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Photo: Kate Holt/Flickr
The joy on the faces of these performers in Kenya illustrates a universal truth: people love to dance. And it turns out, dancing informs our development in significant ways.

There’s something about being human that inclines one to dancing. Not necessarily ballet or hip hop or ballroom dancing, but dancelike movement that is part of everyday lives. The research on this may surprise you.

Kimerer LaMothe writes at Aeon, “Dancing is a human universal, but why? … What if humans are the primates whose capacity to dance (shared by some birds and mammals) was the signature strategy enabling the evolution of a distinctively large and interconnected brain, empathic heart and ecological adaptability? And what if dancing plays this role for humans not just in prehistoric times, but continuing into the present? …

“Researchers are discovering the vital role played by bodily movement not only in the evolution of the human species, but in the present-day social and psychological development of healthy individuals. Moreover, it is not just bodily movement itself that registers as vital in these cases, but a threefold capacity: to notice and recreate movement patterns; to remember and share movement patterns; and to mobilise these movement patterns as a means for sensing and responding to whatever appears. This threefold capacity is what every dance technique or tradition exercises and educates.

“According to the New York University neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás, writing in the book I of the Vortex (2001), bodily movement builds brains. A brain takes shape as it records patterns of neuromuscular coordination, and then remembers the outcomes in terms of pain or pleasure, emotional tags that help it assess whether to mobilise that movement again, and if so, how.

“In so far as bodily movements build the brain, every movement a human makes matters. Each repetition of a movement deepens and strengthens the pattern of mind-body coordination that making that movement requires; and the repetition also defines avenues along which future attention and energy flow. Every movement made and remembered shapes how an organism grows – what it senses and how it responds. …

“Humans have a unique capacity to notice, recreate and remember patterns of movement. More abundant in the human brain than any other mammalian brain, mirror neurons fire when a person notices a movement, recreating the pattern of neuromuscular coordination needed to make that movement. In this way, humans can learn to recreate the movement of others – not only other humans, but also trees and giraffes, predators and prey, fire, rivers and the Sun. As the neuroscientist V S Ramachandran writes in his book The Tell-Tale Brain (2011), mirror neurons ‘appear to be the evolutionary key to our attainment of full-fledged culture’ by allowing humans ‘to adopt each other’s point of view and empathise with one another.’

“Nevertheless, the term ‘mirror’ is misleading; it hides the agency of bodily movement. A brain does not provide a passive reflection. As eyes register movement, what a person sees is informed by the sensory awareness that his previous movements have helped him develop. He responds along the trajectories of attention that these previous movements have created. From this perspective, dance is a human capacity, not just one possible activity among others. …

“In this light, every dance technique or tradition appears as a stream of knowledge – an ever-evolving collection of movement patterns discovered and remembered for how well they hone the human capacity for movement-making. Most of all, dancing provides humans with the opportunity to learn how their movements matter. They can become aware of how the movements they make are training them – or not – to cultivate the sensory awareness required to empathise across species and with the Earth itself. In this regard, dance remains a vital art. From the perspective of bodily becoming, humans cannot not dance.”

This Aeon article came from the website Arts Journal, which brings together arts stories from around the world. Read more at Aeon, here.

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Photo: J. J. Williams/Public domain
Hawaiian hula dancers photographed in J. J. Williams’s photo studio, circa 1885. The art form was suppressed for many years but is now celebrated around the world.

I was thinking recently that I’d love to learn some new dance forms. I took lots of ballet as a kid, and I keep reading that dancing is good for your health when you’re older. Essentrics, an exercise program I love, has taught me to focus on moves that are beneficial, not contorted. So what kind of dance would be good? Someone I know teaches salsa. Should I try that?

The following article got me wondering if hula might be good for me.

Ligaya Malones writes at Atlas Obscura about Hawaiʻi’s Merrie Monarch hula festival, “arguably the most prestigious event of its kind.

“Every spring, thousands of hula fans descend upon the Hawaiian town of Hilo and line the bleacher seats at Edith Kanaka’ole stadium. Thousands more across the islands — those unable to make it to Hilo themselves — watch live broadcasts on their televisions or computer screens. All these people are showing up and tuning in for the beloved Merrie Monarch Festival, sometimes referred to as ‘the Olympics of hula.’ …

“The three-day competition is part of several week-long events held throughout Hilo, home of Merrie Monarch since 1963. … Much credit is given to King Kalākaua, the last of Hawaiʻi’s kings, for reclaiming hula’s place in Hawaiian society. He was elected to the throne in the 1870s by the Hawaiian legislature, and often hosted hula-filled celebrations, including at his coronation. Merrie Monarch was Kalākaua’s endearing nickname and it is his contribution to hula that the competition honors every year.

“ ‘It’s electrifying,’ says Robert Ke’ano Ka’upu IV, who grew up in Hilo. Ka’upu has participated in the invitation-only competition for the last 30 years as a spectator, dancer, chanter, costumer, and now as kumu hula. … ‘I don’t get excited like this for any other competition,’ he says.

“During the festival, every inch of a performance is scrutinized. Dancers are evaluated and earn points for the way they enter and exit the stage, their facial expressions, posture, costume, lei, and adornment, says Ka’upu. However, the bulk of scoring is placed on the kumu’s interpretation of a song, known as a mele, and how well dancers interpret their kumu’s vision of the performance.

“To assist in deliberations, every competing group provides judges with a fact sheet that corresponds to each performance. These fact sheets, which are due before the competition, explain everything from a mele’s background to the meaning of the lei that dancers wear ‘so [the judges] get a better understanding of what each halau is doing,’ says Ka’upu. He adds that his halau will submit more than 70 pages of fact sheets to the judging panel for the competition this year. Judges bestow high scores to those who best personify technical excellence, and ultimately the expression of Hawaiian identity through chant and dance. …

“Hawaiian culture existed without the written word until western contact, so Hawaiians passed down knowledge orally and through dance. Through chant and movement, hula narrates place; honors goddesses and gods, such as Pele, goddess of fire; celebrates nature’s surroundings, from birds to waterfalls; and records genealogy and human emotion. ‘Kaulilua,’ for example, is one of Merrie Monarch’s most performed ancient hulas. The mele likens a woman to the island of Kauaʻi’s verdant Mount Waiʻaleʻale. …

“As Western influence grew and Hawaiʻi’s fate approached annexation and eventual U.S. statehood, so did the need for local manpower to fuel its new sugar economy. In 1858, missionaries with a keen interest in sugar’s profits pursued legislation to suppress hula even further, citing lethargy in sugar cane fields, promiscuity, and attrition from Sunday service. Records show a code of conduct published in 1859 required a license for ticketed, public hula performances. Yet hula persisted under the mesh of legal restrictions and moral shaming. Hawaiians still danced, particularly in more rural areas where government oversight trickled, missionary presence was scarce, and police all the more so. ‘Hula was never lost,'” says Dr. Taupouri Tangarō, director of Hawaiian culture and protocols at University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

For more on the competition and for more-contemporary hula photos, check out Atlas Obscura.

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Photo: Cliff Grassmick
Lucy Wallace, the co-founder of Dance to Be Free, incorporates jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop into the dance classes she offers in women’s prisons.

My friend Asakiyume has been a tutor in a women’s prison for several years, where she has learned that many inmates got in trouble after suffering repeated abuse or gross failure by the educational system. Most students, she says, are grateful for any attention from outside and are determined to do better on release. I think she would like this story about a dancer serving incarcerated women in the South.

Maria Di Mento writes at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Lucy Wallace is a dancer who has spent a lot of time in prison. That’s because Wallace, the co-founder of Dance to Be Free, travels the country teaching dance classes to incarcerated women to help them cope with depression, despair, PTSD, and complex trauma. …

“Despite her assumption that most prisons would turn her away, not one has.

‘I’ve never had a warden say, “No, we don’t want your program,” ’ Wallace says. ‘They’re grateful to get programming, especially in rural areas that are so remote no one goes there to volunteer.’

“A former dance major who has a master’s degree in psychology, Wallace incorporates a mix of movement styles into her dance classes, including jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop, and a variety of musical genres. …

“The program involves writing exercises and group discussions that let the women talk about their lives, how they coped with their first few weeks in prison, their biggest challenges, and what they’re getting out of the classes. She provides the prisons with DVDs of the classes and has certified about 400 prisoners who can lead the courses.

“Dance to Be Free is in 13 prisons in eight states and operates on a budget of about $100,000 a year. Few prisons will pay for the programming, something Wallace would like to change. For now, the charity receives all of its funding from individual donors, raising roughly $175,000 since 2015. …

“Wallace is holding off expanding the program for the time being and is instead focusing solely on the South, especially Mississippi and Florida, where she says women’s prisons are in deep need of programs.” More here.

From the Dance to Be Free website: “Our mission is to radically improve the lives of incarcerated women through the healing power of dance. We use ‘Cathartic Choreography’ to both train the inmates and teach them a new skill. We have seen this technique help our students deal with physical and mental illness, including PTSD and complex trauma.

“During our teacher trainings inmates gain confidence as they experience leadership and responsibility, often for the first time in their lives. That sense of accomplishment flourishes as our students learn to not only express themselves through dance, but to free others to do the same.

“Throughout this transformative experience, we teach the nuts and bolts of choreography, timing and flow, and just as importantly we facilitate journaling and sharing exercises that nurture introspection and self-awareness that inmates often need.”

I found the nonprofit organization’s video very moving.

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Photo: Bangkok Post
Masked dance tradition rises from near extinction in Cambodia.

Dictators try their hardest to wipe out whole cultures and groups of people. They can do horrific damage, but they can never fully succeed in their evil intentions. From whatever is left, new shoots will grow. The Khmer Rouge and the tyrant Pol Pot (1963 to 1981), for example, thought they could crush traditional arts in Cambodia, but today those arts are rebounding. In addition to resurrecting Cambodian ballet, devotees are also bringing back masked dance.

Check out this story by Chantha Lach, Panu Wongcha-um at Reuters.

“Cambodia’s centuries-old tradition of masked dance was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge’s ‘Killing Fields’ regime, but a handful of artists managed to keep it alive and are now working to pass it along to a new generation.

“Sun Rithy’s father and grandfather were both performers of the Lakhon Khol masked dance, but the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge — who scorned most art as decadent — banned its study when he was a child in the 1970s.

“Now 48, Sun Rithy leads one of the last Lakhon Khol troupes in Cambodia, made up of about 20 performers and students aged six to 15. …

“Lakhon Khol was recently listed by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, as an intangible cultural heritage, along with neighboring Thailand’s version of the dance, known as Khon. …

“ ‘In the Khmer Rouge, I was young and they didn’t teach people dance. Lakhon Khol was destroyed,’ said Sun Rithy, who started to learn the dance when he was 14, after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power.

“Ahead of a recent rehearsal, students stretched their legs and hands at the troupe’s a newly built theater at Wat Svay Andet, a Buddhist temple outside the capital, Phnom Penh. …

“Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, Phoeurng Sackona, said that the dance needed immediate preservation and urged all people to get involved.

“ ‘Elderly performers are trying to preserve the dance at this Wat Svay Andet,’ Phoeurng Sackona told Reuters. ‘But it is up to young people whether they agree or not to receive knowledge from the elders.’

“Thailand’s version of the dance has fared better than its neighbor’s, but practitioners still depend on recruiting a new generation of performers. Thailand’s Khon tradition, originally centered on the royal court, is now taught by many schools and universities.

“Mom Luang Pongsawad Sukhasvasti, 67, has followed his father’s footstep in making Khon masks since he was 10 and still hand-fashions the masks from his home studio in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok.

“Each mask takes a month to produce, from molding the plaster to drawing the intricate details. Pongsawad said the UNESCO listing could boost awareness.

“ ‘Teachers now must do more than teaching the dance,’ he said. ‘They need to help students understand the roots as well to preserve it.’ ” More here.

This effort reminds me of the book Farenheit 451, which takes its name from the temperature at which book paper burns. Did you see the movie, with Julie Christie playing two different women? In the Ray Bradbury story, a future civilization bans books, but in a secret camp of outlaws, each individual takes on a book to memorize to keep the treasures of literature alive. They walk around most of the day reciting David Copperfield or whatever. The experience of Cambodia suggests the 1954 science fiction story was not so far-fetched.

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Photo: Pari Naderi 
In the dance called Stroke Odysseys, projections reveal stroke victims’ inner thoughts.

What is your experience of stroke? Both my brothers recovered from theirs, but our father was incapacitated by a stroke in his late 40s and lived as an invalid for the next 23 years. Medicine has improved a lot since then, as have programs that get people moving again.

At the Guardian, Lyndsey Winship has an interesting story about life after stroke.

“It was around four in the morning when Pauline Boye woke up and realised she couldn’t move. ‘I was unable to get up,’ she remembers. ‘I called to my partner, “Can you help me? I can’t get up!” ‘

“Boye, who was 47, had suffered a stroke. She spent four months in hospital, and was left with physical impairment down her right side and difficulty with her speech. The former nurse suddenly went from caring for others to being the one in need of care. Once she was home, she didn’t want to leave the house. …

“Boye was shy even to speak, worried that people wouldn’t understand her. But eight years later, on stage in front of me, she is acting out a scene based on her time in hospital, her voice carrying across the stage. Clearly she is not ashamed any more.

“The transformation is thanks to the [UK] organisation Rosetta Life and its director, Lucinda Jarrett, who works with artists and health professionals to devise arts projects that have a meaningful impact on the lives of people with brain injuries. For Boye, this now means touring the country as a performer in Stroke Odysseys, a production by choreographer and director Ben Duke and the composer Orlando Gough, featuring a cast of musicians, dancers and five stroke survivors. …

“The physicality of each person is different and shows vulnerability but also determined strength. Through a series of scenes and songs, the performers’ experiences – of struggling to express themselves, mixing up words – come to life, with projections cleverly revealing inner thoughts and subtext. …

“The discipline of rehearsals, the camaraderie and the drive towards performance can offer very real motivations and therapeutic benefits. ‘The key outcomes are increased mobility, increased cognition, increased verbal articulacy,’ says Jarrett. One in three people experience depression after a stroke, but evaluations of Rosetta Life’s work shows that it has ‘enabled people to change the perception of their disability and look forward to a new life’, says Jarrett. Reducing depression means people stay more active and are less isolated, and hopefully therefore less prone to accidents, second strokes and hospital readmissions.

“In that light, it is surprising when Duke says: ‘I’m interested in the idea of dance as a useless activity.’ But he goes on to explain the benefits of physical activity that have no practical function. When you lose the use of one hand, for example, you tend to use your other hand instead, and the impaired hand becomes weaker as a result. Whereas with dance, the performers are asked to make gestures simply because it’s the choreography, and they’re forced to do things they might not otherwise. …

“ ‘For Pauline, dancing was a big part of her life,’ Duke says, remembering the day she brought in some videos of her dancing at a wedding. ‘But the first time she talked about it, she stood up and she [danced], and even now with her limited movement, it’s all there. Physically it is a fraction of how she used to be, and yet, it’s there. The body lights up.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: James Glossop
Scottish Ballet expands Dance for Parkinson’s classes to cities across the country.

The class that comes right before my Essentrics stretch class on Thursdays is for people with Parkinson’s. The participants seem to enjoy it. One man, who is said to be over 100, routinely leaves the class with a smile on his face.

Exercise classes for people with Parkinson’s are not new, but there are always new locations offering them and new techniques to help people keep moving. Consider, for example, this report from Scotland, where the Scottish Ballet has a program.

Jeremy Watson writes at the Times, “Research has shown that dance can help people with the degenerative disease physically, mentally and socially. [At the Scottish Ballet,] staff and volunteers help participants develop movement skills with particular emphasis on fluidity, balance, co-ordination and posture. The sessions include activities focused on problem solving, improvisation, vocal skills, memory and multi-tasking.”

The Scottish Ballet website adds background. “Established in 2016, the Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland programme supports those with Parkinson’s to experience the benefits of dance and creativity — improving balance, spatial awareness, confidence and fluidity in movement. Every week, around 75 participants take part in sessions delivered by Scottish Ballet in Glasgow and Dance Base in Edinburgh. …

“The warm and informal Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland classes feature elements of ballet and contemporary dance with a focus on Scottish Ballet’s repertoire. Using the themes and movement from current productions, specially trained Scottish Ballet and Dance Base Dance Artists lead participants to develop movement skills with particular focus on fluidity of movement, balance, coordination, expression, posture and rhythm.”

The Edinburgh Parkinson’s site says that the aims of the classes “are to

* wake up stiff muscles and improve flexibility,
* encourage mind-body connection,
* improve co-ordination and balance, and
* increase self-awareness and self-esteem
* in a supportive and joyful environment

“The social time at the end of each session is a chance to make connections and feel part of the dance community. … The teachers have a wonderful sense of light-heartedness and fun which they bring to the classes. Live music is an essential ingredient, and we have a talented pianist, Robert Briggs, providing the accompaniment, so the music is used flexibly to encourage movement and development of sequences. …

“The original concept, arising from collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group in New York, is now increasingly practised worldwide among the Parkinson’s community.”

Patients’ partners and caregivers attend the class that I’ve looked in on, and they are welcome to participate and get some exercise, too. The musical selections are great, but unlike in Scotland, there is not a live accompaniment.

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Photo: Fred Hatt
Mana Hashimoto is a New York City–based contemporary dancer and choreographer who, despite losing her eyesight, is determined to keep dancing and making dance.

We all have obstacles that rise up in our lives, but for some of us, the obstacles are exceptionally daunting. That was true for the dancer in this story, who made up her mind that her career would not be lost when her eyesight was lost.

Victoria Dombroski interviewed her for Backstage.

“Mana Hashimoto is a New York City-based contemporary dancer and choreographer whose career has spanned from her native Tokyo to many stages worldwide. She also happens to be blind. After losing her eyesight due to optic nerve atrophy, she was determined to keep dancing despite the unexpected obstacle. Since then, she has dedicated her life to merging blindness and dance, and to create artistic works through the use of her remaining senses.

How did losing your eyesight change your trajectory as a dancer?
I trained as a classic ballet dancer and it’s very common that when you take class, you have to check in the mirror to see how you look. It becomes a sort of obsession and trap, consciously or unconsciously. I think it was a relief that I no longer had to see myself in the mirror, but instead be in the moment and be with myself and accept who I am physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Were there certain things you learned about yourself as a dancer after losing your sight?
“I learned how to accept who I am, [to] be free, and to observe myself internally. It changed my perspective of what beauty is. Visual information can be overwhelming and we are shown what beauty should be instead of who you should be. …

What advice do you have for blind dancers and dancers with disabilities?
“I’m still a work-in-progress as a human being, but if I could advise something: keep enjoying dance. If there are some challenges, you can take them as opportunities to make your dance original. Any challenge is a door we didn’t expect we could open. …

What would you like to see more of in the New York dance community?
“I think more accessibility and openness to have visually impaired participants for workshops and classes. Once we have the right access, dance is open to anybody’s needs. I would also like to see more verbal description for dance performances. Before my performances, I invite visually impaired audiences to feel the space; they can touch and feel the props and costumes. …

What advice do you have for dancers encountering major setbacks in their dance career?
Hold onto your hope. I think it’s very important to share your difficulties along with your dreams.”

More here.

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