Structure and Partnership

Structure and Partnership in Community-Based Programs

I plan to address two critical questions about community-based artistic programs in this paper. The first is about partnership in community. Collaborative ventures balance delicately between too much control and disorganization or passivity. Jan Cohen Cruz cautions of “co-option by the ‘partner’”[1]. She means that even when you enter into partnerships, one side might over insert their ideas or influence and disrupt this balance. This breaks the agreement both parties have made of mutual respect and collaboration. At the same time, however, perfect harmony is not possible all the time. It sometimes takes bold leadership or extra control to make something extraordinary. These moments of imbalance are not the problem, they just make plain the importance of a give and take model, one where there is flexibility. When engaging other communities it’s crucial to be open to being changed yourself, to release expectations for the experience, and meet the other group generously. This is a true partnership, where the relationship constantly changes and reforms to meet the needs of all groups. The first question for this paper is how, specifically, do we build community based programs that can find that ideal partnership balance in reality?

 The second question investigates structure versus spontaneity in community programs. Entering a community and running a program takes a certain amount of expertise and planning. It’s important to plan for a workshop, and for that plan to be well researched and thought out. On the opposite end of the spectrum however, there must be room for spontaneity and impromptu lesson re-writes. This fosters the kind of supportive environment community programs strive for. These two sides, similar to the balanced partnership, must be kept in a dynamic and flexible balance. Susan Bendix writes about her first approach to teaching dance to kids as being “very serious about dance and passionately drawn to improvisation”. Yet this wasn’t enough; after being met with blank stares from the kids “it became evident early on that a conventional pedagogical approach would be ridiculous”[2]. She came in with experience and a thoughtful plan, yet she had to adapt virtually immediately, and the program completely shifted. This kind of flexibility is essential for creating successful programs. To form this into a question, how do we utilize our expertise while simultaneously being open to trying new things and taking a workshop into uncharted territory at the needs of the participants?

The answer to both of these questions lies in the relationships that any given community program is based upon. If those relationships are strong as well as flexible, both facilitators and participants will have the support to take more risks. Facilitators must trust in the strength of what they have to offer, and that the participants will engage with them. Participants must trust that if something isn’t working, the organizers will be flexible enough to change plans. This relationship dynamic needs to be present between the people too, not just in the work itself. There needs to be a deep trust in order to build programs and partnerships that can shift and adapt to what a community requires.

One of the most crucial pieces to building this kind of trust is physicality. Movement exercises within programs, that engage the full body, promote this kind of trust. Liz Lerman describes one of the her favorite Shabbat services. She led movement exercises as a part of the night. Space was one prompt they were working with, Lerman would call something out and the congregants would move to that spot in the room. She writes that “When asked about a holy spot, they moved closer to each other. When I asked about paradise, they went to find their mates and family members, and there was a lot of kissing and holding of one another”[3]. This approach is fundamentally different than if she had read a passage about holiness from the Torah, or even if she had asked people to imagine paradise from their seats. Her physical engagement brought spirituality into the room, and connected it to the meaningful relationships the congregants had. Those spiritual connections are stronger when they are embodied, and through physicality, trust and relationships can be deepened.

Another kind of important physicality in this work is simply proximity and exposure. Community based programs can’t be done with abstract, conceptual, communities like whole political parties, or all members of a specific gender or race. While there are connecting features in those groups, they are simply too huge to be able to inhabit the same space together. And this cohabitation, being in the physical presence of others, is important. Bodies relating to each other add energy, they can bring the work being done out of the abstract and into the present moment. This goes for the program itself, but also for the relationships of people while they organize or plan. If a facilitator proposes a program, and comes to the community in advance, to meet the people involved and explain the idea in person, the effect is much different than if they were to just email the dates and show up the day of.

This semester, I was a leader of an afterschool movement program for elementary school boys. When my partner and I were organizing the program, there were a few email exchanges with the director of the Boys and Girls club, the group we were working with. They liked the idea initially, but it wasn’t until we had physically gone to their program to introduce ourselves in person that they really took us seriously and engaged with us. Showing up with your body is a demonstration of physical commitment that does not go unnoticed. My partner and my consistent physical presence fostered trust as the leaders of the Boys and Girls Club saw that we were reliable and committed to the program. One specific day, we showed up at our usual time, but they were running very late. They told us that they might not be ready for another forty minutes (we only had an hour a week total, so this was a huge chunk of our time). We told them not to worry, set up our things, and stayed for that time waiting patiently. We got to move with the boys for just twenty minutes that day, but it was a turning point in our relationship with their program. By staying physically present, and by being flexible to the needs of their group, we proved that we were committed to the entire community, not just our program. In the future, when we needed an extra afternoon to rehearse, or one of us was running a little late, they were happy to accomodate and help us out. This physical commitment is crucial to finding the dynamic partnership with another group.

Physical bodies can either fill or drain a space of energy. Presence is another aspect of physicality in community work that is important for effective programs. To form strong connections, and to build relationships with participants and organizers, you must be clear and focused with them. This need becomes exaggerated when working with people who might be hard of hearing or vision. Liz Lerman writes about bringing her students to work with elderly people in the Roosevelt Hotel. “I had… warned them that, because of the hearing and vision impairments that affected some of the older people, they might have to exaggerate their presence to make connections. I noticed that some of the shyer students were laughing, talking loudly in order to be heard, and in general participating at a very high level.”[4] She goes on to talk about the success of the program, and how much it helped the residents of the living facility. The elderly dancers were able to move better, do activities they hadn’t done in years, and some even organized a rent strike throughout the building. Engaging in activities like those are risky if your body hasn’t been able to do them in a long time, it takes a lot of trust in the workshop and the exercises to give them a try. Being totally present while in the space creates that trust. But the other aspect of the relationship that this example captures is that being present also feeds the organizers. It can be profound to just sit with other people and be completely in the moment. It often, like in the case of Lerman’s students, can allow people who might not always be big and embodied to put that roll on and try new ways of interacting.

Harnessing energy to run a program played a big role in Boys in Motion, the group I helped lead. Our energy on a given day completely changed the course of a class. One day my partner and I were both tired, and the boys ran circles around us. No matter what we did, after we had set the tone of the workshop with our posture, vocal energy, and speed and intention of movements, they wouldn’t do a single thing we said. But another week, we had a strong presence from the start. We moved big, talked with directness and focus, and transitioned concisely without giving them a chance to take off with their wild energy. This kind of presence may sound authoritarian, but it is not. It’s very structured, to give flow to the day, but there was no “controlling” them. We gave them a focused outlet for their energy. We harnessed our physicality and our own embodiment into a structure that imbues enthusiasm, excitement and focus in all of us in the room.

Being intentional with our physicality in all these senses helps us create a more engaging workshop for the kids, but it also forms strong relationships. When we fully enter the space, their space (during the school day anyways), and show that we are calm and confident, we foster mutual trust. We trust that they are receptive to what we have to offer, and they trust that we will be responsive to their needs. This trust is foundational to both questions, and a direct line can be drawn from the physicality with which we approach the workshop to the agency we have as facilitators when we are looking to incorporate new risks into a program and with participants. Unless we strike a balanced partnership and create strong and flexible programs, no one involved will have the support they need to take risks.

Augusto Boal created a community based theater form called Theater of the Oppressed. In this form, his actors present a problem, an oppression that people in the audience may be facing. Then, he invites people from the audience to join the actors onstage, and embody a solution or ending. In this way, performers and community members join forces in a powerful union. Boal became a city counselor in Rio de Janiero, and “treated the revelations of forum theater as a dossier pointing the way to laws that needed to be passed. And, indeed, thirteen laws were passed on that basis.”[5] When thinking about the intricate relationships and mutual trust that needed to be in place for something so astounding to be accomplished, we can see how Boal found the balances brought up at the beginning of this paper. The partnership of a city counselor to the city is similar to that of community organizer to community, and Boal found both kinds. There is a necessary demonstration of commitment for both, a strong trust that both groups are there for the sake of the relationship just as much as they are for the work they’re doing. Boal used his structure of forum theater, but built in to the form is tremendous flexibility and room for people to experiment. There is a tenuous balance inherently, what cements the relationship is the physicality of the workshop. The people are not just thinking about issues, but using their bodies to collaborate on solutions. This embodiment, then, gives enough weight to the issues being considered so that policy can be based on what they learn. These profound results would not be possible without commitment to partnership and a confident and flexible structure.

[1] Cohen-Cruz, J. (2005). Local Acts Community-Based Performance in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

[2] Bendix, S. (2005). Dance Education in the Inner City: The Lost Voices of Dance. Contact Quarterly,25-32.

[3] Lerman, L. (2014). Hiking The Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

[4] Lerman, L. (2014). Hiking The Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

[5] Cohen-Cruz, J. (2005). Local Acts Community-Based Performance in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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