Dance can be a moral transporter as well as an artistic one. It’s a form that joins the heart and mind and has the power to bridge different worlds. Dance Magazine interviewed several artists who are using dance to engage in, or raise awareness for, a variety of causes.
Boulder, Colorado’s Eco Arts was founded by Marda Kirn. Her mission is to bring together science, environmental arts, and indigenous organizations to increase awareness about climate change and sustainable living. Eco Arts’ projects combine the cognitive power of science with the emotional power of art to get people to think about these issues. “We try to be to scientifically accurate, and to have as many full-on collaborations as possible,” says Kirn, who also edits the International Tap Association Newsletter. This is where local dancer/choreographer Michelle Ellsworth comes in. She is collaborating with climate change scientist Jason Neff on a piece called The Wheels of Blame, which will be performed in a program called “Balancing Acts: Visions for a Sustainable Future.”
Dancer Ellsworth and scientist Neff believe that each of their native “languages” is inadequate for communicating ideas. Says Ellsworth, “We thought it would be pleasing to use each other’s forms to make a hybrid that deals with the problem of global warming.” Ellsworth is inspired by the rigor of science; and Neff, for his part, feels that dancers can help make scientific fact more easily digestible.
“The issue of global warming is not going to go away,” says Ellsworth, “and its implications are enormous.” Ellsworth hopes that if scientific evidence is presented through the lens of performance, people will connect to the information in unexpected ways and begin to take action.
Tap, ballet and jazz dancer Amy Danielson got the idea for Genesis Sarajevo after volunteering to teach dance at a children’s camp in war-torn Bosnia. In June of 2006 she offered her first dance intensive at the camp, which is sponsored by Foundation Land of Friendship and Peace in Kakringe, a town outside Sarajevo.
Danielson now travels to Bosnia twice a year for the two-week sessions. The students study technique, perform group exercises, and work together to put on together a show. Her new goal is to bring tap and hip hop companies to mentor the students and have Genesis Sarajevo perform what they’ve developed. “I’ve been their only teacher for the past two years,” she says. “Now I need to involve more people.”
Danielson feels that young people in areas of conflict need this kind of outlet, and that dancing together provides a meeting ground for differing cultures and religions. “The ultimate goal is to have a fully functioning dance company in Sarajevo,” says Danielson. “If some of the girls want to pursue dance professionally, they can go that route. And if they’re just doing it for fun, they’re getting an experience that they may never have had.”
Eventually Danielson would like to broaden the project to include other conflict-ridden areas like Uganda and Manila. “I get a lot out of teaching these girls because they respond so quickly,” she says. “They are joyful and excited, and that’s so rewarding.”
New Jersey dance studio owner Kathleen Cirioli is a tap dancer and cancer survivor. She’s also the founder of Dance for the Cure, an organization that promotes cancer awareness at corporate events. Her lyrical “dance of hope,” performed by four young dancers, ends with the audience singing “Go and Get Your Mammogram” and tap dancing to the tune of “Button Up Your Overcoat.” “If I can educate people to know that cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence, and inspire them to get mammograms and not be afraid,” she says, “I will have fulfilled my dream.”
Many of the moms at her studio, Cirioli says, are surprised to hear she’s overcome so many obstacles. She believes her passion for dance has fueled her mission of hope. “Having dance to look forward to made me recover,” says Cirioli, who had both breast and ovarian cancer. “In order to get through my surgeries and treatments, I thought about how I missed teaching, choreographing, and moving.” And she sees a benefit for the students who got involved. “The young girls who participated in Dance for a Cure learned so much. If they have to address these issues in the future, they’ll be more prepared to help themselves and others.”
Since last February Ashley Hilton has taught ballet to kindergarteners, first and second graders in the outreach program at The Patel Performing Arts Conservatory, the education arm of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the Orlando Ballet School in Florida. The conservatory recently developed a dance program in conjunction with Metropolitan Ministries School, a charter institution for homeless and disadvantaged children in levels K through 5.
Hilton has already noticed an improvement in her students’ focus and interest. “The kids can be creative and physical here, and they are learning an artistic discipline,” she says. “Dance shows them that they can do something they’re proud of, and they learn to concentrate—which is also good for schoolwork and sports.” Inspired by the children’s progress, Metropolitan Ministries has added more classes and is bringing in guest artists like Bill T. Jones and Ballet Hispanico.
Since the children don’t have dance gear, they take class in jeans and skirts—but they give it their all. Patel Conservatory organized a drive to give the children ballet slippers. “Many of the kids have told me they love their ballet shoes and want to sleep in them,” says Hilton. “And they’re so excited to have a real dance studio, with ballet barres.”
“As the children’s home lives improve,” Hilton adds, “they leave the school, but they get to take their shoes with them, in the hopes that they’ll pursue dance elsewhere.”
Our daily lives bombard us with reminders of hardship, from the front page of the morning paper to the roundup on the nightly news. Buckling under an information overload, we find it hard to take action, easier to turn away. But dance can speak to people in ways that other language can’t. Whether making a statement about the state of the world, creating common ground between clashing cultures, or teaching just one child the rewards of hard work, as dancers we can move toward making a difference.
Nancy Alfaro is a former dancer who lives and writes in NYC.