As I write this, it is Wednesday, November 9, 2018. The United States wrapped up a contentious and at times even ugly mid-term election cycle yesterday. The impact that these elections will have is yet to be seen, but it is clear today that the nation remains deeply divided in many ways. In the lead up to election day, that division manifested itself in personal attacks, harsh language, and a deeply felt sense of “us vs. them.” Fear-mongering, othering, and hate became seemingly justifiable campaign tactics.
The last few weeks have also been marked by violence. In Tallahassee, a gunman with a history of posting racist and sexist content on social media shot two women to death in a yoga studio. In Kentucky, a gunman with a history of domestic violence allegedly laced with racist overtures tried to enter a predominantly black church before killing two African-Americans in a Kroger supermarket. In Pittsburgh, a gunman with a history of posting anti-semitic and anti-refugee sentiment on social media killed 11 Jewish worshipers gathered a synagogue.
This all comes on the heels of the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice accused of sexual assault, a series of pipe-bombs mailed to prominent members of the Democratic party, and yet another year in which mass shootings appear to have become the new normal.
Given current events and the state of our political and social media discourse, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, discouraged, even a little hopeless. I worry about the world my son will one day inherit from us. Our country has a long history of divisiveness, violence, and hatred, but when I was growing up it at least felt, somehow, that we were moving in the right direction. Now, I can’t help but feel we are regressing into an era of unchecked division, anger, and violence.
The list of potential causes for our current societal state is long, ranging from increasing personal isolation, even as we become more digitally connected; to generational hate that has been passed down through families, communities, and ethnicities and is rooted in the fear of the unknown; to toxic masculinity and cultural norms that reward aggression; to social conditions that seem to impede personal empowerment. People far more worldly than I work every day to try to solve these problems, but I want to pose my own humble approach, one that might seem naive or even a little silly at first:
That’s right, I believe that dance can be the answer, or at least a significant part of it, if we let it. Dance, of course, is a multi-faceted phenomenon. Despite differences in form and function, however, all genres and styles of dance share certain qualities and values that provide myriad benefits to individuals and communities alike. If all people were able to receive the benefits of dance throughout their lives, I believe that we could cure some, if not most, of the ills that plague our society. Here’s why:
For the Issue of Isolation, Dance can be the Answer because Dance is Community.
It has been widely observed that despite our ever-growing opportunities for digital connection, we are becoming increasingly isolated. The days of going to the corner market for your provisions or greeting your neighbors at the mailbox are mostly gone. We can choose to live out our days online, with just about everything under the sun available for next-day delivery and get the potential to get our “social fix” on Twitter. We are able to retreat into the safety of media outlets – traditional and social alike – through which our viewpoints are continually reassured and our biases never challenged. We can bully others 24/7 online, causing those who might just be a little different to feel even more marginalized and therefore, even more angry. “Loner” is often a term used to describe mass shooters, and I would argue that loneliness – whether chosen or imposed upon a person – often contributes to their choice to inflict violence upon others, to somehow project their suffering onto the wider world. Dance offers a way out of isolation and into healthy, productive community with others.
It’s true that some dance forms, such as ballet, may come across as solitary endeavors. Throughout the course of one’s training in ballet, an awful lot of time will be spent alone at the barre. But ballet is one small sliver of the enormity that is dance, and many other forms, from rueda de casino to contradance to contact improvisation are only (or at least most commonly) done in community with others. Even ballet celebrates the beauty of the ensemble; you only have to watch the corps of any great classical piece to see this in action.
Dancing as a group is the ultimate act of community. Participants must present their embodied selves (no hiding behind an online handle), in time and space with others, allowing for complex proximal, physical, and at times even social and emotional relationships to emerge and dissolve in time with the music and steps. Moreover, when you dance you are stepping into something much greater than yourself; you are living history through movement. Your feet and often your heart are moving in spirit with those who have moved that way before you, be it the great choreographers or your great-grandparents. Whether working together on a creative movement exercise in the Kindergarten classroom or swaying the night away at the local dive bar, dancers learn to engage with others, to take part in community, to be accepted by the group and accept others in turn, and to work together toward something larger than themselves – be it a sophisticated piece of art or communal euphoria on the dance floor.
For the Issue of “-isms”, Dance can be the Answer because Dance is Culture
We are quick to blame the “-isms” for society’s ills, without truly unpacking their root causes. It is easy, and in a way even convenient, to label lawmakers and murders alike as racist, anti-Semitic, nationalist, etc. In many cases, these labels are justified, but simply slapping them on and moving along does not solve the problem. There are reasons that people feel prejudice, anger, and hate towards others who are unlike them. The greatest of these, I believe, is fear, and the root cause of fear is often ignorance. Dance combats such ignorance by exposing the participants to different cultures through movement.
One of the required readings in my graduate program that had a tremendous impact on the way I think about dance and/as culture was An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance by Joann Keali’inohomoku, Ph.D. I had long been something of a concert dance purist, considering ballet and modern dance forms to be high art while vernacular and social forms were “merely” pastimes or entertainments. Keali’inohomoku’s piece exposed me to a new way of thinking, that all dance is in fact a reflection of the culture in which it was created, and therefore cannot be separated into such neat and hierarchical categories. All dance provides insights into the values, beliefs, systems, aesthetics, and norms of the people who created it. Because of this, dance can be a powerful tool for learning about, and learning to appreciate, cultures unlike your own. When you practice a dance form from a different group, you are immersing yourself in their culture and all that it entails. Many dance forms emerged in spite of, or even because of, the struggles of the people who created them. To practice these forms provides an opportunity to embrace that history, to embody some small part of those struggles, to develop empathy for and solidarity with the “other.” When we share our dances, we share ourselves, and through that process we can work against the ignorance that so often leads to fear, bias, and hate.
For the Issue of Misogyny, Dance can be the Answer because Dance is Both Personal and Relational
Two common threads among mass shooting incidents: the perpetrators are usually men and they usually have a history of misogyny and domestic violence. This is not surprising, as society often rewards men for asserting their dominance – especially over women – and denounces men when they are thought to be overly emotional, compassionate, empathetic, or weak – all of which could be considered synonyms for “feminine” in this context. A culture of “toxic masculinity” has resulted – not because men themselves are inherently toxic, of course, and not because all men display toxic qualities; we all know plenty of men who do not. Toxic masculinity is caused by a social system in which only one kind of masculinity is “allowed,” to the detriment of men and women alike. While feminism has provided a path for women and girls to work through the societal limitations imposed on their gender, no corresponding movement has emerged for men. And so, as Michael Ian Black points out, some men find themselves moving toward withdrawal or rage as a sort of coping mechanism. Dance provides a way in which men and women can both freely express themselves, while also developing healthy ways of relating to the opposite sex.
Now, dance – especially the professional dance world – is not free from sexism, gender inequity, and outright misogyny (I’m looking at you, New York City Ballet, among many other offenders). Moreover, many dance forms, ballet included, reinforce gender roles in a way that can be problematic, especially for dancers who identify as LBGTQ. But there are lessons of equality that can be learned in even the most classical of pas de deux; Swan Lake’s signature Black Swan duet comes to life only through the cooperation of the dancers portraying Siegfried and Odette. Contemporary choreographers are providing new ways of thinking about, observing, and performing gender; Matthew Bourne’s twist on Swan Lake with it’s all-male corps provides only one (relatively tame) example. In creative dance, participants make their own movement choices, expressing themselves in a way that best fits their sense of identity. Every form of partner-based social dancing has it’s own rules and structures, giving the dancers a way to relate to one another safely. Through all types of dance, we can learn to express our own identity, and accept others as equal partners.
For the Issues Related to Agency, Dance can be the Answer because Dance Encourages Personal Empowerment
Another common thread in today’s combative culture seems to relate to the idea of agency. People feel helpless, stuck, maybe even hopeless. Years of a bad economy combined with a system that often feels rigged toward the rich and powerful has drained a whole lot of people of their sense of personal empowerment. Many feel that that they can’t fix things, they can’t make a difference – and so they either look to power-hungry leaders who make big, flashy promises on the back of common decency, or they take matters “into their own hands” through violence. Dance provides the participant with a range of skills that help them to become personally empowered and feel able to make change in their individual lives, their communities, and the world.
I’ve written about this topic in other ways before (here, here, and in this series, and even here and here to an extent), so I’ll save a drawn out explanation. Suffice it to say that research and anecdotal seems to strongly indicate that dance can help participants develop the following skills:
- Critical Thinking – Giving individuals the tools they need to determine truth and making them less likely to fall for “fake news,” misinformation, and scare tactics.
- Communication – Fostering the individual’s personal voice and providing them the means to express their needs, desires, values, and ideas.
- Creativity – Enabling individuals to imagine new ways to solve problems and foster change.
- Problem Solving – Allowing individuals to carry out their creative visions.
- Grit – Giving individuals the courage and strength to persist despite great obstacles.
- Empathy – Encouraging individuals to see outside themselves, to feel a sense of oneness with others and relate to them more deeply.
- Collaboration – Enabling individuals to work strategically with others to reach common goals, without sacrificing their own ideas or vision.
- Responsibility – Allowing students to take ownership of their situations and realize their that part of their role in society is to also take care of others.
I’m not naive enough to think that dance, and dance alone, is the cure-all for today’s troubled society. We need to seriously examine options for campaign finance reform, common-sense gun control, access to mental health services, education reform, and the ease with which misinformation can be spread online – and that’s just to start. However, I do believe that dance, in education and as cultural and social practice, can provide us, as individuals and community, with experiences, tools, and skills that will enable us to be the change that our world so badly needs.