Maine dancer Sara Juli takes a hidden problem—tense vagina—and uses humor and choreography to raise awareness.
Maine performance artist Sara Juli makes a point of saying the word vagina at least once a day. “It’s a perfectly lovely word,” Juli says from her home in Portland, Maine, where she in moved in 2014 with her husband and two children after 15 years in Brooklyn.
“It’s not a curse word or an offensive word,” she says. “It’s a body part. How can you empower girls if they can’t say a part of their body? It should be celebrated, not shunned.”
Unfortunately for Juli as a new mother, that vagina gave her a lot of trouble, going into spasms that led to four years of urinary incontinence. Luckily for her as an artist, she found a way to use humor as the basis of a performance piece based on her actual diagnosis of tense vagina, the treatment for it, and the chaotic years of new motherhood.
The piece, “Tense Vagina: an Actual Diagnosis,” premiered at the experimental SPACE Gallery in Portland in 2015 and has been touring ever since. “I was quietly suffering,” Juli says. “I assumed that peeing in your pants all the time was part of the experience of having a baby. Women say they suffer their whole life from this. What I love about using humor on a taboo topic is that it allows people to listen to you.”
Treatment for dysfunctional pelvic floor muscles at a pelvic floor rehabilitation center in Portland form the basis of Juli’s piece. At her first visit, she started choreographing her performance. She weaves in what she calls “the underbelly of motherhood, the loneliness in the early years of raising children.”
This hour-long solo uses humor, movement, sounds, songs, text and audience participation, Kegel exercises, and vibrators “in a non-sexualized way,” Juli says. “I think it’s empowering for women to think about their vaginas and what their vaginas need.” In program notes, she includes information about the location of local pelvic floor rehabilitation centers.
A native of Waterford, Connecticut, Juli trained in modern and improvisational dance, graduating from Skidmore College with a degree in dance and anthropology. To Juli, the two fields are related. “Dance is all about connecting with people,” she says, “and anthropology is about connecting with people in all cultures.”
Juli’s work has been performed in New York at such places as Performance Space 122, Danspace Project, Movement Research at Judson Church, and Joe’s Pub as part of the Dancenow/NYC Festival, as well as nationally and internationally. She will perform “Tense Vagina” at Ko Festival of Performance in mid-July in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Juli credits the move to Maine with invigorating her creation of new solo work. “In New York, thousands of voices are similar to yours,” she says. “My career has taken off since I moved to New England. My voice is stronger. The air quality alone makes you feel happy.”
When she is not working on new performance projects, Juli is building a fundraising consulting practice, Surala Consulting. In the practice, she advises national artists and non-profits on strategic fundraising solutions. “The arts are threatened in a major way,” she says, “and making sure that artists have a diverse fundraising profile is critical.”