The Power of Dance for Social Change

If you're a dancer, you have some seriously heroic potential to make the world better!  This is the message behind an inspiring movement to channel the communicative power of dance to advance social change.  

“You have treated the arts as the cherry on the cake.  It needs to be the yeast,” says dancer-actress-politician-social advocate Mallika Sarabhai.  Sarabhai believes that policies aimed at decreasing violence have broadly failed.  “While universities are trying to devise courses in conflict resolution, and governments are trying to stop skirmishes at borders, we are surrounded by violence...It's everywhere,” she says in this Ted video. And she attributes this failure to a lack of compelling communication.  Anti-violence campaigns are not delivering their messages effectively and are not inspiring change.  The strategy of educators, activists, and politicians needs to be re-conceived, Sarabhai suggests, and should utilize dance as a lingua franca. Dance has the ability to reach people in a way that rhetoric alone often fails to do. “Art can go through where other things can't...It breaks though your prejudices, breaks through everything that you have as your mask...In a world where attitudes are so difficult to change, we need a language that reaches through.” 

Sarabhai realized the power of dance to advocate meaningfully for justice as child growing up in India.  “My mother, who was a choreographer, came upon a phenomenon that worried her. It was a phenomenon where young brides were committing suicide in rural Gujarat, because they were being forced to bring more and more money for their in-laws' families.  She created a dance piece, which then-Prime Minister Nehru saw.  He came to her after and said, 'What is this about?' She told him, and he set out the first inquiry into that we today call Dowry Deaths.  Imagine: a dance piece for the first inquiry into something that even today kills thousands of women.” 

Sarabhai now directs the education-oriented dance and theater company Darpana.  Darpana's mission is to use dance, theater, and innovative media programs to teach various audiences about a multitude of social issues, from violence against women, to religious intolerance, to simple hygienic practices to curtail born infectious disease in rural areas. 

The idea of dance as an engine of ethical development is also behind the organization Dance 4 Peace. This now-global enterprise was founded by dancer Sara Potler, following work she did in Bogota, Colombia on a Fulbright fellowship to study the use of arts in civic education. Potler has developed a grade-specific, dance-based curriculum to use physical self-expression to explore themes like conflict resolution, diversity appreciation, resistance to negative social pressure, and empathy. 

Empathy is at the heart of the profound and invaluable power of dance to communicate across any language.  The root of the human capacity for compassion, empathy is a physical as well as an emotional experience. Neuroscience describes the interactive phenomenon as “mirroring.” “Studies are revealing that the identical sets of neurons can be activated in an individual who is simply witnessing another person performing a movement as the one actually engaged in the action or the expression of some emotion or behavior,” writes Cynthia Berrol, former chair of the American Dance Therapy Association Research Committee and Professor of Kinesiology and Physical Education, and Theater and Dance at California State University, East Bay. 

So, while hearing a story about injustice usually does evoke some sense of indignation in most people, watching a performance of a dance about that injustice will move you.  You feel the motions that people make when they are expressing pain, or loss, or fear, or whatever, and cannot help but identify with the message being danced. 

Powerful stuff, with huge potential to help people.  If you'd like to be involved, Dance 4 Peace offers a number of opportunities to volunteer. Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation is another organization that uses dance as an element of pro-empathy, anti-violence education. You can also experiment with choreographing and/or performing stories based on problems in your school or community—whatever might be relevant to you.  The potency of dance as a medium to inspire empathy and action empowers anyone with a body and an idea to manifestly improve the world, which is truly awesome.