by Shawn Lent
This week we are in Chicago, IL visiting the Dance Peace project. As you read, notice how small & mighty this work is. The work is making a difference in the life of a relatively small number of students. If the director, Shawn Lent had started with a grand idea and waited until she could build a refugee arts center, she'd be spending all her time fundraising and no time dancing right now. Instead, she got started. As you read, think about what steps she took to jump right in to teaching and take a look at the broad preparations she made to develop her cultural competencies and dance teaching skills.
by Shawn Lent
Dance Peace is an initiative to bring about social interventions that address insular or divided communities, potential or actual violence, weak interfaith or cross-cultural neighborhood bonds, and needed Track 3 diplomacy through dance and movement-based arts experiences. We curate, design, facilitate or collaborate on projects that we theorize will have positive, urgent and relevant impact for each specific context.
I started this initiative upon my return to the United States after spending 2012-2015 living and working in Cairo, Egypt. Dance Peace currently has three projects in Chicago but the focus is the work with refugees. Dance Peace is an initiative, currently a fiscally-sponsored project of Fractured Atlas.
Currently, we have nine Syrian, Iraqi and Rohingyan refugee children enrolled in dance or music education alongside their diverse peers, including Orthodox Jewish students. The scholarships include tuition, plus we also find them transportation, dancewear, instruments, and equipment.
Public performance is a secondary place for intergroup contact and social intervention, where community members come together as audience. The classmates throughout the year, fellow teachers, and the audience for the spring show will also be affected by this work. The total last year for this local category was 400 people. Together, they will be performing for large, public audiences in their neighborhood on May 20 and June 10. Families are provided with free tickets and DVDs, waiving the usual costs.
Thanks to partnerships, Dance Peace students and their peers also attend free performances downtown by professional companies; our complimentary bus has taken the group 4 times this year.
We attended every birthday party, took the kids ice skating for the first time in their lives, and work with neighbors to generate social networks of fun and support.
In addition, this summer we will be looking to once again offer a collaborative performance project for young women ages 15-25 in the refugee and Orthodox Jewish communities. newcitystage.com/2017/05/19/new-empathy-for-old-traditions/
On the music side of the project, Instructor Marwan Kamel has been touring this summer with his band and continues to provide lessons to two refugee students who have moved just outside of Chicago; those lessons are aided by the donation of a portable keyboard. Marwan is currently working with Syrian Community Network to pilot an Arab music school in Edgewater that will have an entire refugee/immigrant faculty and serve both refugee children and kids from the local neighborhood together in a celebration of music.
Lastly, we collected a list of local dance/music resources and opportunities to distribute to refugee resettlement agencies in the area.
Our dancers are recently resettled refugees who have immigrated within the last 2 years and their new neighbors in all their diversity. The program has directly supported those age 5-25 while having an indirect and positive impact on family members and audiences.
The initiative is highly contextual and flexible. In the first semester, we focused on dance integration with English language learning. In the second year, the scholarship students chose to integrate into formal tap and ballet classes. That summer we also conducted Dabke dance workshops in order to explore cultural similarities and share in joy. Now in the third year, the refugee students are in jazz and tap dance classes while also learning to compose their own dances. In addition, we offer music education in both Arab and Western instruments and aesthetics.
Art and culture is a human right (UDHR Article 27). Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
Our initiative's goal include:
Integration of refugees, personal development, and reduction of tension through participation in shared arts programs (where refugees are seen as neighbors with much to contribute, not just charity) -- bridging knowledge gap about Islam in America because according to studies "...more than 43% of Americans admit to feeling at least “a little” prejudice toward Muslims, 22% of Americans said they would not like to have a Muslim as a neighbor." (CITATION)
Awareness of this work and its theoretical and research-based footings amongst practitioners, diplomats and policymakers internationally
Increased intercultural capacities, experience and understanding for local practitioners
Awareness by refugees, service organizations, and cultural practitioners of the network of existing arts programs accessible to them
Philosopher Richard Shusterman: somaesthetics provides a new matrix for a positive body consciousness and an “essential element in the philosophy of nonviolence and the quest for less violence against bodies.” (Fitz-Gibbon, 2012) Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “The body is not only the crucial source of all perception and action but also the core of our expressive capability and thus the ground of all language and meaning.” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962)
Address all types of conflict: Violence Triangle Theory (Galtung) 1. Direct 2. Structural 3. Cultural
Bryan Stevenson’s Change Theory says that social change requires Proximity, Rewriting the Narrative, Hope and Discomfort - or the right to feel fear and vulnerability (which relates to Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory)
Each week, for the last 10-15 minutes of class, the children randomly select a series of colored cards that each describe a movement, action, gesture or quality. These are all printed in English. The children assemble the cards in a certain order and create a dance sequence based on those elements. Sometimes they partner with another child so that they can work out the meaning through contextual clues; sometimes they are challenged to work alone. These dances are 30-45 seconds, memorized, and shared with the rest of class. Afterward, we bring guests, peers and parents from throughout the studio to witness these short dances. This helps break through the sense of isolation and builds support for these children as they develop in confidence as well as dance and English capacities.
To do this work, I had to learn: dance education and curricular design, workshop facilitation, youth development, non-profit management and arts entrepreneurialism, socially engaged and public arts practice and theory, social change theory, peace and conflict studies, diversity and inclusion practices, cultural rights as human rights, refugee and immigration processes and experiences, marketing, design thinking, empathy, fundraising and grant proposal writing, cultural diplomacy, cross-cultural capacities, Arabic, and much more.
A short-term initiative is not necessary bad. A dance intervention can have lasting impact by catalyzing entrepreneurial activity, inspiring the relationships and capacities necessary for ongoing good works, and tilling the soil for an ecosystem healthy enough to support.
We have learned that we have not yet figured out how best to evaluate and communicate the impact of this work. The numbers and narratives are not telling the full story. I am planning to collaborate with a movement analyst to measure things like tension/ease in the body, movement, proximity, interactions, etc in the studio as well as in common spaces and throughout the neighborhood. Collaborating with a psychologist, we hope to layer that with an exploration of what psychological, artistic and somatic processes best facilitate or inhibit the embodied learning of peace. These elements may include somatic awareness, social identity salience, spontaneity, extent of physical expression, positive mood/anxiety, sense of security/threat, release of inhibitions, reduction of defensiveness and prejudice, and physical trust and interaction taking into account the cultural preferences. Research methods will include observation of video documentation (Laban Movement Analysis or another method of describing and interpreting human movement), surveys and interviews. These ideas were initially developed through a grant at SUNY Purchase but have yet to be piloted; I am looking for funding to support that work.
Thank yous go to Andrew Fitz-Gibbon, Professor of Philosophy, Chair of the Philosophy Department, and Director of the Center for Ethics, Peace and Social Justice (CEPS) at SUNY Cortland; Christine Merrilees, Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at SUNY Geneseo; Jill Staggs, Program Officer, Cultural Programs Division, U.S. Department of State; Karen Kohn Bradley, Jose Pascal da Rocha, Stacie Williams, Reginald Harris, and Junious Lee Brickhouse; University of Maryland’s “Dancers Without Borders” summit participants; and State University of New York (SUNY) Purchase’s “Dance, Diplomacy and Peace for a New Generation of Artists” project collaborators