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A Choreographer and Her Girls Retell a Tragedy Through Dance

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For the choreographer Tiffany Rae, dance is a language, deeper and more articulate than words. “I’m better at showing you with dance what I need to say than actually talking,” she said in a recent interview. “You will understand how I’m feeling.”

Part of what drives Ms. Rae — apart from her innate love of dance — is exploring issues rooted in social justice and Black culture. Dance is a way to demonstrate both artistry and activism, and last summer she did both during a protest at Borough Hall in Brooklyn, where she chose dancing over speaking and, to her surprise, the crowd paid attention.

“Everyone sat down,” she said. “We didn’t even have to ask. It was just so amazing — thousands of people sitting down so everyone could see.”

At that protest, Ms. Rae, 24, presented a version of “Underground,” which examines the trauma that comes from fighting for racial equality and the continuous cycle of pain in Black communities. She said, “The power we had in our hands, in our faces — it gave a sort of stillness for everybody to be like, OK, this is the time to focus, this is the time to listen.”

Gillian Walsh, a contemporary dance artist who interviewed Ms. Rae for Movement Research’s online publication, Critical Correspondence, wrote that to “see this dance happen unexpectedly, so seamlessly in between people giving speeches and marching really set me on fire.”

Ms. Rae, who grew up mainly in Brooklyn, has also been creating videos on Instagram and YouTube, some political and others for fun, like “The Parkers,” her jubilant homage to the television series. Intended as a Thanksgiving gift for her followers, it went viral; Missy Elliott, whose music is featured, reposted it.

Her most recent Rae Beast production, “Unearth Birmingham,” is more urgent: a response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Four young girls were killed and many others injured. Ms. Rae’s film, shot at Gymnopedie, the basement of Bushwick United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, brings the girls’ perspectives to life through an inventive, vibrant tapestry of dance — brimming with hip-hop, modern, jazz and moments of improvisation — and music, starting with Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” and ending with Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”

Naomi Southwell, 14, who portrays Cynthia Wesley, one of the girls who died, didn’t know about the Birmingham bombing before she started the project. Ms. Rae had the girls watch Spike Lee’s documentary “4 Little Girls” (1997), but her own narrative is more impressionistic than linear.

“She wanted to show people the story through our movement,” said Ms. Southwell, a freshman at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. “She wanted us to express how we might have felt if we were those four little girls, if we were in their shoes.”

Toward the end, the four girls find themselves in a place they haven’t been before: a gymnasium. Scared and confused, they stand close as more young dancers enter, some dressed as schoolgirls (from the studio Dancers Dreamzzz, where Ms. Rae teaches), while others are cheerleaders with the Brooklyn Diamonds (of which Ms. Rae was once a member). “The other girls come around us,” Ms. Southwell said, “trying to comfort us and show us that we were going to be OK.”

And then they all dance, layering forms that reflect Ms. Rae’s eclectic background. She has trained in many genres, including ballet, jazz, modern, West African, Horton and hip-hop. She can move large groups, thanks to cheerleading.

And, there’s something else, too: She was the only female player on the football team in middle school. (For a while, she was a cheerleader and football player at the same time.) “I feel like the football helped me to be a power dancer,” she said, “To dance soft and subtle, but still have that power behind it.”

Her first time performing in a music video was Beyoncé’s “Let’s Move Your Body.” She was in elementary school. “Instead of mostly paying attention to the dancing, I was paying attention to what they were doing,” she said. “I would watch the choreographer.”

Now young girls are watching her. In a recent interview Ms. Rae spoke about the Birmingham bombing, why it was important to show the innocence of her cast and how, in the end, joy wins.

What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation.

When did you first learn about the bombing and how did it affect you?

When I was little, I actually played one of the girls in a play. It always resonated in my heart and I wanted to do something on my own.

This moment triggered so much. After that bombing, there were riots — the same thing that’s going on today. Even then, people who were racist, they realized, Oh my God, these are four innocent children. I feel that sparked the turn a little bit.

I love the way your video skips back and forth between sorrow and exuberant dancing.

I want you to know that these girls are alive. Not to make it so sad, but to show the brightness at the end of that tunnel. I wanted to show that these are young girls; they’re having fun. Like they could have had this, but it was taken away. I wanted to keep snatching at feelings.

It made me think about studies that talk about how Black girls are perceived as being less innocent and more adultlike than other girls their age. Was that also part of it?

Yes, yes! That’s so important. That’s why I made them so fun. And they did that naturally themselves — these kids are really fun and energetic, and they’re really girly girls. And innocent.

How did you develop the choreography?

I had to make sure I knew each individual girl — her character. I don’t like to force choreography. I don’t need to do a thousand steps, but I want to do choreography, not just for the dancer’s eye but for regular, everyday people so they can feel what she’s feeling.

Sometimes you don’t need to do everything so technical because the message won’t come across. So I knew I just had to be each girl. I’m like, all right — we need to have a turn here, or she needs to jump here. Or this needs to be a kick. OK: What do I feel?

You ask yourself that?

Sometimes I have to just sit back and not be the dancer for a while and just be a regular person. That’s why sometimes it’s good for me to be on the train and just listen to the music and just be like, OK, if I was not a dancer and I was watching a show, what do I want to see? What do I want to feel? And how can that movement relate to what I could bring across? I think that was how I was able to create that choreography.

How did you come up with the group dance in the gym?

I knew I wanted something simple, but something loving. Something that would be easy, but subtle. We don’t need to be sad forever. We need to grow and to move forward. They’re looking down on us and they’re shining. And it’s like, we’re dancing. That’s the point I’m trying to make. Dance is everything.

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