Dr Gemma Collard-Stokes, Researcher in Therapeutic Arts at the University of Derby, believes that in order to restore our meaningful relationship with the natural world, we must have access to experiences and ways of knowing that help us develop these bonds. Here she discusses why Dance performance and participation offers us encounters of belonging, of kinship and of care, so we might fall in love with the planet again.
Depending on our background and life experiences, thinking about dance can bring several images to mind. We might think of young children practising ballet, or celebrities being put through their paces for weekly tv entertainment, crowded dance floors on a Friday night, or whirling through a community hall to the infectious beat of a folk band. You might also think of lavish productions; performances of well-known stories told through expressive bodies, emotive music, and skilful staging.
Dance provides many beneficial functions and all-round health benefits. When we take part in dance, we build empathy and confidence, it provides a vehicle for self-expression, it helps fight depression and reduce effects of stress, it fosters social closeness, it builds a sense of community, and improves cognitive functioning. But dance is also useful for communicating and sharing ideas.
Choreographers have been harnessing the communicative power of dance to provide social commentary for centuries. From performances which tell traditional narratives found in mythology, fable and folk tales, to contemporary life experiences of displacement, inequality and racism. Dance is a valuable means of conveying messages of awareness and education.
Presently, dance is finding a way to join the fight for climate action. As an act of physical storytelling, dance performances provide audiences with an opportunity to reflect on current times. Audiences can see correlations between the world on stage and world they live in. When we witness these performances, they stimulate emotion and empathetic insights, two components that can sometimes be missing from the factual world of science.
While science shines a light on the extent to which nature has been ecologically marginalised in Western-centric culture, the arts are stepping up and reminding us that meaningful lives do not exist without meaningful connections with the rest of the natural world.
In an increasingly techno-industrial society, our daily practices are withdrawing ever further away from nature. This possibility brings about the troubling idea - that the human-nature relationship will continue to dissolve. Much of the thinking underpinning nature-based solutions to the climate and biodiversity crisis, draw from kincentric (viewing humans as part of nature rather than separate from) ecologies. This indigenous way of knowing and perceiving our relation to nature acknowledges the importance of a reciprocal relationship with the natural world. Recentring kincentric philosophies and practices dismantles humancentric (human focused) pedagogies and prioritises and fosters kinship instead.
But how is dance being used to communicate the necessity of climate action?
While it might seem an unlikely coupling at first, dance and environmental science have much to gain from a cross-disciplinary partnership. Through their findings, scientists have been working tirelessly to educate and build public awareness of climate change. Although these efforts are numerous and wide-ranging, the anticipated impact has not been sufficient, and science continues to struggle to communicate and mobilise. Science requires different methods of reaching beyond its field and dance provides this alternative.
Through dance, environmental science not only expands its reach but increases its chances of minimalising persistent patterns of climate change denial and scepticism. Human emotional responses are often triggered by the way we individually evaluate an event. When we experience an event, we also begin to have associated thoughts and feelings that accompany this and contribute to our overall emotional connection. Facts cannot create enough power on their own, therefore, to incite action, messages of climate change require an event that connects with its audience on an emotional level.
The more access we have to stories of climate change, the more intense our emotional connection will become. Dance is uniquely situated to help science navigate this delicate mix of factual knowledge and empathy to provoke change. Science in partnership with dance brings these messages to life by capturing our imagination.
Current research exploring dance and climate change
Recently, I have been working on several projects that aim to reconnect people with the natural world and encourage climate action. Each of these projects takes a different approach but the aim is the same, they all examine the ways dance can support individual and community efforts to build a sustainable relationship with nature.
These projects are interested in the impact of introducing environmental knowledge through dance performance and participation. In this way, the research hopes to identify the usefulness of dance in reframing climate and biodiversity conversations, so they appeal to a larger audience.
Roam is a project run by choreographer Ella Fleetwood and funded by Arts Council England. During the project 60 pupils, aged between nine and 11 attending a West Sussex primary school, took part in an intensive week of dance activity. The workshops designed and facilitated by Ella involved outdoor creative dance experiences that responded to themes of climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis.
These workshops introduced the young people to new ways of exploring their connection to green spaces and the natural world through physical and imaginative enquiry with the environment. Over the course of the project the young people identified wellbeing benefits and expressed developing a stronger awareness of human-nature relationships. There was also a significant response to changes in resilience when considering themes of climate emergency and what the future has in store.
The Roam project is currently being shaped into a national tour of schools and will be the first phase of this evolution in 2022. As part of this endeavour, I will be working alongside Ella and her company ella&co, to explore the longer-term benefits of outdoor creative dance to sustainable relationships with the environment.
In another project, I am working with a poet and a visual artist to create an interdisciplinary performance that brings the stories of the previously coal mined Bakestonedale Common in Macclesfield to life.
We began the project driven by our intrigue into the ways haptic and visual aspects of the Common influenced our experience of it. This then led to a wider interest in how the multiple narratives between the history and the lived experience of this landscape could be communicated through performance-based activity.
Our work has taken a multisectoral approach thus far and involved dialogue with landowners, farmers, industrial historians, speleologists, brick manufactures, miners, and scientists. As we work through the project, we are developing an understanding of the way these narratives shape our perceptions of this landscape and its future.
Following the notion of “anticipatory history” we are developing ideas that form traces and connections between past, present and future manifestations of environmental change. The creative activities that interweave dancing, poetics and visual arts bring about an alternative way for an audience to engage with the land through scientific information, lived experience and historic narrative, helping us convey messages of ecological developments.
Dance holds the potential to increase climate change communication and mobilisation and should be supported in its effort to connect with the field of science in meaningful ways. Dance offers significant benefits to the field of science as it works to encourage a sustainable human-nature relationship. I like to imagine that soon, when we think of dance, we will think of environmental action.