"The Pedagogy of Dance and Politics" by Abra Myles

Recently with more conversations arising about how to make our dance spaces more inclusive and embody a value of equity and justice, as well as our nation on the cusp of electing a new president, more dance educators are questioning how politics and dance can intersect within the studio or classroom. Those of us who teach understand that we are not only facilitating the knowledge of dance technique and creative process, but also helping nurture human beings who will interact with the world regardless of the career path they choose to take. Our politics are informed by our values, therefore we cannot separate our political leanings and how that informs how and what we teach. If our politics ask us to embody an ethic of equity, inclusivity, and justice, then our how we run our classes, programs, and/or businesses should reflect that. The safety and quality of life of many people who hold marginalized identities are often put at risk due to those in political power. Trying to separate that from our life as dance educators erases the hardships and risks many of our students and their families are facing. We cannot always control what laws and policies are put in place, but we can control what kind of environment we are providing for those we serve in our dance spaces. We must work hard to improve how we can continue to be a safe place of learning and exploring as dance artists, while also affirming the lives and well being of our students. Regardless of political views or candidate preferences, there are some things that should be non-negotiable when it comes to the dignity and respect of our students and staff. It’s important to determine what those non-negotiables are and clearly communicate them to everyone who enters our space. 

Abra Myles, a dark skinned woman with short hair, give a high five to one of her four young students in tutus in a green room with wooden floors and curtains.

Over the years I have been considering how we can tangibly adopt a pedagogy of dance and politics with intention and care. Here are a few tips and considerations that I found to be helpful in a variety of spaces that I have taught in over the years: 

 

  • Teach dance through a historical lens. When we look at the history of dance, we see how politics are interwoven into the make up and origin of most, if not all forms, genres, and styles. King Louis XIV was not only responsible for the development of ballet through the courts, but also used it as a means of political control and sovereignty in France. Hip Hop was born out of the oppression and marginalization of Black and Latinx people, providing them a way to create art that was reflective of their lived experiences, which were often informed by the political implications in their neighborhoods and cities. Dance has been used as a form of diplomacy and cultural exchange, such as the US Senate Department sponsoring tours across the globe in response to the Cold War, and more recently the 9/11 terrorists attacks, as a means to bridge the cultural divide and the human experience. Notable modern dance pioneers and choreographers including Alivin Ailey, Martha Graham, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Bill T. Jones often used their work as a way of reflecting the political landscape of their time and speaking to social issues that were impacting this nation and the world at large. We can incorporate this knowledge into our classes by mentioning notable names, places, and events as we teach the technique or assign projects and/or papers (as applicable) that requires students to do their own research and share their findings.

 

  • We can be political without being partisan. There is often a fear that particularly within the classroom or dance studio, incorporating politics can be a distraction to the learning environment, because it can often be polarizing. As educators we are asked and sometimes required to be neutral and not allow our biases to influence how we engage with our students. I believe it is possible to not allow our biases to control the narrative, while also not being afraid to have difficult conversations  with students that challenge them to think critically and practice having civil discourse with one another. Politics is more than who we vote for, and we don’t have to disclose certain agendas or endorse specific candidates in order to establish the importance and impact politics has on our society. It is important to help our students form their own opinions and think critically about the issues, and they cannot do this if they are not informed. I have often facilitated discussions with my students centering historical and current events, giving them the agency to speak freely and share their experiences and opinions without the fear of being ridiculed. Sometimes these discussions occur within a formal, pre-planned format. Other times they may occur casually as things come up throughout the days or weeks, as I often start my classes by asking my students about their day or what new things are catching their interest. Setting boundaries and class norms can be a huge help to avoid any major conflict that could create division or harm. I also find inviting parents, studio owners, or other staff into the conversation can be helpful to reinforce the idea that differences are welcome into the space and the importance of healthy civil discourse. 

 

  • Provide students an opportunity to have a voice. One of the foundational tools we learn as dancers is the art of problem solving. We have developed skills that enhance our creativity to be solution oriented and not being defeated by obstacles. I think we can help our students apply these skills when encouraging them to engage in politics, as especially now, seems to be filled with hopelessness and frustration. Helping our students find the connection of how their ability to be creative beings can enable them to help imagine a world that they want and how being a politically engaged citizen can provide positive possibilities. We are in the perfect field to help facilitate students using their creative voice to influence and shape society. Their voices should and can be part of the dialogue, and in my experience this can be best displayed by embodying this in the creative process. I have often allowed my students to take the lead in centering what they care about most by co-creating works with them that speak to those issues. It has often led to fruitful discussions with their peers, their families, and other people in their community. They may not be able to vote yet, but their voice can potentially help persuade adults to vote with their best interest in mind. 

Abra Myles leads three young dancers in a dance. They all stand with their arms overhead looking up towards the ceiling. Their feet are in fourth position.

Acknowledging the connection between dance and politics in our studios and classrooms is not only a way of honoring the legacy of our art form, but also can be pivotal in helping create a better world for our students. Issues that are directly impacted by our politics is more than just a matter of opinion, but concerns the quality of life of ourselves and our students. We must recognize that the time they spend with us in the dance studio is but a small portion of what they are experiencing in their everyday life, while also knowing that the time they do spend with us is crucial and can shape how they will interact with the world. We are in a unique position to equip them and encourage them to not just be great dancers, but to be people that are informed and empowered to embody the values in which we are trying to instill in them.