Dancers Responding to Aids: Surreal Beauty on Fire Island

“There are times when the simple dignity of movement can fulfill the function of a volume of words.”

– Doris Humphrey

Fire Island Dance Festival 16; DRA 2012
Fire Island Dance Festival 16; DRA 2012

It was Sunday afternoon, I was lounging in the poolside…reading a now unavailable Dorothy Parker book just like the evil liberal heathen patriarchy-fighting femiNazi that I am. Life was good.

It’s been unusually hot (by New York standards), but there’s a cool breeze blowing off of the ocean. Happy voices from the pool drift my way. I’m thinking seriously about a nap. As my eyes start to close, friends announce that they have a ticket to the 16th Fire Island Dance Festival DRA: Dancers Respond to Aids. It starts in ten minutes. Did I want to go?

Miami City Ballet Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Miami City Ballet Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

These tickets are coveted. Not only is DRA an Experience (hello, it’s not just me, Whoopi Goldberg Emceed for two years and said, “To be part of this is amazing”), but it supports people living with HIV/AIDS, provides social services for performing professionals and women’s health programs. DRA is a program of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA). Since its 1995 debut, the Fire Island Dance Festival has raised cumulatively more than $1.9 million in the fight against AIDS.

I missed the DRA performance last year. Of course, I wanted to go.

Cut to: I’m sitting under the blazing late afternoon sun, at what Sunday Styles of New York Times calls “One of the 12 best parties of the Year,” watching the dancers — from Camille A. Brown of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Fabrice Calmels & Erica Lynette Edwards ,Principals of the Joffrey Ballet Chicago — perform some of their most memorable works. The stage set at the edge of the ocean, so the backdrop is sparkling eternity. It’s heaven for the senses. Fire Island News succinctly and accurately reported it thusly, “It’s surreal…the beauty of the people and the place.”

Danny Tidwell Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Danny Tidwell Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

I’m surrounded by art lovers, all here to witness beauty in motion. A gift from those who spend their lives gaining control over every muscle in their bodies (and meanwhile, some of our politicians can’t seem to master the English language, but I digress). Each dance seems to have been chosen to represent a human emotion or experience – and they run the entire gamut.

Take a peek at the promo video:

Watching the dancers backlit by the sunset on the Great South Bay, I started to cry.

I cry because it’s so damn beautiful. I cry because I know how hard it is to get those perfect arms. But mostly I cry because I remember exactly who I am and why I think the way I do. What else are vacations good for?

I grew up the daughter of a professional dancer. My mother hosted the first ever AIDS benefit in the city where we lived. Yes, there were gay people there. And brown people and yellow people and white people, too. Only when you grow up like that, you don’t know that there’s a world where people are defined by these things. They are just your mother’s friends and colleagues. No one bats an eye.

There, in the setting sun of South Bay, I’m reminded why I care so passionately about American politics and why I volunteered on President Obama’s campaign. To be a part of humanity, to give back, to leave something for the next generation—this is what encounters with the arts do — and this is also inherent in the liberal platform.

The arts play an important foundation in our culture — studying or experiencing the liberal arts gives us a glimpse into the hidden structure of our beliefs, a dance of intellectual inquiry and discovery. The term “liberal arts” has been blackened by the scourge of its association with the heathen liberals who want to educate people, so often we must revisit the literal definition of the word liberal. The dictionary definition of “liberal”: (1) expressing social and political policies that favor progress and reform; (2) following policies that favor the freedom of individuals to act or express themselves in a manner of their own choosing.

What can be more progressive than artists banding together to help causes they care about and an audience of diverse supporters of said cause? This spirit of united humanity is the root of liberalism, the driving force behind liberal policies, and an ideal culmination of the concept of liberalism. It is rarely so perfectly actualized, but endlessly and profoundly worth striving for.

Apparently I am not the only one who cried; According to sources who prefer to remain unnamed, weeping from joy is de rigueur at DRA.

For more information on DRA and to find out how you can support this great cause, click here.

Note: Thank you to Erin Stacey of Pulse Communications for the additional materials.

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6 Replies to “Dancers Responding to Aids: Surreal Beauty on Fire Island”

  1. Ms. Jones,

    How you write, girlfriend! This essay is as beautiful as the dance that inspired it.
    The overarching connections you made between the arts and liberalism is profound
    and comforting. Not only did your vacation remind you of who you are, and why you
    do what you do – it now reminds me of who I am, and why I do what I do.

    Thank you for sharing this understanding of how things are and why it matters.

    Your Mother must be so proud of you.

  2. Lovely post, Sarah, very heartfelt and genuine. This is probably one liberal thing the conservatives won’t try to appropriate as originally conservative. For that we can be thankful.

  3. @Ariana

    My mother is an amazing woman who won Humanitarian of the Year award among other achievements. I would like to believe she is proud of me, but most of all, I am honored to be her daughter. I was truly blessed in this regard. I’m so glad you liked the article and that it inspired you:-) Thanks for sharing your kind thoughts with me.


    You are so right about that! Ha, that made me laugh:-) Thanks.

  4. This is a beautiful example of humanitarian activism that is so transformative for the lives of people it was designed to help. It’s also an effective rebuke to the Darwinian inhumanity of the far right.

  5. Who knew there was this softer, gentler side to you, Sarah?
    This is a lovely post, but far removed from the scathing fiery-ness — and always well-targeted and well-deserved — I usually see here from you. How do you rectify the two?

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