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Preventing Tragedy Through Dance

Renowned performers from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago joined the cause of suicide prevention in USF Dance professor’s latest video.

Hubbard Street Dance Company stars Jonathon Fredrickson and Jessica Tong with USF Dance Professor Andrew Carroll.  Photo by Barbara Melendez | USF News

By Barbara Melendez
      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 25, 2015) – A remarkable thing can happen when people set out to help others. They very often find surprising allies. School of Theatre & Dance Assistant Professor Andrew Carroll found this to be true in a very gratifying way.

His innovative use of dance and video to spark discussions on bullying and dating violence brought the choreographer’s work to the attention of Glenn Edgerton, the director of the renowned Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Chicago, who offered to help in any way possible with Carroll’s next effort.

In short order, two of Edgerton’s principal dancers, Jonathan Fredrickson and Jessica Tong arranged to come to Florida to appear in Carroll’s upcoming production of “Speaking Without Words: The Gatekeepers Role in Suicide Prevention.”

“I was floored by this” Carroll said. “This is such a highly respected and regarded dance company worldwide, and after a few discussions, I engaged two of this company's leading dancers to participate. I was flabbergasted.”

Such weighty topics need society’s attention as well as individuals’ attention and dance provides an uncomplicated entry point.

“What’s amazing is the universality of dance,” Carroll said. “It is my belief that dance and the arts at large can communicate where words fail and only feelings exist, hence the umbrella title for all of the videos, ‘Speaking Without Words.’ That’s the beauty of what art can express without saying a word.”

Tong was attracted to the video project because she is familiar with the problem.

Hubbard Street Dancer Jessica Tong in
"Counterpoint" by Kyle Abraham. 
Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

“Someone close to me lost someone close,” she said. And though she said the topic can “be hard on a personal level,” she wanted to “by being a part of this project, maybe I could help relay the message that no matter how powerful someone’s pain can be, they mare never alone. There is always someone they can turn to.”

An Immersion in Research

To learn more about suicide and suicide prevention, Carroll immersed himself in research that would inform key scenes in his production, going so far as to go through gatekeeper training where he learned how to become “one of the growing numbers of people who are watchful. ‘Gatekeepers’ watch for the warning signs and learn what can be done with individuals who are struggling in order to help them," he said.

"The research proceeded with envisioning movement motifs based on the gatekeeper concepts, storyline plots, location settings and then securing international music rights with publishing and recording artists to create this innovative tool using dance as the language."

Three USF dance students, Jessica Stroh, Julien Valme and Sarah Walston are gatekeepers in this latest production where events and life crises are portrayed that could trigger suicidal thinking.

A senior majoring in dance, with a minor in psychology, Stroh’s introduction to the topic coincided with a tragic event close to home.

“A few days before we started filming, I found out one of my friends passed away from suicide,” she explained. “It was devastating and really unexpected, and I thought, ‘what could I have done to help him?’ I felt guilty for not being an active part of his life. What if I could've helped save his life? I hope this video will open people's eyes to the signs of suicide, to notice when a friend, neighbor or co-worker is going through a rough time, to acting on those signs, speaking up, getting them help and potentially saving a life.”

Email provided the first links between Carroll and his professional dancers from Hubbard Street who he planned to task with expressing – through dance – the difficult feelings and emotions that can lead to suicide.

“I told them the ideas I was thinking about,” he said. “And I encouraged them to come with ideas and material that felt organic and natural to them individually, asking ‘what would this feel like to you?’”

Fredrickson had only to look inside.

“How would I feel?” he asked himself. “I called on life’s darkest moments and in turn worked on physicalizing what I was feeling while trying to be honest with it and be relatable. It’s about taking a sense of responsibility so that the video can be successful with prevention.”

Tong called on her well-honed skills, “As dancers we manifest words, ideas and feeling through our bodies. To do so has now become second nature.”

Despite the seriousness of the topic, they could enjoy the process.

Fredrickson said, “It’s been pretty enjoyable working with Andrew. After we go to this dark place, working on the film, he would bring us back to a place of levity.”

Carroll credits the Hubbard Street dancers’ experience and expertise with making things easier for him.

“Both are consummate professionals,” he said. “They each are so eloquent with their bodies and their acting skills. They are honest, valid and professional. When I said, ‘cut,’ as professionals they listen to feedback, and later, when we picked up, they snapped back into the mood of their characters and delivered the same depth of emotion within an instant.”

Fredrickson observed, “Andrew trusted us which helped and I didn’t feel like I had to second guess myself. …I was immediately comfortable.”

Professional Experience a Bonus

Carroll’s trust was built on their stellar credits. Fredrickson is an alumnus of the Limon Dance Company and was named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" in 2011 for his choreography. Tong made that list in 2009 and has danced with BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech in NYC, and Hubbard Street 2 before joining the main company in 2007.

Hubbard Street Dancer Jonathan Fredrickson in "Casi-Casa" by Mats Ek.  Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Fredrickson is finding the medium of video “new and different and exciting,” he said. “Onstage you have to maintain the mood, with solidity and fluidity. Stopping and starting with video can be a good and bad thing. You can improve and change one part and redo it but you have to connect it to something you did before or will do later. It’s a challenge but I’m enjoying it.”

Tong said, “This is an important cause to fight for. Through this video I hope more people will become aware of this issue. To see how the medium of dance communicates its important message is icing on the cake.”

The unexpected bonus was a thrill for Carroll.

“They melded so nicely and truly captured the idea of becoming unstable and getting back on their feet, simply because they approached the project as professionals, setting a wonderful example for my students who need to see how things work in the professional world.

“I just struck gold,” he added. “These dancers fit my vision superbly in both the acting and dancing sense. There are dancers with incredible technical skills and no acting skills and vice versa. I’m so glad I didn’t have either problem. The people who see this video might not know Hubbard Street Dance Chicago but they will see language through the bodies of some of the world’s greatest dancers.”

The thrill extended to the students.

Andrew Carroll directing a scene from Speaking Without Words: Suicide Prevention with USF Dance students Jessica Stroh and Sarah Walston and Hubbard Street's Jessica Tong (center).

Stroh, who is looking forward to a career dancing, choreographing and teaching, said, “I imagined these serious, untouchable beings with what looked like... halos on their heads? Well, maybe not that far, but when you hear ‘I am a professional dancer in Hubbard Street,’ you can get a bit nervous! I mean, they are doing what I want to do; they're role models in a sense and that's exciting. But, getting to know them, they're, yes, brilliantly talented and beautiful and amazing, but they're just like us! I learned that they are human – silly, fun, easygoing and still hard-working and serious when need be. I also learned from them that being fully committed to the character is the only way to be truthful to the work at hand.”

Help in getting as many people as possible to see the video is also coming from esteemed places.

The United Nations World Health Organization has requested to use it. A number of organizations and school systems have expressed an interest in seeing the completed production, including the American Association of Suicidology. A letter from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated the video would be shared with the agency’s suicide prevention network. If the response is anything like those received by Carroll’s anti-bullying and dating violence productions, it will be seen throughout the country and the world. For more information about “Speaking Without Words: The Gatekeepers Role in Suicide Prevention,” contact Carroll at

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

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