Experiential Advocacy: Creating Arts Advocates through Dance




Abe Flores blogs on using the arts to build public value and generate public will for arts in school.







Arts advocacy takes many forms, from the traditional methods of advocating for an issue – organizing, coalition building, public awareness raising, lobbying etc. – to using the arts themselves for experiential advocacy: communicating the benefits of the arts in schools with an arts experience.

A couple of weeks ago, my toddler son and I attended a family movement workshop at an LAUSD elementary school in El Sereno. The workshop was lead by the school’s Dance Teacher, Ms. Torres, who has been teaching dance in LAUSD for several years and has now begun conducting workshops that bring parents onto the campus to learn about the cognitive benefits of dance and lead them through a family dance.

The parents, with their little ones in tow, moved to the music and Ms. Torres’ instruction: "Now create an open shape with your body; now create a closed shape," and "do a jerky dance like this, and now dance gracefully." She was teaching opposites, but at the same time expending some of the excess energy found in the children, creating a lovely bonding experience for the families and informing parents of the importance of dance in the classroom.

William, my four-year-old son, completely engaged, followed Ms. Torres’ instruction, happily spinning when asked to and repeating the vocabulary words as he moved. The first thing that came to my mind was that movement made grasping the concept of opposites much easier for all the children (who primarily spoke Spanish). The second thing that came to mind is that the parents were making the connection between dance and literacy as well. I could not think of a better way to make the case for arts in schools than engaging parents in the arts lesson.

Getting people to advocate actively for the arts requires building public value for the arts (i.e. informing people why they are important, what is their status in schools), and then generating the public will to act (beginning the actual steps to making change).

With experiential advocacy, like the parent/child dance class, the public value piece is built into the activity itself and the instructor can facilitate the participants’ understanding of the connections between the activity and its benefits.

During the movement workshop, the connection between literacy and movement became clear to parents when Ms. Torres pointed to her flip chart of words and told us that we are using our whole body and mind to understand their meaning. She also had a handout that detailed the cognitive benefits of the movements (translated into Spanish).

In a previous workshop, she had spoken about reaching the students who are deemed "troublesome" in other classes. Many times they are the best dance students – they are looking for an opportunity to use their excess energy and learn in the mode that makes sense for their learning style (kinesthetic learners, many times labeled "hyperactive," comprise most of the High School dropout population). 

Building public will is a bit trickier than building public value, because it requires a plan of action within the capacity of the participant and that makes sense in relation to the context of arts education in the participant’s community.  In short: any action must be doable, realistic and helpful.

Parents can begin to build public will by simply asking about the arts in their child’s school, making sure the arts are discussed at every parent meeting, and, in partnership with school administration and other parents, strategize how to bring specific arts programs into the school.

In summation, for people to act they must first know why and how.

My ask is for artists with an engaged audience to carry the message of the importance of arts in schools and hand out informational materials at their events (such as our new flyer; please see below).  It's easy, and can help people understand the value of the arts-- and begin to do something to increase their access, quality and integration into curriculum within our local public schools.

"Why all students deserve the Arts"  PDF - English, Spanish