A Chicago dance crew known for pushing the envelope in choreography and thematic choices took home first place Saturday at World of Dance Orlando with perhaps their most affecting routine to date—a statement on low millennial voter turnout set not to music, but to young people’s testimonials.
It’s not the first time the Puzzle League—composed of mostly 21- to 26-year-olds—impressed the judges. The six-year-old crew was named Prelude Midwest champs from 2012 to 2014 and has won World of Dance competitions in Chicago and Las Vegas. Led by 26-year-old director Davina Pasiewicz, the Puzzle League initially (and still does) perform primarily to dance, hip-hop and rap mixes. But now, they're turning toward a larger goal: adding a civic-minded voice to the community of dance.
To date, the Puzzle League has performed routines that address marriage equality, racism, and the refugee and border crises. Last weekend’s voter turnout piece is perhaps the riskiest, considering there’s no music—much less a beat—until about three minutes in. Pasiewicz says Puzzle League’s initial goal was to spark a dialogue within the group itself. With repeated success on the national stage, that discussion could soon spread nationwide.
In a phone interview, Pasiewicz discusses how the Puzzle League assumed a new political role, and the challenges of doing so.
How did the Puzzle League first come together?
A couple of my co-directors and I had been dancing together for 10-plus years. We were in a company called Nonstop Dance Productions for a while, and we wanted to spread our wings and do our own thing. We ended up leaving and making our own company, which is the Puzzle League. That was six years ago. We have worked our way up to the reputation that we've gained now. Before, we were the young group in the community. Now, we're the veterans. Our goal starting off was to further our passion for dance and explore our potential, and originally we just wanted to accomplish some milestones in Chicago: winning local competitions. We surpassed those goals. Now, we're traveling a lot more, and in the last couple of years have begun to do more politically involved sets that reflect our ideals as a company. That's how we ended up where we are now.
As you mentioned, you were already quite successful. Did you feel as though you were risking a lot by changing your approach?
Yes, definitely. It took us a long time to gain that confidence in our voice, to be able to say, "These are our opinions on these matters, and this is the message we want to spread." Especially in the hip-hop competition world, it's not very common to see politically driven sets. It was definitely a risk because we didn't know how the audience or judges would take it. But so far, out of the politically-driven sets that we've done, they've all been accepted and embraced by our community.
Of course, we've had some people that have disagreed, but that's always going to happen while you're making a powerful statement. It really repurposed dance for us; it made dance something bigger than ourselves, which is what we've become passionate about.
What do you think the medium of dance adds to the conversation that other mediums cannot? What does dance add that is unique?
Dance is unique in the sense that we're not using words to communicate—you're using movement and choreography and a large group of people to display a message that, I feel, would be more easily expressed through another medium. A lot of the feedback we've received from judges and audience members is that it’s a new level of creativity that hasn't been explored yet. That has been extremely flattering and encouraging to know that people are watching and thinking we're doing something new to reach an audience that may not have been reached otherwise.
The dance community is huge, and it’s growing, and it really pertains to the younger generations. These kids may not be reading articles and may not be interested in getting involved in politics or social issues like this. We're tapping into that audience in a different way.
Was that—reaching the younger generations—the goal of your most recent set on voting participation?
Yes. Over the last year, I've become more involved in politics in general. The more that I got involved, the more I tried to get the members of my team involved, too. Sharing resources, talking about the candidates, brainstorming on who they may want to vote for, helping a lot of our members register to vote. I thought, "Why can't we try to communicate this to a bigger audience that just our own team?" Especially with the things that are going on, it made so, so much sense to tackle and communicate this to a bigger audience.
It is hard for younger people to feel motivated to become involved. That shows in the numbers, that millennials are the largest voting eligible generation, but we're also the least involved. This was our way of encouraging [voter participation].
Was this shift to politically motivated routines embraced by the dancers?
The challenge is that not everyone has the same political stance. The first set dealt a lot with racism and general bias in society. We ended up, within our team, having to sit down and talk out our experiences with racism, which were extremely different. We have dancers from extremely different backgrounds and extremely different ethnicities. It was a risk. We didn't know how it was going to go, we didn't know if some people were going to be offended, we didn't know if some people were going to disagree with our overall message. That's applied with all the sets. We've done another set with immigration and refugees. And again, some of our members weren't politically involved, and didn't care to be politically involved. I'm sure that applies to some audience members and maybe some judges, too. You go into it knowing it's not going to be relatable to everybody. But as long as it is relatable to some, then we're doing our job.
So far, we've gotten an overwhelming embrace from the community and the audience. Everybody has been so supportive that we're trying to do something new, something with a purpose. On our YouTube videos, we have a good handful of dislikes. But we have a lot of likes and shares and comments thanking us. That's what keeps us going.
Do you have other issues you plan on addressing in the future?
There are definitely ones that we want to address, but it’s a balancing act. You have issues, of course, that you yourself are passionate about, but you have to figure out how to accurately display that through dance to the audience.
Are there any other dance teams doing anything like this, or is Puzzle League blazing the trail?
I look up to a company called Choreo Cookies. They're from California. They've done a set that dealt with foster children. They've done others that have been more emotional and dealt with deeper issues, and they've been a big inspiration for me. But, in terms of politically relevant sets, I would like to say that we're exploring new territory. I'm sure there are groups that we don't know of that have done similar things, but in our community, it has become our signature—to tackle these issues through art. I wouldn't like to say we're "blazing the trail" because I want to remain a little bit humble, but I like to think we are unique.