CSU Dance Program Gets Communities Moving Together

In an era when so much seems to divide us, Grace Gallager has a suggestion for getting people with diverse perspectives moving forward together: Cue up “The Electric Slide.” 

Dance Builds Community

Grace Gallager, an assistant professor of Dance at Colorado State University, believes that art – in particular dance – can play an important role in helping people connect, share, and build stronger communities, goals which lie at the heart of CSU’s mission as a land grant institution.  

Working in partnership with organizations across the state, Gallagher and her colleagues at CSU Dance have developed a program to bring dance to Coloradans in new, more interactive ways.  Beyond just exposing more people to the arts, they hope to create shared experiences that can help strengthen community bonds. 

“We’re using dance as a way to build community,” Gallagher said.  “In a lot of arenas dance has been a historically elite practice in terms of the training and the genres. We’re hoping to break that barrier and bring dance to a community where maybe it’s not as accessible.” 

Through a full-year class called “Repertory and Engagement” CSU Dance students create a production that is performed in concert in the fall, then delivered to communities via participatory sessions during the spring semester.  

“The repertory we’ve built is a funk-inspired piece that starts performative with one dancer planted in the audience, that one of the dancers breaks the fourth wall goes out, brings her on stage, they do something performative,” Gallagher said.  “By the end there’s a moment where the music clicks onto the Electric Slide, and everybody, through the invitation of this really loud sign that the students decorated themselves that says, ‘come dance with us,’ we invite the audience to come participate and to dance with us in a social dance that hopefully feels inviting.” 

Getting people dancing may seem like an odd first step toward solving community problems, but CSU Dance Director, Emily Morgan, says the experience can have subtle but important benefits. 

When you move together, it strips away a lot of the posturing that we do in our world,” Morgan said. “It has the power to put people on an even playing field. And when we’re on an even playing field and not looking at each other in any sort of hierarchical way, there’s an increased opportunity for dialogue.” 

Planting the seeds for community building is a key role the arts can play in solving larger issues, according to Nick Heimann, Cultural Community Programs Manager for the City of Fort Collins. 

What I hope is that through the arts, we’re able to show each other what it means to be ourselves, with the hope that if you can learn something about me and I can learn something about you, we can find maybe some commonality, if nothing more so than the simple fact that we’re all people, and that we all have our own situations and lived experiences that we’re all going through,” Heimann said.  “If we can peel that back just one layer at a time and take a little bit of a closer look at what it means to be a human, to be a person, to have humanity, then I think we can start to heal some of that divide.”  

As part of the Repertory and Engagement program, CSU Dance students worked with the City of Fort Collins to introduce dance to communities in new ways, including impromptu interactive performances in public spaces. 

Arts and creativity are critical to people’s daily lives, and there’s different ways you can do that,” explained Jim McDonald, Fort Collins Director of Cultural Services. “You can be a passive observer, or it can just come up to you unexpectedly.  One of the fun elements of this new program is what we refer to as pop-ups that, all of a sudden, dancers appear.  You’re at Foothills Mall on a Saturday for the farmer’s market and there’s three dancers there, running throughout the building.”

We Truly Are All Dancers

Students say the CSU program has offered them new ways to engage with their audience, particularly via youth workshops in rural and smaller towns across Colorado

“I think the greatest thing is getting to reach really young kids,” said student, Anna-Noel Imbriaco. “It’s one of the most fulfilling things to me.  We come in with them and maybe they’re not the most interested at the beginning of the class, but we start moving with them and talking to them like they have valuable input, because they do, but they maybe aren’t always treated that wayYou can really just see when they realize that they’re really enjoying what they’re doing and it’s like a switch flips and suddenly they’re so happy to be there and it makes the entire environment so, so amazing. 

I think it’s a communication, a dialogue in a way,” added student, Tamia Fair.  “I definitely feel like it was an eye-opening experience for other people who maybe don’t see dance that often and they might see it as something that they could possibly do or as a learning experience for themselves.” 

Our students come back just glowing from some of these experiences,” Morgan said.  “The effect I hope it has in the community is instilling not even the love for movement, but just the recognition that we truly are all dancers.” 

We Really Need It

Morgan understands that people don’t immediately think of dance as a method of engagement, but she hopes that programs like Repertory and Engagement continue to provide avenues for the arts to play a role in community development.   

“Art gives us another way of seeing our world,” Morgan explained. “Whether it’s visual, whether it’s physical, whether it’s through music.  It gives us another outlet to consider the things we encounter on an everyday basis.” 

For Gallagher and her students, engaging with the community represents an important and logical step in fulfilling the CSU mission. 

I think CSU is wonderful because it’s a land grant university, so we have an obligation to our communities, an obligation in a very positive way,” Gallagher said.  “A university with a wealth of resources, and the way that it’s built, with extended campuses, we’re everywhere.  We’re not just in Fort Collins, but we want to know what people want.” 

CSU’s role in bringing people across Colorado together certainly rings true in smaller and more rural communities, according to Fran Page, Artistic and Executive Director of the Aspen Dance Connection. 

“The way the culture is split up so much and with all what you hear on the news is so distracting and negative,” Page said.  “And when you come back to grassroots into small towns like this, then you feel the oneness again. And people can be happy and relaxed and in touch with their feelings and be more expressive and be more positive. We really need it.”