Moved to make a difference


BRATTLEBORO -- This is the story of a dancer who started a movement.

And it's the story of a young woman named Meena Khatum, whose journey into and out of the worst kind of oppressive circumstances inspired the dancer to move in the first place.

And it's a story, yet to be written, about what we can do to end a vast horrible injustice in our world.

The story begins with a scene of comfort suddenly turned uncomfortable. It opens about two and a half years ago, with Loralee Scott-Conforti nestled comfortably on her couch with the New York Times, when suddenly Nicholas Kristof's story about human sex trafficking that was the basis for the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Half the Sky" he wrote with Sheryl WuDunn, jarred her out of her comfort.

"I was naive, sitting in my living room. I had no idea how profoundly impacted my life would be and my art would be," said Scott-Conforti, of Brattleboro, and artistic director of Accendo Dance Company and the Arts Movement Student Company in the Worcester, Mass., area. "This story haunted me. I could not get it out of my mind."

Moved to learn more about the human sex trafficking, Scott-Conforti was shocked by what she found -- 27 million people enslaved worldwide. Human sex trafficking earns $32 billion a year (more than six times the revenue of Google, Nike and Starbucks, combined).

"It's a global pandemic, and it's not just a Third World issue. It's happening here in Vermont," she said. "My next step was to say ‘What can I do?"

With more than a little doubt that she could really accomplish anything, Scott-Conforti took inspiration from another young woman, from a different era, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who somehow found a way, though her culture limited her opportunities, to galvanize the nation against slavery through her novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

"She did the one thing she could do. .. I could create a dance," said Scott-Conforti.

And she has.

This Saturday, the Accendo Dance Company and Arts Movement Student Company will present "SoulCry!," a dance-theater piece about human sex trafficking, at the New England Youth Theatre at 3 and 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $10, and proceeds will help the dancers make a trip to Washington, D.C., where they have been invited to perform the piece on Oct. 5 during the March on the Mall for human trafficking.

That invitation is just the latest bit of evidence that the answer to Scott-Conforti's doubtful question "What can I do?" is ... a lot.

Once she decided to do what she could, Scott-Conforti first held a meeting with the parents of dancers in her dance company, telling them "here's what's on my heart" and making sure everyone was comfortable participating in it.

The responses she got -- and the commitment since then from her dancers, some of whom are as young as 10, most are in their teens and a few are young professionals -- became the first endorsements of the project.

Scott-Conforti initially thought she might create a dance or two about this subject, and she did, in time for the companies to perform them at a theater in New Hampshire two years ago.

"They performed the pieces. The theater was completely silent, and I realized people were weeping," she said. "That gave me the courage to tell this story."

Scott-Conforti expanded those pieces into a full, hour-and-15-minute piece that tells Meena's story, from the horrors of her enslavement to her journey out to a better life for her and her children.

"When you tell one woman's story, people can connect with it," she said. "It is a story of a woman, of a mother, who beat the odds. It is a story of triumph."

But it's still a hard story.

"One of the struggles is I wanted to tell this story, and I wanted to protect my dancers from the trauma of the story, but I didn't want to put on a piece of sentimental fluff," she said.

She seems to have walked the line with care. She praised her dancers, two dozen in all, for putting heart and soul into what has been an challenging production.

"In many practices -- almost all the practices -- we danced through tears," she said.

"SoulCry!" had its premiere at Russell Sage College in Troy, N,Y., on Human Trafficking Awareness Day (Jan. 11) this year. After that performance, one audience member, a Troy City Councilman named Rodney Wiltshire came up Scott-Conforti and said "What can I do?" He subsequently introduced tough anti-trafficking local legislation.

At another performance, a woman came up afterward and said she had been a victim of sex trafficking. They cried together.

At a performance in Worcester, Mass., audience members were moved to donate more than $3,000 to fund a tutor for 14 children in India who were rescued from brothels.

"What is happening, and continues to happen around this, is amazing to me," she said. "What I'm recognizing is the power of art and artistry, when you combine it with the power of story, to move people to action."

All this has left Scott-Conforti "humbled ... and with a feeling of ‘Thank God I took a chance.'"

Indeed, the "SoulCry!" story is a testament to what art can do.

"I almost didn't start this because I doubted it would do any good," she said. "I hope that is a lesson for everyone out there: Do the one thing that's in front of you to do. You have no idea the power of what is."

Tickets for this Saturday's fundraising performances of "SoulCry!" with music by Thomas Bergersen, a composer of music for movie trailers with many blockbuster Hollywood credits, are available at the door.

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