TEDxUCLA 2018: Waves

Becoming a lighthouse: co-choreographing our movements


About Shamell

Shamell Bell is a mother, community organizer, and choreographer. An original member of the #blacklivesmatter movement, beginning as a core organizer with Justice 4 Trayvon Martin Los Angeles (J4TMLA)/Black Lives Matter Los Angeles to what she now describes as an Arts & Culture liaison between several organizations such as the BLM network and Blackout For Human Rights among others. Her work on “street dance activism” situates dance as grassroots political action from her perspectives as a scholar, dancer, and choreographer. Shamell’s street dance experience includes featured roles in music videos, award shows, and tours with artists such as Will Smith, Christina Aguilera and Ludacris, and in David LaChapelle’s acclaimed documentary “Rize” which features Miss Prissy, “The Queen of Krump”.


Okay, first we’re going to start with some meditation. Close your eyes.

Yes, close your eyes.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe in all the positive, breathe out all the negative.

Open your eyes. Let’s stand. Yes, stand, and ground ourselves. Yes, I’m a dancer so this is an embodied response.

So standing here with our feet grounded on Tongva land. Don’t worry, I only have 10 minutes to teach you tips on how we can use our truth and our bodies. So Tongva women are invisible, are rendered invisible here. And this is land, in their land. But in this moment, let’s honor their land under our feet. Please sit down.

Thank you for doing that with me. Let’s also honor each other right now. Yes, that beautiful soul next to you. And honor ourselves and our daily actions and live our lives as living examples of the change we are shifting collectively with each of our decisions. My choice to have us stand and honor this land is a reminder that every choice we make should be a decision of activism.

Hi I’m Shamell Bell, my gender pronoun is cis, as in she/her. It is an honor and privilege to be here, not just because I’m standing here in front of all you very important people. It is a privilege to be standing here alive, living, recognizing that living is a form of resistance.

As a warrior thriving through bipolar disorder, this talk is incredibly difficult for me to write. Mainly because I was coached that for TED, you have to have a clear, concise idea. But wait, I have way too many ideas, perhaps too many ideas at all times. So I’m going to just call this a radical dialogue full of ideas and life and energy and love. And I invite you to travel with me on a journey in my expression of street dance activism.

My mentor, Peter Sellers — not the actor, the opera director — encourages his students to start with the truth in their bodies. We live in a society that is good about talking about stuff, intellectually masturbating. But I learned that you can fake talking, but your body cannot lie.

A study in The New England Journal of Medicine says that dance integrates several brain functions at once: the kinesthetic, the rational, musical, and emotional. I want to add that dance can also integrate the communal, the spiritual, and the ethical, and can be used as a form of healing and activism.

Street dance activism is a way of thinking about dance, the body and movement, as acts of resistance. It allows for what I call “the lighthouse effect,” a shift from our tendencies to jump in the fraught waters, trying to save others, towards the calmer waters of us all being lighthouses. Taking inventory of our own skills and learning how to use the most effective in healing ourselves, shining our lives for others to see and guiding others.

We use dance to disrupt spaces and transform places, places from trauma to radical joy, lifting frequencies and lifting vibrations inhaling. I use dance as an intervention, but more than that I use dance to encourage all of us to use our personal missions and life purposes for an impact greater than for our own benefit.

We can become the lighthouses that shows others the way and raise the collective consciousness to vibrations of creativity and love. We each have a responsibility to use our individual talents for movements for social change.

I began this talk with my son because he literally reminds me to breathe every day. No really, we meditate every day. But much deeper than taking breaths, he is the reason why I make a decision to continue to breathe. He is the reason why I was moved to action and called my spirit sister Melina Abdullah and went out into the streets with our children and Cal State LA students and we started Justice for Trayvon Martin Los Angeles with Patrice Cullers and many others.

These interactions were an early iteration of what you now know as the Black Lives Matter movement. Given a platform by the phenomenal organizing by people in Ferguson for Mike Brown. I made a decision to raise a critically conscious child at a social movement.

Here’s my son at only four, chanting right outside of UCLA. Much like the students protesting against gun violence or demanding safe community schools led by youth leaders like students deserve right here, through my son and these youth I realize that most of my triumphant moments were co-choreographing my everyday actions through others with dance.

As I danced my way through academia and began theorizing about street dance activism, I am often brought to this idea of who is claimed to be a producer of knowledge: you. Start with the truth in your body, as the body is already a container of knowledge.

Street dance activism positions dance choreography as a metaphor for movement building, with our dance moves as our collective demands and as a way to express ourselves in liberated improvisation. It is our belief that common goal is to co-choreograph life with each other, bringing what you already have to build community. This suggests that there is not a particular person or particular type of action that makes one an activist. We are all capable of being agents of change.

I get asked all the time, how did I become one of the leaders of an international social movement as a single mother, black woman, differently abled, and from a first-generation background? For that I give credit to my mom. She had me on stage at the age of 2. My mother was a stage mom, straight out a reality show, Toddlers and Tiaras. Don’t worry, she’s here, it’s an inside joke, but she really wanted me to be Beyonce. But it wasn’t me.

However, she gathered as many inner city youth and young adults that she could for a modeling group she called Chez Shamell. In order to survive her modeling boot camp, I recruit all of my friends, even strangers in clothing stores like my friends here.

But my neighbor in South Central LA Amanda could have easily been my mom’s Beyoncé. But we grew apart because I enrolled in a performing arts middle school in Hollywood California. The next time I heard about her was when I noticed, when I was notified she was killed by gun violence at the age of only 16 years old.

I often imagined that maybe if Amanda and others I lost to gun violence would have performed with us, then maybe they would be alive today. I took this extremely hard. Dance save my life, I have survivor’s guilt. I realized dance became our lifelines as we literally improvise in these streets. When my mom’s managing and interning at casting agencies, we would be involved in documentaries such as RIZE.

But, although I quit dancing professionally shortly after, dance what followed me into my classroom at USC. Now imagine, sitting in your class trying to figure out and try to blend in, there you are, someone’s class presentation have you there twerking, or what you know, well back then it was called stripper dancing. I felt exposed. That was when my two worlds collided, dance and knowledge co-existing.

The professor of that class, Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley, used my dance history to recommend me for several research fellowships. He would be the first to suggest that I would go to graduate school and continued to believe in me to this day. He’s probably here, and he’s a member of my dissertation committee.

Before I conclude, I want to take pause to honor my family, in particular my brothers. They were not given the same opportunities I had in high school. With constant threats of gang initiation and lack of resources, they focused on survival and working. Dance crews and performing afforded me opportunities that my brothers were shut out of due to structures of inequality. I’m standing here in the final stages of a Ph.D. speaking to a TED audience in honor of my brothers. I dedicate this talk to them.

I ask myself, “How am I still here, alive? How do I accomplish being here”” Under constant duress, I improvised. I kept going. And that improvisation, that dancing through my body, and that dancing alongside others led me right here to you.

So let’s reflect. Is it possible for all of us to embody the things we actually believe in our body, not just the dancers? What does it mean to demonstrate and embody what we believe? Can we do it daily, and not just in our mouths but in our body, in our interactions with others?

I’m going to ask you to reflect on that right now. Take a deep breath. The first thing we began with was breath because one of my mentors here at UCLA, Bryonn Bain, once told me that the word “conspire” actually means “to breathe together.”

Thank you for conspiring with me today. Ashe. Wakanda forever.