Apr 10, 2023

Meet Your Teachers: JaNiah and Maria

Chicago, get ready to dance

Watch out Chicago! Dance Church is coming in hot 🔥 Dance artists and activists JaNiah Cooper and Maria Blanco bring different passions and politics to their work as performers, creators and educators. Both carry themselves with a drive to make change through movement, and to empower others to dance, to witness and to be inspired. 

⭐️ JaNiah (she/they) is a multi-disciplinary artist from the south side of Chicago. Far from containing herself within the (vast!) medium of dance, JaNiah is also a photographer and a filmmaker. Her works mimic the complex beauty of life and nature, and they invite us to think and see with more care and intention.

☞ What do you love about teaching dance?

JaNiah: I have been on this journey to allow dancers to connect with themselves and with freestyling and improv. I love the community energy in classes when dancers are encouraged to motivate and support each other. 

☞ Tell us more about what community means to you. 

JaNiah: It is important to me to gather & provide resources and tools for my community to help them grow. I do this through my art: photography, film, dance and now Dance Church! I would love to generate a space where we can support each other, grow, & share.

☞ What’s a recent example of this kind of resource sharing in your art and life?

JaNiah: In 2022 I directed, choreographed, danced in and edited a short dance film, Sunken. I brought together my black peers to perform in the piece. I wanted to create a movement-based film to bring awareness and resources to sensitive topics, specifically the many black women and girls who have gone missing but who’s stories are not covered by the media. You can watch our work here: Sunken (2022).

☞ What part of Dance Church class are you most excited about, musically?

JaNiah: I’m most excited to choose music for the daydream part of class. I feel like everybody loves that moment in class when you get to really fully become present.

⭐️ In north Chicago, Maria Blanco (she/her) is on a constant journey to change the narrative of where dance is accessible, and who it is accessible to. Maria is an “off-balance” process-fueled, unapologetic, loud, bright and groovy human who loves to use improvisation as a tool to push the boundaries of dance and to invite people to move. Outside of the dance studio, Maria goes to the movies (lots of popcorn required), thrifts weird clothes, listens to too many true crime podcasts, collects funky stickers and loves on her pets (two cats and a hamster), and her friends and nearby strangers. 

☞ Tell us one thing you love about teaching dance!

Maria: I love teaching because it allows for me to empower each person's lived experiences within their own bodies and movement qualities. To guide a class of movers is to entitle self, choice, and bodily autonomy. 

☞ Empowerment and autonomy is a cool mission in the dance studio and artistic practice. How else do you do this work? 

Maria: I am the co-founder of a non-profit dance organization called LOUD BODIES Dance. We promote dance as a legitimate way to protest and discuss social issues, while simultaneously fueling conversation, self-expression and collaboration. We see the value in collaborating with other non-profit organizations, communities, and artists throughout various practices. All of our performances are showcased alongside other mutual aid organizations that give back directly to the community in a tangible way. In the past, we have collected and distributed food, menstrual and hygiene products, hosted pop-up shops for Black-owned bookstores and talk-backs/informational sessions with organizations centered in period poverty, gender equality in the workplace, and urban farming. Our goal is to foster a welcoming and explorative community for dance artists to invest in themselves, their own creative practice, and their individual, unique growth. 

☞ Sounds amazing Maria. Do you think these values will show up in your Dance Church classes as well?

Maria: Absolutely. Dance Church is the perfect environment to serve these values, as it constructs a journey of self expression, endless dance parties, and the choice to follow along or invest in your own freedom.

☞ What else is important to you in community spaces? 

My artistic fuel is deeply inspired by conversation, music, humor, choice making, and collaboration. I am fueled by my personal experiences as a queer woman. I am driven by the genuine nature of the people around me, and it is imperative that I construct a safe space where the dancers know they can laugh, fail, and explore their most authentic movement. I am fully incapable of creating a space that is hierarchical. I am too much of a human with my own personal limitations, weaknesses, and room for growth; to make the space fully mine is simply negligent; to not honor the dancers and their strengths does a disservice to myself, and the culmination of a communal, enriching experience.  

☞ One song you can’t stop listening to right now?

Maria: A classic! “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees

Maria and JaNiah will both be offering weekly classes in Chicago. JaNiah is excited to host Dance Church in south side on the weekends, and Maria will kick off classes in north side on Tuesday nights. Stay tuned for first class dates soon! 🎬

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