Dance contributes to social change, civic engagement, and activism in multiple ways.  Dance can be the antithesis of the values of modern-day capitalism, providing a vehicle for building community and understanding across social boundaries, resisting oppression by contributing to the cultural continuity of oppressed peoples, asking questions and reflecting on sociopolitical discourse through choreography, and embodying social change, simultaneously creating and reflecting social movements toward equality.

The history of dance is somewhat difficult to document, given the ephemeral nature of the form.  Dance leaves traces only in pictures, in written and oral descriptions, and by being passed on from dancer to dancer through generations.  It can be hypothesized that dance has existed in every culture throughout history, and has served social, religious/spiritual, and artistic functions.  In many ways, dance maintains the status quo.  In social dances, gender roles and rules of acceptable social behavior are defined.  In court dances of all cultures, the aristocracy or monarchy is heralded and praised.  Religious/spiritual dances pass on traditional modes of worship.  The presentation of dance on proscenium stage, and the development of dance as an entertainment, divided spectator and performer and developed a particular elitism in the art form, connected to the development of physical virtuosity and highly selective skills that segregate dancers from the general public.

However, dance is used in many ways to challenge and change the status quo.  Dancing is rooted in physical activity of the body and therefore produces physical awareness.  This body consciousness is a counterpoint to the body/mind separation of Western culture.  The body/mind separation subordinates kinesthetic knowledge in a hierarchy of knowledge that privileges logical reasoning and concrete evidence instead of the knowledge that is located in the body:  emotions, intuition, and physical skill.  Dancing subverts this hierarchy by affirming the body’s knowledge and its importance, with the potential to develop a morality that is based on emotional responsiveness.  Furthermore, dancing inherently resists the lexicon of capitalism.  There is no product to buy or sell.  Once a dance is over, it is gone.  It cannot be effectively captured or purchased.  The act of producing dance defies capitalism’s emphasis on efficiency, using time and resources for an end result that is transitory and impermanent.  Dancing creates community and cross-cultural understanding, unifying participants and offering a transformation that is viscerally experienced.  From head-banging to ballroom dancing, movement produces a physical release that counteracts the weight of oppression and cultivates joy.  Through dancing, people connect with each other.  Additionally, learning the steps of another culture’s  dance contributes to cross-cultural understanding.  Although movement is not a universal language—different cultures have different symbolic systems—the body is a universal instrument that every human can relate to.  In this way, physicality is a uniting force, a common ground for creating community.  When harnessed to form solidarity and inclusiveness, dance can be a powerful tool for ending social isolation and segregation.

Dancing contributes to cultural continuity, playing an important role in resisting colonialism, imperialism, and cultural obliteration.  Only one of many examples, African slaves used dance to maintain their cultural traditions and identity, during (and after) slavery in the Americas.  This continuity can be seen in contemporary settings in hip-hop and reggae dances, which carry the same emphasis on polyrhythms and body part isolations.  People of the African diaspora also use dance to continue their religious traditions, which use dance and music as a means of worship.  The continuation of African-based religious practices in the Western Hemisphere demonstrates the power of dance as a means of resistance to cultural obliteration.

In addition to the inherent ways dance contributes to activism, in the 20th and 21st century, choreographers have used dance as a vehicle for making political statements and asking questions about the world.  There is a long tradition of anti-war choreography, beginning with Kurt Joos’s ballet The Green Table, War Lyrics by Jose Limon, Docudance:  Nine Short Dances About the Defense Budget and Other Military Matters by Liz Lerman, Oh Beautiful by Deborah Hay, and one:  an anti-war dance by Juliette Mapp.  Choreographers have created work about a wide breadth of sociopolitical issues:  race and racism, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, poverty, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender identities, and feminism and the experience of women.  Because dance begins with the body, dance often relies on an element of personal history, a unique lens on sociopolitical issues.  Of many choreographers, Ralph Lemon and Maura Nguyen Donahue use personal history as a portal to reflecting on larger sociopolitical uses of race and identity, incorporating performance traditions from around the world.

Choreographers also address sociopolitical issues through working in communities.  Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and her company, Urban Bush Women, are committed to using dance theater as a catalyst for social change through telling the stories of disenfranchised people, focused especially on the traditions of women in the African diaspora.  To that end, Urban Bush Women also engages in community work, through programs like their Summer Institute, which connects professionals and community artists to further the use of dance for social change.  Zollar also includes community members in the creation and refinement of her choreography.  For Hair Stories of 2001, Zollar held “hair parties,” gatherings at various community and homes through which Zollar invited participants to discuss hair, view sections of the performance, and build relationships between themselves and the company.

The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange is renowned for its community-based work, pursuing the expansion of the definition of dance and dance with an intergenerational group of dancers, and working on projects to involve communities in the process of making dance.  Liz Lerman began working with performers of diverse backgrounds in 1975 in her piece Woman of the Clear Vision, which included professional dancers and adults from a senior center.  Since then, Liz Lerman has been celebrated for developing innovative ways to make community-based art.

In addition to community-based work, choreographers have developed ways to involve the audience in their performances, challenging the passive role of spectator.  Based on the recognition of the audience as integral in creating meaning through their individual interpretations of choreography, interactive dance performances emphasizes the agency and power of the audience member.  In Pulling the Wool:  An American Landscape of Truth and Deception from 2004, Jill Sigman transformed a two-story gymnasium into a multimedia performance carnival for audience members to navigate, making choices about how they interacted and reacted to the performance.  Sigman views this ability to shape their experience as an expression of civic agency.  Instead of expressing a single political statement, the performance revealed ambiguity and was open for multiple interpretations.  In this way, questioning is activism as it cultivates an engagement with the world.

Similarly, site-specific choreography offers the potential to involve the audience by offering the passerby an unexpected experience.  If placed in a prominent and public space, the performance disrupts the flow of everyday life and shifts the viewer’s consciousness, developing an interface between performer and the public.  In Salvage/Salvation from 2001, Clarinda Mac Low created environments on a site, using only the discarded materials found there.  The piece always generated conversation with pedestrians who asked about what they are doing.  Through dialogue and shifted awareness, choreography has the potential to transform the individual.

Developments in dance—such as the birth of modern dance, contact improvisation, and dance accessibility—embody, create, and reflect social change.  The beginning of modern dance in the early 20th century demonstrated (and somewhat preceded) changing social values.  Discarding the formality of ballet and the perceived superficiality of vaudeville, modern dance reveled in more natural, organic movement that cherished individual expression, dance for dance’s sake, and the human condition.  In the 1960s the growth of contact improvisation reflected changing roles between genders, eradicating the status quo in dance where only men lift and support women, and creating instead fluid partnerships between all genders, where everyone could play a physically supporting role.  Contact improvisation was part of dance investigations happening at Judson Church in Greenwich Village, where many choreographers were questioning what dance is, stripping dance down to movement essentials and rejecting ideals of virtuosity and special technique.  These developments can be seen as a demonstration of the social changes happening in America during civil rights and anti-war movements, where many social norms were questioned and equality demanded.  Similarly, the dance accessibility movement in England reflects the growth of the disability rights movement.  Several professional dance companies in England are dedicated to the inclusion of differently abled dancers and challenge ideas of who can be a dancer.

When used intentionally, dance is a powerful tool for asking questions about the world, connecting people, reflecting and discussing political viewpoints, and awakening personal change.  Dance is literally the movement of social movements, the embodiment of change and transformation.


By Jesse Phillips-Fein in the Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice edited by Gary L. Anderson and Kathryn G. Herr 

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