Throughout my career, I’ve had several opportunities to bring dance to a range of audiences and participants, many of whom would not necessarily seek out dance on their own. These experiences helped me to realize how powerful dance can be in the effort to build strong, cooperative, and joyful communities. I’ve been thinking a lot about how and why dance works in that way, and here is what I’ve come up with so far:
1.) Dancing creates vulnerability, and vulnerability breaks down walls.
When people dance, they express themselves in ways not often allowed in “everyday” life. As the Hopi proverbs goes, “To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak.” Dancing can be a way for people to let their guards down, to express their inner selves, and to communicate their emotions, opinions, and values. When a safe space is created for people to dance expressively together, the vulnerability created through movement can be cherished and celebrated. In doing so, the walls that often separate people in “real life” can come tumbling down, replaced by bridges of communication, understanding, and respect.
2.) The community that creates together, stays together.
Once the initial feelings of vulnerability are acknowledged and honored, and the walls between people are removed, communities can work together in new, exciting, and honest ways. Nothing creates the sense of “We’re all in this together” like moving together in ways that are unfamiliar, challenging, silly, complicated, or just plain fun! Collaborating to reach a common goal, like solving movement problems or creating artistic work together teaches cooperation, communication, and compassion, and leads to a sense of community accomplishment unlike anything else!
3.) Open bodies lead to open minds.
When people explore different types of movement, they experience new perspectives, new attitudes, and new ways of doing, thinking, and being in the world. What better way to teach about diversity? Experiencing the dance of “another,” be it another individual or another culture, helps people to understand life outside themselves and their own points of view. Learning about and experiencing the many genres and styles of the seemingly-singular thing known as “dance” can help people hold multiple perspectives at once. Dance is not black and white; in fact, it is the shades of grey that make it so interesting to so many people. The same is true of the world around us: it is the nuances of its inhabitants that make the world such a wonderful place. We don’t have to master or even like every style of dance to appreciate it as a whole, and we don’t have to agree with everything our neighbor does or believes to respect him or her. Moreover, specific dance activities such as mirroring, call and response, and improvisation games can help people learn to relate to one another and to communicate peacefully. Research from the fields of dance-movement therapy and neuroscience suggests that some dance activities can even lead to the development of empathy, which is a vital component of community.
4.) Dancing can be really, really fun.
Sure, shows like “Dance Moms” bring out the catty, competitive side of our art form, but when done right, dancing is just plain old fun – and fun is something that seems to be missing from many communities right now. All too often, businesses are only focused on their bottom line, schools are only focused on test scores, neighborhoods are only focused on crime and safety, and families are only focused on wealth, success, and keeping up appearances. The result of all this focus has been some seriously stressed out communities of all shapes, sizes, and designs. Community dance events can ease he tension of modern living, and give people a chance to engage with themselves and one another in a fun, relaxed way. Dance releases endorphins, helping people to feel happier and more relaxed, and wakes up the creative side of the brain, allowing them to see and tackle daily challenges in healthier, more holistic ways. Taking time away from daily routines to see and experience dance gives communities a chance to come together in a fully human, totally embodied way – that is, it gets people away from their screens and interacting face to face and sometimes even limb to limb!
And lastly, for those of us who are members of dance-centric communities like companies, studios, and school dance programs:
5.) Community dance creates communities that love – and invest in – dance.
There was a time in my career when I would have considered dancing on the cold tile floor of a dimly-lit community center to an audience in folding chairs to be beneath me. Now, those are my favorite kinds of performances. I love being close to the audience, I love feeling their energy as I dance, and I love being able to talk with them about their experience after the performance. I love when little kids ooh-and-ahh and comment on what they see as I’m dancing (something that would be considered totally taboo in the “real” theatre). I love bringing different groups of people together to perform – students and professionals, tkids and adults, those who love dance as a hobby and those who have dedicated their lives to it. I love the diverse audiences brought together by those types of performances – parents and children of the dancers, experienced dance audiences and boyfriends seeing their very first show, fans of the company and people who have no idea who we are. It’s exciting to me as a director, choreographer, and performer, and frankly it’s a good business decision. When audiences feel included in the performance, they enjoy it more, making them more likely to come to another show in the future, or to support the artists in other ways.