SPEAK By Sarah Crowell

By Sarah Crowell


“Dance is the fastest, most direct route to the truth.” –Gabrielle Roth

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to dance, sing and tell stories. In all of the home movies from my childhood I am spinning, kicking, belting out a tune, and smiling ear to ear as I put on a show. I can see myself getting the neighborhood kids together to create choreography with them. I am teaching the moves to the music, handing out the costumes and making sure everyone comes to rehearsals on time. I am setting up chairs and getting the parents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents to sit in the audience and pay attention. I am cueing up the music and inspiring my performers to do their best. I am twirling in my favorite tutu and bowing to the applause.

I feel like a big kid now. The stakes are higher, the audiences are bigger, the tickets are more expensive, but otherwise my life is the same. I bring young people together to create a show that means something to them. I build an environment that is safe, encouraging and disciplined. I make sure that the production aspects of the show are smooth and professional so that the performers’ talent and skill can shine. I invite their families and communities to witness what we have created together.

Photo by Julie Skoler
Pictured: Sarah Crowell
Photo by Julie Skoler

As a child, performance was a natural and joyful expression of my love of life. As a teenager, dance and performance were my means for survival. By then I was living with my single mother who was struggling to make ends meet. I did well in school, but I just couldn’t figure out the high school social scene. No matter how bad things got, I had dance. In dance class I felt free. I fit in. I had goals that I knew I could meet. I could work on touching my toes, getting into the splits and hitting that double pirouette, even if I couldn’t deal with the way the girls in school talked about me behind my back. Every bead of sweat that rolled down my body released me from another day of high school torture.

At the same time that I was discovering my dancer self, I was learning about the world around me. I was infuriated by the injustices that I began to understand, and moved by stories of people struggling to make the world a better place for everyone. My parents were ardent social activists. My mother worked with women’s groups to fight against sexism and racism. My father was involved with the peace movement, dealing with issues from environmental justice and nuclear disarmament to global monetary policy. I was passionate about the same issues, but I didn’t know how to mix the seemingly self-centered world of the performing arts with this growing fervor to be an agent of social change.

In my adult life I was able to bring those two parts of myself together. At 25 I moved from the East Coast, where I had worked with numerous modern and jazz dance companies, to the Bay Area, where I began to work with Dance Brigade (dancebrigade.org) a feminist dance/theater company that does work around social and political issues. The work was exhilarating. Finally I was able to blend my passion for justice with my passion for dance and performance. Through Dance Brigade I worked collaboratively on choreography and theatrical pieces that told stories about issues that were important to me. We created shows like Pandora’s Box, which was an exploration of women’s history and the rise of patriarchal society, and Good-bye Columbus, which told the stories of America’s colonized people. Dance Brigade also created and produced a Bay Area holiday favorite, The Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie, which was a political spoof on the Nutcracker Suite and used a community cast of about 70 dancers, musicians, acrobats and aerial dancers.

Working with the Dance Brigade laid the foundation for my dance and theater work with young people. I started working at Destiny Arts Center (destinyarts.org), a youth violence prevention and arts education organization based in Oakland, in 1990, and found a place were I could bring my passion for dance, theater and social justice to youth. I started the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company (destinyarts.org/pages/performance-companies) in 1993 with Kate Hobbs, a black belt martial artist and started co-creating original movement/theater works with groups of teens. For 20 years I have co-created gorgeous works of art with teenagers that speak, breath and move their struggles, hopes and passion for justice in their own lives, the lives of their communities and in the world. In this way I know that I have given them the understanding that the performing arts is a powerful instrument for social change as well as personal transformation.

Teens need a positive outlet for self-expression. They need a community that recognizes their value. They need a place to shine. They need to know that they can have a positive impact on a world that often seems like it’s spinning out of control. That’s why I continue to be so passionate about the work I do with the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company. Through the process of co-creating and producing movement/theater pieces about their own lives, young people increase their self-esteem, their self-acceptance and their courage to tell their truths. Through the process of developing their own scripts they also clarify their values, and develop their critical thinking and performance skills.

There are a hundred stories I could tell about young people’s transformations through the performing arts style that I have developed in collaboration with many professional artists since 1993. Stories about young women who talk about hating their bodies, but find peace knowing that their stories have touched other young women in their audiences. Stories of young black men who talk about what it’s like to feel that people are afraid of them as they walk in the world and how they long to be free from other people’s fear.  Stories about young immigrants who reclaim their cultural identities. Hundreds and hundreds of stories. After 20 years of coaching and teaching and facilitating groups of youth I am still constantly in awe of the power and beauty that emerges when they are pushed and encouraged to go beyond where they think they can go physically, mentally and emotionally in a place that is consciously created to be safe for them. Magic happens. Every time.

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of In Dance.

Sarah Crowell is a retired professional dancer who has taught dance, theater and violence prevention for over 30 years. She is the Artistic Director Emeritus at Destiny Arts Center in Oakland, where she served in different capacities from 1990-2020, including Executive Director. She founded and co-directed the award-winning Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company, which was the subject of two documentary films. Sarah facilitates arts integration, anti-racism and team building professional development sessions with artists and educators, both locally and nationally. She has received many awards, including the Bay Area Dance Week award, the Alameda County Arts Leadership award, and the National Guild for Community Arts Education Milestone award. She is a four-time finalist for a Tony Award for Excellence in Theater Education. Sarah performed and toured with Impulse Jazz Dance Company in Boston and the Dance Brigade in San Francisco. She also co-directed the dance/theater company, i am Productions!