Billion Rising organizers focused on dancing as a joyful activity that would be more inviting and less threatening than traditional street protests. And Ensler says that the physical celebration of dancing is rejuvenating for women who have been physically abused, and a powerful symbol of their ability to reclaim their bodies.
“One of the things the women of the Congo have taught me is the way they turn their pain to power, their agony to vision, is through dancing,” Ensler says. “Every country I went to where I danced, I saw that freedom and fierce joy.”
Ensler and her fellow activists hope to harness that joyful energy for the harder work of changing cultural attitudes and laws. In the United States they hope to focus efforts on renewing the Violence Against Women Act, which has been held up in the House since last year.
In Miami, the main events are a street fair at Florida International University put together by student activists, and a gathering Thursday evening at the New World Symphony’s Soundscape Park in Miami Beach, where organizers hope to draw 3,000 people to dance to music by DJ Le Spam and watch video statements from people like detective Sierra and celebrities such as Rosario Dawson and Alice Walker.
“We’re gonna shake Miami that night,” says Lisa Schejola Akin, a Miami woman on V-Day’s national board of directors spearheading the Miami effort. “This is about people becoming aware. What I envision is for people to leave with a feeling of empowerment, that they will speak out if they see this happen.”
Among those gathering at New World Center will be a group from Lotus House, the Overtown shelter for homeless women and children. Director Constance Collins says that awareness is crucial in addressing a brutal cycle, often starting with sexual abuse in childhood, continuing as those women grow up to live with abusive men and often have children who are themselves abused. Most of the women at Lotus House have been abused, she says.
“Imagine what it means to be a little girl whose earliest memory is of being molested by her father,” says Collins. “She doesn’t know how to love herself, she doesn’t know what love is. She is facing a life of continued violence, because she accepts abuse as normal.”
“If we don’t bring light to these issues they continue generation after generation.”
Among those whom Lotus House has helped to break out of that cycle is Monyia Knights, 48, who has lived at the shelter for four years. Knights says her father began abusing her when she was in pre-school. “I felt alone,” Knights says. “I never was protected. It’s your father, and you always think they’re going to change, but they don’t change.” She dropped out of school, became addicted to drugs and fell into a series of violent or dependent relationships. “I had boyfriends, but it was like a crutch,” she says. “I was afraid of men. Then one thing leads to another and I’m afraid to walk away. I was afraid to leave and afraid to stay.”
At Lotus House, where she has gotten counseling and worked as resident manager for three years, Knights overcame her fear. “I went from no self esteem to all the self-esteem in the world,” Knights says. “From having no respect to a job where I support myself and help other people.”
Sierra hopes the Billion Rising effort will bring hope and help to more women like Knights. “Violence against women has gotten to epidemic proportions, and it’s got to stop,” she says. “We have to draw attention to things if they’re gonna change. Or nothing will ever be different.”