Wesleyan Community Honors Pandemic Loss through Movement, Dance

Olivia DrakeNovember 12, 20218min
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On Nov. 5, Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance Joya Powell, in center, led a “collective mourning” at the Bessie Schönberg Dance Studio to honor those who passed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Keep smiling through just like you always do ‘til the blue skies drive the dark clouds away.”

These lyrics, sung by Vera Lynn in the 1939 song “We’ll Meet Again,” are especially moving for Donna Brewer, director of employee benefits at Wesleyan. They’d be even more meaningful for her uncle Jim, an avid maple syrup maker and World War II vet, who died of COVID-19 in May 2020.

“Uncle Jim passed away early on in the pandemic and at that time, we weren’t able to have a service and I didn’t have an opportunity to grieve with others,” she said.

But a “collective mourning” on Nov. 5 offered Brewer a place to grieve in a communal environment.

Led by Joya Powell, visiting assistant professor of dance, the collective mourning welcomed anyone from the campus community to honor those who have passed during the pandemic through movement and improvisational dance. The event took place in the Bessie Schönberg Dance Studio; 17 students and staff gathered to move and mourn.

“I appreciate you being here, being in this community where we can dance in solidarity with each other,” Powell said. “We’re taking on our new traditions, new practices, and finding ways for release. Let’s connect with each other.”

Each participant had the option of sharing the name of an honoree and suggesting a song to dance to. In addition to Brewer’s choice of “We’ll Meet Again,” other songs included “Itkara” to honor Rozy; “Through the Years” to honor Janet; “Enjoy Yourself” to honor Leon; “Peggy Sue” to honor Anthony; “Bill” to honor Susan; and “River Keep Moving” to honor Howard, Jay, and Teddy. The half-hour program concluded with Etta James’ rendition of “Swing Low” to honor Wolodymyr.

While some participants felt the music through leaps, twirls, spins, ground rolls, and contemporary moves, others chose to simply walk the space. There was no right or wrong way to take part in the movement.
“The goal is really for everyone present in the virtual sphere to be moving together in community,” Powell said.

After the movement, Powell welcomed the participants to gather for a final breathing exercise and share the names of people who have passed.

“Call them into the space,” she offered.

After 10 seconds of silence, a student from the Class of 2022 spoke up. “Drew Pelusi and Nick Humphrey,” he said.

Drew, who was 23, and Nick who was 22, both died in July 2021 and were among more than 25 people—friends, acquaintances, former classmates— who have passed away from various causes in the past five years of the student’s life.

The student, who is enrolled in Powell’s Introduction to Dance course, decided the collective mourning would help him cope with his losses while supporting others, also grieving.

“I am happy to show up and take part,” he said. “Death—you can’t explain it. It’s different for everybody. Sometimes you can get lost in the words of trying to figure it out, or what it means.”

Powell, who also lost her father, Jay, to COVID-19 in May 2020, implemented the collective mourning at Wesleyan after leading numerous virtual “Dance it Outs” through her company, Movement of the People Dance Company (MOPDC). Society, she says, suggests “that there is no space for grief, and that we need to go on as if…”

“It has been hard not to share space in ways that we are used to, to not be in community in the same ways, and to feel isolated during a time of great sorrow—both from a loved one transitioning, and the grief of being stripped from our ‘norm.’ After witnessing what my father went through, I needed to find new ways to process my feelings, new ways to mourn,” Powell explained. “Recognizing how many other people around the world witnessed/are witnessing similar trauma, MOPDC and I wanted to lift up our African Diasporic practices of using dance as a vehicle for celebrating the lives of our new ancestors [and by] creating new rituals to hold each other up during this pandemic moment.” 

Brewer, who initially attended for the collaboration—not so much the dance aspect—couldn’t help but find her feet tapping to the music.

“I didn’t think that I would dance, but the energy in the room just made it seem right,” Brewer said. “I am so grateful I was able to mourn my uncle in a meaningful and personal way. Going to [the] event was such a blessing to me.”

Additional photos of the Collective Mourning are below: (Photos by Olivia Drake)