Hannah Thomas - February 2016 Judges' Choice

I was inspired to enter the “Africana Studies Performance Competition” by Natalie King, dance lecturer at Georgia College, and it changed my life. After the seed had been planted, it didn’t take me to long to cultivate an idea. I knew it had to be performed to a timeless classic with emotion-evoking choreography and a powerful message. Nina Simone has always been an inspiration to me when addressing social issues as an artist. She said it best, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times…and at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when everyday is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this. That’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore. So I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and NOT reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.” I created a piece to imitate the racial tension that has been prevalent in our society. It is so important that inspiring works are produced because it is our job to entertain, but also to educate.

The only requirement for the competition was to record the art submission, but I knew I wanted the video to be more than a mere experience, so I created a production for my entry. The location was important because it would set the tone for the video. Georgia College’s students are fortunate enough to have accessibility to a beautiful art gallery in partnership with the Art Department at Ennis Hall. The space is free, but it’s also of quality and professional conditions. Strange Fruit has always been piece of music that is mesmerizingly haunting because it holds a harsh reality of our past; the lynching of African Americans. I knew that because her song is a classic it would make the audience range expand far beyond just in my race. When I asked my videographer, RJVisuals, to partner on this project with me, he was on board instantly because he’d never done an art piece before. We collaborated well because he saw my vision and made it come to life. My most prized moments in the film, would have to be the magnolia scene. Before I even thought of choreography, I sat with my eyes closed, and listened to the song. When she sang, “scent like magnolia clean and fresh” I envisioned me swaying with magnolia flowers transparently blooming around me. He brought it to life. I cried. The choreography, surprisingly, wasn’t a nuisance to me because I wanted subtle movement. The song holds so much power, I didn’t want the viewers to be weighed down. My dancers really helped make the process of teaching the choreography easy because they were all in. People asked me, “How did the white girls in your video feel to be in such a heavy controversial piece, to be represented as the other side of the problem in this society?” I would only smile and refer to Nina Simone’s quote about it being an artist’s duty to reflect the times. They accepted this role with grace and dedication. I am forever indebted.

I’ve always had an apt ability to choreograph, but it wasn’t until I started to take my dance minor courses with Natalie King that I sharpened my natural tool for the skill. Choreographing is not easy, but it is so worth it to see your vision brought to fruition. An artist is honestly never satisfied with their work, but that feeling brings about ownership to the craft because it all started as an idea or concept that grew into a motif, then transpired to a phrase, and finally got tweaked, edited, embellished, and merged into a dance.  I matured as a dancer at Georgia College, but also a choreographer because I trusted others to process my vision and take ownership of it as well.

I wouldn’t have this gift of dance without God trusting me with it on this earth. I have been so blessed to have been exposed to the dance world since the tender age of three, becoming passionate in the 6th grade, and trailblazing into my adulthood with this unique art form. Throughout my life, I’ve done performances at the Fox Theatre with the Atlanta Ballet, the Philips Arena with the Atlanta Hawks, Georgia Dome with the Atlanta Falcons, St. Regis with Usher’s New Look Foundation, Colorado State University with Cru15/Art with a Heartbeat, and many more. 

I would like to acknowledge:

McClendon Dance School - Ms. Denise McClendon, Price Performing Arts - Ms. Andrea Price, DeKalb Elementary School of the Arts - Ms. Carter & Ms. Z. Taylor, DeKalb School of the Arts - Mr. Dean Williams, Ms. Anna Dunn & Ms. Marci Lefkoff, Shorter University - Ms. Shell Benjamin, and Georgia College - Mrs. Amelia Pelton & Mrs. Natalie King. Thank you for your dedication in molding and inspiring me to the best that I am and continue to strive to be.

My advice for other aspiring dancers, choreographers, and film directors -- Stay inspired. The word means to fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative. Don’t ever feel like you’ve got it all figured out because the moment you do is when you stop growing as an artist cheat yourself from being great. Inspiration is the greatest gift you can soak up for yourself and be to others.

Strange Realities is also a part of my senior capstone Strange Fruit: A Revolt Against a Cyclical Harvest. It is an artistic inquiry utilizing kinesthetic empathy as a vehicle of expression to motivate awareness and social change. Showings of a dance film (Strange Realities) set to Nina Simone's rendition of this timeless classic connects, measures and proves how dance is as an effective tool to inspire a desire and action for social transformation. This creative research records the response of communities to the recurring products of inequality consigned to African Americans. The study finds that art, in this case dance, is both a reflection of the times and a transformative catalyst when discussing any "strange fruit" of the past (Civil Rights Movement) to present (Black Lives Matter Movement.) Kinesthetic empathy is measured by surveying groups of individuals after viewing controversial emotion-evoking movement. The viewers’ experience, even while sitting still, the embodied feelings and ideas of the choreographer/performer on a psychological, convictional, and behavioral level. The intent is to recognize the individual’s importance of empathy when addressing social justice issues, and to use dance as a vehicle of expression that bridges the gap between sympathy and empathy.

I will be presenting my research during Georgia College’s Symposium on Performance of the African Diaspora as Social Change April 7-10. It is also a desire of mine to tour this video presentation to advocate the inspiration empathy and action through the arts (dance) when discussing social injustices.

I graduate in December of 2016! I’m so excited to be full-time in my craft. I am marketing myself in 3 different avenues; performing arts administration, freelance dancer/choreographer, and event/production planner. I can’t wait to see what opportunities come my way by being dedicated to the arts, people, and changing this world.

Contact information:

Email: mshannahvictoria@gmail.com

LinkedIn: Hannah Thomas

Facebook: Hannah Victoria

 Instagram: @mshannahvictoria.