Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Youth!

Our biggest miracle. Our opportunity as humanity to become more than we have known our lives to be thus far. The future. This is what I feel when I see a young person. And by young I mean someone who is young enough to not have the freedoms to make completely independent choices. Someone who still depends on mommy or daddy or auntie or sister or grandma or teacher to direct them toward the best options. So when I see a young person, sometimes a child, sometimes an adolescent or older teenager, I see the potential of great things cascading before me. And lucky me, I get to share a dance with him or her, to widen that lens of possibility, that awareness of how and what one might imagine the world to be.

Today I bring a DVD of me dancing OSA for my middle school students. We are four today, confined to a little room with no windows, intrusive desks, and a rough carpet. Today, this is where I am supposed to create the “Dance Playground,” and as I work hard to move past my frustration that the principal of this newly renovated building refuses to allow us to use the brand new dance studio—for the DANCE class--I wonder at the sensation Jesus might have felt having to turn water into wine.

Michael informs me that I have sweat stains under my arm. Adrienne takes her boots off and on, and then off again and then hides under the table. Ana ducks out of the room and down the hall and into the girls’ bathroom for 15 minutes. I play some music so we can stretch, “we” meaning whoever’s attention I have for more than 30 seconds. Michael tells me that I now have two sweat stains and that he has deodorant. They all laugh at me; finally I think, “a united class.”

There are so many intersecting factors contributing to why I've been placed in this very un-ideal location to facilitate dance. I could let my thoughts meander through all the issues plaguing this well-funded, poorly managed after school initiative, but my time is limited with these beautiful students and I always want to them to experience my best "me." Besides, pointing any fingers would delay you, my dear reader, from answering the urgent question of personal responsibility that sparked this essay: What can I do to enhance access for young people to safe spaces in which they can explore their creativity? This is all our responsibility, and overemphasis on "accountability" and "outcomes"--without acknowledging the societal dismissal of holistic youth enrichment programs and the relegation of "the arts" as the neglected step-child of the education system-delays us all from articulating our own responsibility. I could go on, obviously!

My goal has never been numbers. Even though headquarters stressed at the orientation that if we couldn’t show regular attendance our programs might be cut or revamped—I really don’t care. Add to this supposed stipulation that the space I’m in is too small to safely accommodate more than three children, and again I’ll say--in the interest of providing the best experience for my students--I am not preoccupied with expectations from the central office at this point. I am admittedly much more interested in the quality of experience for each child and not how many children I can work with at once. It’s extremely rewarding for me spend an hour with one child, if that’s what the day brings. Especially since most of the young people I’m working with at this school seem to move to their own drum. Those kids not in any clique and not extremely popular and those who don’t get a lot of attention anywhere else. So if my two, maybe three, hours with them a week satiates that very important need for attention that we never outgrow—then I am more than happy to provide it.

Anyway, these three brave youth have come to experience the “Dance Playground” and are not at any fault. They are just children, bored from sitting all day and hungry for lots of sugar candy and a new experience. I am opposed to the candy, but if I want to keep them in the room, I have to make some concessions.

I celebrate every seemingly ordinary movement that my students invent. Adrienne makes the snow with silent, waving arms. Michael falls to his knees swooshing back and forth over the carpet to be the beach’s waves at sunset. Ana opens her arms wide and sings a high-pitched chant to be the sun. I hop with flying arms to be the wind. Together we all dance each other’s favorite element of nature. No, I have not explained the “point” of this exercise. In fact as I was instructing them to think of something for their nature element, I did not even know where I was “going” with this. I knew I needed us to sit in a circle for a minute. I needed everyone to listen to me and to each other in turn. And from this spontaneous stab at order came the dance of snow-beach-sun-wind.

(me doing the movements my students created)

After we build the dance, I record them with my digital camera. Then we watch all the clips together. They love seeing themselves dancing and they hover over my shoulders anticipating the images of their captured creativity. They do not laugh or tease each other, rather they respectfully wait to see each other’s solo clip and smile gleefully. It’s a rare moment of peace and community for children who have been cutting each other with mean words, pulling hair and swinging fists, occasionally.

Finally, I show them the OSA video and ask them what they thought about it. Ana says she liked me dancing in the subway station because all the people were looking at me. She said she’d be too shy to dance outside. Michael says he thinks the ending was bad and that I should have let the tambourine lady from New Orleans have the spotlight. No matter their opinions, it’s important to me that I show them examples of me being courageous with my art, suspending my ego in city streets and grocery stores--yes, even if people think I'm crazy--doing things outside of the box. I want them to know that when you love what you're doing with your life, you don't care about other people's opinions. And as their “teacher,” I want them to SEE me doing everything I’m asking them to do.

When I say goodbye to them, I ask them will they come back next Tuesday. Michael says “sure!” Ana shrugs and rushes to join Michael in the never-ending scavenger hunt for food. I pack up my CDs and put my shoes back on, contemplating all I would do differently if I had my own school and could rewrite the priorities of educational policies. I thought how I would write an amendment to somebody’s constitution called “Standards of Excellence in Dance and Movement Education” or something like that and have it ratified and signed and whatevered by other dance and movement educators.

The first article: “Let There Be SPACE!” And I would have detailed information for how to ensure adequate space for each child, and what is good space and what is not enough space. I would gather support from all parents, teachers, students, administrators and stress the critical movement we all must make. On one hand it really baffles me how ignorant the policy makers are on the importance of space, but then again, these are the same administrators who don't incorporate any movement into their own lives--why would they treat it as a priority for the youth? If you raise a child in a cage, then as she grows up she’ll never dream bigger than that confined space. That’s not something I’m willing to let sit on my consciousness, and so I’m going to make a big noise about the absolute importance of access to large, safe spaces for our youth to explore their creativity-WHO'S WITH ME?