The Mississippi River runs between the city of Saint Louis and its East. It is more than a river; it is an ocean that separates two racially divided communities. The white from the black, the wealthy from the poor, those to whom doors open wide to opportunity, and those denied entry because of things like lack of funding, a safe environment, education. Inequality.
But Sara Burke is not from Saint Louis. Life brought her here from Wisconsin. There, in Green Bay, she grew up privileged, white, a dancer and Francophile. But her parents used to say: ‘You have to realize it’s a big world out there.’ A world she set off to discover. She traveled, danced, shared meals, bedrooms, bathrooms, and conversations. On her way, she made friends.
She learned that not everybody lived like she did, and that status is only skin deep. She met Katherine Dunham, the mother of contemporary black dance and legendary social activist who spoke out against segregation in America decades before King did.
Dunham became her teacher and mentor. Sara, the first Caucasian in her troop:
“Dance, and volunteer.”
You have so much to give. Start now, do it now. Do not stop the quest for justice. Never, Never Rest.
'Change the status quo with art.' She did, with a dance studio in Saint Louis. The first arts business run by a woman, a charming little place in red brick. More than two decades later, I stumbled upon it on a walk up Newstead Avenue. Here color does not matter. The music is loud. The technique is precise, powerful, raw. Both sides of the river are welcome and each brings their artistic spin to the dance.
Sara’s mission is to diversify the arts community in her city; everyone should have fair and equal access to dance, paint, write, act, play, sing. She and her wonderful husband Jack, best friend and companion in life, created the Katherine Dunham Internship, a fellowship that supports African-Americans in arts administration.
On the side, they have 'adopted' a daughter, a granddaughter, two cats named Harry and Isadora – Houdini and Duncan of course. And the most mesmerizing collection of paintings and drawings they bring back from their trips around the world.
Saint Louis remains a divided city. America a divided nation. Barriers are still being built left and right and high along who-even-understands what lines. But Sara, in her Coco Chanel black and her insuppressible youth, has no time for barriers; she has dance classes to give, young artists to mentor, performances to attend. Never rest.
Sara fights for social justice her way: by inviting people to dance. At her studio, at her home, always full of fresh flowers, always open to new ideas and friends. And if you do stop by, bring wine and stay for dinner; Jack is a marvelous cook.
This post is the third of a series called Her Way that I am honored to write for Womanscape: stories of women who are changing the world for the better... their way.
Read about Claudia Matta, a globetrotting nutritionist, and Haydee Dijkstal, a lawyer fighting for truly 'universal' human rights. Then, explore this beautiful space created and curated by Rose McInerney, an incredible lady in her own right. But that is a story for another month.