On Board(hers): Columbus Women Confront Immigrant Experience Through Dance

Mar 28, 2019

In a completely white room within the Columbus College Of Art And Design's Beeler Gallery, a group of women tear down a large white wall – sort of. Working together, on their instructor Lucille Toth's count, they push it over with a boom.

Toth's thoughts are brief. "I like the sound," she says. "Done."

With that, the group moves on to their next bit of choreography.

Toth, a professor at The Ohio State University Newark, is the creator of “On Board(hers),” an ongoing dance performance focusing on the impact of immigration on women. Her group will hold an open rehearsal of the project Thursday night.

The wall they pushed over isn’t quite a wall. It’s more like a hollow, rectangular wooden box, which has been painted white. And the women in the dance group aren’t professional dancers, either.

Instead of creating a formal class of students, Toth reached out to immigrant women around Central Ohio with one core question.

“What happens when we bring female immigrants together, and we offer movement as a coping skill or as a healing process, when we can share stories or stupid anecdotes sometimes or trauma, and how we can use movement to cope?” she says.

The group includes women from India, Ghana, Israel, Palestine, Uganda, Iran, France, Turkey, Sweden and the Netherlands. There are refugees and DACA students, women who have been here for decades, and those who came to America just a few months ago.

"On Board(hers)" dancer Bita Bell (center) came to Columbus from Iran, intending to study at Ohio State. But after President Trump's travel ban, she had difficulty renewing her visa.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

Bita Bell falls somewhere in between. She arrived in Columbus a few years ago to get her MFA at Ohio State. But when she tried to return last summer to finish her final year of school, she ran into a problem.

"I’m an Iranian citizen," she says. "I’m currently under the travel ban. I almost lost my access to education, bc I had to renew my U.S. visa outside of the country. I received a notice that my application requires further processing, because of the travel ban."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that President Trump could issue a travel ban barring nearly all travelers from five mainly Muslim countries, including Iran, as well as travelers from North Korea and Venezuela.

"On Board(hers)" includes a dance troupe comprised completely of immigrant women, and is led by Ohio State Newark professor Lucille Toth (left).
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

Eventually, Bell's visa was approved, but that wasn’t the end of her family’s struggles.

"As we speak, my mother was applying for a U.S. visa and she was refused entry because of the current travel ban," Bell adds. "So, for me, there has been a lot of frustration that’s been built, based on how I’ve been treated as a person in this country and how I’ve been separated from my family."

Bell says dance helps with those feelings.

"Through dance, I’m able to through to cipher through and digest and absorb and understand and reshape and share and hopefully turn into a conversation that can help us go beyond all of this and change something," she says.

The group performing "On Board(hers)" includes women from India, Ghana, Israel, Palestine, Uganda, Iran, France, Turkey, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

In that way, the white wall acts as a stand-in for the lines all the women crossed to get to the United States. Though it’s easy to draw a link to President Trump’s plans for the southern border, Toth says the structure means something different to each performer.

"I said, 'What do you want to say to the wall? Whatever you want to say to the wall, go for it,'" Toth says. "And so, some of them started to pray, because we have two Muslim women and we have some Jewish women and they have this really special relationship with the wall. Some of them started to be very aggressive to the wall, be like, 'I hate you, I don’t want you' to the wall. Some of them were like, 'I want to be nice to you so you’ll be nice back.'"

Monday night's rehearsal ends with all the women gathered round the box, whispering thoughts and feelings. Bell wants to climb up, and the other women oblige immediately.

"If one person is desiring something, it’s sort of a all-for-one and one-for-all situation. And that was very empowering to literally feel lifted up by a bunch of immigrant women," Bell says. "It was pretty amazing."

As part of "On Board(hers)," dancers push over and move a large white wall.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

Thursday evening’s performance is far from the end. Toth plans to continue the work indefinitely, with another open rehearsal next spring. Meanwhile, Bell has another visa application in process.

"The plan is I move to Vienna by the beginning of summer," she says. "And I hope to continue unfolding this work with the immigrant community in Vienna. Because we are in a globalized world and immigrants are everywhere now."

On Board(hers) will hold an open rehearsal at the Beeler Gallery at 6:30 p.m. on March 28, 2018, followed by a Q&A with performers.