Shining a light on dance and development

Sydney Skov, MA SID'15

For Sydney Skov, MA SID’15, the connection between her lifelong passion for dance and her interest in improving the lives of vulnerable populations around the world wasn’t immediately apparent.

But that changed when she stepped into a class offered by Kolkata Sanved, an Indian NGO that empowers survivors of human trafficking and violence by teaching them dance and movement therapy.

“It’s unbelievable, the work they do,” Skov says. “Many of these children don’t have other avenues for expressing themselves or feeling that kind of joy. The organization sends [dance therapy] practitioners to shelter homes, and these practitioners they hire come from the populations they work with. You can see such a stark difference between the practitioners [who have gone through Kolkata Sanved’s program] and the girls still in the shelter home: how confident they are, how they can carry on a conversation and hold eye contact.”

To highlight the organization’s work, she created a short film, “From There to Here,” which has been screened across the country at film festivals over the past year. Now, she’s hoping it will be used in educational settings as a conversation starter about dance and development.

Sydney Skov, MA SID'15, shooting her documentary
Sydney Skov shooting the documentary
A dancer in a documentary about Kolkata Sanved by Sydney Skov, MA SID'15,
A dancer from Kolkata Sanved
Sydney Skov, MA SID'15, with Kolkata Sanved
Sydney Skov, MA SID'15, with dancers from Kolkata Sanved

Her relationship with Kolkata Sanved started with her work as a volunteer after college. She hopped on a plane with just a little bit of information — and wound up staying for seven months.

“I was so inspired by them that I changed all of my plans,” she said. She turned down admission to law school when she returned to the U.S., and she pivoted to applying to programs in international development.

Skov came to Heller on the recommendation of a former colleague, and it served as “a great jumping-off point,” she says. “I loved being among bright minds who have been in the field around the world.”

While at Brandeis, Skov also connected with Cynthia Cohen, director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts. “She’s a mentor and role model for me,” Skov says. “I found this place where we were actively talking about art in development in a really critical way that wasn’t just giving it lip service.”

Skov was particularly thrilled to find that guidance, because just before arriving at Heller, she had founded Free Body Project, dedicated to promoting dance as a global resource for healing and empowerment.

At Heller, it all came together. She returned to Kolkata Sanved for her second-year practicum, earning a Boren Fellowship that allowed her to spend time studying Bengali and better connect with the organization. While doing her practicum, she came up with the idea for the film, which she created through Free Body Project and alongside a team of dedicated filmmakers.

Determined to stay in India, she applied for a Fulbright Award, which funded her team’s initial work on the documentary after she graduated from Heller.

Today, she continues to lead Free Body Project by organizing conferences for dancers and development practitioners, and promoting the film while balancing a career as a U.S. foreign service officer in Chennai, India.

“Dance and social justice — nobody speaks about it as a field,” says Skov. “It blows my mind that this work isn’t done more. There are huge international NGOs that do classical music with kids, for example, but a violin is thousands of dollars. Why doesn’t dance have a place in this field? Every culture has a dance form. You can walk into any space and teach a dance class for free — there’s massive potential.”

Cover of Heller Magazine Summer 2020, Celebrating Heller at 60

This story is from the summer 2020 issue of Heller Magazine