A dance meditation on Henrietta Lacks

Rehearsal for the performance of “One” (from left): Sara LaPadula (’21, UMass Amherst), Leah McLeod ’22, Evelyn Kirby ’21, Hannah Berry ’22, Miranda Lawson ’22, Maya Mizrahi (’21, Amherst College), Victoria Winter (’22, UMass Amherst), and Olivia Lowe ’21

By Keely Sexton

Dancers from Mount Holyoke College, along with dancers from Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, performed the dance  “One” as part of the annual Fall Faculty Dance Concert

Choreographed by Uri Sands, co-artistic director of TU Dance, coached by the company’s co-artistic director, Toni Pierce-Sands, and staged by company member Kaitlin Bell, the piece is a meditation on the story of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells. TU Dance is a contemporary dance troupe based in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951. Before her death, her doctor, without her knowledge or consent, scraped some of those cancer cells to study. To his surprise, and to the surprise of scientists everywhere, the cell line lived on and on — and on. 

Today, nearly 70 years after Lacks’ death, those cells are still living. Known as the HeLa cell line, they have become an invaluable research tool, but their inglorious origin enshrined in their very name is a poignant reminder of Lacks’ untimely death and the racism and misogyny that birthed them into existence.

Olivia Lowe ‘21, the soloist in the work, notes the physical challenge of the piece, as well as the careful balance between the emotional connection and integrity of the work that the dancers must maintain to honor “One's” energy.

"One of the most important aspects of performing the work is preserving our flow of collective energy," she said. "In each rehearsal we warm up together and do breathing exercises that keep us connected to and grounded with one another. It’s a rather sacred ritual."

“Olivia embodies such strength and stoicism,” said Sands-Pierce.  “She channels the whooshing energy that conveys the mood of the piece.”

Sands-Pierce consulted with Rose Flachs, professor of dance, who oversaw the production from inception to stage. Flachs was inspired to bring the piece to Mount Holyoke after her daughter performed the dance at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Flachs was drawn to the work by both the energy of the dance and Mount Holyoke itself. “A feeling or inspiration may come from the life of Henrietta Lacks, but the dance is not a narrative, it’s not literal,” she said “It’s inspired by the suffering and empowerment of women. It is women coming together and acting as one — that is the feeling, the energy, that is cultivated. ‘One’ is a perfect reflection of the Mount Holyoke spirit of community, strength, resilience and perseverance.”

Beyond the spirit of Mount Holyoke present in the dance, the dancers themselves embody the strength of the liberal arts — four of the Mount Holyoke dancers, including Lowe, are double majors, representing fields as disparate as physics and dance to gender studies and politics. 

“One” was made possible in part through funding from the Science Center Directorship Fund.