Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Viewing violence through the lens of a dancer - a few thoughts from my busy mind

9/11 occurred early in my first year as an undergraudate student. Shortly after that, I had multiple experiences with interpersonal violence, both personal and as a mentor for other students. My adult life has existed only during war.

Likewise, the lives of many young adults now, have only existed in war. My college-age students don't remember 9/11 as I do and the friends who enlisted as a result. But they remember their parents being afraid. 

Although we've lived in a war for the past 14 years, many of us have been removed from the violence. It's that thing that happens on the news we don't watch anymore. Until it comes to our doorstep. 

And unfortunately, I'm not referencing the abundance of veterans who have come home with PTSD. That's another post. 

I'm referencing the text message on a beautiful October Sunday afternoon from the University with a warning from the FBI that threats of violence have been made to colleges and universities in the Philadelphia area, only days after a tragic mass shooting in Oregon. 

Further research uncovers that "these types of threats are made everyday" according to the FBI. This particular threat was poignant because of its proximity to the Oregon tragedy.

I receive messages from students who are rightly scared and uncomfortable coming to class. I can't blame them and in fact, I am proud that they felt so empowered so communicate this fear. They have a clear connection with their emotional and physical bodies that they were able to say "This situation is not okay and I'm going to remove myself from it." Amazing! 

But at the same time, I was angry. Did violence trump education? Did violence trump the right to creative thought? I don't understand it when it happens in other countries, but I also realize that I don't understand their cultural systems. But here? In the US? We have a right to free thought and critical analysis. We have a right to choose our belief systems and who we love. 

This country is different! (Or is it?)

I know many veterans who say something along the lines of, "I don't agree with (insert issue here), but they have that freedom. I fought for the Constitution. I fought for that freedom. I killed for that freedom. My friends died for that freedom. If you don't like it, leave the US."

But I digress...

I sent my students an article by Susan Foster on viewing protest from a dance scholar's perspective. I asked them to critically evaluate several points in her article. But I needed to think about this, myself. What does it mean to look from a dance scholar's point of view? Or just from a dancer's point of view?

(very simply...)
Laban's elements of dance include Time, Space, Energy/Effort, and Body. The Body is the medium through with the other three are executed. Time can refer to clock time (8 minutes) or to relative time (slow/fast) or to how movement is used in time (repeated, retrograded). Space is both location on stage (downstage, upstage, stage right, etc) and relation to other dancers (positive and negative space, proximity). Energy and Effort are the more complicated of terms and refer to the how of the action. A flick of the arm is different than the swipe of the arm, and a direct leg shift is different than an indirect leg movement. 

So, inadvertently, do dancers apply Laban's elements to the way we view the world? Yes. 

I reflected to my dancers that I was a more physical person because I was comfortable in my body because of my dance training. I will often provide and ask for physical contact when I meet someone - either a hug or a tight handshake. I want people to know that I acknowledge them when I see them. My hugs are world famous - no joke! Likewise, I can non-verbally communicate when I need a hug or when I sense someone else is uncomfortable. My young dancers expressed that they had a unique connection with other people but didn't necessarily relate it to their own relationship with their body. After talking through elements of Foster's article and relating it back to dance, my students began to see the connection. 

The physical protests that Foster described could be analyzed through various mediums! They could be looked at from economic perspectives (did the protest have an effect on the economy of a region and how so? why?); from a class perspective (what was the class of the protesters vs. that of the people creating the "problem"); from a racial perspective; from a gender perspective; from a religious perspective... so why do we need to look at it from a dance perspective?

I believe that we need to acknowledge not only the dance perspective, but the fact that concepts of dance can be and are applied to non-dance situations. It takes careful planning and execution to organize bodies in time and space (choreography). It takes training to prepare bodies for the ideas of the work (technique). It requires skill and practice to deal with unexpected complications (improvisation). 

In looking at social and political events from the lens of a dancer, we are more able to analyze their significance. And, we could move forward with a critical mind on how to create positive social change in terms of everyday movement.

I believe that the dance practitioner has a deeper relationship with herself and her body. Through this knowledge, she has the ability to connect with other individuals, developing empathy and understanding. By having the ability to walk (leap, chasse, prance) in another's footsteps, literally and figurative, dance is a medium for positive, non-violent, social change.  

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