Finding healing and inspiring hope through dance

By Rebecca Kirkman

Xedera Townsend ’20 returns as choreographer for TU Dance Company’s “Mood Redux”

Dancers on stage

“Healing” begins with a solo dancer on stage, moving to a pre-recorded narration that offers glimpses into the experiences and emotions of a sexual assault survivor.

The powerful, seven-minute piece choreographed by Xedera Townsend ’20 is part of “Mood Redux,” the Towson University Dance Company’s spring concert premiering May 7 and 8. 

Through the concert, TU Dance Company students explore the complex human condition in a body of works by guest choreographers Townsend, Carolyn Dorfman and Ray Mercer; dance professor Vincent Thomas; and adjunct faculty Caitlin McAfee, Erin Du and Malcolm Shute. The pre-recorded concert directed by Candice Webster, director of education for the TU Community Dance Center, is available to the TU community via Zoom with advanced registration.

After the novel coronavirus pandemic prevented the TU Dance Company’s original “Mood” concert—which included Townsend’s autobiographical piece, “Healing,”—from being performed last spring, the young alumna returned to TU as a guest choreographer for “Mood Redux.”

“It's about my past trauma of sexual assault,” says Townsend, “And it's about the healing process and the support system I have that’s gotten me through all these years later.”

Xedera Townsend works with a dancer on stage
Xedera Townsend ’20 works with a dancer during rehearsal.

Pivoting “Healing” from a pre-pandemic piece intended for a live audience to one that would be filmed and streamed by audiences at home required creative changes.

“This piece had a lot of physical contact, and I had to rework that,” she says. “It was difficult for me at first to convey that message of intimacy without the dancers physically touching each other.” Additionally, instead of thinking of face coverings as a limitation, Townsend ended up using the mask as a tool to deepen her storytelling abilities.

In a similar way, filming the piece opened new possibilities as a choreographer by allowing Townsend to control the audience’s perspective.

“I want that dichotomy of we are watching the story from outside, and then we're suddenly immersed in this story, and we feel like we're surrounded by the dancers,” she explains. “So I'm really interested in that relationship with the camera and how I can use that to convey that feeling.”

Returning a year after graduating allowed Townsend to reconnect with the company members, many of whom she had previously danced with and choreographed for as a student. “It's really incredible to watch their growth and to see how far they've come. They're just absolutely amazing.”

It also gives current seniors—facing an unknown professional climate during the pandemic—the opportunity to learn from a young alumna working in the industry’s new reality.

“I think it is helpful to have someone who's had to graduate in that virtual world to tell you how you navigate auditions and COVID,” she says. “Having someone who's here in Maryland with them to be, like, ‘Yes, I still got professional gigs; you can still do it.’ I think having that is a little bit reassuring.”

Townsend credits her experience in TU’s dance performance and choreography program for preparing her for a successful career despite the current challenges.

“Transferring to Towson was one of the best decisions I ever made,” says the Philadelphia native, who enrolled at TU in 2017. “I've been very blessed with a lot of opportunities and to say I’ve worked through COVID. And I think Towson did have a lot to do with preparing me for all those opportunities and those connections.”

She says the curriculum and supportive, diverse environment at TU enabled her to produce some of her best work and grow into the choreographer she is today.

“As a student of color, as a Black woman, at my old school I had never even seen another Black teacher on the whole campus, let alone in my department,” she recalls. “I didn't have any diversity in my teaching, and I didn't realize how much that actually affects you until I came to Towson, and I had so many teachers of color.”

Working with dance faculty like Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, Catherine Horta-Hayden and Thomas changed Townsend’s perspective as a dancer and choreographer. “It had been a long time since I had been in an environment where I was around so many people who look like me, and it was such a big, big part of my education that really transformed a lot of things,” she says.

Nancy Wanich-Romita, a lecturer in the dance department, helped Townsend better manage her scoliosis as a dancer. “I had these teachers who could help me with that and teach me how to work efficiently to improve my technique without being out of alignment,” she says. “That kind of anatomical support was also really critical.”

In the end, Townsend says her experience at TU made it possible for her to bring “Healing” to life. 

“All of my composition classes really prepared me to make this piece. And this environment prepared me to make this piece,” she says. “If I hadn’t [transferred], I don't think I would have ever done a piece like this, I would have never talked about this publicly and I definitely wouldn't have let people know it’s autobiographical.”

She hopes her piece sparks conversations about sexual assault. “I think we shy away from taboo things because it's uncomfortable,” she says. “My hope is just that people talk and that they're moved by it. I think that's what any choreographer wants. They hope that people are moved by their piece.”

This performance is an extension of the academic learning in the Department of Dance. It is the highest form of assessment for the BFA in dance performance and choreography and directly supports the work in the courses Level III Ballet, Level III Modern, Dance Company, Ballet and Modern Repertory.