I have recently come across several programs that bring dance into schools. They have caught my attention because they focus on building self-esteem and addressing conflict, two issues that have arisen repeatedly in our study of court-involved youth.
Move This World http://movethisworld.org/ is a nonprofit that “engages students Pre-K—12, educators, administrators, families, and corporate leaders in movement-based activities that promote empathy, mediation skills, and conflict transformation.”
While in Philadelphia recently a program there called Dancing with the Students http://www.dancingwiththestudents.com/ was featured in the news. This program develops “positive self-esteem, proper manners, and respect for others” (the use of the phrase proper manners is worthy of a separate critique).
This program was in part inspired by a NYC-based dance program http://www.dancingclassrooms.com/ that works to “build confidence” and “cultivate essential life skills in children through the practice of social dance.”
What all of these programs have in common is the use of a physical, movement-based approach to engage young people and build their confidence and relational skills, all things that are noticeably lacking in classrooms. I would argue that court-involved youth might benefit disproportionately from these types of programs if they are more likely to struggle with a purely academic curriculum, not be in home environments where confidence and relational skills are nurtured, and be often faced with conflict.
At the Educational Justice Symposium on March 31, one of the many memorable speakers was Kenneth Phillips from The Possibility Project: http://the-possibility-project.org/ He spoke of its humble beginnings as City of Peace on the streets of Washington, DC, as a way to address violence and racial division – and of its current focus on using performance art and community action to empower NYC teenagers in multiple ways. I have been impressed with other NYC-based organizations that use performance art as a means to engage young people such as the All-Stars Project: http://allstars.org/ and Theatre of the Oppressed http://www.theatreoftheoppressednyc.org/ At the Symposium I was fascinated by Kenneth’s description of how youth who become a part of The Possibility Project’s programs (through non-competitive auditions) are often transformed while learning much about themselves, their abilities, and how they relate to others.
It turned out that The Possibility Project’s latest show, “Uproute”, was happening last week so I took the opportunity to ride out to Brooklyn and see what the results looked like in person. The show had already started when I arrived, and one of the young staff members guided me professionally to a balcony seat overlooking the entire stage. For the next hour the stage was filled with dramatic encounters between the show’s teenage actors: conversations, arguments, scenes of bullying, family fights, child abuse, children running away, siblings in tears, and all of it coming from the experiences of the teenagers themselves.
The emotional power of the scenes easily compensated for any rough edges in acting ability. Lessons were clearly learned as each of the difficult situations moved towards resolution. The parents involved learned as many lessons as their children. The show culminated in an all-hands finale that was exuberant, playful, and moving. The sight of 50 teenage actors in the final song of the night could have been any high school musical but the power of their stories and the energy and emotion they used to share those stories set this performance apart.
After the show, still thinking about the heavy themes, I ended up in the tiny lobby packed with the excited actors and their proud parents, siblings and friends. Youth were selling stylish merchandise to support the work of the organization, and everyone looked like they were enjoying what they were doing! The party spilled out onto the street as members of the cast gathered in front of the theater, still filled with the energy of the evening.
The evening was beautiful and powerful for me because I had been witness to something special, something that must have been transformative for those involved. The stories that were shared were vivid reminders of how much healing many young people need, and how it only happens when others are there to lean on and be supportive. Many of the speakers at the Ed Justice Symposium spoke of the critical importance of youth believing in themselves. Putting together a full-length musical in two months and presenting it to a full house is, in my mind, all about believing in yourself.
Today I found myself in a small, smoke-filled room, surrounded by cinema posters from years past. Sitting on an old red naugahyde couch, I faced the two men in front of me, one in his early thirties and the other a generation older. They fired questions at me, sometimes talking over each other. Where had I been since leaving Bulgaria? What was I doing there? Who was I working for? Why had I come back? Had I ever been in the military? Worked for the US government? The UN? Finally we came to the CIA question…
Despite appearances above this was not an interrogation but an interview with a former student who now works for one of the two local newspapers. I have been back for 6 days in the small Bulgarian town where my international experiences first started more than a decade ago. My two years here as a teacher left deep impressions on me and connected me with some of the residents of this small town that was founded as a socialist model in 1947.
It has been fascinating to see both the changes and the many corners of the town that have remained the same. Yes, three German supermarket chains have landed in the middle of town with their parking lots and spacious halls full of brightly packaged products. Most of the smaller shops have also been upgraded to modern standards. The formerly ubiquitous Lada passenger cars no longer dominate, though the police still drive them! This model town was laid out with three elaborate parks that were in complete disrepair when I was living here. They have now been cleaned up (at least the most visible parts) and the small zoo has been rebuilt and enlarged with lots of birds, and my friends claim that the two large brown bears are the same pair that prowled a smaller cage years ago.
Perhaps most striking is the brand new bus station that just opened, a bright red triangular building that is a splash of newness just 50 meters from the marble plaza and stone arcades that have been the center of Dimitrovgrad for years. Just beyond the bus station is the train station, which to my surprise has experienced absolutely no change since the day I left. Many other things have not changed, both corners of the town that have experienced no renovations as well as the worries of many people who see a difficult road ahead.
The coutdown to EU membership for Bulgaria and Romania in the early to mid 2000s amidst the bubbling world economy led to a fair amount of optimism that the future was brightening. Of course the global recession and european economic crisis has made it difficult to maintain this level of optimism, and many wonder how the Bulgarian economy can produce enough jobs for the current school graduates. Bulgaria’s entry into the EU and the increasing prevalence of English has made it easier for Bulgarians to seek work abroad and many have done so. As with migrants everywhere, this has mixed results for the sending country. Remittances to family members here are important to the economy but there is of course also a loss of connection and talent
Many of my former students have left Dimitrovgrad for the cities of Plovdiv, Sofia, Varna and for other countries. In this, they are taking advantage of the new opportunities of EU membership and their English (so my lessons apparently had some effect). It is great to see them doing well but it is important that Bulgaria find ways to develop the whole country, not just the largest cities. A much larger wine industry and efforts at attracting visitors to smaller towns and natural areas are a step in the right direction…