Dance Movement as a Way to Help Children Affected by War

Article excerpt

Who can escape the worldwide violence wrought amid the 21st century? Many children fear that they or someone they know will lose a relative or friend through terrorism. Many have. We, as professionals in dance movement therapy (DMT), dance education, and physical education, must help children to overcome their fears in order to feel safe and to build self-esteem. The effects of war remain years after any peace agreement. Let us examine how specific countries use dance education and therapy to help manage the trauma of violence and loss. We pose the question, "How can we help the healing?"

Afghanistan: Dance Represents Hope

"A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive," observed Azita Ranjbar in Afghanistan. Ranjbar recently completed a two-month internship in Kabul with the Afghan Women Judges Association. This private organization defends women's and children's rights. The Soviet Union's invasion, the Mujahideen wars, and the United States' involvement have resulted in two decades of what has been called the "forgotten war." Ranjbar emphasizes, "There are many psychological effects from the wars. And yet the arts play a crucial part in this healing process."

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, human rights advocates reported that even children's innocent joys, such as traditional dances and kite flying, were banned. Since the 2001 overthrow of this regime, 2,500 international organizations have participated in reconstruction. According to Azita, arts classes, performances, festivals, and museum exhibits have given these children hope and a sense of freedom to express themselves. At this writing, boys and girls were openly learning traditional dances that create a sense of pride and respect for the many cultures within the country. At one event Azita attended, young women performed the post-wedding dance called attan as a celebration of life. In Kabul, the traditional dance may now be celebrated with men and women together in a circle. Azita believes, "The emerging opportunities for Afghans to engage in their traditional arts will foster a peaceful and hopeful new beginning."

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United States: Coping with 9/11

Dance is an excellent way for children to build self-esteem and to develop socialization skills even in peaceful times. Soon after 9/11, American children suffered from fear and confusion throughout the United States, and dance played a major role in helping these children affected by the terror. In the award-winning Paramount film Mad Hot Ballroom (2005), fifth graders in the New York City public schools prepare for a dance competition, through a program called "American Ballroom Theatre (ABT) Dancing Classrooms." Alyssa Polack, then principal of the participating Tribeca Learning Center in Manhattan, was not keen on competition, but she thought ballroom classes would benefit the children as a form of physical education and a way to develop emotional and social growth. Polack was thankful that the program, scheduled before the events of 9/11, was already in place to help the children who were traumatized. Some children were traumatized immediately, others showed the effects only after several months--or even two or three years later. Some withdrew and could not concentrate, while others experienced separation anxiety. They all needed to express their feelings in a way that would make them feel secure and empowered, both individually and together.

Polack hoped that ballroom dancing would give the children a goal and a sense of pride, to keep their minds off the attack, and that the dancing would be uplifting--"something good has to come out of this!" Many children learned about their heritage and about respecting other cultures and one another. Polack is also grateful that ABT is still offering ballroom classes in more than 60 New York City public schools. Movement and physical education can provide a sense of mastery and empowerment to children who are experiencing feelings of helplessness. …