Aerial Dance and Oral Histories – An Innovative Celebration of Archives - by Catherine Powell

Aerial Dance and Oral Histories – An Innovative Celebration of Archives

Catherine Powell, Director, Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University

The Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University celebrated its 30th anniversary this year in a big way.  The Archives had been off campus in a remote location for most of its history and we saw the anniversary event as a great opportunity to make our hidden collections more visible - and what’s more visible than an aerial dance performed on the façade of the campus library?

Entitled, "Archives and Outcries: California's Unconventional Women Tell their Stories," the site specific dance by Flyaway Productions explored the important role women have played in fighting for the rights of working people and for gender equality in the workplace. An integral part of the performance was the soundscape created by the award winning composer Pamela Z. The multi-layered audio featured the voices and stories of women whose history is documented in oral histories found in the Archives – fusing sound and movement into an exciting vehicle to learn about labor history and the rich resources at SFSU.  Students were enthralled by the spectacle of the event, hundreds stopped to watch each of the three performances. “If you’re walking and you see people on the side of the library, it captures your attention. Even if you don’t know what it is, you’ll learn what it is,” said one.  

The dance performance was divided into three sections. The first looked at what’s changed, and you heard Molly Martin and Madeline Mixer describe struggles regarding equal pay for equal work and how sexual harassment was not illegal just a few years ago. The second section delved into the experience of women working in the trades – Violet Henderson, who was a laborer, said “I love the broom” when she was on the job site because the broom organizes the site, contrasted with Audrey Hudson, a highly skilled pile driver, who observed, “Oh, if you’re a woman they’ll stick you with the broom, so you’ve got to throw that broom down.” The dancer brought Hudson’s words to life in a stunning display of acrobatics with a broom and ending by standing defiantly on the tool, arms crossed and empowered. The final section explored how equity is not given, but must be fought for, told through the stories of Tho Ti Do, one of San Francisco’s first Vietnamese-American labor leaders and Delia Medina, who described her arrest in a civil disobedience action by hotel workers, which included her singing the chants from that strike.

Oral histories are a powerful tool for making the past come alive through innovative programs and projects that engage our communities. The stories we steward are rich in possible projects – and sometimes they can even take flight!

Madeline Mixer oral history: (audio) (transcript)

Video news story on LARC 30th:

View the full 15 minute performance:

Dancers on library facadeDancers in actionDancer with broomAudience


Catherine Powell is the Director of the Labor Archives and Research Center (LARC). LARC preserves the rich, lively labor history of the San Francisco Bay Area.  The Center collects union records, personal papers, photographs, oral histories, and artifacts documenting local working people and labor organizations.