Unleashing Dance’s Potential

By Nancy Ng

September 1, 2018, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Nancy, writer of article and Theo presenter hugging and smiling for the camera
Nancy and Theo at Presencing Institute Photo by Gillian McCarthy

Lying on a clean wood floor in a light-filled room in Germany, with 80 leaders from 22 countries; I am asked to take 20 minutes to breath and pay attention to my body, gradually move organically (without thinking), rise to a standing positon and take a few steps. There are many things remarkable about this moment – two months ago, I did not know I would be at this Leadership Institute, I did not expect that embodied experiences would be used to solve the world’s global problems, and the most remarkable of all – Arawana Hayashi, the movement facilitator, was my husband’s dance teacher in 1970 at Denison University in Ohio.

In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined this scenario, or the coincidences that would unfold during the week. The dance teaching credential was lost in 1970 – the same year my husband Tim rehearsed and performed with Arawana. For Tim, who grew up as a young child in a traditional 1950’s household, dancing in an improvised performance was one of the most profound moments in his life. In my mind, his experience is juxtaposed with the launching of a 46-year equity effort to reinstate the dance teaching credential, a certification for K-12 public school teachers, so more children have opportunities to dance. And, coincidences withstanding, one of the reasons I was selected for this leadership opportunity was because of Luna Dance Institute’s work to reinstate the dance teaching credential.

For several years I sought opportunities to deepen my leadership skills among an arena of colleagues beyond arts education. I felt I could learn to become a more effective dance equity advocate if my leader voice was practiced with others committed to social justice work and systems change. When I was not selected to my first choice program, Move to End Violence, I decided to design my own professional development by board of director involvement with state and national arts education service and policy organizations. My service on these boards and my participation in the K-12 visual and performing arts dance standards revision led to an invitation to attend the Presencing Institute’s Foundation Program with seven other California arts education leaders.

The Presencing Institute (PI) grew out of organizational development work created by Peter Senge at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. In yet another coincidence, Luna’s non-profit organizational structure was, in part, inspired by Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline (you can check this book out at the Luna library). Established in 2011, by Otto Scharmer and his colleagues, The Presencing Institute was founded “to create an action research platform at the intersection of science, consciousness, and profound social and organizational change.” A central feature of their worldwide programs, which have been experienced by 100,000+ leaders, is Social Presencing Theater (SPT), developed by Arawana. By participating in SPT’s movement investigations for two hours each day, we learned to open ourselves to new ways of seeing, paying attention, and sensing possibilities.

aha Dance Moments

The foundation of the Presencing Institute is the “Theory of U.” Trying to describe this to my 14-year old daughter, she retorted, “It sounds like a cult”. I had to admit that even though I am a dancer, I was skeptical about the validity of SPT’s embodied experiences to significantly shift my practical mind. The premise of the Theory of U is that our global humanity is experiencing three great divides—an ecological divide (self to nature), a social divide (self to others), a spiritual divide (self to self). To change the current system that we are breathing, living, and working in we need an open mind (will), open heart (compassion), and open will (courage) to counteract fear, hate, and ignorance. The process is not to leap across the divide from one cliff to the next; rather is it about going deep, as represented by the letter “U”. Coincidentally, the systems change tools to “go deep” are similar to the tools we use as dance-makers and dance educators every day, including observation, reflection, inquiry, and applying and learning with prototypes. In PI lingo prototypes are experimental, iterative, and “owned by the stakeholders.”  After the first day, the Theory of U seemed less cult-like and more familiar. As a dance-maker and educator, I understood how the artistic process could change worldwide systems.

At the same time, I was still skeptical about SPT. This was across-sector leadership training and the majority of my colleagues came from non-dance fields such as disability rights, sustainable agriculture, climate change, values-based banking, and universal healthcare (the latter two concepts actually exist in Europe). My doubts disappeared after we moved through the “Stuck Exercise” and the “Seed Dance.” These dance scores were practiced in groups of four to five people with plenty of time for everyone to experience each person’s “Stuck” dance. Each person in a group had a chance to be the “choreographer” and place the others into their “Stuck” sculpture. Once each person had embodied their shape, they moved and interacted as it made sense in the moment, until the dance organically evolved into a culminating “Stuck” shape. Immediately, each person in the group said the first sentence that came into their mind.

We tried the first person’s dance, and he experienced an “aha” right away. He shared that his heart was pounding rapidly, and he could not describe in words how he felt, but it was clear that he was closer to understanding where his perspective was stuck. My turn was next, and I secretly wished I would also have such an impactful experience. As my “Stuck” dance unfolded, any lingering skepticism I had or envy of others dropped away as I saw that the ending sculpture made perfect sense, and shifted how I was stuck from uncertainty to possibility. Each sentence shared by the dancers in my group clearly took me to new understanding. We never discussed our issue or problem, yet we each found meaning in this dance journey.

Another “aha” moment appeared in Theo van Bruggen’s “Seed Dance.” It is the dance of the future, and in this score the beginning and ending shape are the same. As I moved into the ending shape fitting into the curve of Theo’s extended arm I felt a profound sense of completion – the feeling you have with a long-time dance partner that feels like coming home. It took both Theo and I by surprise – we spontaneously hugged afterwards. Theo works for the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, a world miles apart from mine yet this dance moment was an indescribable connection. Social Presencing Theater is described as using “ . . . simple body postures and movements to dissolve limiting concepts, to communicate directly, to access intuition, and to make visible both current reality, and the deeper – often invisible – leverage points for creating profound change.” Without a doubt, I experienced this with both dances, and I was surprised and enthralled to witness embodied movement as a core part of a global movement to change systems.

Open Heart, Mind and Will

“Where are you experiencing a world that is ending or dying?
“Where are you experiencing a world that is emerging, wanting to be born?”

We were asked these questions on the first day of the Presencing Institute program. My gut response to the questions included numerous negative thoughts, based on fear and a lack of hope, so I was intrigued by the responses in the room. My colleagues from other countries approached their answers from a “possibility” place. Right away I recognized my struggle as a dancer educator was being reinforced by an outdated way of thinking about dance’s place in American culture. This way of thinking is based on defending the art form and competing for resources, and had become a habitual response. I began to wonder if my early doubts of SPT reflected an unconscious struggle to truly embrace the power of dance to address the really difficult issues of our time.

I realize that NOW, more than ever is the time for dance. It is time to let go of the past, stop being defensive about dance, and stop living in a deficit-based model. Over 100,000 change-makers worldwide, who are not dancers, are using what we dancers know to make meaning, disrupt present systems, and create a better future. We are returning to our humanity in a world that sometimes feels like it is spiraling out of control. One of humanity’s first art forms is revealing what is possible for our world.

On the home front, I will be working with my fellow California intersectional leaders to take the next courageous step toward making equity through dance a reality. We live in a state with abundant dance resources and a new dance teaching credential. As one of the dancers said at the end of my “Stuck” dance, “[it’s] in the palm of your hand.”

This article appeared in the September 2018 edition of In Dance.

Nancy Ng is Executive Director of Creativity and Policy and Dir. of Early Education at Luna Dance Institute. She continues to learn from young children. Luna faculty members have written other articles for this journal which delve into early education and dance. You can read Exploring Power and Agency in Early Childhood (Nakagawa, A. Dec. 2018), and The First Steps: Luna Dance Institute (Reedy, P. May 2012)