Sara Potler, Dance 4 Peace: Inspiring Social Change through the Art of Movement
-Interview by Corinne Mitchell, Administration and Outreach Manager
Sara Potler, the 2012 Generation Peace Award winner, is the founder of Dance 4 Peace. Since 2007 the program has worked with over 5,542 youth in 15 cities on 4 continents to inspire social change through the art of movement. Sara values turning young people and adults into leaders and sharing ownership to ensure that the Dance 4 Peace movement is sustainable beyond herself.
Where did the idea for Dance 4 Peace come from?
Dance 4 Peace began as part of my Fulbright Scholarship in Bogota, Colombia in 2007. As a life-long dancer, I have always personally struggled between a career in dance and a career in social change. I embarked on my Fulbright with the intention of examining peace education programs in the outskirts of Bogota, but when I saw the way students responded to dance and music in their physical education classes, I felt compelled to tap into my creative passion as a vehicle to inspire the same social, emotional, and civic competencies my Fulbright team was working toward in a more conventional classroom setting. It was during my Fulbright Scholarship that I authored the first iteration of the Dance 4 Peace curriculum, using what the students and I both loved, creative movement, to arrive at peace education learning benchmarks.
What is it about dance that can promote peace?
Naturally we’re drawn to dance because it’s fun, participatory, inclusive, and physical. Who doesn’t love to dance? Our theory of change is that increased empathy, promoted through a movement-based, culturally sensitive curriculum, leads to a community-wide decrease in bullying and violence. Our research proves that empathy is a cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic construct. The kinesthetic dimension of empathy allows us to feel the physical state of another person with our own body, which is a crucial component in the perception and expression of emotions. The ability to identify and express your emotions and those of others is a key competency we espouse in our peace education curriculum.
Why the focus on youth in your programs?
It is a common misconception that our programs only target youth. We offer a progressive, pipeline curriculum that is grade-level specific and evidence-based. We work with pre-kindergarten participants through curriculum designed for semester 1, then semester 2, followed by curriculum for kindergarten semester 1, then semester 2, all the way through to adults. Our evaluations are designed to gauge age-specific metrics. Because the curriculum is progressive, we are able to keep participants engaged by having Junior PeaceMover high school students experientially teach back lessons learned to lower grades. In this way, our impact is cyclical and sustainable. We approach various stakeholders―adults, teachers, family caregivers, community administrators, and students―in our peacebuilding process.
Tell me about one time when you really knew the program was working.
In the spring of 2011 we worked with a school in Southeast Washington, DC. In this particular classroom, there was one student who suffered from severe ADHD and unfortunately did not have regular access to his medication. He initiated a fight almost every Dance 4 Peace session. Throughout the semester, we stressed the concept of active listening by creating a move to represent the concept. In this class, active listening was shown through holding your ears out, taking a deep breath, and keeping your eyes focused on the person who was speaking.
During one of the last sessions Dance 4 Peace conducted, the student mentioned was bumped into by his classmate. Normally, the student would have jumped at the chance to physically strike back. In this case, the student took a step away, took a deep breath, grabbed his ears, and said, “Why did you step on me? Why did you step on me?” His classmate replied, “Sorry! It was an accident!” The first student shrugged and they walked out of the cafeteria together in peace.
What would you say to other young people who want to make a difference in promoting peace?
If you think big and you challenge what’s currently being done, you can find ways to fuse your passions and interests to effectively create change. Personally, I thought I had to choose one path or the other―performing arts or social change―and had no idea how to live a life of purpose doing both.
Do not be afraid to question the status quo, because there’s always a more effective or comprehensive way we could think about peacebuilding in our communities.
What has most surprised you about the reactions of people to the program?
Oftentimes, when people hear about Dance 4 Peace, they have a hard time conceptualizing how we use creative movement to inspire empathy and transform conflict in a community. They think we are teaching dance class or dance technique, when in fact none of our data assesses physical or artistic outcomes. It’s been surprising to see how, after visiting one school or engaging in one session, teachers, parents, and administrators immediately and intrinsically are able to comprehend what is a complex concept―movement-based learning. They’re able to innately feel in their bodies the power of corporal expression to achieve social and emotional learning outcomes.
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