Exploring Power and Agency in Early Childhood Dance

By Aiano Nakagawa

December 1, 2018, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

In the current political backdrop of the United States and the slew of problems we’re facing, the role of the early dance educator has never been more vital to ensuring a just, equitable, and sustainable future. In our efforts to confront issues such as rapid climate change, mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline, the rise of Neo-Fascism, racism, xenophobia, gentrification, the houseless crisis, capitalism, etc., we need as many creative problem solvers as we can get.

As an early childhood dance educator, I understand my work as a direct action towards building a world in which all people can be seen, honored, and live freely. As children already see the world in their own unique way, I believe creative dance in ECE can support children in sustaining and deepening their creative and critical thinking skills. For example, when I ask young dancers to make a sharp shape, I want to see as many varying sharp shapes as there are dancers in the room and then I encourage them to find another way, and another way, and another way… so they’re able to explore all of the possibilities.

Dance, like many things, can be used either as a tool of oppression or liberation. Growing up, most of my dance experiences consisted of me trying to fit my big, Brown body into a mold constructed by Eurocentric and white-supremacist aesthetics of beauty. Although I had been dancing my whole life, it wasn’t until college, in my first improvisation class, that I began to feel and connect with my body. Through this experience of feeling and connecting, I began to heal from a long-term eating disorder and to access my Power from within. I began to shift from using dance as a tool of self-oppression to one of self-liberation. And along this journey, I continued to imagine what life might be like if we didn’t have to unlearn oppressive cultural norms and could instead live in our Power throughout childhood and adolescence.

As 80% of the brain is formed by the age of three[1], the messages we receive in those first three years literally shape how our brains understand the world for the rest of our lives. This is why so much of anti-oppression work with adults consists of unlearning toxic cultural norms deeply ingrained in our brains.

Now, I invite you to imagine what the world could look like if we did address ideas of power and social equity in early childhood, when children’s brains are learning at such a rapid rate. I think that as a society, we underestimate the innate intelligence and capacity children have to learn about social justice issues. They have a natural sense of justice and want things to be “fair.”[2] I don’t think it’s appropriate to bog them down with every terrible thing happening in the world, but I believe it is possible to cultivate developmentally appropriate ways for children to explore these topics and to me, dance is one of those ways.

Within the current dominant U.S. culture, the most common way we understand Power is through oppressive power or, power-over. In turn, we internalize Power as something we attain when we have power over other people. The power-over structure is the root of all patriarchal (hierarchical) structures, including white-supremacy, ableism, adultism, ageism, classism, cisnormativity, heterosexism, sexism, etc. A step towards dismantling these power-over systems is to cultivate Power-with, also known as inner Power, Power-to, and Empowerment [3].

Developmentally, four-year-olds are all about exploring power [4] – I see them punching, kicking, slashing, and running as fast as they can through space. Instead of prohibiting dancers from using these movements – which are actions that can be used in violent and oppressive ways – I encourage them to use their full Power, but never towards another body. This allows the dancers to still explore Power, but not at the expense of another person’s autonomy, safety, or wellbeing. Encouraging children to explore their powerful movements also allows them to realize that they don’t need to exercise dominant power-over another person to be Powerful, but rather that they are already Powerful on their own.

There is also immense Power in knowing one’s boundaries and having the agency to make one’s own decisions. As dance educators, we can support children in claiming their agency through activities like freeze dance. Three-year-olds, in particular, are just coming into their individual bodies, experiencing it as separate from their primary caregivers. Freeze dance with body part articulation can aid children in being able to identify their body parts as they build confidence through knowing they have the power to control their body [5].

In every class, I practice a tactile activity, not only to support learning where our bodies start and end in space but to give everyone a chance to learn about our body’s preferences. Without fail, in every class, there is one child who jokingly yelps “Ow! Ow! Ow!” as they pat up and down their body. I use these moments to remind the whole group that we are the ones in charge of our bodies, and if we are doing something that hurts our bodies, we have the power to stop and/or shift our actions.

I end this activity by opening the space for children to share what kind of tactile touch they enjoyed most. By doing this, I hope to encourage children’s ability to be aware of and name their body’s preferences. I also hope to hold space for the spectrum that exists between the child who needs a harder, heavier tactile experience to feel grounded and the child who needs lighter, gentler touch because they are extremely sensitive.

In this process, young dancers become attuned to their own needs/preferences and to the varying needs/preferences that exist amongst their peers – needs/preferences that are all valid and worthy of being honored.

When children are aware of their boundaries, they are more able to speak up when they have been crossed. However, even if we recognize our boundaries being crossed and we speak up, we have seen time and time again that the dominant culture does not teach us to understand that no means no.

As a society, we are at the beginning of our journey in practicing consent and addressing harmful power dynamics. Building kinesthetic empathy through dance can help move the dominant culture towards one where when a boundary is crossed, the person crossing the boundary can intuitively sense they’ve crossed a line, step back, and address it. As dancers, we know the deep connection that is built with the people we sweat, move, and create with. I believe that through creative dance in ECE we can cultivate experiences of kinesthetic empathy, encourage creative problem-solving, exercise critical thinking, and explore Power – all of which are all critical components to actualizing this future world.

[1] The Urban Child Institute, “Baby’s Brain Begins Now: Conception to Age 3,” http://www.urbanchildinstitute.org/why-0-3/baby-and-brain
[2] Alison Gopnik, “Four Year Olds Don’t Act Like Trump,” New York Times (May 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/opinion/sunday/4-year-olds-children-trump-gopnik.html?mcubz=0
[3]   Nieto, Leticia. “Part One: Reading Social Interactions.” In Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone, 13. Cuetzpalin Publishing, 2010.
[4]  Reedy, Patricia. Body, Mind & Spirit in Action: A Teachers Gude to Creative Dance, 72. Berkeley, CA: Luna Dance Institute, 2015.
[5] Reedy, Patricia. Body, Mind & Spirit in Action: A Teachers Gude to Creative Dance, 71. Berkeley, CA: Luna Dance Institute, 2015.

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

Aiano Nakagawa is an Oakland based queer, mixed, big bodied dance artist of color working towards liberation through education, healing, and community-based creative practices. As an M.A. candidate in the Women, Gender, Spirituality, and Social Justice department at CIIS, Aiano works to develop a deep and practical understanding of intersectional and decolonial justice to inform her work/practice in all areas of life. As a full-time faculty member at Luna Dance Institute, Aiano works with dancers from infancy to adulthood, with a specialty in family dance and ECE. In addition to her work as a dance educator, Aiano is the founder and creative director of Art for Ourselves (artforourselves.org), a community-based online publication dedicated to centering the stories and voices of the QTBIPOC creative communities.