Woman kneels on ground holding a phone in front of three women dancing.

Purposeful movements

Simone Ferro and her students take dance out of the formal theater and into cafes, parks, foreclosed houses, lofts and front porches in two of Milwaukee’s central city neighborhoods, Washington Park and Sherman Park.

Simone Ferro
Simone Ferro

The community-engaged research project features dance students who create performances on site. They’re based on dancers’ immediate experience of the places as well as what they’ve learned about the people and their community through prior research. As performances continued during the pandemic, dancers donned protective face masks.

Ferro, a professor of dance in the Peck School of the Arts, records the dances and posts videos on the Milwaukee Through Embodied Research website. “It’s about space and memory that comes together in the minds and bodies of the dancers,” Ferro says. “They are not just looking at the architecture, but at the history of the home and who lives in the home.”

A dance at a home built with Cream City brick used repetitive and angular movements to echo the bricks. At the home of a community activist who lost her son to gun violence, the dancers created a slow, mournful piece. Recent research has focused on environmental and social justice in the communities, and Ferro says the process and connections with community members are transformative for many students.

Dancers have been visiting the neighborhoods since 2014, and there also have been some surprises along the way. Once at Milwaukee’s Butterfly Park, about a dozen children from a nearby school unexpectedly joined the dancers. “It changed the dance,” Ferro says, “but it was amazing to have those kids that were visibly looking for ways of externalizing their emotion, working with the dancers, who helped find ways to guide them through these feelings. We find those little jewels of interactions so important.”