For each issue of Art Avenue, we’ll highlight a speaker from the 2015 TEDxElPaso conference, which was held at the El Paso Community Foundation Room in May. An independently organized event, TEDxElPaso continues the national non-profit TED’s mission to share “ideas worth spreading.”
At May’s TEDxElPaso conference, guest speaker Sandra Paola López prompted an audience of over 100 to introduce themselves to one another. The task was simple enough, or so it seemed.
“But before we start, I’m going to give you a performance direction,” López continued. “We’re going to do this in gibberish.”
Audience members shifted uncomfortably in their seats inside the El Paso Community Foundation Room, but what started off as shy mumbles evolved into a crescendo of made-up languages and, eventually, laughter.
“So what just happened?” López asked. “We took a very ordinary activity, something we do on a regular basis, but we changed how we did it. You transformed the energy of the room.”
This exercise, she later said, is an example of the message in her speech “Performance Activism: How You Can Change the World Without Changing What You Are Doing.”
By agreeing to participate in López’ task to introduce themselves to one another in gibberish, López said the audience members left their comfort zones and therefore opened up new possibilities.
“We cannot create change unless we are ready to do things we do not know how to do,” she explained. “The power of doing things like that is that it really breaks those hierarchical positions and it puts us all in an even playing field to create different kinds of relationships.”
This is a lesson López said she learned in her career as a multidisciplinary dancer. While at first she questioned her impact as a performer, she instead decided to focus on the process of her art and learned that in order for social change to be possible, people must leave their comfort zones.
A native of Colombia, López has been dancing since she was 4 years old, perfecting her techniques in ballet, jazz, tap, modern and traditional Columbian dance. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Dance Performance at Missouri State University and a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she learned about dance improvisation through a New York collective called Lower Left in 2009.
“Getting into improvisation in dance started opening my eyes to different ways of relating to my body, different ways of relating to movement, different ways of relating to other bodies in space when I was dancing,” López said. “I’m finding the kind of power that it has for me.”
Improvisation also helped López open up to new methods of performing and teaching, she said. The next year, she learned about performance activism while obtaining a certificate in social therapeutics at the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy in New York.
The specific concept of performance activism López learned about was developed by the institute’s co-founder Fred Newman in the 1970s as a grassroots movement led by him and his colleagues. It suggests that the world is a collection of “stages” and that we, the “performers,” both improvise and write countless “scenes” in our lives.
As an instructor at the University of Texas at El Paso and New Mexico State University, López said she encourages new forms of interaction by allowing her students to help decide what will be discussed in classes. Through her organization in2improv, López promotes performance activism by challenging people of all ages to try collaborative improvisation.
“But when I talk about performance activism, I’m not talking about my dance career,” López said. “I’m referring to the quality of the activity that you’re doing. You could be a performance activist and be an engineer, an economist or a lawyer or a doctor and that’s where I think the power of performance activism lies.”
Performance activism takes place when we shake things up and decide to do things differently, challenging our everyday behavior and thought processes, López said.
“When my partner and I are having a disagreement, we can both step back and say, okay, let’s perform this argument in a different way so that we don’t fall into the usual patterns of becoming a victim and pointing the finger at the other person,” López said.
Lopez said such activism can be applied not only to social settings or professional relationships, but to relationships between loved ones as well.
“Another example is a mother and a child,” López said. “The child comes to the mom and says, ‘Mom, there are monsters in my closet.’ Maybe our go-to place would be to say, ‘Oh, don’t be silly. There’s no such thing.’
“But another performance would be saying, ‘Oh my gosh, let’s go find him!’ and then you create this this whole thing with the child to have a different relationship with the fear of having monsters in the closet.”
López’ approach to education and activism seemed so unique to community outreach organization Philosophic Systems Institute founder Juan Ferret that he introduced her to El Paso Community Foundation president Eric Pearson after she moved to the Sun City in August of last year. Along with Chris Cummings, executive vice president of real estate company CIC Limited, the foundation organizes TEDxElPaso to contribute to TED’s mission and share “ideas worth spreading.”
When Pearson asked if she would be interested speaking at the conference—she knew it would be her chance to expand her outreach in a new way.
“I felt very connected and transformed through a lot of TED Talks that I’ve seen, so I really think that you can have a big impact to talk with that platform,” López said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only reach people locally through the conference itself, but also to reach a broader community internationally.”
Aside from the fact that López has listened to countless talks covering technology, entertainment and design (hence the abbreviation TED), her other connection to the organization also lies in the fact that her brother Carloz López previously gave a talk called “Asombremos con sonrisas,” which explored the power of making people smile, for TEDxLasAguas.
It didn’t take long for López to decide that she wanted to share her profound passion for performance activism with her audience.
“Everyday, take a step to get out of your comfort zone,” López said in her last remarks at the conference. “After five years of doing this work, I have realized that I still don’t know what I’m doing and that if I’m lucky, I never will.”