Andrea Ariel Dances for Democracy
On Sunday, the artist's dancing mailbox was a Capitol surprise
By Robert Faires,
2:40PM, Wed. Jan. 20, 2021
Sometimes a dancing mailbox doesn’t expect to attract much attention.
So it was with the one at the Texas State Capitol this past Sunday. She figured she’d show up, do her pre-Inauguration Day tribute to democracy – movin’ and groovin’ to Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” – and be off with no notice. But that wasn’t how it turned out.
To clarify, the dancing mailbox was actually Andrea Ariel, the award-winning modern dancer, choreographer, soundpainter, and artistic director of Ariel Dance Theatre, and she was just wearing a mailbox costume that she’d created at home. And why would somebody make a mailbox costume? Well, back before the presidential election – remember that election? – when there was so much misinformation being circulated about mail-in ballots, a couple of arts groups in Pennsylvania and a guerilla theatre activist in California collaborated on a campaign to provide Pennsylvanians with accurate info about voting by mail in their state. The tactic for getting folks’ attention? Dancing mailboxes. The groups – Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble and Farm Arts Collective, with Artistic Director Larry Bogad and the Center for Tactical Performance – developed a “kit" that any community group or theatre could use to spread the word in their town or city: press releases, flyers, recordings of “Please Mr. Postman” rewritten with election-specific lyrics, instructions for making mailbox costumes, and even simple choreography for the mailboxes to perform – which is where Ariel came in. Having worked with Strike Anywhere’s Leese Walker, Ariel was a natural to put the dance in dancing mailboxes.
The campaign, dubbed Delivering Democracy, garnered widespread attention, in the U.S., as you might expect (CBS News, New York Times), but also in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, the Netherlands, the UK, and elsewhere. The mailboxes even popped up in Taylor Swift’s “Only the Young” video, and when you’ve earned that kind of exposure, you deserve an encore. Since the election did succeed in delivering democracy (despite what the deniers claim), the swearing-in of the people who were elected president and vice-president seemed an apt time to celebrate the small-d democratic system – to make a positive and uplifting statement about democracy. So the organizers invited people all over the country to make their own mailbox costumes, video themselves dancing in them, and send the videos to them to be edited into a supercut of joyful, high-stepping mailboxes.
Ariel, who hadn’t been able to travel to Pennsylvania and participate in the pre-election activity, was determined to take part in Dancing for Democracy. She made her mailbox and worked out her steps. She thought Texas’ seat of government would be the most appropriate place for her dance, but she admits that after the riot at the U.S. Capitol and subsequent threats of more violence at state capitols, she didn’t feel comfortable going there on Inauguration Day. But she and her husband, videographer Colin Lowry, did a location scout of the scene Saturday and thought that with the grounds closed to visitors, the Capitol felt safe enough for a shoot the next day.
That would be Sunday. The 17th. A day when gun-rights activists planned to be at the Texas Capitol. And when authorities had warned of armed protests at every state capitol in the country. Fortunately for Ariel and Lowry, the large crowds of protesters anticipated by law enforcement were no-shows. But there were still a dozen or three Second Amendment advocates who had made it and were parading around with their semiautomatics and such when the pair arrived at 11am. Nevertheless, Ariel persisted, and, with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” blasting, got her groove on, joyfully stepping side to side while waving her arms with two small American flags and a sign that read, “Democracy is for everybody!” in her hands.
Now, some people walked by and tried to ignore Ariel, but the people who did not ignore her were the members of the media on the scene. They had been assigned to cover the Big Dangerous Follow-Up Protest to the Capitol Riot, which hadn’t materialized. And there was only so much you could do with the guys who had shown up to support their right to carry around as much firepower as they could, citing the same chapter and verse of the Constitution. So these reporters were hurting for something to cover. And here was a dancing mailbox! That was different! And before she knew it, Ariel was besieged by Spectrum News 1, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, pressing her with questions, asking if she’d cue up Stevie and do her routine again.
”Press people popped out of nowhere,” Ariel says. “I haven’t done a ton of activist things, so I wasn’t prepared. It took me by surprise.” And they assumed that Ariel was there to protest the gun rally and, by default, the President. “I immediately became the only anti-Trump protester,” she says. And that assumption about Ariel’s reason for being there seems to have extended to the pro-gun advocates, as several – at least one in a MAGA cap – came over to Ariel at one point. The men stood near her – because they were all men – looming over the five-foot-nothing dancer as one demanded of her, “Where is that in the Constitution? Where does it say we’re a democracy? We’re a republic.” “They were kind of overbearing,” Ariel says, though she didn’t feel like they were challenging her personally. “It was like they just wanted to press against something for the sake of pressing against it.” Makes sense, since they had no one else to push back against.
But the Second Amendment activists didn’t get in the last word on Ariel’s dance for democracy. Her second time through drew “a large gathering of people,” she says, with several taking photos and one even joining in the dance with her. But it was later in the day that Ariel discovered the true impact of her dance. She says people sought her out on her dance company’s website and her Facebook page to leave messages of thanks and support. “Lots of hearts,” she says.
If that inspires you to dance for democracy, you can still make your own mailbox costume and get your groove on. Instructions for the design that was cooked up by designer Jen Varbalow are available, along with other information about Dancing for Democracy. And Ariel encourages you to post the video of yourself. Just be sure to tag her dance company. She wants to see the dance go on.