Columbia Students Create Dance Inspired by One Earth Film Fest

By Laurie Casey

Do you two-step with your trash? Rhumba with your recycling? Conga with your compost?  We guess you don't. But students at Columbia College Chicago created their own original trash-inspired moves for a One Earth Film Festival screening of Trash Dance on Sunday, March 9. The result was anything but disposable. Their dancing reflected the grace, dedication and pride of the workers who haul our garbage every day.

The film Trash Dance follows choreographer Allison Orr as she shadows Austin, Texas, streets and sanitation workers to learn about them and their work. By the end of the film, they help her create an exciting dance performance in front of a sold-out audience of 2,000 people. The dance created by Orr and the workers honors their labor using the very movements and equipment they employ every day, as well as their own unique talents.  The result is a moving tribute to the dignity of the workers who are often invisible to, yet integrally woven through, our communities.

The Columbia College students previewed the film and created original choreography that reflected its themes. Their exciting performance was an excellent example of the way the Festival works with important partners across Chicagoland to present rich programming that can inspire audiences to think, learn and act on environmental issues.

In this case, One Earth Film Festival worked with John Wawrzaszek, Sustainability Manager at Columbia College Chicago to make this event happen. The College already has a high commitment to sustainability: its South Loop campus is highly walkable and well-served by public transportation. All buildings are adaptively-reused former office and warehouse buildings, and one is LEED Gold-Certified. Wawrzaszek, who runs the Sustain Columbia program at the college, says, "I worked on a collaboration with our Dance Center to get students to think about the film and how its message could be interpreted."

Two Dance Center of Columbia College instructors answered his call: Lisa Gonzales, Assistant Professor, and Darrell Jones, Associate Professor.  "We watched the film and discussed the themes that moved us," says Gonzales. "What emerged for the group was the feeling that each person in the film had great pride for his or her work as a trash collector."

"This joy and pride in working also extended into their lives, where we were able to learn more about who these individuals were outside of their work—what mattered to them, what made them feel connected," says Gonzales.  "In dealing with societal issues, we discussed the importance of respecting and acknowledging each individual. The students felt that breaking down social barriers stemmed from this kind of respect.  We also discussed how respect for the environment comes out of feeling connected to oneself and to the environment."

Working off those ideas, Gonzales gave students prompts to create movement that honored their own sense of connectedness. The students then took these short solos and turned them into duets, trios and quartets.

After the students' dance performance and the film, facilitator Julie Moller of River Forest's Green4Good organization, helped the audience process it all. The lively, thoughtful conversation ventured into themes like the power of dance to engage communities and audience members' newfound appreciation for the hard work and dedication of our streets and sanitation workers.

Many in the audience expressed surprise at the fact that most workers went to part-time jobs before or after their grueling and long shifts. Others remarked at how the filmmakers deftly showed Orr's own labor and effort in pulling off such a large, complicated performance with limited resources and resistance from not only the dancers initially, but also from people in the city government and community at large.  The film was also often very funny, sometimes achingly poignant and even suspenseful at the end, when Orr begins to worry her project will fail. The workers beautifully support her during her most trying moments, earning them even more love and admiration from the audience.

To see a trailer of Trash Dance, visit