(From left) Sheopatra Jones and Yorelis Apolinario (Brian Smith, courtesy Jones and Apolinario)

Sheopatra Jones and Yorelis Apolinario on Dance as an Act of Resistance

Multitalented movement artists Sheopatra Jones and Yorelis Apolinario first met while auditioning for Season 12 of "So You Think You Can Dance." They connected immediately. At the time, Jones was forming a new all-female collective called The Council, a safe space for women to develop their art, and she knew she wanted Apolinario to be a part of it. Eventually, the duo's friendship and artistic alliance turned into a romantic relationship. Today, they're engaged, and their work together is often inspired by their commitment to social justice. Dance Spirit spoke to Jones and Apolinario to learn more about The Council, why dancers are such an important part of the Black Lives Matter movement, and what dancer-activists can do to keep the momentum going.

What inspired The Council?

Sheopatra Jones: I was having a moment where there was very little relatability between me and my male crew members. I felt like I was not being fully heard or respected, and I really wanted to be in a space with other women who had similar gifts. It was a long shot that someone else would create that space. If I want to see change, I have to be the change. So, I started reaching out to women who I admire, who make me want to be better.

There's so much propaganda about what women, and especially women of color, are supposed to be. I wanted everyone to see us—to see that we come in all shapes and sizes, and that we're powerful. It's important to have that space, not just for other women, but younger girls as well.

Yorelis, did you have the same experience?​​​

Yorelis Apolinario: Definitely. In Florida, I was one of three women in my crew, and it was exactly like that. When we went against other crews, the women in the groups were pitted against each other. It didn't feel like there was a group of women in the freestyle community, at least in Florida, to really connect with, to share and grow with.

How does your commitment to activism inspire your dance work?

SJ: I think who we are has consumed what we do. So, a lot of our projects are inspired by what we're going through or what we see others going through. We've definitely been working on projects that we feel will be impactful, even if it's not specifically about race, but about showing Black people in a different light, or women in a different light. No matter what we do as a group, we definitely strive to spark change, and to help people gain knowledge

YA: And confidence. If I'd seen the girls in The Council when I was a little girl, I probably would've felt more confident in the way that I carry myself. Everyone has different things to offer and is representative of larger groups of people. If I'd seen that in shows, it would've shifted the way I thought about myself growing up.

SJ: Dance is at its peak right now, in my opinion. It is our responsibility to create things that won't just be here for a moment, but will last and become blueprints. It's things that are built to last that will inspire, that will help people way after we're gone.

What do you mean when you say dance is at its peak?

SJ: Dancers have millions of followers. They're able to put out work and it doesn't have to be a million-dollar production. More people are teaching classes than ever before. There's more access. And the most popular apps, like TikTok and Dubsmash, are dance apps.

Now, are we at our peak in terms of pay and respect? No, not even close. But people are taking an interest in dance. Average people will ask, "Do you dance at Millennium? The studio with the red wall?" If that's going to be happening, then we're going to be doing our part.

Why is it important for dancers to play a role in the Black Lives Matter movement?

SJ: Black dance and Black art make people rich every day. Anything and everything that we've been part of creating should be both hands into this movement. Right now, one of the cultures that has the biggest voice is hip hop. And I think hip hop is Black. It's our folklore. It's part of the way that we express ourselves. It's pushing the narrative that Black lives matter, because it shows how beautiful we are—look at us spin on our toes and pop our chest. With that power comes responsibility. Not everyone knows how to fight through petitions or laws. You have to use every force possible to fight against something as evil as systemic oppression.

YA: I saw a lot of popular dancers who don't usually say anything about social justice take a stand and say, "This is what happened to me." It put a familiar face to the story. People will feel more inspired to research and understand injustices because their favorite dancers are talking about them.

What advice do you have for dancer-activists who want to effect change?

SJ: First, remember that fear is not the absence of courage. You can be courageous and be afraid—that's OK. There are a lot of others who will have your back. Never shut up. Be annoying. Even if you feel like only 50 people will hear you, never stop speaking up. It will always impact at least one person.

YA: Don't stop, like she said. It's not about the number of people listening, it's about who those people are, and the quality of your message. If two influential people hear you and push your message, then it still gets out there. Stay consistent.

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Photo by Joe Toreno. Hair by Marina Migliaccio and makeup by Lisa Chamberlain, both for the Rex Agency.

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