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A call to justice

Air Dance Studio in Merrick pays tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement

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The names of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor flashed on a black screen, establishing an immediate connection: all three were Black; all three were killed; and all three inspired a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Next, an ensemble of young women dressed in black leotards danced gracefully in a grassy field, moving barefooted in unisonā .

About two weeks after Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Rory McDonough, the director of Air Dance Studio in Merrick, brought his students together to create the lyrical dance video, “Seeking Unity,” as a tribute to the movement and to the thousands of Black people who have died at the hands of police and systemic racial violence.

With the studio shut down due to safety concerns surrounding Covid-19, McDonough reached out to parents and invited their kids to meet at Wantagh Park to participate in the project. “I really wanted it to be a unifying message,” he said. “We have to galvanize our collective energy in a way that supports the mission of eradicating injustice.”

Twenty-six dancers between the ages of seven and fifteen came together to learn the dance, which was developed by 23-year-old Bellmore resident Kianna Escobedo, Air Dance’s choreographer. At one point in the performance, she had her students run in place to symbolize the idea of “trying to reach the goal of equality and hoping that the finish line is coming soon,” she said.

“He’s always had very impactful ideas from day one,” Escobedo said of McDonough, who has also developed dances that comment on other issues such as climate change, immigration and LGBTQ rights. At the studio, dance is not just a business or a competitive sport — it’s a form of expression.

“I think that dance and music are unifying art forms,” McDonough said. “That’s what I love about dance — you can use it to be reflective about what’s going on in society and critique what you think needs to be improved.”

Merokean Kaitlyn Gallagher, 12, has been dancing at the studio since it opened in 2015. After participating in the tribute video, she was inspired to show her support for the movement by decorating her family’s driveway with the words “Black Lives Matter” in chalk lettering. “Besides dance, they’re teaching my daughter important morals and values,” said her mother, Tina Gallagher.

“It was a really important moment to teach our daughters about what was going on in the world, and it opened up an important conversation in our household,” added Merrick resident Stephanie Arnell, whose daughters, Nikki, 11, and Hailey, 12, also participated in the video. The sisters have been with Air Dance for more than two years, and recently performed in the studio’s Pride Month video, which was created this past June to honor the LGBTQ community.

“Competition is one thing, but if they can learn something from dance, that’s what’s important to me,” Arnell said. “Rory’s vision is what drew us to the studio . . . I think it makes our kids more open-minded because they’re learning something about the world while doing what they love.”

“Seeking Unity” can be found on the company’s YouTube channel.