Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
As the sun sets over the White House, beaming tourists in Make America Great Again hats make their way to the gate along the North Lawn to snap photos of the great estate. Some of the wide-eyed tourists turn around to document a different scene—this time snickering and whispering. They take photos of something they hadn’t planned to see: a growing group of LGBTQ dancers and allies wearing rainbow pride flags as capes, pink tutus, striped suspenders, glitter, and high heels.
“I like this and that and this and all of that,” one dancer says as he points at the high-heeled chelsea boots, bright pink glasses, and large hoop earrings on a fellow male dancer who is just arriving.
“Do you want to take a picture with the unicorn?” a tourist asks her daughter as she points to a woman wearing a unicorn horn and holding a sign that reads, “Unicorns are imaginary; climate change is real.”
It’s late April, and many of these dancers had already shimmied for the “Queer Dance Party” outside Mike Pence’s D.C. home in January—and again outside Ivanka Trump’s house earlier in April. A new D.C.-based organization called WERK for Peace, which aims to “use dance to promote peace,” organized all three parties.
Outside the White house this evening, the assembling dancers wait patiently for Tour of #ResisDANCE—a hybrid dance party and march—to begin. When the group grows to around 50 people, the organization’s primary organizer and dancer-in-chief, Firas Nasr, leads the participants up to the fence to explain the plan.
Nasr, 23, is wearing tight-fitting light denim shorts, a white crop top T-shirt, white sneakers, and rainbow suspenders—a combination that allows him to body roll, twist, and boogie down the streets, unencumbered by typical protest attire. He explains that the group is going to dance and march from the White House to the Trump Hotel, stopping along the way at the EPA, IRS, Department of Justice, FBI, and the Department of Labor buildings for short speeches by other activists and organizers.
But first, Nasr has to teach the group the “resis-dance,” which they’ll do as a group at each stop before hearing the speaker. He then leads the group in a moment of silence for those who have worked in the name of “climate change, women’s rights, immigration, intersectionality as a whole.” Finally, a group photo. “Hopefully, with butts first,” Nasr jokes.
As the group of dancing activists parades down 15th Street NW, past notable office buildings, and up Pennsylvania Avenue, it grows in size. “Off the sidewalks and into the streets,” people shout to onlookers as Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” blasts out of large speakers on the bed of a pickup truck.
Song after song plays as the crowd of dancers shake their hips and “werk” to pop.
For Nasr, this tour and the previous dance parties and parades he helped organize are all about queer and trans visibility, creating a safe space, and centering voices that are constantly pushed to the periphery of movements.
“The underlying narrative here is that we are here, we are queer, and we will dance,” Nasr says. “Congress, from a top-down approach, and laypeople, from a bottom-up approach, need to change their perspectives and policies to allow us to—in a sense—continue dancing.”
Dance is not a random aspect of the organization, but rather a central reason for its existence. Nasr launched the group after the Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub shooting in June 2016, but he is quick to note that, although the tragedy served as the impetus for its launch, the idea behind it existed well before.
“It just clicked for me. Forty-nine individuals were massacred on a dance floor. In a space that has been historically known as a safe space for the queer and trans community. In a space that we consider an intrinsically LGBTQ space,” Nasr says.
“When it happened I was like, ‘OK, we need to take this space into the public sphere. We need to occupy public space and assert that we are here, we will dance.’ We will claim the streets as our own safe space in envisioning a world where that space becomes a safe space for us to be.”
Using dance as a way to be seen, the group has partnered with other organizations and activist groups to take to the streets to address issues they see as important. In June 2016, they hosted a dance party outside of the Capitol with Code Pink, a women-led anti-war organization, to honor the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting and to “demand that our government change gun laws and end homophobic policies that continue to oppress LGBTQAI+ individuals.”
WERK for Peace co-hosted the Mike Pence dance party in Chevy Chase with the group Disrupt J20, and it aimed to send a clear message to the vice president that queer and trans folks were cognizant of his beliefs and policy stances. The party at Ivanka Trump’s home in the Kalorama neighborhood was in response to the Trump administration rolling back EPA regulations and slashing the agency’s funding.
“WERK for Peace is based in a creative, non-violent strategy,” says Martha Neuman, a former intern at Code Pink, where she was responsible for helping it coordinate “creative direct actions.” Neuman worked with Nasr to hold a “Dance N’ Die-in” on Capitol Hill last September. “We danced and we twerked from congressional building to congressional building,” Neuman says. For her, WERK allows activists to find joy in the struggle. “I think it is significant to have actions that are based in joy and the safe and free expression of our identity,” she says.
Kevin McDonald, a student at George Washington University, says that WERK for Peace’s success is apparent in the media coverage of its dances. “I think that news coverage is a really important way to spread the news about queer resistance and activism,” he says.
McDonald attended the Tour of #ResisDANCE starting outside the White House with a friend from GW. The mood that the dancing provided helped create a sense of solidarity for McDonald, who identifies as gay. “I like being a part of their events,” he says. “I think they’re an inclusive, grassroots organization.”
WERK for Peace, meanwhile, recognizes that not everyone can dance in the streets as a form of protest. Nasr says that one of the group’s main focuses right now is creating ways for people to participate in their parties without putting their lives on the line.
Carla Aronsohn, a volunteer organizer with WERK for Peace, has helped Nasr plan every dance party since the one at Pence’s home. “All change is going to take a diversity of tactics,” she says. “It’s really exciting to see people with varying levels of outness or ability wanting to get involved. I’m excited to expand it to more spaces and people.”
She suggests that activists around the country throw queer dance parties in their cities and wants to offer her expertise to anyone who is interested in doing so. “It would be beautiful to see a growing movement of disruption that involves music and dancing,” she says.
Activists interested in throwing their own dance protests shouldn’t be worried if they’re not professional dancers—neither is Nasr. “I’m primarily an activist, but I love to dance,” Nasr says. “I think movement is a universal language that we all can tap into to promote change and transformation.”
At a time when protests and movements have once again become a part of the national consciousness, the type of work that WERK for Peace is doing can raise eyebrows and turn heads. And for Nasr, this attention is as important to a movement as the bodies it requires to exist.
“We know that the body is ascribed with the social and political,” he says. “So when we use body language, quite literally, we are moving a movement forward.”