Opening Possibilities with Temple Dance Fables | Youth Leadership Training

On May 8, 2013 by pampi

I was hired as the spring vacation Dance Teaching Artist for Citi Performing Arts’ Youth Leadership Council, where I got a tremendous opportunity to work with some of the city’s bright creative and caring youth leaders.

That vacation week opened the day after the Boston Marathon bombing. The other facilitators and I decided that we had to help teens learn how to dispel fear. As one of the girls shared, that rehearsal room in the basement of the Wilbur was their safe space. I decided to affirm that a safe space is a sacred space because it is a place where fear is banished with intention. In that week I also wanted to convey that creating such safe spaces is something definitely within their reach. I wanted to reinforce techniques they were learning and already had in their repertoire as natural leaders in their community. One way certainly was to figure out ways to keep fear banished.


Story-telling fables through dance:
As a contemporary temple dancer, I call on story-telling as a method to explore with knowledge and intuition a way to counter ignorance, a root of fear. I recommended story-telling fables through dance as a technique. We eventually continued with the fable for our final presentation, because many youth leaders wanted to create performance and theatrical pieces for children in their communities. I helped them to articulate that animal bodies abstract everyday human interactions and open possibilities for resolution of real life situations, simply because in animal bodies, we are released from what we know as humans and open up our minds to inspiration as animals. Their intended child audiences would also be most receptive to fables, because children are both naturally drawn to animals and look at life events more concretely. Story-telling fables through dance has an added bonus, as I developed this technique to operate similarly to Boal’s community theater workshopping.


First, I did a quick introduction to contemporary temple dance through a short demo:

I shared its four expressive ingredients (abhinaya):
face, external expression, including the nine emotions (rasa)
body, external expression, including legs torso (angika) and hands (mudras)
mental image, internal expression
and dress, external expression

I sang the beat (taal) as I performed, situating song in sang and the dancer as a beat maker or vocal artist

Improvising mediation and conflict resolution skills through dance

We then segued into our animal bodies:
Each youth was assigned an animal, typical to the South Asian temple regions of the world to help abstract the story-telling further.
I had youth work out how to physically get into the character of the animals.

Finding alternate interpretations to open up possibilities:
I then asked them to consider how much of those animal bodies are based on stereotypes or type-casting of the same animals
At this point, they were given the opportunity to work out alternate ways to portray the same animal, adding a complexity that may not have been there before. Not only does this open up possibilities for each animal body but also for potential outcomes to the story-telling.

For example, the boar was viewed as aggressive. I had youth consider that it is impossible to be aggressive all the time. That the boar must have a down time when it can be itself and not feel threatened.

This opened up the possibility for dialogue between the animals in the fable that included a street dog and an elephant.


Developing dance fables:

In full improvisation mode, the youth worked out their stories. We would set up a scene and work through it, then get together in a group and ask the peer audience for feedback, where, applying a Boal technique, the a youth from the audience would tap out a youth in character and work out the scene as that character, offering an alternate approach.

Continuing the fable, the boar was annoyed and began defending its territory when the unwitting playful street dog crossed into its territory. The elephant realized this and called a truce by creating a shared space separate from the boar’s territory (this solution was completely generated by the youth without any prompting) where the three of them could interact, even play.

Positive messaging impacts:
I noticed that a couple of the youth would use quite a bit of negative self-effacing and aggressive wording to relay scenes.

When I observed it was a consistent situation, I intervened and offered the idea of positive messaging instead of aggressive word play.

I had youth consider their audience and negative words.
I had them reflect on the angry activist trope and asked them why activists are portrayed as crazy. They responded that often times they are so passionate they look angry and hold angry sounding signs.

I had them consider being activist and wording everything in an affirmative way. That there is enough anger and pain in this world to turn most people off. Alternatively that positive messaging adds lightness, may actually draw people to the messaging because people are desperate for affirmative world views – that one can not only build a group (possibly a bigger group of people who want to support at well) just by being positive.

In a fable involving a chicken, a fish and a deer, the chicken was mesmerized by the fish and wanted to become the fish. The deer and the fish wanted to convey to the chicken to just be herself, but the use of phrases such as, “You are not…,” “You can’t…,” only made the chicken more agitated. She kept throwing herself into the fish’ pond as if she were taking it as a challenge, a dare.

This helped the youth to see that even in improvisation, the actor can bring out realness and that depending on the situation, can feel caught with no options. That the promise of improvisation is that as a community, the actors can work out convincing solutions that can be applied to real life.

With intervention, I had the youth consider helping the chicken find value in herself. I had them ask why the chicken finds itself in forest. “Because she was the only survivor in the chicken coop broken into by the fox.” Then what that might mean. She is a survivor. “I am a brave chicken, I am smart too.” I then had them consider how she might be benefitting the fish. “I love how you keep me company and enjoy my tricks. Without you no one would watch my jumps.” the youth thus learned how to assess a situation and help a person with low self-esteem feel valued. The deer gets folded into this trio by embracing the chicken as part of their trio. The deer is alert and can watch out for the fox. Together, they will care for each other so the chicken can stay with them.

With this intervention, the chicken never jumped into the water during her crisis moment, as she felt she had options.

Throughout the week, between workshopping, I engaged the youth in warmups for the next segment.

Successful warmups included:

Gratefulness hop and side skip, where the youth were paired, held forearms and skipped sideways telling their partner what they were thankful for that day and switched off commenting as they changed sides when nearing a wall. They were physically warmed and amazed a how good they felt.

Value Lunge, where paired youth facing each other would choose a direction. One would lunge forward as the other one lunged back, holding each other’s forearms, and the person lunging forward would tell the other something they valued in the other; for those who did not know each other, they would tell each other a story of when someone in their lives told them how they were meaningful and what that meant to them. They felt the lunges were crucial to this as they story told something that made them feel propelled forward and the listener to receive the story moving backwards.

I have your back exercise, where paired youth were back to back and walking and supporting each other as they told each other a story of when someone had their back. They thought this was a good exercise, because you literally had to have the other person’s back and find a comfortable pace so you could listen to the story.

I also went over an introduction to sun salutation basics. The sequence of forward bend to open arms is a great way to shake off moments of anxiety when one feels physically paralyzed. This was definitely challenging, but warms up all the core regions. With access to sun salutation as warm ups for the six week summer programming for every meeting, these youth would have a very basic yoga core training that is important for lifelong physical health. Key to fully integrated health is that any training needs youth to see it through the first week to get beyond the soreness and to begin seeing results and the promise of the training. I choose yoga because it uses the body and breath to strengthen tone and heal itself.

I reviewed presentation:
I went over concepts of stylized versus natural dance – The idea that every aesthetic has a place and to choose the aesthetic carefully. working with children and animals, the grotesque will both allow the youth leaders to get into character and their child audiences to embrace the messaging.

I reviewed basic staging techniques and choreography development, such as blocking, voice projection, and body presentation.


The biggest challenge was coming into a new group right after a devastating event. The general mood everywhere was shifty, so it was in group meeting with the other facilitators that we were able to reclaim the space where youth could talk about their feelings without anxiety then segue into the workshops I had planned.

Temple dance is based in yoga, and as I decided to use this as the tool this vacation week, I did not understand that my warmups needed to be more dynamic until my check-in at the end of that first day. I began applying more Boal-based community theater games the following days.

My focus on positive community messaging was definitely one of the highlights. The youth were engaged, nodding and talking with shiny eyes.

I also think I got the idea that taking the time to reflect can be effective in creating dynamic stories, especially in cultures of quick explosive expression. My exercises in Butoh dance and song were effective for relaying this idea.

Finally, youth learned about working through challenges by dedicating themselves to seeing through the fables of conflict resolution and getting excited after witnessing for themselves the magic of the dance theater process in obtaining meaningful results that are viable as real life solutions.

These youth are brilliant. I hope that in the short span of three days (we never got to film the pieces as the last day was cut short due to the citywide manhunt) they were able to glean the power of my meditative movement techniques in untangling the roots of problems, so they can take it back into their work with their communities. I have every faith that with continued guidance they can hone their impressive community leadership skills and brilliantly perform hopeful messages in dance song and poetry.

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