Women’s History Month is under way, and Portland’s dancers are finding new ways to celebrate the city’s female and nonbinary movers while simultaneously serving the most vulnerable women, children and nonbinary members of our community. The women organizing the third annual Momentum Workshops are giving a new meaning to the phrase “we rise by lifting others” in this town’s dance scene, and there’s still time to join in on the momentum yourself.
Entering their fourth and final week, the Momentum Workshops–formerly known as Females of February–offer accessible online dance and movement classes as well as health/wellness seminars. Workshop organizer Isabel Holmes says the workshops were created as a way to say thank you to the incredible women who had helped her along on her journey, and as it wraps up the third annual year, it’s grown into something bigger. That’s where Rose Haven comes in. A day shelter and community center that serves women, children and gender nonconforming folks who are experiencing poverty, trauma and intersecting issues, Rose Haven is the recipient of all revenue generated from the Momentum Workshops, and has been since the first year in 2019.
I chatted with Liz Starke, Rose Haven’s development director, on what it’s been like to partner with Momentum. The most valuable aspect of their partnership, she told me, has been the workshops’ ability to raise awareness for what they do at the shelter: “They are literally using their bodies to tell the world our story, to help fight the stigma that comes with poverty. Watching the literal sweat that has gone into these workshops is so inspiring, and makes it easier to digest really tough and depressing subject matter.”
As the pandemic exacerbated just about every aspect of life, houselessness felt the pandemic’s effects acutely. Rates spiked in a city that before Covid was already ranking fourth in the nation for houseless population per capita (Oregon has 328 people experiencing homelessness for every 100,0000 people), according to a study by security.org released in 2019. According to Rose Haven’s annual report, Portland now ranks second in the nation. For Rose Haven, that meant serving more than 2,500 people directly in 2020 as the only day shelter and community center in Multnomah County supporting women, children and marginalized genders specifically.
“This work is hard, and I think the beauty of the Momentum workshops is it really highlights how anyone can get involved,” Starke said. For many, activism can be intimidating, and finding an entry point can seem challenging. The Momentum community shows that no matter your skill set, you have something to contribute to your community. “You can use your talents to create a better world. For a grassroots nonprofit like Rose Haven, this is truly how we keep our services going, $15 at a time,” she said. And there’s no shortage of skills to go around in the Momentum community, which includes 21 instructors, organizers, and sponsors with expertise ranging from dance education to nutrition, video editing, website design, and more.
What that amounted to this year was a team effort to create, record, and share 22 classes virtually over the course of four weeks, a huge increase from the eight classes the workshop series offered last year, when they were still in person. They’ve kept the talent local as well, with almost all of the instructors being Portland-based. Holmes explained that she mainly used her network to put the teaching staff together, but was aided by her co-organizers Candice Agahan (a former Blazers dancer), Madyson Jones-Slaughter, and Momentum sponsor Kathryn Harden, who runs Steps PDX, one of Portland’s southeast dance schools. “Kathryn has been really helpful by using her position as a studio owner to reach out to other studios for collaboration with their instructors as well,” Holmes said. Harden also donated her studio space at Steps PDX for the filming of all of the workshops. But Harden’s not the only one offering her space and services for free to make the workshops happen. All 21 members of the 2020 Momentum team have donated their time so that 100 percent of the proceeds can go directly to Rose Haven. In the past three years, that’s amounted to more than $5,000, and they aren’t finished with this years’ workshops just yet.
When the pandemic’s restrictions made it clear that the workshops would need to move to a virtual model, the team was quick to hop on board for the change. “We decided that this year was more important than ever to continue supporting Rose Haven,” said Agahan. “They rely on our fundraising every year now, and so it was really an easy decision to go virtual.” In some ways, the need to switch yielded some positive change for the workshops. The team ended up creating an Instagram account and getting a website running (courtesy of Jones-Slaughter’s expertise), two assets that they’d functioned without in the first two years.
The program offers a wide range of movement, from urban styles to flamenco and contemporary, among others. It’s also expanded to include a yoga class, exercise classes, and a seminar focused on health and wellbeing of dancers. “We picked teachers whose classes are all-encompassing, really safe spaces where you can choose to push yourself or just use the class to heal,” Holman said. Agahan quickly agreed: “We know everyone has had a really hard year and we knew that everyone wouldn’t have the headspace for dance in the same way that we used to. It’s a workshop series to help women heal and highlight their strength. Dance isn’t the only outlet that allows people to feel better and move.”
One of the new offerings, available throughout all four weeks of the workshops, is a lecture that focuses on reclaiming the health of dancers. Led by Naturopathic Doctor Brittany Krake, the hour-long seminar looks at how the dance industry has risked the health of dancers through unhealthy body expectations, demanding training regimens, and mental and emotional abuse from teachers, mentors, and directors. Her lecture seeks to liberate dancers from these harmful patterns, and refocus the conversation to optimize health as a dancer, improving performance, promoting career longevity, and maintaining health by using lifestyle, nutrition and herbal medicine. “Brittney’s class really acknowledges the fact that dance has been a toxic environment for a lot of dancers,” Agahan sais. “If we are saying that movement is a space for healing then we also have to be a part of those conversations about being able to take steps to heal those ideas and learn to say no.”
This unearthing of vital topics and conversations goes beyond Krake’s lecture. It’s embedded in the framework of Momentum. Created to bring light to women and nonbinary dance instructors, and sustained by the will to raise awareness and funds for Rose Haven’s mission, Momentum has made huge strides in the work that needs to be done to support women. Starke reflected on this as well. “This has been perhaps the most inspiring part of the campaign,” she said. “Women are marginalized, especially when it comes to homeless services. There are sadly very few resources, especially for women to access help in Portland, but also across the country. There are just more beds and services for men, even though women are generally experiencing poverty at higher rates. This is why women are sometimes referred to as ‘the hidden homeless,’ because generally most people think of a man when they think of someone experiencing homlessness, but women are out there, doing everything they can to say hidden for safety reasons. Momentum has brought light to the issues in a really positive and uplifting way.”