Learning Curves: Dancing with Purpose
Students of Project Moves
Photo by Megan Belanger, Courtesy Gold
Teased, taunted, and left out, the Ugly Duckling is an unhappy loner in Robert Mills’ 2005 ballet based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. The scenes performed in The Ugly Duckling are no fairy tale, though—it’s a reality that anyone who has ever been picked on will recognize in an instant.
Ballet saves the Ugly Duckling in Mills’ staging: She stumbles into a dance class and realizes that she has, in fact, been a graceful swan all along. It’s a touching ending that resonates with kids, according to Mills. But the Oklahoma City Ballet artistic director notes that there are more serious undertones. “The Ugly Duckling came from my own experiences growing up feeling alone and isolated,” he says. As a gay man growing up in a Chicago suburb, Mills says he was constantly picked on. “Even when you’re young, bullies have a sense that you’re different—you have a sense that you’re different, even if you don’t know how. And the fact that I grew up studying dance made it even worse.”
In recent years, teen suicides highlighted in the media have focused the nation’s attention on the problem of bullying. Some states, like Oklahoma, have mandated anti-bullying educational programming in schools, and 49 states have anti-bullying laws on their books. As The Ugly Duckling demonstrates, dancers and dance educators can take a stand and heighten awareness of this sensitive and poignant issue in communities. From outreach programs to online videos and even appearances on shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” the dance world is providing platforms for discussion and helping to direct change.
THE UGLY DUCKLING
After Mills choreographed The Ugly Duckling for Ballet Nouveau Colorado in 2005, the company worked with the anti-bullying organization Creating Caring Communities to transform the ballet into an interactive performance to take into schools throughout the Denver area. Julia Wilkinson Manley, who directed Ballet Nouveau Colorado’s school, brought the ballet to schools. She notes that post-show activities, such as writing, drawing, and discussions in which kids process what they’ve seen, really hit home. In one exercise, for instance, dancers replay three scenes of bullying from the ballet, showing what others could have done to make things better and helping to give kids a blueprint to fight the bystander mentality.
The Ugly Duckling
program has been so successful—over 20,000 schoolchildren in Denver alone have seen it—that it has been transplanted to Dance Theatre of Tennessee in Nashville, and will soon be at Oklahoma City Ballet.
Today, Wilkinson Manley, now head of the recently renamed Colorado Conservatory of Dance, is working with Sarah Jannsen, a member of the Conservatory’s student company, on implementing a new anti-bullying workshop, “It All Starts Somewhere.” The work will tour elementary schools in the area, and they hope the pop music and familiar setting will hit even closer to home with students.
MOVE THIS WORLD
Peer-to-peer mentoring is one of the essential aspects of the Junior PeaceMover program part of the Move This World organization. Created by former dancer Sara Potler LaHayne in 2007, MTW is dedicated to promoting conflict resolution strategies through movement-based programs in 22 cities around the world. MTW’s high school curriculum is designed to use exercises that help students develop leadership skills and learn ways to cope in the moment with bullying, says LaHayne.
Baltimore students benefit from Move This World.
“We use strategies represented through movement, like ‘meeting someone halfway,’ or take five deep breaths and walk away,” she says. “It’s not just about not being bully or victim, you need to know how to respond and not be a bystander either.” More info: www.movethisworld.org.
IT GETS BETTER
Choreographer Gina Gibney has always envisioned the Gibney Dance Center in New York as connecting the dance world with community action. Though her own work has largely focused on the issue of domestic violence, she was also inspired by Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project to address the issue of bullying. Working with a group including Dance/NYC, choreographer Sydney Skybetter, and arts advocate Tim Cynova, Gibney put out a call for artists to come to her studios to record video testimonials of support and empowerment to LGBT youth. Nearly two dozen videos were made and posted to YouTube, including one in which 28 artists, like Stephen Petronio and Larry Keigwin, share a group message of hope and acceptance.
“When we opened the center I realized that we had a tremendous opportunity to explore how members of the dance field can use the skills, wisdom, and talent they have to really make an impact,” she says. “This was a really emotional experience for so many people, and I was so moved by the genuine nature of the project.” More info: www.itgetsbetter.org.
Like Mills, Rennie Gold, owner of The Gold School in Brockton, Massachusetts, remembers ruthless taunting. His mother founded the dance studio, and Gold says that his love of dance as a youngster may have made him a target. “As a kid, I was spit on, beaten, hit with two-by-fours,” he says. “I had a history teacher who used to let me stay in the classroom just so I could avoid them.”
Gold was first drawn to working against bullying by an online video from the It Gets Better Project initiated by writer Dan Savage. After seeing Texas councilman Joel Burns’ emotional 2010 video—in which he describes being bullied by peers at 13 because of his sexual orientation—Gold decided to take a stand. He created a contemporary dance piece with six teenage boys from his studio about bullying that results in suicide. They researched teens who had taken their own lives, including Michigan student Matt Epling, whose father Kevin, now a child-safety advocate, lent his support to the project. The result was …accept ME, an hour-and-a-half show that’s paired with a discussion between audience members and Gold’s students, often filled with moving responses.
Since the premiere of …accept ME in 2011, Project Moves Dance Company, as the performance group is called, has been seen by over 2,000 students, and its reach is expanding. Project Moves performed at the Dancers Responding to AIDS’ Fire Island Dance Festival in 2012, and last year, the company took their cause nationwide with an appearance on “Dancing with the Stars.” Gold has also created three new pieces, which Project Moves will tour to schools throughout New England in 2014.
“We want our audiences, kids or adults, to go out there and do something about bullying,” says Gold. He adds that as important as the connection with audiences is, he sees a greater impact on his student performers. “My goal for kids in the program is that they leave and do something to make the world a better place. I want them to be agents of change when they get out in the world.”
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance for the San Francisco Chronicle.