What Exactly is Community-Based Dance?, Oct 2007

By Jessica Robinson Love

October 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

From dance classes with prisoners, to after-school programs, to participatory rituals and multi-generational performance projects, Community-based dance can take a wide variety of forms. Here I explore the roots of Community-based art, address the work of several local dance artists who are practicing elements of the form, and offer some concrete pointers for artists and organizations engaged in this unique and growing field.

The term, “community” can mean many things to many people. For our purposes, community can be defined as a group of people united by a common location, ethnicity, culture or belief. For example, we might talk about the South of Market community, the Hispanic community, or even the Craigslist community. Community-based art (alternately called community cultural development) is art created by members of a specific community to express their history, identity, hopes or concerns. While practitioners of Community-based art are often classically-trained artists, their focus is as much on the process as the product, deeply engaging the experiences of the individual participants and paying close attention to the dynamics present within the group. Community-based art can be practiced with any community, yet it is normally used with disenfranchised or oppressed communities as a way to promote self-awareness and empowerment, opening the doors to community development or collective political action.

The Community-based art movement originated in the mid-1960s, a partial product of the civil rights movements of that era. At that time, artists became increasingly politicized, turning their craft towards the aims of equality and social justice. At the same time, activists began to recognize the power of art to organize and empower communities to advocate for civil rights. Antecedents of the movement included the federal arts projects of the 1930s when the government employed thousands of dancers, actors, writers and painters to create publicly-accessible art while boosting the economy during the depression. Community-based art has blossomed throughout the world, especially in South America, where Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed have developed tools for the field that have been employed worldwide.

Since its inception, the field has struggled with a lack of recognition and support from mainstream arts institutions, especially in the United States. Funders and arts administrators frequently lack the tools to adequately appreciate and evaluate the contributions of Community-based artists, often labeling their work “social service” instead of art. Narrow definitions of “artistic quality” and unspoken taboos on art that is “useful” have served to further inhibit recognition of this important art form. Fortunately, academic institutions are increasingly embracing the field, introducing new programs to train practitioners of Community-based art and to expand research and documentation of the practice.

Throughout its history, dancers and choreographers have played a vital role in the Community-based art movement. These values and practices are applied by many choreographers in the Bay Area, not all of whom identify as Community-based artists. It is important to understand the difference between Community-based dance and community outreach. In Community-based dance, the choreographer serves as a facilitator for the expression of the participants. These projects seek to advance cultural democracy by involving diverse communities in the practice of dance-making. Community outreach aims to democratize established culture by increasing audiences for dance performances that were created through more traditional practices. Some projects contain elements of both, and many choreographers working in the Bay Area are utilizing the techniques of Community-based art as they develop their own dance projects.

In essence, Community-based dance involves an attention to not only the visible physical choreography of the performers, but also what Community-based artist Martha Bowers terms the “invisible choreography” of relationships and connections. According to Bowers, “As is true in most of our projects, there is the actual choreography of the work, and then there is what I call the essential, invisible dance. This is the dance of unlikely encounters that takes place as artists and community members work together, become friends, develop relationships, compare life stories. It is this dialogue that informs the piece.”

“There is the actual choreography… and then there is the essential, invisible dance of unlikely encounters that takes place as artists and community members work together, become friends, develop relationships, compare life stories.”

On a national level, choreographer Liz Lerman has long been a leader in the field. With her company, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, she creates pieces that engage multi-generational community members to tell their stories. Lerman’s Critical Response Process, a format for giving and receiving feedback, is employed locally by Counter PULSE and the Experimental Performance Institute among others.

Locally, the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women is a nationally-acclaimed program directed by Rhodessa Jones. It offers women in prison the opportunity to tell their stories through dance and song. The resulting performances not only transform the participants, but also offer audiences a window onto the effects of poverty, drugs and lack of education on women’s lives. Also working with prisoners, Santa Clara University professor David Popalisky interviewed dozens of people who were convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, many of whom had been on death row, for his “Barred from Life” project. The resulting piece exposes flaws in the justice system through often harrowing individual stories.

The Performing Arts and Social Justice program at the University of San Francisco is one of an increasing number of programs nationwide that gives students the skills to employ Community-based art as part of their artistic education. USF’s Amie Dowling (also featured in this issue) brings to the program a wealth of experience working with diverse communities to articulate and improve their lives through the arts.

For a choreographer or director, initiating a Community-based arts project can mean navigating the difficult terrain of new collaborations, social service agencies, and the implications of class and race differences. It can also be an incredibly eye-opening and rewarding experience. Here are some pointers for dancers, choreographers and arts administrators engaging in these projects, gleaned from my experience at CounterPULSE:

• Examine your motivation. Engaging in Community-based art in order to fulfill grant requirements, or because it will make you or your organization look good, isn’t a valid reason. If you’re doing this for money or recognition, quit now.

• Respect your collaborators. Remind yourself that everyone is an expert and no one is an expert. In other words, while you may have extensive dance training, your collaborators possess equally valuable knowledge in other areas. It’s important to honor existing forms of knowledge in the communities you’re engaging.

• Build relationships with other nonprofit organizations. The key to the success (and sometimes failure) of Community-based art endeavors is the quality of the relationship between the artists and the organizations who provide direct services to their communities. Artists often want to solve problems in marginalized communities—and this is a noble endeavor. However, misguided efforts can lead to subtle forms of cultural imperialism, or simply frustration and failure. At CounterPULSE we find that cultivating solid relationships with social service organizations helps us better connect with the people we’re trying to serve.

• Pay attention to your audience. Successfully leading a Community-based dance project requires attention not only to the craft, but to the performance’s relationship to the audience. How do you want the audience to be affected by the work? Is there a central message you would like them to take away? Depending on your audience it may also be important to translate text in your work and promotional materials into multiple languages. Translation can be problematic and expensive, but when you’re making work in an area as diverse as California, it simply can’t be ignored.

• Make sure everyone is on board. You and your staff should be thoroughly committed and deeply involved in the planning. Often “outreach” events get farmed off to interns. If the program is going to serve as an entry point to your organization for a whole new community, you don’t want the least experienced members of your staff in charge. Also make sure that your collaborating artists are on board. Don’t spring panels, post-show discussions, or community workshops on them at the last minute. Get them involved in the planning, and be prepared to hear what they have to say.

• Ask for feedback. At CounterPULSE, we host post-show discussions and audience feedback sessions after many of our events. We find that audiences are more engaged when they can talk about the work and have new ways to access the concepts involved. We use the Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process for our post-show discussion. Traditional “Q & A” sessions often carry the assumption that the people on stage have all the knowledge and power. Instead, our post-show discussions are rooted in a deep respect for the communities we’re engaging, and a belief that they have something valuable to offer the work. Our thinking about the relationship between performers and audience is influenced by concepts of Pedagogy of the Oppressed—just as many progressive educators are working to upset the power inequalities inherent in the relationships between teachers and students, we’re looking to upset the traditional relationship between performers and audience.

• Pay attention to communication and evaluation. Be sure to set up clear expectations and channels of communication, especially when you’re partnering with another organization. Acknowledge the fact that race, class, ethnicity, gender, and ability all influence power dynamics between individuals and organizations. Pay attention to your assumptions about power and responsibility as you enter into relationships. Do not enter with the assumption that you are doing people a favor by bestowing great art upon them. Clarify how decisions are being made, who’s making them, and who’s benefiting. It’s easy to give everyone a survey at the end of the process. It’s harder to sit down face to face with your collaborators and openly receive honest and sometimes critical feedback about the process. It’s even harder and more important to incorporate that feedback into your future programming. Evaluation processes should always include a time to plan for “next steps.”

• Ensure economic accessibility. Every single event at CounterPULSE has a “No One Turned Away for Lack of Funds” policy. I think it’s impossible to talk about “Community-based” work or to talk about outreach without bringing in economics. If you want your work to be accessible to a wide audience, offering low-cost ticket options is essential. In many ways I believe that the distinction between “dance” and “outreach” is a false one, because if we’re not engaging our communities all the time, then we’re not doing our job as artists and arts administrators. The best Community-based art is so provocative, honest, raw, and moving that there is a blurring of who is ‘serving’ and ‘being served.’ When Community-based art really works, the communities involved supercede the role of a group of people needing “help.” Together, we create meaningful grassroots culture that benefits everyone.

This article appeared in the October 2007 issue of In Dance.

Jessica Robinson Love directs CounterPULSE, an organization that provides space and resources for emerging artists.