Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Dance Performance: Giving Voice to the Community

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Dance Performance: Giving Voice to the Community

Article excerpt

This project used oral history contributed by community story-tellers as source material for choreographic work performed in the community. The oral histories focused on four major areas: arrival (migration), social life, spirituality and segregation/civil rights. Public performances took place at the university, local schools, and the community center in the neighborhood on which the choreographic narrative was based. The project involved processes for representing a multigenerational, multiracial community history while at the same time meeting the pre-professional educational needs of student dancers. These processes, some known in community theater and community dance projects, provide a basis for reflection on combining student and community goals in dance and other performing arts.


Traditional service-learning practices in dance are commonly based on providing pre-professional performance and teaching skills to student dancers. These may have such objectives as providing teaching opportunities in schools and community organizations, giving university dance students the opportunity to develop their own choreography for or with community participants, and performing in local schools and organizations. These are all vital elements in service-learning for university dance students. However, it is possible to broaden this range of practices by invoking some of the research tradition of dance studies and dance ethnography (Berg, 1999; Desmond, 1997; Foster, 1995; Fraleigh & Hanstein, 1999; Franko, 2006; Frosch, 1999; Koritz, 1996; Martin, 1998; Morris, 1996; 2009) to design a community-based performance. In the academic field of dance studies, ethnographic methods often are used to study dance as the object of research, or to study dance as a window on a particular culture. It is possible to invert this process by using research methods such as oral history and ethnography to produce raw material for the creation of new dance works. Doing so invokes processes known in community theater and in community-based dance projects. In both, dance (or drama) can serve as a form of narrative representation, providing an artistic voice for community members. However, dance has some distinctive features that derive from its use of movement as the primary modality of expression. This paper reflects on using service-learning as a vehicle for broadening pre-professional dance training to incorporate neighborhood stories in choreography and community performance.

The specific project to be described here employed oral history data to inform the choreography, but this was only possible as part of a much larger university community partnership. The overall community partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Walnut Way Conservation Corporation provided the broader organizational umbrella, student researchers in anthropology provided the raw material in the form of community oral history data, and dance provided the translation of these stories into choreography and community performance. From the community perspective, the dance researchers' role was to provide a performance-based voice to the community stories; from the university perspective, the goal was to provide pre-professional education and performance opportunities to student dancers. What evolved was a rich multigenerational, multiracial interaction between dancers and the community members whose stories were expressed through dance.

Service-Learning and Performance

As noted above, there are many ways to take university-based dance training and apprenticeship into the broader community. Most variations use some combination of (a) teaching and performance opportunities for student dancers, or (b) the use of dance as an activity designed for community schools and youth programs. Sometimes university dancers provide dance instruction in schools and community organizations, or university dancers give performances in local institutions (e. …

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