Credit: PHOTO COURTESY LAWRENCE POWELL JR.
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Tanji Harper is the artistic director of the Happiness Club and Blu Rhythm Chicago, and is an online dance instructor. She believes in the therapeutic power of dance and empowering people of all ages to get up and move.

2020 leveled everything and everyone. There was civil unrest happening. There was no place to go. Everybody got stuck. Do you just give up and succumb to it all? Or do you push, do you ride through? What do you do?

There’s no way I can let these kids give up. I need to lead by example. That means creating space. That means we can talk about it. That means we can write a song about it. That means, “Tell me your frustrations. Let me know why this has been hard.” They all feel the same way. It sucks to not be able to see your friends and family. They look back at all the shows we were doing: “I really miss being able to perform at Lollapalooza. I really miss street-festival shows. I miss all of it.” When things go back to normal and we’re able to get out there again, I cannot wait to see their exuberance—it’s in our rehearsals right now.

The majority of the dance stuff in the Happiness Club is all inclusive. The little kids, the middle school kids, everybody can do this movement. Even the audience might feel like they can do it after watching. Our amazing choreographer JC choreographs the group parts and makes sure that they’re easy enough that everybody can catch on. We also leave room for freestyle, and that’s where the kids can be their individual selves. It’s super important for dancers to find their own voices, and find out “How do I move?” And they also get a spotlight within the group.

There’s nothing like a group of people clapping for you while you dance for eight counts and do your thing. Even if you feel like you move weird, everybody is encouraging you, so you free yourself up and you don’t have anxiety about what you’re doing. And then you get better.

Dance in general—getting up and moving your body—is therapeutic. It increases your endorphins, and helps your mental capacity for memorization and concentration. It lifts your mood and your spirit, and changes you from being in a state of depression to not. Whatever it is that you need to release, once you start moving your body, there’s a huge sense of letting go.

That’s part of what happened when the 2020 election results were announced—the majority of us had a huge sigh of relief. It got people to want to play music as loud as they could, or dance with strangers. People forgot about the pandemic for two seconds.

Dance has gotten me through every single thing up through now. So I trust my movement and I trust the method behind why I move. 2020 was a leveler. A shift happened, and certain things will not go back. I know I will not go back to not talking about things that need to be discussed. I will not go back to biting my tongue or being quiet in spaces that are majority white. If I’m the only Black person I do not care anymore. Last year was the first time I started telling white folks, “No, I will not. No, I cannot.” I won’t revert back, and I’ve also started to be a lot more intentional about my own self care. And dance has been a huge part of that.

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