Dance as a Refuge

TCDE performing on benefit tour

When I was a sophomore in high school, my dance company, the Tennessee Children’s Dance Ensemble sent me along with a small delegate group to perform in Jordan. It was through a partnership with ArtReach, a non-profit based in Atlanta, GA that parallels our ideals regarding art’s therapeutic capacity. We performed for organizations geared toward empowering women, along with school systems, but my favorite performance was in Jordan’s largest Palestinian refugee camp.

Our opening number was an excerpt from a crowd favorite called, “Focus Fusion.” The piece incorporates traditional Wah Lum Kung Fu with modern dance and utilizes fans. The piece begins calmly until the first loud synchronized “pop” of our fans. As soon as the noise was made I watched as all the children instinctively dropped and covered their heads fearing it was a bomb. We had performed this number so many times it was second nature to me but never before had an audience had such a reaction.

Afterwards we did activities with the kids and a few of the students read excerpts aloud of stories they’d written. I was so accustomed to reading the little dancers’ stories at my studio that always began with “Once upon a time” and featured a princess that met her prince charming. These began the same way but the premise of the story took on a different tone. They told heartbreaking tales where the “happily ever after” didn’t entail a castle and throne; rather it meant having a “home” where all people were accepting of one another.

Upon finishing our workshop and performance, a little girl tugged on my pants. I bent down to her and she told me how grateful she was that we visited. She wanted to become a writer one day and said we inspired her. Before I left she told me that no one thinks it’s worthwhile to visit the refugees but whenever a visitor does come, the camps morale suddenly increases.

For some of the children, the only home they’ve ever known has been the refugee camps. In Jordan, Palestinian refugees can acquire citizenship but their rights are limited if their ancestry is of Palestinian descent. Now, Palestinian refugees are being denied entry to most Arab countries due to the overwhelming amount of Syrian refugees coming in. The overfilled camps damage children’s future by shaping their education on conflict. Few visitors come to the camps and morale is weak.

Studies all support that dance has the capacity to help with cognitive and physical development, emotional maturity, and social awareness. Dance (and the arts in general) have been used to unite people for centuries. They’re proven to boost moods and build self-confidence as well as offer a mode of self-expression. This being said, it’s extremely beneficial to be included in refugee programs. Likewise, sending teachers in a sort of exchange program should become normative. As artists and people, it’s important to be exposed to everything that’s going on in the world around us. Remaining in a safe bubble only filters our perception of experiencing a full picture of life.

Earlier this year, a picture of a young Syrian refugee boy washed up on the beaches of Turkey was released. People were stricken with grief and closed their eyes to it. I refer to it often not out of enjoyment but because I never want to create filters to something because it evokes negative emotions. By closing our eyes, we’re enabling injustices to occur to people whose fate is unfairly determined by the country they’re born in. As refugees, they crave exposure to the freedom that comes from having a voice. As artists, we know that dance is a beautiful means of encouraging just that. Part of an artist’s job is to spread their craft through outreach. Regardless of your take on refugees or the conflict that surrounds them, studies all point toward dance being a viable tool for uniting people and promoting acceptance.

As a dancer soon entering the profession, I expect to see more outreach to refugees and people who would otherwise lack access to dance. As a citizen, I hope to see more funding that allows artists to perform outreach in response to the war stricken world. And as a human I hope to see acceptance of people through the arts. The little girl whose fantasy story begins with “once upon a time” shouldn’t end with “acceptance.” Instead, acceptance should be a birthright that is carried out by humanity. That being said, I believe that dance and the arts is an excellent vehicle to make her fantasy become a reality for all people regardless of their nationality or affiliations.

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