Young, Gifted, and Black: Dancer Thomas Davis and His HIV Catharsis

Thomas Davis performing in The Catharsis Project.
Terry Hastings

When the gifted dancer and choreographer Thomas Davis was diagnosed with HIV six years ago, he didn't quite know what that meant.

"My ignorance was kind of a blessing in disguise," the 26-year-old Colorado native said, "because I didn't know enough about HIV to even really be super scared about it." He was told that it was a virus that attacks the immune system, and what he had to do to combat the condition." I was like, 'All right, well OK. Just tell me what to do,'" and he started treatment.

Then he went home and did a little investigating. Davis explained, "It wasn't really until I started looking and researching and going on Google -- like a good millennial does! -- that I saw, like, 'Oh, this is actually kind of a serious thing! And this is really affecting other black guys.'" He learned more about the stigma surrounding HIV and the fact that so many people in the community don't talk about HIV.

Davis was in his final semester at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) in Los Angeles at the time. "I wanted to find other people that were going through what I was going through, because I just didn’t know…I didn’t have anybody to look to,” Davis explained. He disclosed his status to a few people close to him and was pleasantly surprised by their response.

After graduation, he stayed in Los Angeles and started to focus on working as a dancer and choreographer, as well as starting to get involved with HIV advocacy.

"I felt like I had to do something," Davis said, "so I chose to make a video that told a little bit about my life. It was a way of me disclosing. Before I shared it [publicly], I shared it with my family, and they were nothing but supportive." He realized that having the support of family and friends is precious, especially when so many who are living with HIV don't have that kind of encouragement.

He thought, "’If I don't speak out about my experience and try to speak out for those that can't, it's just wasted.' So I got out there! I shared this video on social media." He got a great response from this initial video, which lead to him being approached by the Human Rights Campaign to be a youth ambassador. He also participated in the organization's HIV 360° Fellowship in 2016 and 2017.

"When we were in the [HIV 360°] Fellowship, we were encouraged to create, to have a project or some kind of initiative that would mobilize our community in the fight against HIV." He realized that since he's not a social worker or someone in public health, the best thing to do would be to use what he has: his talents as a dancer.

"I was sitting and really going through it, figuring out, 'OK, who are my people?' My people are artists. My people are millennials. They're people of color. As I was talking with a few of my friends that I've created work with before, I got the idea to do a dance film." Davis had made short dance videos in the past that were shared on social media and were well received, so he expanded on that work to make a larger body.

He explained, "I started to look up different news stories and everything from the ‘80s and from the ‘90s." He went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website to investigate the HIV timeline from its initial reporting in 1981 through now. "I was looking at different stories and highlights. As a creative, you know, I just kept on getting these ideas for dances that I wanted to do."

The project became an hour-long film, The Catharsis Project, which dynamically uses dance pieces intercut with media footage to create an emotional timeline of AIDS in the U.S., from the first cases in the news through the current state of people living healthfully with the virus. With a company of multi-ethnic young dancers, the film takes the viewer on a powerful journey, educating about not only the hard facts of the evolution of HIV/AIDS in America, but also the heartbreaking emotions accompanying those facts.

There is so much about The Catharsis Project that is special. Taking dry archival news footage and contrapuntally splicing in expressive dance works makes the story compassionate and deeply personal. Each dancer brings their unique physical voice to the work, expressing their humanity via their bodies and faces.

Most of the choreography is Davis's, and he knows how to find the truth of each moment, making us recognize ourselves in the performance. The audience is drawn in completely by the first piece, which shows us the fear and panic of those early days of the plague, and the realities and magnitude of the overwhelming number of deaths.

Maybe the most beautiful dance is called "The Caregivers or That's Us." This piece shows how some people were not afraid of casual contact with those dying of advanced AIDS, and literally and figuratively carried people with AIDS on their backs. And the final piece, "Rapture," gorgeously shows how a person living with HIV today can be whole and healthy, and even joyous. It ends the film with hope, showing the reality that HIV today is not a death sentence. This is an important film, and a powerful way to connect with and educate an audience that may not know about the realities of HIV.

The first screening of The Catharsis Project was on World AIDS Day 2016, and it's had several more viewings across the country. "We've had screenings in Los Angeles. We've had one in Orlando, one in Houston, one in D.C., and then we will be having one in February in Oakland," Davis said.

Since the launch of the film, The Catharsis Project has moved from just the title of the film to now Being an organization. "It's not just doing stuff with this particular film," Davis said, "it's constantly creating new material with an ensemble of dancers, to continue going out into the community and sharing stories that are shared with me or other members of my team."

They've also developed a group called "The C.R.E.W." (The Creative Remedy and Education Workshops) that's funded by AIDS United. “It's specifically a group that is for millennials of color that are living with HIV." The C.R.E.W. has a four-week residency coming up in Oakland in February with the Oakland LGBT Center. "It's going to be a week of arts and healing," Davis explained. "We're doing dancing, creative writing, music, meditation, yoga. We're involving the house and ballroom community. And you know we're closing out with a big performance."

For someone who started out not knowing that much about HIV, Thomas Davis has become a force in HIV advocacy, using his creativity and talents to educate and inspire. "Really," he said, "just keeping the momentum moving forward."

Selected clips from The Catharsis Project are currently available on YouTube. You can also find the entire film streaming on Amazon Prime and Bawn TV.