Sarah Crowell | The Politics of Dancing

Image Courtesy Sarah Crowell

Sarah Crowell has taught dance, theater and violence prevention to youth and adults for over 20 years. She has run programs at Destiny Arts Center since 1990 where she currently serves as Artistic Director. Sarah received 9 California Arts Council Artist in Residency grants for her work at Destiny and a National Endowment for the Arts grant to author a curriculum guide for artists working with teens called “Youth on the Move: a teacher’s guidebook to co-creating original movement/theater performances with teens.” Sarah is the recipient of the 2011 KQED Women’s History Local Hero award, the 2007 KPFA peace award and the 2006 Purple Moon DreamSpeakers award. Sarah has spoken and facilitated workshops at numerous national conferences since 2000 locally and nationally.

Sarah Crowell has been dancing since she was a child and, being from a family of activists, she knew that she would grow up and do something related to social change–she’d always hoped that she’d be able to connect it with dance. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that she works with Destiny Arts, the organization that combines dance, martial arts, and theatre to end “isolation, prejudice and violence in the lives of young people.” It wasn’t exactly where Sarah was headed when she was working as a professional dancer for Oakland’s Dance Brigade or the Impulse Jazz Dance Company in Boston.

But since taking up the offer to work with Kate Hobbs and Anthony Daniels (amazing martial artists who were interested in adding a youth component to their adult martial arts program Hand to Hand), Sarah says she’s discovered Destiny Arts is where she was meant to be, “I fell in love with my work right in the middle of doing it.”

Over the years she’s been not just a Destiny Arts dance teacher, she’s also worked as a program development director, a workshop facilitator, artistic director, and as the executive director of Destiny for five years. These days she’s the organization’s artistic director and she loves her work. She says, “I most love working with teenagers to create original movement/theater that comes out of their experiences, passions and visions. And that’s mostly what I do at Destiny. It’s not always easy work, but every day I learn something about myself, about the power of young people, the power of being a mentor and the power of sticking with something long enough to get good at it. You can’t get better than that!”

Even as a teenager Sarah taught kids to dance and created pieces with a socio-political message. I asked her about her connection to dance and why it was special to her. “Dance is special to me because it has always brought me a combination of joy, discipline and access to the divine, all of which I constantly long for. I now understand dance as a means for profound social change, both in the action of it and the performing of it. I also understand that dance is a universal language and has potential for very deep personal and cross-cultural healing.”

That understanding of dance as a means for social change is some of what the kids at Destiny get to express through the many different programs offered there.

In a piece about Destiny’s current performance production, “Free: Voices from Beyond the Curbside,” Sarah talks about the kaleidoscope of issues the young people she works with address, giving a clear view of what dance can do politically, “The young artists dig deep into intimate personal issues that affect them and their communities from pressure to have sex and drugs to how they feel about stereotypes that limit them in boxes of race, gender, sexual orientation and body shape. Then they use the lens of the personal to explore social and political issues from climate change to the plight of the public educational system. They touch typical teenage issues of searching for meaning and belonging and make them ageless and universal by connecting them to global issues that affect us all.”

Every year DAYPC, or Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company, works with professional artists to create a production the combines a mix of martial arts, several forms of dance (hip-hop, modern, aerial), and theatre. In 2009 they performed at Bioneers, taking on issues of race and how race is shaped for us by our consumer culture. This past spring Free focused on “issues ranging from name-calling and stereotypes to child sexual abuse and global warming.”

When I connected with Sarah she mentioned the differences between kids who are longtime Destiny students and those just starting out: “The young people I teach are extremely self-possessed. They, more often than not, support each other to be the best they can be. They understand the power of the performing arts as a tool for social change. They are willing to collaborate with each other and adults in partnership. They have strong vision and are willing to risk talking about it onstage. They are often committed to peace in a profound way. A youth audience member said once that the youth performers at Destiny are “the peaceful kids.”  One 5-year-old audience member asked her mother, after seeing a Destiny recital, “‘Mom, when Destiny performs is there peace on earth?'”

Just from that description you get a good sense of the kind of transformation that happens for kids at Destiny. Clearly we can all learn something from young people who are willing to be so honest with themselves and about their lives through performance.

As Sarah mentioned in my exchange with her, it’s a matter of being open, of being real, of listening and it’s a matter of continuing to come back when working with youth. She said, “Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned about working with young people is that I am most effective when I bring impeccable skill, humility, authenticity and persistence. If I keep coming back with my heart open with well-planned lessons, which I’m willing to be flexible about if necessary,  and if I ask good questions and am willing to hear the answers, we all learn something.”

Let us all be open enough to hear the voices of youth and to know the value of letting them dance.

Sarah’s Work Through the Rex Foundation

Mini-Interview with Malia Movement

2011 Women’s History Hero: Sarah Crowell

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  1. Caroline King says:

    Sarah is by far one of the most transformative teacher of youth I have ever had the pleasure to work with. Keep it flying! Sensei Caroline

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