Typhani Harris | October 2016

Social Justice & The Arts

Social Justice has taken center stage in our society, and our digital culture hangs on every post.  Although a very touchy subject, our place as educators are to present fact, foster safe outlets for discussion, and encourage our young leaders to embark on social justice change; and the arts are the conduit to nurture all three.

Over the next two weeks, we are going to explore a couple of texts that have made it onto the educational scene at a time where social justice is at an all-time high.  Although, as a nation it makes us feel better to think that racism, segregation, and discrimination are merely frayed threads in the fabric of our history, the unnerving and bitter truth is that they are the tattered cloth that cloaks our society and we choose to turn a colorblind eye in the name of social progress.

The arts present a social outlet for students to unmask their realities and take a stance on the important issues they face as our future leaders.  Bringing global issues, current events, and social justice into the classroom can have an amazing chain reaction in the way our students display temperament, tolerance, and their truth.  One way to build a connection between social justice change and the arts is through the understanding and use of the engineering standards.

The most exciting connection I have found between dance and engineering is the overlap of the engineering design process and the composition process.  There are a couple different process outlines out there but they all revolve around the same principles of Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, and Improve.  This pair nicely with the choreographic process of Inspiration, Explore, Plan, Create, and Revise.  So any time we are composing movement, music, or visual art for an audience we are essentially engineering the art.

Engineering as Inspiration

The Next Gen standards offer a road map of engineering practices, for example: defining and delimiting engineering problems, developing possible solutions, and optimizing the design solution.  This can be a great starting point for movement and can be used as inspiration or as a blueprint for choreography.   As inspiration, have students research a global issue (clean water, pollution, famine) and use that as the theme of their movement.  Begin with movement phrases that showcase the problem at hand.  As the piece progresses build phrases to show possible solutions, and complete the performance with the chosen solution to the problem.

Engineering as a Blueprint

The engineering process can also be used as a blueprint for composition.  As students are working with movement, composing phrases, and designing their pieces, refer to the engineering process and engineering design language as a foundation for revision.  Once students have created their movement, have them perform it for the class.  Have the class present a problem that they are seeing within the choreography and then have the choreographer go back to the drawing board, decide on possible solutions to the problem, and then improve the piece by employing one of the solutions.

This can be a larger class effort by having the choreographer present the piece and then discuss a problem they have encountered in the choreography.  Allow the class to offer multiple solutions to the problem, and then have the choreographer choose one solution to revise the composition.

This lesson can be used in multiple ways.  It is a great culmination project and an even better senior project where students can tap into the foundations that they have learned over four years to create their final proposal.  It can also be as close or far-reaching as you would like.  Propose the question “how can dance impact our community/our world” and invite all solutions.  This can involve immediate charity events such as dance-a-thons, larger community projects such as free dance classes, or global solutions such as using lessons from costume design to teach members of a tribe to sew.  No solution is too far-fetched, encourage students to think as big as they want.

I have used this as a senior project which resulted in an art collaborative that is now in its 5th year.  One of my 2010 seniors proposed a Day of the Arts, where children from the community can enjoy a full day where they carousel through the various arts programs we offer and the day culminates in performances for their families.  My 2010 dancers decided they liked this proposal so much that they wanted to make it a reality.  It is completely student produced where the leaders of the arts disciplines all come together to plan and create the Day of the Arts each year.  My students have also experienced this globally.

In 2010 we partnered with Movement Exchange (then, Dance Bridges), a nonprofit organization that brings dance diplomats into the orphanages of Panama to teach dance to children and produces a show in the city’s national theater.  The program has volunteered almost 7000 hours of service and the sustainability of year-round dance programs in Panama.  Movement Exchange has recently expanded to India as well.  All stemming from one dancer’s dream of taking dance globally.  For more information about the Movement Exchange, you can read this article.

Social Justice, Education Closet

About the Author

Dr. Typhani Harris, author of Putting the Performance in Performance Task and Stop Teaching, brings over 2 decades of educational experience to The Institute. Originally a high school English Language Arts teacher, Dr. Harris transitioned into a dance educator who cultivated an award-winning collegiate style dance education program at a public school in California. Prior to joining the Institute, she was an educational leader and instructional coach specializing in preparing new teachers in secondary urban schools.  As the Executive Director of Academic Affairs, Dr. Harris maintains courses, conferences, and the accredited certification program at The Institute.