Pop-Up Project Employs Dance as a Means of Community Building
Dance has captured the imagination of East Side Elementary. Every third, fourth and fifth grader was introduced to Dance for a week in January, and since then, dancers have been training weekly. When organizers opened up an afterschool program, 75 children asked to participate! Teaching artists are guiding students to train with their minds, their bodies, and as a community, all while moving to rhythms familiar and fundamental to the community’s culture. Smiles abound. And something big is happening. Students are finding their voices, their agency, their place in their world.
More than Movement
Jules Downum, Executive Artistic Director at The Pop-Up Project, says that dance has a unique quality within the arts. As both a dancer and cultural anthropologist, she considers dance a tool for community building.
“When humans move together, we actually sync up.” Quoting the work of University of California Psychologist Dacher Keltner, she explains, “Dancer’s heart rates sync, and in an immersive environment, audience members’ hearts also sync. You essentially put on someone else’s skin. Keltner’s work shows how sharing awe in this way creates wonder, curiosity, and openness – and that expands our circle of care. Dance as a medium can yield collective effervescence; a mind-altering experience that can impact our community for the greater good.”
Since its founding in 2017, The Pop-Up Project has focused on crafting fully immersive site-specific performing arts experiences in otherwise abandoned buildings. In 2022 the company’s annual event explored the Coosa-Thatcher Mill and stories of mill workers in the new Mill Town development, which is just blocks from East Side Elementary.
Mill Town is catalyzing dramatic change in the economic landscape of the surrounding neighborhood. In partnership with several community organizations, The Pop-Up Project is helping to ensure the people who have long lived in the area continue to feel a part of the community as it changes. With support from Benwood and others, Pop-Up Project was able to bring dance into East Side Elementary as a way to build a bridge between neighbors.
Connection and Belonging
“We are teaching dance with a capital D,” says Louie Marin-Howard, Director of Outreach and Education. “Our classes are about more than just steps. We encourage dancers to experience movement and make choices, to be creative and use the artistic parts of their brains.”
Classes are based on the nationally recognized, standards-based “Speaking Through Dance” curriculum developed by Carolyn Dorfman, Artistic Director of Carolyn Dorfman Dance. Teaching artists use music that reflects student heritage including marimba and traditional folk music.
“Dance is about connection,” Marin-Howard says. “Our students learn to really see one another, to look other dancers in the eyes. It celebrates the individual voice and power every student has within themselves. Students who are learning English and those new to Chattanooga are blooming into leaders in dance class.”
In early April, East Side students and their families joined Mill Town neighbors and The Pop-Up Project for a celebratory parade through their neighborhood and into Coosa-Thatcher Mill where they performed – and helped to create collective effervescence.
“We want to use dance to foster belonging and build community,” Downum says. “We want our audiences and dancers to expand their circles of care for one another and build connections across differences. I believe introducing the East Side Elementary dancers to a larger community audience will help neighbors understand each other’s stories and be invested in a shared future.”
Expanding Dance Education
The Pop-Up Project offers youth dance classes to more than 400 children each week at select community centers and schools. Leaders hope to narrow the equity divide for dance education in the city with more programming in coming years.
“We have a significant disparity in access to dance education in Hamilton County,” Marin-Howard says. “I know that dance changes lives, because it saved mine. I attended a dance masterclass as a child and suddenly saw my life in colors I’d never seen before. There was hope for me. Each youth dance class we teach has that same potential to help a child come into their own light.”
The Pop-Up Projects offers classes for adults as well. Check out the schedule and learn about upcoming immersive events at thepopupproject.org.
(Photo at top: East Side Elementary students lead a parade to their dance performance at Mill Town on April 13, 2023. credit: Jay Adams)