Category: Dance, Diplomacy and Kids’ Cancer (page 1 of 4)

Before the World Turns Pink Tomorrow

My mother had cancer in both her breasts. Her sister faced breast cancer. So did her other sister.

My mother had both breasts and a dozen lymph nodes removed.

My mother has been cancer free for a year and a half.


My mother now deals with severe neuropathy. She takes six pills a day, is trying hair growth treatments, and has to wear a compression sleeve on the arm that has nearly doubled in size. Last year, she couldn’t feel the shoes fall off her feet when she was walking. Even with a bath before bed, her leg pain keeps her up at night, every night. Every six months, she faces scans and results, and her eyes grow wider with the breath-catching fears she is trying to suppress.

Breast cancer continues to be a beast.

Last year, my mother (a woman who didn’t exercise for over 30 years) completed a 5K walk in a pink boa. She has a pink phone cover, pajamas and house slippers. My father now owns a pink shirt. My mother was never a fan of pink, but now it is her color. When she sees it, she is reminded of her own strength. When friends and family see her wearing pink, we are reminded of what she went through and how she is persevering. When strangers see her in pink, they can instantly recognize her battle. She often hums, “This is my fight song. Take back my life song. Prove I’m alright song…”

The debate about pinkwashing is not new. Think Before You Pink is doing great work. People question how corporations can sell pink products with carcinogens, promising to donate a small percentage of the profits to the cure. People question the finances of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and its practice of suing small charities over the “For the Cure” copyright.

Cause marketing may be highly questionable at times, but I can tell you for certain that October is the month my mother stands taller. The month of the year she rallies. It is a month of pride and energy for her. I am thankful for that.

But that starts tomorrow. Today, you see, is the last day of September, a month dedicated to another community, children with cancer and their families.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The color is gold.

Cancer has invaded my family strong. My mom and two aunts, dad, grandmother, great uncles, cousin, and others have faced that beast of cancer in one form or another. Yet, my devotion is to childhood cancer due to the severe lack of funding and research. Childhood cancers (4% of national research funding) are on the opposite side of the funding spectrum as breast cancer. To have their awareness months back-to-back is almost a shock in disparity.

We have one more day before the world goes pink, in both beautifully important and unethical ways, and I ask you to spend it in gold. I ask you to read some of the children’s stories of the September Series by Mary Tyler Mom. Every day this month, she has featured a different guest blogger who shared his/her personal experience with childhood cancer. As my friend says, “Stories are always more potent than statistics. The hope is that by learning about children with cancer, readers will be more invested in turning their awareness into action.”

Cancer is not to be condensed to months or competition, but we should be wise in our awareness and in our understanding. We need to be knowledgeable about the details of treatments and side effects. All cancer patients deserve the hope found in funded research (at a more equitable level) and a month for rallying.


Statistics as posted by the American Childhood Cancer Organization:

Federal funding for childhood cancer research is predominantly allocated through the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Funds are distributed to Principle Investigators (scientists) working at labs which are often located at Children’s hospitals across the country (extramural research); to the Children’s Oncology Group to fund clinical trials (extramural research); and to labs within the NCI (intramural research.) Each year, Congress approves the amount of money that the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland will receive for research initiatives. Cancer will be funded in 2009 at a level of approximately $5.6 Billion. In 2007, the NCI reported that the combined extramural and intramural funding for childhood cancer research was approximately $180 million. However, this estimate could be regarded as liberal as some of the associated research might not be perceived as directly benefiting childhood cancer. Other more conservative estimates, put childhood cancer research funding as low as $30 million annually.

To put this figure in perspective, the NCI allocated $572.4 million on breast cancer research in 2007. Other NIH Institutes funded breast cancer research at a level of $132.6 million in the same year; and the Department of Defense, which also supports breast cancer research, allocated an additional $138 million. As a comparison, breast cancer with its overall 5 year survival rate of close to 90% received $843 million in Federal research funding in 2007. This was in addition to the funds raised by breast cancer organizations through their pink ribbon campaigns and private donations. It is estimated that the success of those initiatives raises approximately $256 million in the combined assets of the top four breast cancer organizations. The success of the pink ribbon campaign and its resulting funding for breast cancer research has resulted in an increase in the five year survival rate of that patient population. Their strength as advocates has resulted in a strong position for both federal and private research funding.

As individuals and organizations supporting our nation’s children and adolescents with cancer we too can take a strong stance for our cause with both federal and private research funding. Breast cancer is the sixth most common cause of death by disease of women in America (behind heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, respiratory disease and Alzheimer’s). In comparison, cancer is the number one cause of death by disease of America’s children. In terms of person years life lost (PYLL), the average age at diagnosis of breast cancer is 61, with a calculated 16 PYLL. In contrast, the average age that a child is diagnosed with cancer is 10. This calculates to 67 PYLL. Sixty seven years of life lost when a child dies from cancer.

Our call to action is to increase the awareness of the incidence and devastation of this disease on America’s children. By raising awareness of the fact that childhood cancer remains the number one disease killer of America’s children, we can raise the awareness of the need for greater research funding. Like breast cancer, childhood cancer has an international symbol “the gold ribbon. The gold ribbon was created by parents of children with cancer and former CCCF board member Gigi Thorsen. Its first production as a lapel pin was funded by CCCF in 1997. Working together, we too can become successful cancer advocates through the promotion of the gold ribbon for childhood cancer, so that we too can build research funding and much needed cures for America’s littlest cancer patients.


The Shame of Dance in America

I will start off by admitting that I am a very white dancer. My dance aesthetic grew out of white, lower middle-class, mid-Michigan, 1980’s rural-Suburbia. I mastered the Roger Rabbit, Running Man, and MC Hammer but my Hip-Hop was oblivious appropriation at best. My tap dancing had a very high center of gravity, far closer to Riverdance than to the legends “Buster,” “Stumpy,” or “Brownie.” There were sequins, red lipstick, wigs or curlers, and ankle weights the day before to help me dance and flip with more lift. [That was my dad’s idea. He is a sports guy.]


Acro-jazz was my favorite. It was a sugar rush. It was drill team. It was “Solid Gold.” It was small-town American Broadway and Tremaine, not the jazz dance heritage of soul and funk.

Dance was a blessing in my childhood, but so very very white.


Being there daily for the 11 years of my childhood, the dance studio was my second home. Our dance studio had fewer than three students of color. When we went to the competitions each weekend, we would encounter dozens and dozens of other dance studios. Again, they were on average 98% white. Hundreds of children happily dancing without their African-American/Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Arab, or Native American Indian peers. In addition, we were all mostly Christian with a minority of Jewish competitors. I do not recall ever meeting a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist dancer in those 11 years. In that decade, I met three dancers with disabilities.

The one thing about growing up in this world is that it exposed me to a societal group I had never met before: people with money. While my dad was the custodian at the school, my friend’s parents had jobs that meant they could have a pool inside their house. Through the decade we grew up as friends, I learned to get past any stereotype I had about families with money. Even my friends who lived on farms had a decent life economically.


My parents worked multiple jobs day and evening to keep me dancing. The tuition and competition fees were sometimes paid before the mortgage and utilities. I don’t think they knew I knew that.


My dance education story may be familiar. It was not offered in my school, at all. Even if it were, the best training at that time was in the dance studio and competition sector. In this world, we had no exposure to Modern, African, Ethno-folkloric traditions, choreography, or dance history. If we had, I doubt we would have seen the value in any of it. To be honest, I remember laughing at such dancers during a school assembly. Our criteria for good dancing mirrored the judges on the competition circuit, the same suburban competition circuit that would decades later produce “Dance Moms” and Maddie in the glorious Sia videos.

When it came time to go off to college and select a major/minor, there was no question if I would continue dancing. The question was how big of loans are we willing to take on as a family. Now in my life, I have friends of my age who I realize had a completely different dance education experience in the same America. They grew up dancing with people who looked and believed like them.


In 2005, Jonathan Kozol wrote The Shame of the Nation, exposing the disgusting fact that America’s public schools were being re-segregated. I think this issue goes beyond the school systems. Stop and think about all the places our nation’s children are exposed to dance, get to dance, learn to appreciate dance, or are trained to dance:

  • K-12 Public Schools
  • K-12 Private Catholic/Jewish Schools and Liturgical dance programs
  • Dance Studios who participate in competitions
  • Dance Studios who do not participate in competitions
  • Community-Based Arts Organizations
  • Community projects and productions
  • Park District programs
  • Outreach programs offered by Professional Companies and Venues
  • Pre-Professional Training Institutes and Camps

Now go through that list again and think about the degree to which the children in these different settings are divided racially, ethnically, religiously, and socio-economically. Some are much more segregated than others. You may disagree, but this is how I would rate the levels of segregation:

    1. Dance Studios who participate in competitions
    2. Pre-Professional Training Institutes and Camps
    3. K-12 Private Catholic/Jewish Schools and Liturgical dance programs
    4. Dance Studios who do not participate in competitions
    5. Community-Based Arts Organizations (some are intentionally segregated in order to support specific communities)
    6. K-12 Public Schools (including arts integration, dance education, and after school)
    7. Outreach programs offered by Professional Companies and Venues (some actually leverage segregation to reach target communities)
    8. Social Practice Dance and Dance Therapy (including hospitals, shelters, et cetera)
    9. Park District and Community Center programs

Now think about the costs to the families and participants. This could include tuition, fees, transportation, time, gifts for teachers, private lessons, socializing with peers, materials and costumes. Though it is dependent on a number of factors, in general the list stays close to the same:

  1. Dance Studios who participate in competitions
  2. Pre-Professional Training Institutes and Camps (scholarships sometimes available)
  3. K-12 Private Catholic/Jewish Schools and Liturgical dance programs
  4. Dance Studios who do not participate in competitions
  5. Park District and Community Center programs
  6. Community-Based Arts Organizations
  7. K-12 Public Schools
  8. Outreach programs offered by Professional Companies and Venues
  9. Social Practice Dance and Dance Therapy

Lastly, think about ranking the list in terms of quality.

That is where the discussion starts to feel gross. Is a Khattak class less quality than a contemporary class at a competition studio? Is it better to develop technique and virtuosity, or creativity and knowledge of the art form? Do we in Dance consider some outcomes over others? Physical skill development is commonly prioritized over emotional development, which is considered more important than knowledge of the art form, which is needed more than social skills. Often we cater to what the parents want, without educating the parents on what is possible and the choices they have. Who gets access to a future in dance as students, parents, performers, choreographers, scholars, educators, teaching artists, social practice artists, administrators or audience?

And that is where I will challenge the dance community. At the end of this month, we will celebrate International Dance Day 2015. Let’s use this as a launch to work together in bold ways toward…

  • Desegregation of Our Studios
  • Diversification of Styles (think of agricultural crops as a metaphor)
  • Distribution of Access and Opportunities (scholarships, shared transportation, audition and program notices, gifting shoes and dance wear, tickets to performances)
  • Development of Appreciation for All that Dance Can Do
  • Dancing with People We Have Never Danced with Before


Please. Let’s do it for the next generations in dance. What little role could you play?


Do You Remember Donna?

Have you been a friend of mine since (at least) 2008? Do you remember a child named Donna?

Donna and I on her 4th birthday

Donna and I on her 4th birthday

Do you remember her dancing? Did you know she was my greatest teacher?

Do you remember when I was on both the Young Associates Board of Children’s Memorial Hospital (now Lurie’s Children’s Hospital of Chicago) and Donna’s Good Things? Also, do you remember me asking you to donate for childhood cancer research and services throughout the years if you could? Remember when I shaved my head for the cause, in Donna’s honor and memory, and you were awesome with thousands of dollars in donations?

St. Baldrick’s Event | Donna's Good Things at Candlelite Chicago -

St. Baldrick’s Event | Donna’s Good Things in Chicago 2012

Do you remember when friends of mine  (mostly women) also then stood up to shave their heads?

Do you remember Donna’s amazingness? Her tenacity, patience, wonder, and whippersnapper wit? Do you remember following her Cancer Story as told by her mother? Do you remember her one and only dance recital? Do you remember her vigil and all the pumpkins? Do you remember her Blue Suede Shoes and the pain of saying goodbye to her at age 4 and 4 months?

Donna has inspired people around the world, and I was lucky enough to dance with her and to share with her reciprocal admiration. That is one of the greatest honors this life has given me so I continue to be involved. I have done a bit of fundraising last year for an event at  57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital, but in general, I have done little in that $$$ department since I moved to Egypt. The reason is rooted in guilt. I myself do not have the financial capacity to donate. While my salary is a decent one in Egyptian pounds, my monthly bills such as credit cards and student loans are in USD. Imagine multiplying your monthly bills by 7.15. Now I know there are no excuses, so I still give to local individuals and international non-profits as I can afford. I also donate a lot of time and writing. But I have failed short of my own standards the last few years. I admit that. Asking others to donate when I cannot has felt awkward.


this cause is too important for my feelings to get in the way.



All types of childhood cancers combined receive less than 4% of federal funding for cancer research. The reason is basically because childhood cancer is not profitable. We use adult treatments on children (just to a lesser dose) and it burns them from the inside out. Some survivors of childhood cancer spend a lifetime with side effects of they treatment including infertility, tooth decay (because their oral chemo is often put inside sugary treats), weak limbs, low GPA and an inability to adjust to college, or post-traumatic stress. Some survivors were young enough not to remember any of it.



Donna lived until she died in 2009.

Today is annual Donna Day and people around the world are working together to collect as much money as possible in her name, myself included. You can do your important part by by clicking here. Remember a child named Donna.

Greatest Stage on Earth for a Dancer? Guess which one.

There might not be curtains or a backstage. The floor may not be exactly right. The audience will probably be in their pajamas. The music might come from a laptop/portable speaker and there may be playback problems with your intro. The dressing room might be a hospital bathroom. There may be a small crowd with no names you know.

But this might very well be the most important performance in your life. At least half of the room has never ever seen live professional dance before, and will most likely never see it again. Your best review won’t be in the New York Times, it will be when a kid starts dancing on their own on the way to treatment.

You will watch a child go from weeks of distrust in herself and her surroundings, go from this,


to this.


With no intention to stop.

You will inspire a boy who claims he can’t move due to his condition, suddenly throw off some invisible burden and proceed to get funky.

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 3.18.33 PM

You will meet children with IV’s plug their machines to the wall and then stand to join from the side in the cross-lateral stretching.

You will meet a demure pre-teen girl ask that no photos be taken of her or her mother in the veil. Both her and her mother will then sit mesmerized by your Sugar Plum Fairy variation.

You will meet a girl in Palliative Care. She and her family all know she will die of her cancer.

And one of her life’s last dances will be with you. Can you imagine such an honor?


For me, this is not outreach. This is not dance/movement therapy. It definitely is not charity.

This, in and of itself, is my art form.


Social practice dance is professional. It takes great skill. I heartily believe that. It takes awareness and presence. It takes the ability to meet every patient, nurse and parent where they are at. It takes improvisation skills, the ultimate “yes, and.” It takes a deep breath knowing some dancers may have few dances and some dancers may have many. It takes persistence and patience, as it won’t be automatic that your dance interventions are picked up by the community through social entrepreneurship.

There arise many questions from people in my field. They question if it professional to dance in a lobby. They question if the impact is sustainable, long-term. They question if an artist who does this work is just using the patients for their own media boost. I believe anyone who asks these types of things may not fully understand the medium.

My goal is to motivate, activate, and advocate for the other social practice dance artists out there by sharing this story.

This is the greatest stage on earth.

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 3.12.58 PM

*Thank you to my professional dance friends Joanna, Amr, Katya and Maggie for today for your openness to try another kind of stage today. And thank you to the patients of 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt for rocking that stage.

Part Two of “How to Dance With Kids With Cancer”

There should be more dancing in childhood cancer. If you know any dance educators or teaching artists, encourage them to volunteer at their local children’s hospital. If they are nervous at all, or not knowing where to start, share this post with them.

In June 2013, I wrote about my advice for leading dance experiences with children with cancer.

The suggestions included…

1. Dance with the kid, not the cancer.

2. Dance with their physical abilities, not their limitations.

3. Leave out your own fears of death.

4. Get the whole family on the dance floor.

5. Keep them developing.

6. Keep them healthy.

7. Follow their lead.

You can read the details of Part One here.


57357 Children's Cancer Hospital Egypt. Photo by Mohamed Radwan.

57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt. Photo by Mohamed Radwan.


In addition, there are a few practicalities that might help you. So here is Part Two.

-Meet with the nursing staff and Child Life staff quickly before the class. Tell them we will have an expectation that everyone in the room participates. No one sits out. Patients, parents, nurses, volunteers, siblings, doctors,… Ask them to help you encourage everyone. And it is okay to participate sitting and just dancing with your arms and head.
-Try to stay away from any music or movement choices that are gendered or well-known. This helps facilitate a sense of inclusivity and common ground. Remember that just outside the comfort zone is the growth zone. Maybe save Disney for the very end, for example. You will probably have participants of different ages.
57357 Children's Cancer Hospital Egypt

57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt

-Make sure you ask if about the policies for documentation of the children and if you can have any of the pictures or videos.
-Always offer variations / modifications for those with wheelchairs or crutches. Include intricate and interesting arm patterns in your choreography. I also get much inspiration and ideas from Candoco Dance Company and from Wheelchair Dance Associations such as American DanceWheels Foundation. But remember you will also have dancers with crutches, dancers with IV poles, dancers with headaches, dancers with a slight limp on their left side, dancers with full mobility, and dancers who cannot jump or skip or bend to the floor. All are welcome to make the dance their own.
-Realize that while some of the dancers may be in remission and coming to the hospital for follow-up care, some dancers will be post-op, and some of the dancers may be in Palliative Care or coming to the end of their treatment because modern medicine has failed their case and they will be dying of their cancer. This is a fact for many you may meet. But no matter how long you will be dancing with them, dance with as much joy and attention as you can share.
A beautiful soul and patient at 57357 Children's Cancer Hospital Egypt - Palliative Care division.

A beautiful soul and patient at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt – Palliative Care division.

-Encourage circles but not holding hands (due to immune deficiencies). If you feel you may have the beginnings of a cold or flu bug, it is more than fine to wear one of the masks provided.
-Include many cross-lateral movements, knee lifts for core strength and stabilization, and moments of balance and stillness. Use of bean bags and scarves is also a great idea. Remember that participants select and return their props one-at-a-time.
-I usually now do a “shake out” where we shake out the cancer wherever it is in your body, to different counting sequences. Then we squeeze it, tap it etc (like tactile in Braindance). Finally we pour out the cancer, then feel like it is floating out. Other than that, cancer is not mentioned much. Remember that you a facilitating community dance, not dance movement therapy.
-Each session should be about 40 minutes to an hour depending on their energy levels and the surrounding environment.
-Consider themed dancing sessions when everyone dresses up and the music corresponds. For example, 80’s rock and roll, super heroes, 1950’s sock hop, around the world (be careful to check for ethno-sterotyping), story ballets, Toy Story, and the four seasons.
57357 Children's Cancer Hospital Egypt

57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt

Step One: Gathering and Making it the Cool Thing to Do
Danza Kuduro by Don Omar
Jump Up (It’s a Good Day) by Brady Rimer and the Little Band That Could
Step Two: Warming Up and Loosening Up
Breaking Away (and other tracks) by Ratatat
No music or light track for shake outs
Step Three: Building Momentum and Skills
Skip to Maloo
Listen n Move by Greg & Steve
Movement for Creative Dance (various tracks from this album) by Eric Chappelle
Rhythmically Moving (various tracks from this album esp. Seven Jumps) by Phyllis Weikart
My First Ballet Class (various tracks from this album) by The Tiny Boppers
Beanbag Boogie
Step Four: Getting Really Silly / Forgetting You Are In a Hospital
Boogie Shoes by K.C. and the Sunshine Band
Tootie Ta by Dr. Jean
Step Four: Loving Yourself, Cool Down, Focus, Modified Meditation and Yoga
Imagine by John Lennon
Various Tracks by Vitamin String Quartet or Ratatat
Step Five: Leaving Happy
Step by Step by Whitney Houston
Sun is Up by Inna

20 Must-See Museums According to My Friends

Every so often, it is amazing to stay inside. Like today. Today in Egypt, there are expected to be Islamist demonstrations, which the military will most definitely crush. So most people are staying in to stay out of the mess. At our house, that means eating from an overloaded refrigerator of Thanksgiving leftovers, checking the news, breathing slower and lounging in gratitude and good love.

In-ness can definitely allow for self-care, space for thinking, and refreshment. Ahh..

Out-ness, on the other hand, can allow for engagement and motivation.

In the village of Kevljani, near Prijedor, Bosnia. Cows, shelled-out ruins of homes, and the laughter of children behind you.

In the village of Kevljani, near Prijedor, Bosnia. Cows, shelled-out ruins of homes, and the laughter of children behind you.

I prefer art that is outside the “institution.” Public sculpture, social practice art, graffiti and street art,  postmodern dance in prisons,  classical ballet at a political demonstration, theatre in a refugee camp, music in a Hospice center, parades and block parties.

I am a big advocate of out-ness in general. Going out, experiencing life outside your comfort zone, coming out as your true self, going out of your way to help, education outside the classroom, bringing yourself and your work out in the world.

Tony Tassett, Eye in Chicago

Tony Tassett, Eye in Chicago



Private Museum of the Royal Family in Qatar

Private Museum of the Royal Family in Qatar

But just like the “staying in” we are doing today in Cairo, every so often it is good to go inside in general; go inside a museum in particular. Close a door behind you and look deep at something. Pull that exhibition inside yourself to understand things in a new way. To be so invested in something that you don’t think about taking a selfie, or aren’t even allowed to take a picture.

I asked a group of people who I think are badass human beings (aka friends) to tell me their favorite museums in the world. Along with my selections, here is a list of their must-see museums, some indoor and some outdoor. The notes are from various voices.

Go inside…

1. Science Museum in London. Most votes. Hands down. I saw the Turing exhibit last year and loved it.

2. Budapest Momento Park The biggest monuments from the Communist / Cold War period.

3. Museum on the SEAM a socio-political contemporary art museum on the green line dividing Jerusalem.

4. Getty Center in Los Angeles. The content, the architecture, the views – all beyond inspiring.

5. Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan. Their mission is “creating experiences that help each visitor find personal meaning in art.” They have one of the Top 6 collections in the U.S. and a Frida Kahlo exhibition opening in the Spring.

6. Egyptian Museum because a visitor is not provided a museum guide brochure, or map, or docents, or air conditioning, or clean benches, or educational events. You have to do the pre-work and research to know what amazing things you are looking at.

7. National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, especially in October.

8. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy

9. Dachau Concentration Camp because I went there was I was bald, there was a bitter wind, and it was one of the most visceral museum-going experiences of my life. While the content is specific to a certain place and time, it brought intense thoughts about the words “never again” and the genocides in Bosnia, Rawanda, Cambodia, Armenia and Sudan. Also, I would add my friend’s choice, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum…I left there physically exhausted, mentally drained, and absolutely heartbroken. I learn something new every time I visit!

10. Since I haven’t traveled too far, I’d have to say my favorite is Grand Rapids Public Museum. Informative, but keeps it somewhat simple for the kids to understand too. Staff is well informed, so asking questions isn’t an issue either. Their slogan is “Be curious.”

11. History Museum of Mobile in Alabama, because it was so surreal. There was even a model slave ship with shackles saying “Try these on.” The experience gave me more questions than information. Race in America. Inspiring, in a very turned-around kind of way. 

12. MoMA The Museum of Modern Art in New York

13. Museum of the 1944 Uprising in Warsaw, Poland

14. Newseum in DC

15. Musée du Louvre because I was alone and overtaken by the enormity of human artistic contribution.

16. The Museum of the Occupation 1940-1991, in Riga, Latvia. 

17. Muzeul National Cotroceni because it was my first time coming to a deeper understanding of communism, authoritarianism, and the complexities of people power and design.

18. Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

19. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in DC. People and their stories, brought to an essence through a complicated set of artistic choices.

20. 5Pointz: The Institute of Higher Burning Aerosol Art Center


What are your favorites?


I Accidentally Found Myself Teaching 3 Year Olds to Dance

As happens in our field of dance and dance education, we find ourselves teaching in unexpected contexts. My roommate is a professional ballet dancer, recently moved to Cairo, and has been asked to lead a program for 3-5 year olds. She wanted a little advice.

So here goes. After 25 years experience teaching this age group in different countries and a number of childhood development courses, I have the following Top 11 Tips to offer.

1. Flashback:

Reflect on the early days of your own dance education, but never be a duplicate of your teacher. What were the strengths and weaknesses of those teaching methods?


Scrapbook of me age 6 at Bohaty School of Dance in Saginaw, Michigan


2. Promote Order and Patience:

Have the dancers select props (scarves, bean bags, instruments, placement markers, etc.) one-dancer-at-a-time. Repeat over and over that “sometimes you get a color you like, sometimes you get a color you don’t like so much.” Then have dancers share with a buddy, cooperating to return props. Repetition is key.

10712866_10152638621531084_3674877367676177601_n (1)

My pre-ballet class at Easy Talent Academy in Cairo, Egypt


3. Learn the local language for potty.


4. Safety First:

Kids like safety. It is cool. Explain why dancers warmup and stretch, why we wait for each dancer and use mats, why we dance on our places, and the ways we make sure everyone is safe and feels good.


My 3-5 year old Boys and Girls gymnastics class at Easy Talent Academy


5. Different is Awesome:

It is okay to have differentiated instruction at this age and to encourage personality, even when teaching a shared position or movement. (It is my feeling that synchronization can start around age 6 or later.)


My pre-ballet and tap class at Performing Arts Limited in Chicago, IL


6. Remember that non-verbal communication is a dancer’s greatest friend.


Put on your glasses to watch the example.


7. Dance is Work:

Encourage lots of good and fun stretching, with visual cues for alignment. Introduce the concept of the barre, but no more than 15 minutes and just a few quick exercises. Don’t stay with any activity so long that the dancers develop irreversible, bad habits. Focus on balance, vocabulary, concentration and etiquette. If a dancer hangs on the barre, she goes and sits down for a quick minute. Do not force the turnout more than the dancer’s natural alignment. Laugh every 5 minutes.


My pre-ballet class at Easy Talent Academy in Cairo, Egypt


8. Preschool Professionals:

Talk to the young dancers like they are professionals. Refer to them as dancers. If a student cries for her momma/daddy, stay patient and calm, hold the child’s hand, come down to her level and offer a Kleenex, and simply ask, “Where do the dancers go?” Dance with the rest of the class with the crying child by your side. Give it a few minutes. If the crying continues, then consider taking him or her out to the family. Try again. Try again.


My pre-ballet class at Easy Talent Academy in Cairo, Egypt


9. Spotlight Solos:

Teach them to dance in trains, circles, lines, on their marked spots, and with partners. But also encourage them to step out on their own.


My pre-ballet class at Easy Talent Academy in Cairo, Egypt


10. Nothing is Cute:

Try not to get distracted by the cuteness. Talk about beautiful movement but not beautiful people. Focus more on building trust, confidence, and independence, than on what the dancers are wearing (especially when talking to parents).


A few dancers after class at Performing Arts Limited in Chicago, IL


11. Keep going to the joy.


Recital Day for Performing Arts Limited in Chicago, IL

Open Windows to Social Practice Arts (33 links). Enjoy!

Social practice is making it big. Ever since I posted Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up? and the follow-up post, I have not been able to keep up with the response. This sector is not new. But we seem to be just now becoming aware of each other, across arts disciplines, definitions, contexts of working, nationalities…


Dancing patients from 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt

You can read about Social Practice Art as defined on Wikipedia, how social practice arts are changing the world, how social practice art is intended to nurture, how social practice art is gentrifying community arts, how social practice art is something else, and how social practice arts need to be looked at critically. Not nearly enough of this dialogue I’ve found involves dance, cultural diplomacy, cross-cultural or multi-religious work in an international context, work in hospitals, areas of conflict, etc. The definition is often visual arts in an urban American context. One of the best articles I’ve read on the subject is by Andy Horwitz, so I will not attempt to recreate what he eloquently details.

Opportunities are listed nearly daily on SPAN a social practice arts network. On-the-Move, Mladi, and Peace & Collaborative Development Network also list potential programs.

But I started to create a list of opportunities in order to organize my own life. And I thought, it might be great to share this.



Dancing patients at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt

Robert Rauschenberg Foundation: Artist as Activist letters of interest due October 13

FIELD, a new on-line, peer-reviewed journal devoted to socially engaged art practice: call for papers critical essays for its inaugural issue, deadline October 15

Americans for the Arts: 2015 Conference proposals due October 20

Surdna Foundation: Artists Engaging in Social Change request for proposals due November 12

Open Engagement: an international conference and platform to support socially engaged art, 2015 conference submissions due November 17

A Blade of Grass: Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art applications due November 24

Ariane de Rothschild (ADR) Fellowship: Social Entrepreneurship & Cross-Cultural Network applications should be due in February

Kala Art Institute: fellowship including social practice applications should be due in April

Caroline Plummer Fellowship in Community Dance (NZ) applications due June 1

Asian Arts Initiative: Philadelphia social practice lab applications should be due in January


But that’s not all…


My students at Easy Talent Academy in Cairo, Egypt


My students at Easy Talent Academy in Cairo, Egypt

Several educational opportunities in dance are opening-up in community dance, dance education, and teaching artistry.

University of Maryland: MFA for Dance Teaching Artists opportunities

University of Roehampton: post-graduate program in Community Dance opportunities

University of Bedfordshire: MA in Community Dance Leadership opportunities

The Foundation for Community Dance in UK opportunities includes educational resources.

Dance and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco opportunities

Many, many more…


Dance as Diplomacy inside the U.S. Embassy Cairo

The educational opportunities in social practice are mostly fine arts based. We could bust these bubbles just by entering them, and thus create a more vibrant web of possibilities.

California College of the Arts: graduate fine arts concentration in social practices and visiting faculty for their Social Practice Arts Workshop opportunities

University of California – Santa Cruz: Social Practice Arts Research Center opportunities

Portland State University: MFA program in Arts and Social Practice opportunities

New York University: Masters program in Art, Education, and Community Practice opportunities

Arizona State University: Herberger Institute Socially Engaged Practice Certificate program opportunities

Carnegie Mellon University: MFA Contextual Practice opportunities


This is in no way a comprehensive or well-representative list. But if it helps someone out there, it was worth it.

Am I An Artist Who Gentrifies?

Last summer, I took the U.S. Foreign Service Exam. A very difficult test due to its breadth. I studied for months. And I passed all sections with good scores.

Except for the last section, the essay, which is not even looked at unless you pass all other sections. The essay prompt was regarding blame and solutions for climate change. I scored a 5. To pass, a score of 6 or higher is required. 1 mere point and no foreign service duty for me. At least not yet.

But that decision will come later. In the course of Fulbright, my social circle, and work at AMIDEAST EducationUSA; I have befriended plenty of folks in the U.S. foreign service. They are posted here in Cairo, but also in Azerbaijan and Afghanistan and Russia and back in DC. I am not 100% sure that foreign service life is for me yet I have learned a lot from this crew.

From these diplomats, I have learned a lot about my own self-defining career path as an artist.

A student of mine dancing in the former war fields of Northwest Bosnia.

A student of mine dancing in the former war fields of Northwest Bosnia.

My degree was a Masters of Arts Management with a concentration in Arts in Youth and Community Development. I have a post-graduate certificate in Youth and Community Arts Development. Yet, I travel. I am not so much community-based, well not for more than a couple years. Some of my best work has been with short projects and visits. That is not the sustainable community-based model. What I do I define as social practice art, and variations thereof.

In a recent debate at the Creative Times Summit, the topic came up, “IS SOCIAL PRACTICE GENTRIFYING COMMUNITY ARTS?”  My friends tagged me and asked me to comment.

The problem is that I have been away from the U.S. just long enough to avoid defining myself through buzzwords and jargon. When the article talks of the big divides between community arts and creative place-making, I can not see those distinctions or tensions as clearly. I am not a teaching artist, exactly. I am not solely an arts educator.

My work as a social practice artist, on the other hand, lives between all these definers. I am starting to think what I am aiming for more closely resembles the model of the U.S. Foreign Service.

  • Foreign Service employees are considered diplomats .
  • Post assignments are 2-4 years. Tense/unsafe posts come with shorter assignments of 6-12 months
  • American foreign service officers work alongside local staff who have been or intend to be in the community for a long time. The organizational structure is based on diverse, short-team, quasi-decentralized, somewhat-flat teams.
  • Foreign service officers provide some expertise and new ways of trying things, but the local staff  have final say to plan for  implementation, dissemination or outreach/inreach.
  • Foreign Service employees bid for where they want to go but priority is given to those who know the local language or have a needed skill for the post.
  • Foreign service officers are not posted where they have family or conflict of interest.
  • The strategic plan for activities is tied closely with the strategic plan for the area/city.
  • Employees rotate roles between administrative, creative, curatorial, and direct service positions.
  • Foreign service officers are considered Generalists with five choices for a career track:
    • Consular Affairs
    • Economic Affairs
    • Management Affairs
    • Political Affairs
    • Public Diplomacy
  • No diplomatic programs can charge for their services.
  • Resources go to exchange programs and development of local leaders.
  • (Some of the elements of the foreign service do not make a good metaphor: I did not include those.)

Now, think about applying some of those elements to the arts. Gets me thinking. What are your thoughts?


Denying the Princesses: Choices in Teaching Pre-Ballet

People’s daughters.

They come to my ballet class under layers of tutus and tiaras. The parents of these little girls expect me to play the Frozen™ soundtrack, or at least reference the Barbiein The Pink Shoes video. Most of these parents are not too happy when they are asked to remove the Minnie Mouse ears and Princess-themed plastic bracelets.

Around the world, I have found a preschool girls’ ballet class can be as girly as the human race can get.

In Egypt, where I am teaching now, femininity has a deeper value. Gender sets up different life-long expectations early on. Boys will be boys, and they are allowed full freedom to explore what that could mean. Discipline is questionable and inconsistent. On the other hand, girls should be girls, and they are provided a level of experience, compliments, protection and discipline to help them achieve it.

Assigning gender too strongly and divisively can be harmful, for boys and girls and transgender children alike. Girls are rarely encouraged to invent, tinker and question. And boys are rarely encouraged to develop empathy.

When I first started teaching here in Egypt, I was at the Egyptian High Institute of Ballet where males outnumbered females by a wide margin. The Egyptian teen male ballet dancers were also more focused and hard working, pursuing careers as lead dancers where they would have fame and a sustainable life for their families. The teen ladies were mostly pursuing past-times in the ensemble until they could get married.

Then I started teaching at a small studio in the suburbs. I titled the class for 3-5 year olds “Creative Movement” but there were few registrations. People were asking for ballet for their daughters. I then tried to open the class as “Pre-Ballet” but again parents were hesitant. They wanted real ballet. Professional. They were even asking if their 4-year-old daughters were too chubby or too stiff to join the class. Dance on a recreational level, for transferable skills, is not valued as much as it is in the States or in some other countries. In Egypt, most parents find classes a waste of time and money if their child won’t be going pro. I am generalizing, but indeed there is a general difference.

When I don’t indulge the princess-ness in the girls I teach, there is often push back. Princesses are graceful, pretty, refined, confident and ornate. Why wouldn’t I want to encourage that? What is so wrong with it?

Don’t I want the girls to dance like girls?

If you haven’t seen the new Like a Girl campaign by Always, I encourage you to check it out. At least watch until 1:07 and you will see some of my intention. This always campaign is part of trend of brands taking on girl empowerment as a gimmick or focus. Like the second-wave feminists, I join these marketers in believing contemporary gender definition is socially constructed especially in the toy and dancewear stores.

I make specific choices as a teacher.


Pre-Ballet Exploration at Easy Talent Academy in Cairo

For 3-5 year olds, my focus is on the skills they don’t get much of elsewhere: independence, uniqueness, respect for difference, empathy, patience, self-discipline, proper alignment, smarts, hard work, risk, physicality away from the screen, and trust and love for one’s own body.

If you happened to be dressed a princess during all of that, so be it.


Dancing at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt

The studio, academy and hospital where I teach in Egypt all have an institutional affinity for princesses. But I simply don’t cater to it on a regular basis. In my 20+ years of teaching dance and gymnastics in diverse contexts, some things remain constant:

  • Princess and Fairy references are replaced with Queens (a slight but important distinction), Dancers, Presidents and other leaders, and Strong-Rooted Trees Opening to the Skies.
  • Disney-free music (except for some instrumental Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo).
  • Parents can choose the level of make-up for performances. Costumes cover the belly. If parents want to add a nude leotard or sleeve underneath, that is more than ok.
  • Uniformity and Hyper-Synchronization are not stressed until age 6-8.
  • Use of the descriptors such as pretty and beautiful is limited.
  • Students explore the elements (water, fire, earth and sky) and animal movements much more often than fairytales and story ballets.
  • Choreography for anyone under teenage does not include sexualized movements, weak, flirtatious or suggestive gestures.
  • Students improvise to classical music or inspiring music they cannot sing along to.
  • Order comes from repetition and confidence in respecting others.

Yes, in our class we sit nicely and keep our hands to ourselves. Yes, we are under 5 years old but we stop and applaud each student after she takes her turn. Yes, we get our hoops and balls and bean bags one-at-a-time, patiently. Yes, we return our props in the same way.


We are responsible for getting our mats, even of they are much larger than ourselves. We are also responsible for rolling our mats and putting them away. No one helps us. We can bring ideas and stories to class. We can explore new ways to dance and include some gymnastic elements. We can invent new moves and teach the teacher.

This will give us a good foundation for when we grow from little girls, into young girls.


Beginning Ballet for Ages 6-10 at Easy Talent Academy in Cairo.

And if a princess ever walks into my class, I have learned that it is ok.

A good friend of mine wrote the following,

“I vowed that my girls would not be the Disney Princess type. As it turns out, the older one is decidedly not, while the younger decidedly is. We don’t judge where she got it since her older siblings don’t care for it, and we didn’t have any princess stuff in the house. But, the little one just loves it. And you know what, it’s ok. It was hard for me at first, but she’s smart, sassy, independent, and Hella funny, and she happens to like princesses, and now I can’t remember what I thought was so bad about it. She likes what she likes, and in trying to suppress it, I’m telling her that what she likes is somehow bad or wrong. That flies in the face of everything I’m trying to teach her: respect people for who they are. Be kind. Appreciate. Love. Be who you are.”



« Older posts

© 2021 Shawn Lent

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑