Dance, Community, and the Joy of Creativity

Every summer, I try to participate in some kind of event or program that places dance in the community (and ideally in public spaces). It’s always exciting to introduce movement to folks who’ve never danced, and I love the reactions when people stumble on dance in unexpected spaces. While it’s a bonus when someone responds by wanting to then begin taking regular classes, that’s not my goal. My goal is simply to give them the chance to explore a creative experience in their body.

One of my favorite ways of engaging with community over the last few years is the summer reading series that a local county library system sponsors—I’ve now participated two out of the last three years. The first year, the library was partnering with state and federal agencies to promote healthy active lifestyles for children. My workshops that summer used hip-hop (including freestyle/improvisation) as a means of addressing the active component of that program while also introducing physical creativity.

This year, my workshops were a stand-alone component of the reading program. Over the last two weeks, I’ve taught two creative movement for children workshops, and one on improvisation for teenagers. Each experience was completely different from the others. The first workshop took place in a small room bursting at the seams with 20 children and their parents, every one of us laughing for an hour solid.

The next creative movement workshop brought a surprise in the form of a 17-year old with Down Syndrome. His social worker had seen the posting for the workshop, and brought him along so he could at least watch. To be honest, I’ve never worked with anyone with learning disabilities and had no idea what to expect. We went for it though. He went for it. It was exciting to see his responses to the prompts, especially when he thought he’d reached the limit of his body’s ability to go deeper into something. When I’d ask him if he could go deeper, e.g., make the shape rounder, he’d think for a second and shake his head emphatically. Then, I’d ask if he was sure. He’d think again, and he’d find a way to go further—and this look of amazement at what he’d just done, just felt, filled his eyes. When we went across the floor and really got moving, he hit his stride, developing out-of-the-box-cool moves. The joy flowing out of him was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in ages. The look on his social worker’s face told me she’d never seen him move or express himself like that.

In the improv for teens, I wanted participants to see the library in a new way. All of the structures were designed to get them to look at the physical environment of the library: its architecture and interior design as well as book cover art. We explored what those things suggested about space, shape, effort, and rhythm. As we explored improvised phrases, then built a tiny structured dance, I loved seeing patrons pausing to watch us in the aisles as they were searching for their books. Some would just stand there, while others came to sit close for a few minutes. They were clearly seeing the place in a new way as well, thus having a shared experience with us in this examination of the library space—coming to glimpse its potentials for kinetic art and kinetic knowledge in addition to the art and knowledge we expect to find in these public repositories of written culture.

That’s what dance does though, all of that. It helps us see the world and ourselves differently, and to share what we see in ways that change perceptions for those around us. That’s why I value these community experiences, especially for all they teach me.