An Open Letter to Barack and Michelle Obama

Dear President and Mrs. Obama,

I was moved by Mrs. Obama’s recent words about dance, on the occasion of the inspiring dance event at the White House on September 7, 2010: “…witness the grace and beauty that stirs our souls and connects us to each other like nothing else can.”
It was very nice of you to notice. I do not mean that in the way it may sound. I mean that such notice has been a long time coming, and like all hopeful change, it is most welcome. But let’s see it as a beginning, please.

The big picture of dance is about grace and beauty and connecting us to each other, we would all agree. From time immemorial, communities have danced to connect to power, home, to tell stories, to initiate the young into the culture, to express the fullest range of what it is to be human, and to be in a state of grace. Dance is heady stuff all right, and it is not limited to the head either!

But let’s talk about what else dance is, and can be, and how you can help the dancers and dance creators in order to help implement your own hopes and dreams for America.

As a nation, we face complex social and political challenges and a growing demand for creative thinkers who can thrive in a knowledge-based economy; the arts help us meet these challenges. The use of the arts in community service programs in a systematic fashion, for example, is an excellent way to ensure that innovative and engaging activities reunite, reskill, and repower citizens. And dance, of all of the arts, teaches us to do those things by thinking on our feet, outside the box, and with each other.

Let’s get very specific about those. And let’s begin with Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move program. The anti-obesity, healthy living aspects of the program are wonderful, and the sports programs are great for a lot of children. But dancing is expressly absent from the solutions to the problem of passive and overweight children. Yet, dance is the bridge that encompasses active healthy physical pursuits with creative thinking and deep understanding of concepts.

In Harvard’s Project Zero document on the Qualities of Quality in arts education, the authors point out in their summary statement that the arts foster learning that is personal, persistent, and pervasive. In the same way that some children persist at sports, many others persist at creating art, and young dancers, as you could no doubt see on September 7, persist at both the physical and the creative development of their own personal, artistic vision.

Research also shows the ways in which dance grounds learning in experiences. For example, in Chicago, a city with which you are quite familiar, several studies have been done on the ways in which the arts foster deeper engagement and longer retention of information learned. For many first graders, the Whirlwind Basic Reading Through Dance program provided a movement-based, experiential entrée into learning how words and sounds come together to create language. Extending such a concept into other subject areas, imagine what we could learn about how dance turns STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: the initiative for America’s children) into STEAM, resulting in deeper engagement and comprehension of the natural and technological worlds. I would be happy to show you how well dance can infuse learning in the schools of several dance educators around the country. And you know what? Attendance and test scores go up in these schools!

More research abounds on how dance creates community, how dance generates creative solutions to problems, and how dance helps us reach across the divides that separate us.

The hope you inspired in people throughout the country and around the world in 2008 is still palpable. As a nation, we still seek a connection to each other and to our communities, and dance builds those connections. As Marylee Hardenbegh, a Minneapolis-based dance/movement therapist, points out: “Everyone can’t talk at the same time; that just creates bedlam. But everyone can dance at the same time, and when we dance together, we feel closer.”

But you know that, too. We saw you, dancing together to celebrate the beginning of hope, implemented. That was on January 20, 2008. All of our children, and all of our neighbors, and all of our citizens deserve access to the same depth of hope, creative possibilities, individual achievement, and shared loveliness. Don’t you agree?

Contact Dance/USA, the National Dance Education Organization, or any of a number of other dance organizations. We will be happy to share with you the research and best practices that demonstrate the truth of the words Mrs. Obama spoke on September 7.

And please, keep dancing. You’ll feel better.


Karen Kohn Bradley

Karen Kohn Bradley is the director of Graduate Studies in Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is on the Boards of the National Dance Education Organization and the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies, is a Certified Movement Analyst, and a choreographer for theater in the Baltimore-Washington area. Bradley is the author of Rudolf Laban, a volume in Routledge’s series on 20th-century performance practitioners, and is currently writing Ultimate Moves: Fluency in our other native language. She has worked in politics and advocacy and comments as a movement analyst of leaders in the media.


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