Vagina Chorus is a 4-month socially engaged art project led by Althea Rao. It premiered as a live performance at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, US in November 2021.
Four local Philadelphian women -- Marla, Mariah, Tanz and Rev. Michelle -- volunteered to co-author and perform in Vagina Chorus. They range in age from 22 to 53 years old and come from various backgrounds and life experiences. Under Rao’s facilitation, the women met for 2-3 hours each week to practice making music harmony with their vaginas, with additional support and guidance from Choral Conductor Kendra Balmer, Pelvic Floor PT Molly Scheumann and Sex Educator Al Vernacchio.
The group started meeting weekly since September 8th, 2021. For weeks, Rao and the women discussed “if our vagina had a voice, what would they sound like. If they can speak, what would they want to say.” Each woman wrote out their own story and described the sounds they resonated with. Thoughts, themes and sounds that came out of these conversations were composed into music by Rao and Bianca Sheng, a music technology student at a local university in Philadelphia.
The women practiced playing the compositions out loud using a vaginal instrument, by contracting and releasing the pelvic floor muscles, also known as Kegel exercises. This vaginal music instrument is by design a smartphone enabled bluetooth Kegel exerciser designed and manufactured by French company Perifit, who provided the devices to Vagina Chorus free of charge.
In the beginning, the women had little idea of what muscles were involved up the vagina in the pelvic area. They had a hard time locating the muscles with the brain or engaging them, swiftly, repeatedly, or following a beat. Despite the initial awkwardness, the women gradually became more comfortable with this part of their body, developed strengths and acquired skills to “vocalize” with their vaginas.
The performance took place on November 12th, 2021 at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, US. 10 audience members were invited to the stage to open for Vagina Chorus, by teaching their fellow spectators how to localize their pelvic floor muscles. This way, the audience were able to kegel along and feel their own vaginas, as they observed the physical movements and changes in light and sound on stage.
As an exercise of world-building, Vagina Chorus establishes new spaces for communities with vaginas and without. Through conversation, play, music and other forms of creative activities, the artists present models of engaging and interacting with vaginas on a daily basis in non-traditional ways, which have brought changes in different aspects of their lives, their thinking, and their relationships with their body.
Marla Burkholder (she/her) is the Artistic Director for Intercultural Journeys, a Philadelphia nonprofit that cultivates performances engaging with social justice issues and amplifying diverse cultural perspectives. She also teaches voice and speech technique to theater students at Temple University and Rider University.
Mariah Menanno (she/her) is trained as an epidemiologist and has worked in the public health sector in Philadelphia, Lesotho, and Cambodia. She has a special interest in sexual and reproductive health, both personally and professionally, and enjoys helping others learn about safe healthy sex.
Tanzania Jenkins (she/her) was most recently an educator to the Philadelphia school district for 2 years, but most recently had to stop due to a major life changing event – the birth of her son. She is a proud new mom and believes that people should be the change they want to see in the world.
Reverend Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons (she/her) has overcome many challenges throughout her life, including being formerly incarcerated and a recovering addict. Through her faith, she has persevered and is able to share her story. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Why Not Prosper, Inc., an organization dedicated to helping females in prison make a smooth transition back into society after their incarceration.
Technical Director | Don Undeen (he/him) was the Founding Manager of the Maker Hub at Georgetown University, and Adjunct Professor of creative technology courses in Georgetown University’s Communications, Culture, and Technology graduate program.
Conductor | Kendra Balmer (she/her) is a passionate music educator and conductor from Dallas, Pennsylvania. She is a founding teaching artist of Sister Cities GirlChoir, a choir for social change in Philadelphia, Camden and Baltimore.
Composer | Xinlei Sheng (she/her) is a student from China studying Music Technology at Temple University's Boyer School of Music. Her music production style is characterized by finding different instrument sounds and combining them together to create unexpected effects.
Music Technology Assistant | Rebecca Pierre (she/her) is a senior Music Technology student at Temple University, in her final semester in the Boyer Electronic Ensemble Project (BEEP).
Videographer | Wang Qiong (she/her) is a Chinese emerging independent documentary filmmaker and cinematographer now based in Philadelphia. She is one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film on Filmmaker Magazine, and the finalist of the Princess Grace Award 2021.
Videographer | Chia Hsien Lin (she/her) is an emerging 3D animator and VR/AR artist who is expanding her limits. Her work reflects on social issues and her identity as an Asian female, using surrealistic environments and distorted figures.
Medical Consultant | Dr. Molly Scheumann, PT, DPT (she/her) works in outpatient settings seeing patients with pelvic floor dysfunction, pregnancy and postpartum issues, orthopedic conditions, performing arts injuries, and neurological conditions. She is passionate about providing a professional, tailor-made experience for women to reach their pelvic wellness goals.
Hair and Makeup | Jessica Pineda (she/her) has been a makeup artist in the Philadelphia area for over 10 years.
Vagina Chorus is a finalist awardee of Multi-Arts Fund, a recipient of “Awesome Without Borders” grant (The Awesome Foundation x The Harnisch Foundation) and Arts Workforce Initiative Sponsorship (New Haven Art Council). Perifit, Cycling' 74 and Ableton Live have generously donated their products and services to support this project. In addition, the project received residency and professional development support from FCA, Temple University TFMA Alumni Association, Theater Mitu, Signal Culture, Stanford University CCRMA and More Arts.