Toward and Away: Strengthening Family Bonds Through Creative Dance

By Veleda Roehl


At a community resource center in Berkeley, a young child and her mother are dancing together, playing the “freeze dance” game with the rest of the class. The young child is doing a rolling dance at a low level; when the music stops, she freezes. The mother watches as her child creates a frozen shape. Her head is connected to the floor, her spine is arched upward, her arms outstretched for balance as she looks at the world upside down. “Now, moms, make a big shape over your child.” The families respond to the teacher’s cue. Mother and young daughter giggle over and under one another.

This family has been participating in parent-child dance classes through the MPACT (Moving Parents and Children Together) program for over two years. In addition to taking part in these weekly creative dance classes, facilitated by me and my fellow Luna Kids Dance (LKD) teachers, these family members have also begun incorporating dance play into their everyday lives. When this mother began to notice the learning that her child was engaging in as a part of the relationship-based dance classes, she also began advocating for our program at her neighborhood Head Start center and encouraging other families to take advantage of MPACT’s free parent-child dance classes.

MPACT began eight years ago as a creative solution to a growing reality in the child welfare system. Chantal Sampogna—a dancer, LKD teaching artist, and family attorney—noticed that her client families in the reunification process rarely were provided opportunities for the primary caregiver1 and child to repair their relationship together. Parents were immersed in a system that required parent education courses and therapy sessions separate from services provided to their children. Families in the process of reunifying had few options for interactive play and self-determined bonding. Often they were not aware of opportunities for unsupervised, professionally facilitated play. Inspired by the relationship-strengthening curriculum of LKD’s parent-child dance classes, Chantal established a program structure and curriculum that became MPACT and its corresponding theoretical construct of embodied parent education.

Through partnerships with Alameda and San Francisco County community centers that serve families who are overcoming separation due to homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration, immigration, and domestic violence, MPACT has provided a place for parents and children to bond with one another through play-based creative dance classes. When we meet families for once-a-week dance classes, we are always amazed at the quick progress the children make through conceptual dance play.

Parents learn to see their children in a new and positive light. One mom says of her five-year-old son, “I love watching him—his imagination, things that he can do that I didn’t know he could, how spontaneous he is, and how well he listens when he is enjoying himself, that he doesn’t want it to come to an end. That’s it. I’m able to just laugh with him.” Parents also report that they see positive changes in their children’s motor skills, coordination, self-esteem, dance learning, and language skills. Parents tell us they share their dance class experiences with other family members, neighbors, and folks in their communities. As one parent in a residential treatment center shared, “I got a lot out of it, just by being able to experience the different body parts and how you can use them, and by letting my child lead me, you know, with his imagination … it was fun. I’m looking forward to seeing what else he could be a part of after we leave here.” This shared experience has enabled MPACT to reach more and more families every year. As parents embrace themselves as dancers and creative partners with their children, their enthusiasm makes a lasting impression on the community around them. We find that other community organizations become increasingly open to bringing parent-child creative dance into their centers and their client families’ lives. This community support has been critical in sustaining the MPACT program.

LKD has been able to extend the reach of MPACT beyond our community partners by integrating aspects of the program into the California Institute for Dance Learning (CIDL). The CIDL goal for MPACT is to increase the capacity of dance teaching artists to bring this work to the communities in which they work and live. Dance artists who wish to support families through their art form can learn one way of doing so as interns with MPACT. Interns both develop skills to facilitate parent-child relationships through creative dance curricula and uncover critical questions to ask themselves about the meaning of the work. Ongoing professional development is provided for interns and agency staff who receive regular MPACT programming through CIDL workshops, in-service training, observation assignments and supervised teaching.

Before I came to work for LKD three years ago, my teaching practice and my community work were separate from each other. When I was introduced to the MPACT program, I realized I had been waiting a long time for this kind of opportunity. It has been a great privilege to work side by side with community agencies and families, using dance as our common language. Under the mentorship of senior LKD staff, including MPACT founder Chantal Sampogna, I have gained an even deeper respect for dance education and its place as a community resource. MPACT’s educational model, in which classes are co-taught by two dancing artists, has also given me the opportunity to learn from fellow teachers in the moment.

As dancers, we use our bodies to experience, express, and know ourselves. When we dance together we relate to one another through touch, gesture, and eye contact and through a shared relationship in space and time. It has been my deepest pleasure to bring my love of dance to parents and children as they dance closer to each other.

This article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of In Dance.

Veleda Roehl has been teaching dance since 2002 and working with children and families since she was a middle school student in Fort Worth, Texas. Currently she coordinates the MPACT program, works as a dance teaching artist with LKD, and performs and choreographs with Malia Movement Company and The Dance Animals.