

Lucy Gellman | April 20th, 2020

National Water Dance Flows Through The Mill River

Elm City Dance Collective  |  Arts & Culture  |  National Water Dance  |  COVID-19


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Lucy Gellman Photos. All photos/videos were taken with a zoom lens at least 15 feet away. 

Elm City Dance Collective co-founder Kellie Ann Lynch picked up her daughter Wilhelmina and spun her around, edging closer to the Mill River. Beneath their feet, the ground was still damp from that morning’s rain. Further out, clouds of white foam pooled around wet-slicked stones. Stepping carefully up onto a rock, the two lifted their arms toward the sky. Fifteen feet away, a live stream beamed it out to the internet.

Saturday afternoon, Lynch joined hundreds of dancers across the country to participate in the fourth annual National Water Dance, pushed to Zoom, Facebook Live and Instagram in the wake of COVID-19. While Elm City Dance Collective (ECDC) had initially planned to dance with community members at the Ely Whitney Museum & Workshop, the event was cancelled last month. Lynch had been working on the project with ECDC co-founders Lindsey Bauer and Nikki Lee.

“I felt very devastated that we couldn’t follow through with this project as a communal experience,” she said in a phone call after the dance. “Dance is sacred, and it’s sacred because we’re with each other in space. Physical proximity is essential when you’re dancing with people. We need to experience that intimacy and that closeness.”

And yet, she added, “I felt the power of the collective this year. The idea that there were hundreds, maybe upwards of a thousand people, maybe more than that, doing this together online? That’s pretty awesome.”

The event is one of hundreds to live between physical and digital space as dancers keep moving through physical separation. Originally, chapters of the National Water Dance were planned to take place across all 50 states and Puerto Rico, with at least one iteration beside the reflecting pool on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

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Because 2020 is a presidential election year, the organization had partnered with voter registration groups and was working to encourage environmental activism and greater recognition of indigenous groups. This year themes like water protection and sovereignty felt especially pressing, said Water Dance Director Dale Andree.

Then COVID-19 hit. In four weeks, Andree worked with a tiny staff to coordinate new strategies over Zoom and Facebook live. As in years past, all participants were required to include the same opening and closing choreography, videos of which were included on the organization’s website.

“Because it went digital, we found that there was a collective sensibility and energy in isolation,” she said Sunday, reached by phone. “Most of the dancers tried to find and evolve how they could find that sensibility in themselves through a screen.”

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In New Haven, Lynch tried to capture that sensibility with her young daughter at her side. Earlier this year, she and Lee had planned to dance with community members at the Mill River, just as they did with New Haveners at Lighthouse Point Park in 2018. In addition to the museum, they had hoped to collaborate with the Mill River Trail Project and Regional Water Authority

Even after the group had cancelled its ensemble piece for public safety reasons, Lynch said staying with the site was important to her. The Mill River has a rich history: it has supplied water to both the Quinnipiac people and those who stole those lands, powered a gun factory, was completely altered by a dam in the nineteenth century, and is now home to new cleanup and wildlife conservation efforts from seven of the municipalities through which it runs.

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As Lynch approached the water Saturday, she seemed to take all of that history in while thinking about her place in it. In a phrase practiced by dancers at the same time across the country, she and Wilhelmina crouched down to touch the earth, then touched their hearts, and then their heads. They raised their arms to the sky, rib cages open. They brushed the ground beneath them and began to turn and sway, as fluid as the water that flowed just feet away.

As they moved, the wind chimes clinked to life, jingling on their own and then with the assistance of Wilhelmina’s bird-sized, dainty hands. Lynch lifted her at her waist, then swung her around. She waded into the water backwards, face turned toward the pebbly shore, and laid down on the still-wet soil. Sediment covered the blowing white linen of her pants. She kept going.

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“It's an opportunity for us (the artists) to acknowledge the history of our home and our place,” she wrote in an email afterward. “To hold sacred aspects of ‘our’ land that has been known and lived on long before us and will hopefully be lived on for many many years to come, if we take care of it.”

She added that she’d brought Wilhelmina into the dance as a way of teaching her about water protection and safety. In addition to a glass container of water, Lynch included a candle, smudged white sage, meditation bells and wind chimes from her porch—all nods to personal contemplative practices. The river, which roared as she moved, set the soundtrack.

“I would love to see the Mill River have more attention and be more accessible to everyone,” she said. “We’re not intentionally taking what we have for granted, but we do. We feel safe running the tap, putting a glass under, and taking a sip when we’re thirsty.”

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In New Haven and across the country, fellow dancers joined on their lawns, porches, and backyards. In Westville, the musician Thabisa danced in front of her home, a video that she later shared to Instagram.

Elsewhere, dance companies and soloists flipped Zoom to gallery view and started moving. In Miami, Andree began to dance by the manmade canal close to her home.

“This is such an interesting project this year because it’s all about technology,” she said. “But it’s also all about people.”

To watch other videos from the 2020 National Water Dance, click here