Photo of: Bre Short and David Glista, by Catherine Jaeger

Community Is The New Kale

by Kate Ladenheim

“Community is about as buzzy as kale,” says my best friend Bre Short, who also dances in my company and is my go-to girl whenever I have huge philosophical dilemmas — my current dilemma obviously concerning community.

As a fairly active member of what I consider to be the dance community, I hear this word thrown about all the time. And it can mean a variety of different things: our friends who also dance, our audiences and supporters, or perhaps people in the field who we don’t know but we admire. We also have “community engagement programs” which can include anything from blogs to performances to classes for children to charitable programs. And then, we also feel obsessed with “building a community”, which again, can include anything from building dance centers, to cultivating new audiences, to hosting festivals, to fundraising, to social media strategies, and so on and so forth. So given this vast umbrella term that we throw around almost every day: what the hell does community mean anyways?

Well, whenever I’m not sure about something, I go directly to the great guru of our time: Google! [Please insert all appropriate jokes, scoffs, and eye rolls about me being a millennial here.]

Once you’re done: Community is defined by Google in several ways, but I find the following three the most interesting:

1. A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
example: “Rhode Island's Japanese community"
synonyms: group, body, set, circle, clique, faction

2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.
example: “the sense of community that organized religion can provide”; a similarity or identity:” writers who shared a community of interests”; joint ownership or liability."a commitment to the community of goods"

3. Ecology: a group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat.
example: communities of insectivorous birds"

The word stems from old French communité (meaning commonness or everybody). An Old English word for "community" was gemænscipe, or "fellowship, union, common ownership.” And we also have the Latin communis, meaning "common, public, general, shared by all or many.”

Also interesting to note is the growth in the use of the word “community” in written language over the past 200ish years:

So we have community as an actual physical group of people with common interests, an inspired feeling of fellowship, or an ecological need for interdependence. I’m giving you an English lesson not necessarily because it’s essential to understanding how we build community (though, as a self-proclaimed nerd of all sorts, I think it’s REALLY COOL GUYS AND YOU SHOULD TOO), but because I'm interested in how community has become a major buzzword. Large corporations brag about their community support programs, politicians mention all they will do to support the community, start-ups thrive on community-building platforms, and of course, artists - particularly dance artists - seem to be completely obsessed with community. I hear, and use, this word all the time. How can we support the dance community? Building community. Giving back to the community. Community. Community! Did you hear, guys? Community.

I’m concerned about this, and infusing this with a (un?)healthy dose of sarcasm because I am also creating a program whose biggest aim is to build a (guess what) community of emerging artists and engaged audiences that care about dance and the arts and want to support each other. Community building is actually something I care about immensely, and I believe in the inherent power of the arts to inspire a sense of community - “common ownership or union” - amongst its viewers and participants.

Dance in particular should be a particularly powerful community building tool. Dance training (or at least what I have studied), is built on several tenants that are shared with community building: learning how to work together as a group (corps de ballet), being emotionally vulnerable, open, and generous (Classical Modern dance, with a particular nod to José Limon), listening to the needs of others with care and sensitivity (partnering and contact improvisation), and bringing many different ideas and elements together into a cohesive, workable structure (choreography).

Even, however, with all of this fantastic training and all of these good intentions, we as dance artists seem to have a real problem with community. In general, I think dance artists aren’t very good at building community outside of our own, insular groupings (I refer to the first definition of community listed above). Yet even within the dance community, we have specific, smaller cliques of styles and aesthetics that generally tend not to mix. We’re judgmental because of our training and inherent elitism, and over-protective because of our lack of resources, and as such, we don’t share. Those from the outside looking in (our audiences outside of the dance world) can’t find anything to latch onto, and as such they remain detached, disinterested, and oftentimes even alienated by our work and our attitudes around it. And then we wonder why we need to drag people to our shows kicking and screaming, why nobody feels safe talking about the work they have just seen, and why few make it a priority to fund dance.

I refer back to the Latin origins of the word community: “shared by all or many”. We need to learn how to share. And while sharing initially seems like a simple concept, it’s actually really hard to share. We are all afraid about our futures, about creating financial stability, and/or or just plain afraid that no one else will care about this thing that we’re doing that we care so much about.

But there are steps to being better sharers. For example, taking the time to talk to people after your shows who aren’t already your friends, and listening to the “I don’t get it” with openness and compassion rather than anger and fear. And then it’s painstakingly trying to explain it, and realizing your own failures, and going back to work harder. It’s going to see an artist you don’t know about, or don’t necessarily like, and making an honest effort to understand what he or she is trying to accomplish. It’s taking class and not being grumpy when you’re paired with someone who’s not at the same technical level as you. It’s giving $10 to your friend’s Kickstarter instead of buying a drink because you know that those $10 are a symbol of your support and enthusiasm about something that they are pouring their heart and soul into.

Because then, the outsiders looking in will see that the many positive facets of our training actually manifest in our work, and in a group of committed, like-minded individuals that they want to be a part of. And then: they join in. They willingly and enthusiastically come to our shows. They want to talk to us about the work they have seen and their own personal investment in it. They want to give to our Kickstarter campaigns, read our blogs, like our pictures, and share our events and projects with their friends and personal networks. I refer now to definition number three from above: we create a healthy, functional sort of interdependence within the ecology of the arts.

At that point, the narrative completely changes. It changes from “please help our sad, exclusive, needy group because nobody understands us” to “come and be a part of this great thing we’ve created that we want to share with you.” The narrative becomes, “You are a part of this community too.”

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