Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Investing in a Safe Space" by Emily Oleson

When I first started to collaborate with Urban Artistry, I was touched by their openness and the warm welcome I and my fellow Irish step dancers received.  I decided I wanted to study with this group of artists who had created one of the healthiest and happiest dance communities I had ever encountered.  I had to ask myself: what does it take to invest in a community, a cause, and a culture? Should you be from it, of it, or in it?  I knew from being involved in several different dance traditions that there are various ways to enter a new dance scene - I also knew from studying the idea of "community dance" in general that different approaches often determine how and how long people remain engaged.  I appreciate many of the ways that Urban Artistry creates and maintains a real community.
Investment in a common “topic” (whether political, aesthetic or social) seems to lead people to a space and time where their interests can be shared.  This is obvious.  What might not be so obvious to scholars and dancers from very formalized areas is that structures and rules already exists within dance communities that are self-sustaining.  The shape of a culture's organization might not look familiar at first, but when I look carefully I have found parallels between urban dance cypher culture and traditional Irish music etiquette, for example.  Understanding that rules exist, perhaps below the surface or by other names, has helped me identify and follow them with sincere efforts toward respecting leaders and peers.  Dancers who come from one dance culture to a new dance culture, say from contemporary or modern dance to urban dance, might have assumptions based on their own training that will be challenged in a new environment.  This is healthy, fun, and produces artists with broader minds and skill sets - it's a good thing for everyone.   I am learning from Urban Artistry members that there are three "T's that promote investment - "Time," "Transparency," and Tension."

It might behoove community dance practitioners who come into a group from the outside to spend an extended amount of time observing the existing aesthetic values.  What do the people you are there to serve consider beautiful or excellent?  Rather than pre-programming an agenda based on an imagined need, we can ask questions, both subtly and explicitly.  We can do this as students of a new style, discovering fresh goals, or as teachers in a new setting, realizing we have a range of tools and skills to offer.  Many leaders in the field of "Community Dance Practice" establish this as one of the most important of their "best practices."

The community should expect a high level of transparency and accountability on the part of incoming dancers.  Visitors should respect prior community members and protect them from oppressive or irrelevant judgment.  I find entering a new world of dance is a great opportunity to learn about my own preferences and assumptions.  There is no need to project shortcomings on other dance forms because they are not my favorite. I don't need to change, rescue or enlighten anyone so that everything can be my favorite thing - and I don't need to pick just one thing.  I like crossing over between different dance communities and building bridges for collaboration and play.  I also see most other members of Urban Artistry spearheading these kind of projects, without public funding or support.  This is inspiring.  My hope for the field of Dance Education is that with real attention and respect towards established dance artists in a variety of backgrounds, project-based community dance that's enriching to existing communities can be funded to have lasting and sustainable impact. 
Where many different people are all invested in a similar aesthetic/political/social topic, a certain amount of tension is inherent.  We don't have to look at tension or disagreement as a knife dividing communities into sub-groups.  We could look at the sub-groups or individuals in a community as charged particles orbiting around a single nucleus.  The tensions are like the electro-chemical charges that keep things alive and in motion around the common theme.  Just as some structures can’t be built or achieved without a certain amount of tension (hanging a hammock for instance), there might not be true community without internal dissent on some level – maybe.  There are stories from disparate individuals coming together to make group, creating counter-narratives across generations and backgrounds.  Creating safe space for dissent (instead of only trying to foster consensus) would definitely constitute another "best practice" for community dance.
The safe creative spaces that are bound by the three "T's,"- time, transparency, and tension, are not necessarily value-free spaces.  I have to admit I have personally spent a lot of time complaining about aesthetic hierarchies that discriminate against urban and folk arts (like those that might show up in higher education).  Still, I do see that within most communities certain organic hierarchies are present. 
Continuing the metaphor of particles in orbit, there are certain pathways and spheres of orbit that are closer to the nucleus than others – this is how I see hierarchies of artists manifesting within some communities.  There is a music jam at Augusta Heritage Center's Old-Time week called the “Onion Jam” where the instructors are in the center, and it radiates by skill level from there - respecting existing hierarchies might be a best practice, too.  
These are not linear, vertical, list-like hierarchies, but mobile, changeable proximity to the source of the art form.  In Good Foot Dance Company, my partner Matthew Olwell and I sort of orbit around each other- interacting, playing off of one another- creating our own pathways and yet following traditions.  This is also a necessary kind of motion in a dance company - you don't always maintain the same role, and you're not always the one on top.

Beat Retreat Teaser
Perhaps the saying “you get out what you put in” explains the fact that artists who invest the most in the form seem to be more central in the scene.  They are fed by the art form emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and hopefully materially -  but perhaps one can only be nourished by the form and the community by being responsible for oneself.  Being transparent about your intentions and background helps to set a tone that inspires generosity in others and helps create the safe space for the community and the individual.  The space, perhaps filled with a healthy tension, between the individual and the group, holds our communities together.  

Meet the Author: Emily Oleson:
Emily Oleson started as an intern with Urban Artistry, and has become an Artistic Director because of her background in the connections between Irish and European step dance, Appalachian flatfooting, and tap.  She recently graduated with an M.F.A. from University of Maryland and is the co-founder of Good Foot Dance Company, which specializes in remixing American vernacular dance into innovative “Trad Dance Theatre.” Emily's article, "Two Shoes, Same Foot: Vernacular Dance and Concert Dance" was recently published in Dance USA. She also has an upcoming performance at Flurry Fest with Urban Artistry's Executive Director, Junious Brickhouse in February.