Rooting vs. Passing Through: Respect, Responsibility, and Agency in Community Engaged Artmaking

At the institute kick-off this past Sunday I felt incredibly fortunate to once again be in the Dance Exchange studios with over 20 dancers from all over the U.S and Canada for 8 intense days of movement research, rich conversations, play and laughter.

This year, Summer Institute participants have the opportunity to be part of Dance Exchange’s multi-year project New Hampshire Ave. This is a Place To…, a collaboration with city planners, community organizers, businesses leaders, and residents in Takoma Park, MD. The project uses dance, music, art, and storytelling to explore “what New Hampshire Avenue is, was, and could be” and will culminate in a free performance and community celebration this Saturday, July 18th.

Photo by Annette Griffin

A very important and yet often overlooked consideration of community engaged art-making is what happens to the community at the end of the project. Too often organizations enter communities to paint a mural, or lead a workshop and somehow never manage to build durable relationships or truly know and connect with the community on a deeper level. At the heart of this is the question: What does it mean for us as artmakers to be deeply rooted in a place and what does it mean to simply pass through? This question of rootedness versus passing through has been a significant point of inquiry for Dance Exchange in their ongoing involvement with the New Hampshire Ave: This Is a Place To… project.

Dance Exchange Artistic Director Cassie Meador opened the first day of the Institute with the question, “How does your experience of rooting and passing through impact your relationship or responsibility to a place, or the agency that you feel in that place?” Themes that came up in our conversation was the uncertain relationship between time spent in a place and rootedness, connection to community versus connection to place, the role of nostalgia, how our places of origin determine how and why we root, and the rootedness we feel in our own body. While many participants contributed rich insights, there was one response that stuck out to me, “Sometimes you don’t know if you’re just passing through so you put down roots. “

It’s difficult to determine what it means to simply pass through. The more I meditate on the binary between passing through and rootedness, the more I wonder if it is possible for us to do these things at the same time. To be deeply rooted if even for a brief period of time. To maximize our impact wherever we go, regardless of how long we stay.

In line with this thinking, Dance Exchange founder and Emerita, Liz Lerman brought wonderful insights about the power of storytelling, during the two hours that she spent with us on Monday. By emphasizing the incredible opportunity that we as dancers have to not only “make our work personal,” but give others permission to make their work personal by sharing their stories, Liz reminded us how life changing storytelling can be for individuals who have never been told that their experiences were valuable or worth hearing.

When we enter communities even if it is only for a brief period of time, we have the opportunity to positively impact people forever. In this context, even “just passing through” can be a significant and life affirming encounter. As well, the stories that Amanda and Cassie have shared with us about the relationships that they’ve built on New Hampshire Ave speak volumes about the ways Dance Exchange has rooted itself in that neighborhood and built a reputation as an ally over the past two years. On Tuesday, as we danced in the field next to the Takoma Park Recreation Center, I felt an instant warmth from the individuals who peeked out of their apartment windows and watched us from the bus stop, the couple that shot a video with their cell phone, and even the adolescent boys who indifferently passed us on the field on their way to the Recreation Center. These encounters leave me wondering about how the roots that Dance Exchange has put down on New Hampshire Ave. have laid a foundation for the Summer Institute participants to make an impact in a short period of time and how we might honor and acknowledge our own small contributions.

About Bimbola Akinbola

Bimbola Akinbola, is a doctoral student in American Studies at the University of Maryland, and currently engages with Dance Exchange on a number of projects and events, giving voice to the process through documentation.