Building Bridges with Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration

A collection of women stand in formation; arms and legs strong in warrior pose. As the drums kick in, their movements begin: Fiery and fierce, peaceful and melodic; each woman unique yet in unison; each step varied but in harmony; they dance the story of the song and unite and reunite through movements that are both separate and connected at the same time.

Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration Summer Dream 2016. Photo by Ross Figlerski.

Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration Summer Dream 2016. Photo by Ross Figlerski.

These women are the Setu Tribe; Setu meaning “Bridge”: The Bridge that connects woman to woman; dancer to audience; tradition to modernity; story to actuality.

Founded by Philadelphia native choreographer and dancer, Geri Omni, Setu Tribe was originally a project created for the PEX Summer Fest in Maryland eight years ago, with the intention of crafting a group of women together to perform before the effigy burn. The name, “Setu”, means bridge, and was inspired by the building of the Ramblewood bridge, which changed the face of PEX SF for all participants.

“I walked up on my friend JJ (Jason Kelly) who was nonchalantly building a bridge (an idea he and Tom Carr cooked up) across the lake at Ramblewood to connect two sides of the event. The bridge cutting out at least fifteen plus minutes of wandering in the dark woods and possibly more decision making time as you considered whether or not to make the journey. I uttered something about sheer brilliance and realized that bridge building was the key to everything. We high fived and I went on my merry way. The impact that bridge had on the event was incredible. Made everything more intimate and fun, passing friends on the bridge, no disagreements about whether to journey to the other side of the lake, an element of danger and trust as you stepped onto a bridge that your friend built the day before. It was great.

“Later that evening at the effigy burn I just envisioned and said out loud that there should be a tribal dance happening right now. And I saw all the women who welcomed, inspired, and even intimidated me, expressing themselves through movement, together. I couldn't stop thinking about it for the next few months so I reached out to the PEX board and ran it by them. They gave me their blessing and Setu Tribe was born.”

The group of women grew, and so did the performance. In a unique display of sisterhood and feminine warrior power, the dancers are the choreographers: As each woman creates her own movement based on a story, which is then woven together with the others.

Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration Summer Dream 2016. Photo by Ross Figlerski.

Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration Summer Dream 2016. Photo by Ross Figlerski.

“Each movement embodies an experience that the creator considers to be a pivotal moment in their lives.  Often these are moments of realization, lessons that the creator wants to remember to apply to their lives in an effort to grow and evolve,” says Geri.

Each woman tells a story: of loss, of pain, of joy, of growth. And as she does, in the safe space of a group of women, she finds a movement to go with it: Sometimes she comes up with it on her own, sometimes the group helps her to find it. The movements are woven together by Geri – formerly a professional dancer and choreographer – and the dance becomes a unifying force.

“No-one currently in Setu Tribe is a professional dancer,” Geri says. “I was professionally trained but had to leave my career before it began as a result of an injury. These are just women of all backgrounds, shapes and sizes who connect with the movements of the feminine body. Our occupations include hair stylists, environmental engineers, teachers, lawyers, real estate agents, artists, full time mothers, baristas, bartenders, fire performers, entrepreneurs, dentist..... to name a few.”

Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration Summer Dream 2016.Photo by Ross Figlerski.

Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration Summer Dream 2016.Photo by Ross Figlerski.

In a world where we are constantly trying to dance the dance of others, through choreography or by tuning in to a central beat, the art of dancing our own dance is almost lost. At Setu Tribe; each woman dances her own dance, while joining in solidarity with others by embodying her sister’s dance, too.

Beyond the performances themselves, Geri describes the impact of Setu tribe outside its performance space, by empowering each Setu sister through her journey in creating the dance. “Setu Tribe's mission is to empower women through a dance created from personal experiences and inspired by cultures and traditions from around the world. We try and help one another grow into the best versions of ourselves. As we each and all evolve through this process, this growth ripples into our families, our communities, and the world.”

Worldtown Soundsystem joins Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration 2016. Photo by Ross Figlerski.

Worldtown Soundsystem joins Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration 2016. Photo by Ross Figlerski.

But as the drum beats on and arms wave, hips swivel and feet stomp, the warrior energy is palpable. Each woman is a powerhouse in her own right; the warrior of the streets of Philadelphia or New York as she wanders through love, loss, hope, pain, struggle, trauma and triumph, and showcases it with her body movements.

The drum plays a significant part in Setu’s presence onstage, adding to the tribal energy. “The drum is considered to be the first musical instrument played by humans. Drumming is an ancient, healing practice,” says Geri. “Beating the earth or that which comes from the Mother is a way to connect us to our roots as humans. The song that we most often sing is for Yemaya, Yoruba Goddess of the Ocean. Setu Tribe sings this song with great respect for the nurturing mother, the womb, the ocean, nature, and all feminine energy that is so vital for all of life.”

While the Setu Tribe is an expression of the Divine feminine power, there is no hierarchy present when it comes to those who present the masculine, men who are also present in performances and behind the scenes.

Worldtown Soundsystem joins Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration 2016. Photo by Ross Figlerski.

Worldtown Soundsystem joins Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration 2016. Photo by Ross Figlerski.

“These are men who support Setu Tribe in various ways. They are our friends, brothers, partners. They understand the importance of masculine and feminine balance and the healing possibilities of the dance. One day we hope to have a full men's tribe, inviting those who Identify as men to share, express, and heal the way the women in the tribe have done,” Geri adds.

Setu Tribe is more than just a performance troupe: It is a dream, a modern revival of ancient ways, and a healing panacea for so many of society’s troubles. Geri sees the role of Setu Tribe in helping our world heal for future generations, and expanding across NY, DC and the West Coast. Setu Tribe are currently fundraising for the tools to help this expansion, including a better website and other infrastructure that would enable events across the country. “We do hope to expand and connect with any and all who would like to experience the making of the dance, etc. We definitely plan to build those bridges and expand Setu Tribe as far as we feel called to.”

Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration Summer Dream 2016. Photo by Ross Figlerski.

Setu Tribe at Gratitude Migration Summer Dream 2016. Photo by Ross Figlerski.

While Setu Tribe was founded at PEX SF and continues to be an integral part of the PEX family, the women also perform throughout the year at fundraisers for community-building events in Philadelphia and related causes, and have performed at 2nd Street Festival, Spruce St Harbor Park, and the Rotunda. In 2016, Setu Tribe opened the Effigy Burn at Gratitude Migration with a song for Yemaya and tribal dance. “We decided to come to Gratitude Migration  because our PEX fam had such a lovely time the year prior that it was on our radar. Then our good friend Carrie Ann reached out and built the bridge and it all felt right from there.” This year, Setu plans to join the Gratitude Migration family once again, while also planning for performances at Dance Parade in NYC as well as Burning Man and possibly some other festivals.

Named for the concept of Bridge-Building, it’s fitting that Setu will hold the ritual space for Gratitude Migration this year. “Our motto is Ubuntu,” says Geri. “It is derived from South African culture and means "I am because we are." We practice gratitude for one another throughout the year as we grow together and help one another through difficult times. One of the most efficient paths to Gratitude, I find, is the quieting of the ego. We practice this with Ubuntu. Our hearts are full of gratitude for every lesson and gift.”

As Setu Tribe and Gratitude Migration continue in this partnership, the concept of Gratitude comes up. Geri describes her view, “Today, I am most grateful for the generations that have come before ours who have done the work for our generation to carry the torch. I imagine women and men, perhaps in smaller numbers, scattered throughout the planet, without the interweb to connect them or give them recognition for what they do, doing the work to heal our world. Today, I am most grateful for them. And I practice listening to their whispers of wisdom in whatever form they show up for me.”

This week, Setu Tribe are fundraising to help bring the vision further, including to hELLO Beach at this year's Gratitude Migration. Join this team of powerful goddesses by donating today:

Setu Tribe will be joining Gratitude Migration this year. Tickets onsale now!

Photo by Ross Figlerski. Written by Rishe Groner and Geri Omni.