In 2016, Aktion Tanz brought together a group of dance artists working with young people and families arriving in Germany with refugee status to exchange and collate experience and learning in this field. The working group created a publication (Tanzkunst mit geflüchteten Menschen) which offers impulses and recommendations crystallised from research with artists working in this area.
I wish it were not so, but the illegal invasion of the Ukraine and the subsequent forced migration of women and children make this research relevant again. Perhaps it is helpful for those of you working with people arriving from Ukraine or other conflict zones around the world. Much of the publication is in German, but there are some interesting articles in English and some of the key information which might be immediately useful is the content of this blog post.
Before I jump into sharing information, let me explain my own experience of working with families negotiating forced migration and arrival. Mobile Dance (the not-for-profit which I founded and lead) has worked in this context since 2014 with the project JUNCTION. I draw on the experience of being an artist in the room co-leading sessions myself and also my experience of observing, coaching and supporting the many artists who have worked on the project. I am grateful for their ideas, approaches, thoughts and feedback. This text is is the outcome of our collective learning and they are named at the end of this text. I also bring a project conception/management perspective having co-led the project JUNCTION with Barbara Weidner for many years. Barbara is a special educator working with families who have experienced trauma whose training and facilitation of all the artists on the project, as well as her vision in devising project structures, is core to the recommendations given below.
This blog post also brings together the learning of the Aktion Tanz working group who are named below. Here I would like to highlight the contribution of Andrea Marton whose experience and wisdom infuses this text.
If you are wondering if dance can be helpful at this time, it is my experience that it can. Meeting to move together in trauma-sensitive, gentle and joyful ways can provide respite and relief for families. It can provide a space for people to reconnect with their bodies, to play and laugh. It allows young and old alike to come into contact with new communities without the barrier of language, as well as spaces for people to begin processing their experiences.
I will attempt here to summarise some of the key recommendations from the working group in 2015/16 and to fill these with some personal observations. In the publication, we differentiated between general recommendations and recommendations for those working with families in accommodation centres for refugees. Due to space restrictions, I have not made this differentiation here.
I share these recommendations in the spirit which we wrote them: knowing that there is always a gap between what is ideal and what one manages in practice and with the honest confession that we ourselves did not always manage to implement our recommendations in our work. As I revisited our work to write this post, it was helpful to reflect on the mistakes we made, what we learned and what we would do differently now. I hope these reflections might be useful to you.
Some recommendations concerning project structures
For those of you conceiving, fundraising and managing projects
Create a multi-professional team
It is important to have someone in the team who has training and experience in working with those who have experienced trauma. This can be, for example, a specialist educator, a social worker or a (dance) therapist.
Reach out to artists who have recently arrived and support them working if they want to
Be attentive and respectful for when work is supportive and when it creates unbearable additional pressures. Know that this can change quickly. Try to set up teams so artists who have recently arrived can miss sessions easily if necessary. You may need to support colleagues in the teams finding their approach as supporter and ally of their co-worker.
NEVER work alone
2 people leading sessions is OK, 3 is better. This is a context in which participants have survived traumatic experiences and are living in a context which can be re-traumatising. Groups are often changing constellation, are volatile and contain individuals needing one-to-one support. The work may also be done in spaces where it is hard to control the environment (accommodation centres, hostels, schools). It is important to have enough people on the team to respond to these rapidly changing needs.
Place REPETITION and RITUAL at the heart of project structures and individual sessions
It was our experience in the working group that people who have had everything change in their lives responded well to repetition: the same team, coming at the same time, on the same day each week.
Come to stay
Building trust with participants takes a long time in this field. People who have lost so much need time and regular contact to be able to open for the possibilities of the work. It takes patience and commitment. If you can – try to come and stay. At Mobile Dance we managed this for many years by creating a repeating structure (delivered in 10 or 12 week blocks) in which varying teams of artists could work. This allowed freelancers to take other jobs and be in productions without having to commit to working once or twice a week for the whole year. We created the necessary repetition and ritual in the form and shared approach of the team (as well as trying to keep artists with the same group if possible and wanted by all parties). This recommendation is challenging to fulfil inside of a funding system which is project based and where opportunities to get support for long-term process-based participatory work are too infrequent.
Teams need exchange and supervision
Work in this context is very demanding: the participants might be hard to reach, individuals may respond to exercises in unexpected ways (for example, with aggression, withdrawal or tears). Artists have to respond to sudden reactions quickly and flexibly. Sometimes participants will need to talk about experiences of flight and violence. Artists working in this context need paid supervision sessions: time to exchange with colleagues and with specialist supervisors. They need support to manage their own reactions to their experiences. As artists are necessarily “learning by doing,” it is important that there is a moderated space for self and peer reflection.
All artists should have diversity training and training in trauma-sensitive work
Nothing to add here. Actually this one is for any artist working in any participatory context.
Some recommendations for “on the ground”
For artists and educators working in creative processes with people
Ask yourself why you want to do this work and why you are there. What is your motivation? What do YOU get from being there?
This recommendation is drawn from the work of Tania Canas who is Arts director of RISE refugee. In 2015, Tania Canas published the text: “10 things you need to consider if you are an artist not of the refugee and asylum seeker community- looking to work with our community.” You can read it here: https://www.riserefugee.org/10-things-you-need-to-consider-if-you-are-an-artist-not-of-the-refugee-and-asylum-seeker-community-looking-to-work-with-our-community/. It is an extraordinarily useful tool for supporting power-critical, anti-discriminatory work. I find circling back through the questions repeatedly in processes helps me to reflect critically on my work and to make changes.
Avoid asking about experiences of flight and migration. Make space to listen if they come
A supportive, safe space for arrival is one which allows self-determination. Feeling required to articulate traumatic experiences can be re-traumatising.
However, working with the body and working in connection with others may initiate the desire to talk about difficult experiences. Many artists working in the field feel unsure how to respond when this happens – me too as I started. I have an approach which was useful for me, which I will share with you through a story.
I remember one workshop where the group of children with whom I was working were sharing the short choreographies they had developed. There was much excitement and laughter (and some tension and conflict) as they prepared to show their work. As the first group began to dance, a young boy who had joined the group that very day walked over and sat beside me. Staring towards the stage, without making eye contact, he began to tell me about his experience fleeing Syria. Barbara Weidner was in the room with me and saw it happening. Without any words – or indeed any communication with me – she took over the caretaking of the group dynamic and the organisation of the sharing. Everyone continued performing and applauding. I sat next to the boy and tried to hold the space for him. As he turned to look at me, I returned eye contact. And then I followed the most useful advice anyone has ever given me about how to hold the space in these situations: I asked him what happened next, and what happened next, until he had told the story until the point where he arrived in safety. The arrival in safety is important. I do not remember who taught me this strategy (if you read this and know it was you I would like to credit you – please let me know!).
Create repeated, ritualised session structures. Repeat the same thing often
Above, I recommend repeating project structures. Here, as I write for those of you leading creative sessions, I want to expand this recommendation to the content of the individual sessions. More than in any other context in which I have worked, I found myself repeating EXACTLY the same every week, with very little development. The group would often insist on doing the same exercise again and again – and often even in the same order. I also saw this in the work of countless colleagues. Repetition builds familiarity, safety and a sense of being able to land in something which one knows.
Food and social events are vital
Make time for social gatherings. Invite parents, social workers, friends.
If someone makes a suggestion about what they would like to have happen in dance or the context in which you are working, try to do it immediately if you can. Or the next time you come. For us, this led to the quarterly “dance parties” at Uferstudios, where families from different locations in the cities came together to dance, eat, play and listen to music. It also led to some fun formats (“plug and play” where anyone could be DJ for a song was a highlight) as well as countless beautiful performances by the musician Abdulkader Asli and his family.
Allow sessions to be open
In the Aktion Tanz working group, it was a consensus that people should be able to leave sessions when they felt the need and be welcomed back when they wished to return. This allows people to step out if the exercise is too much for them and to self-determine their participation. This is, of course, a challenge for those leading sessions, as it can interrupt processes, particularly if there is pair or group work. This is another good reason for team teaching.
Close groups when necessary
There was also a consensus in the Aktion Tanz working group that some groups need closed spaces (women and girls in particular in our work with families from Syria). These spaces were sometimes hard to create and protect – but all the more important for this.
Have many plans and know that none of them may work on any given day. Stay calm, stay flexible. Feel your feet on the floor. Breathe deep into your stomach. Try to pull back from the situation so you can see it better. Perhaps now you can try something else. Or maybe you need to call a break so you can regroup?
Ask yourself what YOU can do differently
In my many years of supporting artists in participatory settings, I have often heard artists wish for the context of their work to change: “If only the space was….”, “If only the children would….”. If you find yourself doing this, perhaps you could ask yourself if this change is in your control. If so, then, if you can, try to change it (a move of rooms can, for example, be the deciding factor in being able to create a productive environment for creative exchange). If the change you wish for is in the behaviour of those people sharing your process, then I would circle the question back to you: What can YOU do differently?
Perhaps an example will make this recommendation clearer. When working with children in collective accommodation centres, where families live in small spaces and have little self-definition over the basic conditions of their lives, I often experienced that it was impossible to create the quiet moment of arrival at the beginning of a session which I usually want in my work. The children were living crammed together and their bodies were holding stress. This meant that the moment of arrival in our sessions was often chaotic, loud and sometimes full of conflict. Over the years, I tried many approaches to support the arrival of the group and witnessed many other artists search for arrivals which “held” the individuals in the group.
In the end, I found that doing the opposite of my usual beginning rituals worked for me. Instead of creating a calm arrival circle, I gave groups arriving in a chaotic mood a task which amplified their mood: a high energy task with music (including some shaking) to help to release the tension held in their bodies, activate their energy, release endorphins and…make them out of breath (creating a quiet space for me to speak!). I imagined myself surfing the wave of the energy, riding it higher to bring it down. This gave me a moment to welcome them to the session and explain the next task in the short calm(er) space which emerged. It also made it possible to do some gentle, more sensitive, explorations. When I had arrived in that quiet moment, I observed that it was important that I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I had a brief moment and needed to communicate clearly and in as few words as possible. I spend considerable time before workshops in any context practicing the words I will use to introduce tasks, so they are concise and clear. I find it helpful to say them out loud a few times in preparation.
(Try to) Know your own responsibilities
You cannot meet all the needs of the people who you will meet. I found it hard sometimes to go home when people needed help with things outside of the dance workshop – even if I did not know exactly how to help. I learned that there are people better placed to help with needs which require specialist networks, knowledge and skills. If someone needs support and you find yourself at the edges of your knowledge, experience or capacities, your role could be to find who else might be able to support. Ideally, you will have found out in advance who to ask if something is not your responsibility. Try to develop a network of organisations offering specialist advice and support. Talk to your colleagues, your supervisor, your multi-professional team, your network…
This post turned out to be very long. Once I started it felt hard to stop! Thanks for taking the time to read it and I hope it is helpful to you in some way. Feel free to share it and feel free to get in touch with me if you want to give me feedback or continue the exchange of information. My email address is at the end of the post.
The artists working on JUNCTION: Johanna Ackva, Lola Agostini, Ibrahem Al-Abed, Ben Hasan Al-Rim, Ahmad Alfil, Akiles, Nada Al Aswad, Katrina Bastian, Florian Bilbao, Sophie Brunner, Josep Caballero, Camille Chapon, Francisco Cuervo, Katerina Delakoura, Elena Dragonetti, Forough Fami, Anke Full, Frhad Gaafar, Kaveh Ghaemi, Bella Hager, Chada Halawani, Abdullah Hatem, Ulrich Huhn, Inna Kannwischer, Tea Kolbe, Lea Martini, Lara Martelli, Magdalena Meindl, Yara Mennel, Caroline Meyer-Picard, Lilly Pöhlmann, Anna Luise Recke, Kiana Rezvani, Sunayana Shetty, Natalia Torales, Marianne Tuckman, Julia Turbahn, Mariana Vieira, Elisa Zucchetti.
The Aktion Tanz conception group: Suna Göncü, Martina Kessel, Andrea Marton, Jo Parkes, Barbara Weidner.
Contributors to the research and publication: Muhamed Al-Agaili (Akiles), Mia Sophia Bilitza, Christa Coogan, Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf, Bea Kießlinger, Anna-Lu Masch, Ronja Nadler, Sofie Olbers, Daniela Rodriguez Romero, Azadeh Sharifi, Julia zur Lippe.
Funding: The project JUNCTION was delivered in partnership with Uferstudios and supported by ChanceTanz, a project of the „Aktion Tanz e.V.“ within the framework of the programme „Kultur macht stark. Alliances for Education“ programme of the BMBF. JUNCTION is part of Berlin Mondiale. Berlin Mondiale is a project run by Kulturnetzwerk Neukölln e.V. Berlin Mondiale is funded by the Senate Department for Culture and Europe. JUNCTION was also supported by the Ruck-Stiftung. The research and publication of the working groups was funded by the Ministry for Family, Children, Youth, Culture and Sport of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Canas, T. (2015). ‘10 things you need to consider if you are an artist not of the refugee and asylum seeker community looking to work with our community.’ Available at: https://www.riserefugee.org/10-things-you-need-to-consider-if-you-are-an-artist-not-of-the-refugee-and-asylum-seeker-community-looking-to-work-with-our-community/ (Accessed: 6 February 2022)
(C) Foto: Elly Clarke