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Holding Space

Brie Jessen-Vaughan

I have come to realise that one of my primary roles as a dance teacher is to hold space for my students’ creative processes. In the past week, in the outpouring of grief, disbelief, love and sadness, the most powerful thing I have been able to do to is to give my students space to create.

When a terrible things befalls a community there are many responses to it; in the wake of the Mosque attacks in Christchurch, we have collectively experienced the full spectrum of emotion. Many people have written about it, in addition to the thousands who have shown their support in practical ways, or made space in their grief for togetherness through community vigils. It is fair to say that it has dominated our lives for the past week and a bit. And rightly so.

As adults we have been surrounded by multiple view points. I have read countless news reports, opinion pieces, challenging academic perspectives on colonialisation and institutional racism, heartfelt memoirs of people’s lived experiences as Muslim, as person of colour, as victim and listened to political media briefings. It has been a lot to process. And yet, as a teacher, I think we have forgotten a group. Somewhere in the middle of all of this are our young people, quietly taking it all in and struggling to process it all.

For many of them, this will be the first time they have felt their world shift on its axis; the first time they really realised that the world was not quite what they thought it was; that all people are not inherently good. Our younger children may be reassured by the words of their parents and teachers, by writing cards, offering flowers… maybe that is enough for them. But for our teens, who have seen more and are seeking more in an effort to understand how the world could be so cruel, we need to give them more. We need to acknowledge their pain. Their world has just cracked. They are desperately trying to make sense of it now. Nothing seems quite right and it never will again.

As teachers in dance, in the arts, we should be asking ourselves, what can we do for our young men and women right now? You might wonder, why the arts at a time like this? But I would argue, that right now, more than ever, we need the arts. The arts bring us together, to transcend the mundane and transform lived experience into archetype. The arts are able to capture what we haven’t got words for, but do our young people know this yet? Have we shown them?

Our young people are the future, and they know this. You only have to look at the thousands that turned out for the School Strike for Climate Change marches around the country and the world to see that our young people are confident in their knowledge that they are the future. But they need our support as teachers to find their voices. They need to see that art, and especially dance can be a means of activism, of speaking out, but also a means of quiet contemplation, of processing and a space to facilitate understanding.

It is a truly powerful thing when you, as an adult, an experienced arts practitioner, can hold the space for them to do just that. In my contemporary classes this week, with dancers age 11 - 17, we set aside all our classwork, to process what had happened. We talked briefly but mostly we danced, cried and moved. And then they began to create, and when I stepped back and held the space, supported the structure and encouraged gently, something beautiful began to emerge and the energy in the room changed. It was palpable. And my students felt it too.

I firmly believe that dance, especially contemporary dance, has the power to heal us when we use it to create and to tell our own narratives. But where do our our young people see this? How do they come to know it? Maybe we, as adults, know instinctively the healing power of dance, but if we do not model this as dance practitioners, as artists, choreographers and teachers, we are shortchanging our young people. If we do not make spaces for our young people to seek solace in the arts and create in order to process in the wake of tragedy (or for that matter any big emotion) we are denying them one of the most precious gifts the arts have to offer.

American composer and playwright Jonathon Larson once said “the opposite of war is not peace, it is creation!” As artists, dancers and choreographers, we should not sit silently with passive peace in the wake of tragedy, but as teachers in the arts, we fail our students if we do not help them to discover the power of creating.

So, to my fellow dance teachers: encourage your students to turn to the place they find solace - whatever it is that is their creativity. Remind them that when words fail, when our voice seems too small and there is no right thing to say, that we have other means of expressing ourselves. That to dance is to share, to communicate. And to communicate is to have a voice, and to raise your voice is to have power. And that with power we can bring about change.

To my students: don't ever let anyone tell you dance or the arts can't be political and are frivolous. Dance is an act of self expression, an act of defiance, a story, a prayer, a promise, an outlet, a place of solace and a statement about the things we believe in. Don't just dance because you love it. Dance because you have something to say that you can't put into words. Dance when you can't find the words. Dance to open hearts and minds. Dance to connect.

Holding Space

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