Intergenerational Dance: It’s a Win-Win

Last week, the DX team traveled to Rolling Terrace Elementary School to facilitate a short workshop with a class full of young English language learners and their senior mentors. We filled the hour with a bunch of Dance Exchange favorites: Build-a-Warm Up, Mirroring, and Build-a-Phrase. We spent our time together laughing and jumping, making and sharing. It was a total win-win for all of us.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the workshop was such a win-win for everyone in the room, but, to a certain extent, I was. I consistently make the mistake of assuming that the participants who will benefit most are the youth involved in workshops like these. I walk in with this preconception, and I find myself proven wrong over and over again. It’s not just the youngest participants who benefit from intergenerational moving experiences—it’s everyone.

There is, of course, much to be said about the physical benefits of intergenerational moving. All bodies, young and old, need opportunities to explore and understand fully both their capacity for movement and their relation to surrounding people and spaces. There’s endless research on physical activity and it’s role in learning, memory, mood regulation, disease prevention and much, much more.

But I’ll let the appropriate scientists speak to that research. What I’m more interested in are the visible positive outcomes when youth and elders share space and share stories.

When we walked into Rolling Terrace Elementary and began meeting some of the youth and their mentors in this ESL class, there were plenty of smiles and warm introductions, but there was also a bit of shyness and apprehension in the air. Some of these concerns were even named during our beginning circle of names: My name is Mary, and I’m feeling nervous…My name is John, and I’m not a dancer.

While the DX team acknowledged these concerns, we wasted no time in pressing on—hoping these sentiments would soon change.

…And they did. As we led the group through a mirroring exercise asking participants to be truly present with their partner, the room started to shift. And by the time we started asking both the youth and the seniors to share stories of the places they come from, the positive energy was palpable.

And guess what? It wasn’t just the kids who were excited about telling the stories of their home countries and their journey to America. Even the adults in the room were sharing memories with eyes sparkling and chests puffed up with pride. Young and old alike beamed as we created a small dance about mangoes in El Salvador and hot summers in Iraq, about travelling away from home and rooting down in a new place. No matter who was speaking—a quiet girl who barely reached my elbow or a spunky elderly gentleman who had journeyed all around the world—each story was heard, honored, and became part of the living history in the space.

As one of the facilitators in this space of sharing, I began to realize that the generations in our community need not be discrete groupings, strung end to end along some constructed timeline. They can, instead, be these richly human waves which ebb and flow, weaving in and out of each other’s spaces, times, and stories. To be moving and making in the midst of those tides is truly wonderful.

So, where I walked in to our workshop thinking the stories of the adults would be somehow secondary to those of the youth, I left realizing there’s a hunger in all of us to lay down our life maps for others to view. We all want to share the terrain of our history—the valleys we’ve passed through and the mountains we’ve climbed, the roads we’ll never walk again and the soils in which we’ve planted pieces of ourselves.


About Amanda Newman

A graduate of the University of Utah Department of Modern Dance, Amanda joined Dance Exchange in 2014 as Resident Artist, Communications Coordinator, and Youth Programs Facilitator.