Art has the power to alter perspectives and change the world, but dancers rarely take this potential to heart as strongly as Megan Preston. Just in her twenties, Preston is the Founder and Director of Awareness Through Dance, an organization that uses dance to foster global awareness, engagement, and empowerment and to support education and development initiatives in Ghana. The World Dances spoke with Preston about Awareness Through Dance, her vision, and the importance of cross-cultural artistic exchange.
What happens on an Awareness Through Dance program?
It’s a three-week program and each week has a different theme. The first week is cultural immersion. It’s about exchanging dance styles, connecting with dance companies we partner with in Ghana, connecting with the community there, and getting to know the group. The second week is self-discovery and personal development. We take ourselves out of our comfort zones, going trekking in central Ghana and then down to the coast, which is where the slave trade was centralized. There we learn more about the history of Ghana and the impact of the slave trade on their and our traditions and cultures. It’s a heartwrenching experience but it provides crucial context. On the third week, we delve into social impact. We do workshops in schools using arts to explore communication and personal development with students. We also work with a local dance company to put on performances in the community. We showcase our styles of dance, they showcase theirs, and we do some collaborative pieces. About 300-400 people come watch. It’s all about understanding yourself, different cultures, leadership, community, and hoping the impact that will have on you will encourage you to impact others.
Can you please describe your path toward founding Awareness Through Dance?
I was lucky to have the opportunity to travel a lot as a kid with my parents. Experiencing other cultures gave me a deeper sense of who I am in the world, though I never fully appreciated it until I was in my older teens. The second thing was that dance is my passion. I wanted to be a professional dancer since I was 14. I went to the Hammond School in the north of England and studied there with every intention of being a ballerina. But when I graduated when I was 19 I decided I wanted to diversify and learn other styles. I did the international student visa program at Broadway Dance Center in New York and it was amazing. I got to learn all these different styles and was encouraged to achieve what I wanted to become, which I think is more of an American ethos than a UK ethos (we’re more conservative). I finished that year in New York feeling really empowered and went back to London. I was successful as a professional dancer, but I always had this sense of not being totally fulfilled. I felt like something was missing, and I realized that it was because I didn’t feel I was making an impact. I wanted to combine my passion for dance with my desire to make a difference. All these ideas fed into the creation of Awareness Through Dance.
What did you do as a professional dancer before founding Awareness Through Dance?
I was a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance. I got an agent through that, which led to other opportunities. I danced with the London Ballet Company and was involved as a movement director on the TV show Got to Danec. I also worked on a feature film that’s recently come out called Desert Dancer, with choreography by Akram Khan. I taught Freida Pinto [who plays one of the lead dancers in the film] to dance in the movie. I did cool stuff for two years but it wasn’t quite right for me.
Can you share an example of a particularly powerful experience from the program?
One girl came with us from London whose family is Jamaican. Her ancestors came from Ghana through the slave trade, but she’d never really connected with that history. Being there was a very harrowing experience. The conversations we all had afterwards were transformative. It created a lot of vulnerablility and openness. Her experience really impacted all of us and the rest of the program.
What makes dance a good conduit for this kind of cross-cultural exchange?
I spend a lot of time going to social entrepreneurship events and conferences. You hear about all these amazing ideas about tackling climate change, human trafficking, and these immediate, dire issues we need figure out. At first I would sort of shrink, thinking “but all I do is dance! It’s just about expression and connection.” But then I realized the basis of everything, what has caused all of these issues, is a lack of connection and lack of ability to express. One thing dance does so well, whether you’re a professional or a child, is get you to break down boundaries. it gets you to be honest with each other, touch each other in a respectful way. Dance has a great ability to connect people across cultures. There’s no language barrier; everyone can dance. Play some drums in Ghana and everyone’s up dancing and connecting immediately.