Community Dance

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New Street Dance Group company member Bridget Hopkins (center) works with participants in a community-dance workshop in College Park, MD. (Photo by Catherine Fischer)

On February 22, 2014 New Street Dance Group hosted our first event in a series that we are calling “New Street on YOUR Street.” This program was designed to bring high-quality dance events directly to studios, schools, and community centers. For the event on 22nd, we worked with College Park Arts Exchange to present a workshop and lecture-demonstration style performance at the Old Parish House, a community center in College Park, MD. Participants in the workshop collaborated with myself, Krista Armbruster (NSDG Co-Director), and our dancers to create a new version of “Bound, Rebound,” which we first premiered at our Philly FringeArts Festival performance in September 2013. The small but dedicated group of workshop participants ranged in age from 9 to adult.  It was uplifting to see them work together with our dancers as they learned movement phrases from the original dance and improvised with our custom-made set to create the rest of the piece. They performed the dance later that evening at our showing, which also included new works and works-in-process from New Street Dance Group, live music from cellist Jonathan Cain, and a performance from pre-professional students at New Chicago Dance Studio.  Addressing the audience at the end of the evening, College Park Arts Exchange director Melissa Rogers-Sites graciously described me as someone who builds community dance in College Park. I was humbled by her kind words, as community dance is something to which I have felt called recently. Through the New Street on YOUR Street events and other recent opportunities to bring dance to a range of audiences and participants, many of whom would not necessarily seek out dance on their own, I’ve realized 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 are expressing themselves in ways not often allowed in “everyday” society. As the Hopi proverbs goes, “To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak.” Agnes de Mille said, “Bodies never lie.”  Dance-movement therapists know the power of movement as a tool for saying the unspeakable. Dancing, especially improvisational 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! Taking that a step further by collaborating to reach a common goal, such as learning or creating a dance together, adds an additional level of community-building. Solving movement problems and 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 are asked to “try on” different types of movement, they are really being asked to 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. Current 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 break up the routine, monotony, and stress 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 slightly 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 the 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, those who love dance as a hobby and those who have dedicated their lives to it, kids and adults – and 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. After the lecture-demonstration style performance in College Park, a member of the audience mentioned how much more she appreciated seeing the dance after learning a bit about how it was created. Because she was able to understand the dance, she enjoyed it more – and she said she’d love to come to another show sometime.

So often in the “professional” dance world, we get so lost in our art that we forget about the people who will be watching it. We so desperately want to “say something” with our work that we don’t think about how our message will translate to an audience that might not speak our language. As a result, the audience for “artistic” dance shrinks, while the general public’s fascination with “commercial” dance grows. (Here, I used the term commercial dance to mean dance that is easily accessible and focused on entertainment value.) I’m not proposing that we dance artists completely change our mission, or “dumb down” our work so that it can be easily understood. I believe that there is great value in challenging audiences to interpret our work and find their own ways to understand and appreciate it. However, I also think it is our job to meet them where they are at, and to give them the tools they need for interpretation, understanding, and appreciation of dance art. Community dance events that allow people to experience dance for themselves are a great way to offer those tools in a way that is beneficial to both the community and the dance artist!

New Street Dance Group company members Bridget Hopkins, Erin Weigand, and Jamie Walcheski perform a special version “Bound, Rebound” with participants from one of our community workshops. 

Want to experience the power of community dance first hand? New Street Dance Group is happy to work with you to create a dance event that will meet the needs of your studio, community center, school, or organization. Email us at newstreetdancegroup@gmail.com for more information!

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