Artistic Director Yana Lewis reflecting on the infinite Power of Dance. She speaks about experiences in her own life, as a student and as a teacher.
Infinity and Beyond
The Power of Dance is infinite. I strongly believe it is infinite. There’s no limit to what it can achieve and create. There is nothing that I can’t connect to it. Nothing that the Power of Dance can’t make an impact on. It can create a powerful impact in any situation, whether it’s in therapy, in psychotherapy, in physical therapy, in remedial therapy, occupational therapy or just in situations in life. For example, if you’re working in occupational therapy, with a patient who has had a stroke and you bring in movement, even just mirroring, the achievement that you create with that person is enormous.
I’ve used dance to work with handicapped children, deaf children, physically challenged children, children who are dyslexic, children who have ADHD. I’ve taken dance into psychiatric institutions, into hospitals, into prisons. The impact that you have with dance on people’s minds and bodies is special in any situation. Even if you are taking it to people on whom you feel dance is not having any effect, it always does. The impact that you make creates a thought or a process. Even in someone who is what seems like paralyzed you see a flickering of their eyes or you see a spark light up somewhere, and you know you’ve had an impact. For me, one of the biggest memories was taking dance into a psychiatric institution. It wasn’t always as a teacher; this time we went as performers and took a show to them. And another great experience was teaching dance to physically challenged individuals. It is such a unique thing when you see them trying to move, to let go. If they forget who they are, they forget what they’re doing and then they finally find themselves. Not as the person whom the world thinks they are, but as the person whom they truly are.
And that is so important for me. All the work that I’ve done, even though I don’t do a lot of that kind of work now, has affected who I am as a person. And changed me forever.
The Challenges of Spreading the Power
Some of it was really, really hard to do. I mean, things like doing a show in a psychiatric institution and having someone who is not of sound mind running up onto the stage and trying to grab me. That had a huge effect on me. And I was only a teenager then. But then you realise the power of what you are doing and how you have affected the person, who may be somebody that hasn’t actually moved or spoken in years.
It brings in a whole new dimension of why you do what you do. You know, we do what we do because we love it, but actually our love of it is what’s creating a spark or process for someone else to change what’s happening within them. And it’s so wonderful.
Dance as Therapy
Dance when used in therapy can be the tiniest movements. It can just be a hand gesture. My aunt was really, really ill. She had had a stroke and she was in occupational therapy. They were teaching her how to speak again. I just used to go and visit her and I started doing movements with her and asking her to copy me and the speed at which her occupational therapy progressed and her speech came back was astonishingly fast. I was very close to this aunt so I used to go and see her all the time and used to hold her hands and start doing movement with her. So you know, these things have a much bigger impact than you realise at that time. There is something magical about movement and music. People listen to music. Why? To make them feel good. They don’t feel good by sitting there and listening like a zombie without moving. They start bouncing or moving an arm or moving a head, and it’s dance, right? Even if you start bouncing your eyes around, your eyes are dancing.
Music of the Body
Talking of music – working with deaf individuals is amazing. It’s a great experience when you’re trying to get them to dance to music, when they can’t even hear. They feel. So that feeling comes into the dance immediately, they skip the step of music passing through their ears into the brain into the body. It just flows in through their feet and straight into the dance. If you block out your ears, stand by a speaker and see what it feels like to interpret that vibration and how it becomes your movement, then you will understand how it suddenly becomes so much more.
My Own Experience of the Power
Even as a student, I had many experiences where I actually felt the Power of Dance. One of them was when I was in one of my last years in ballet school. I was in a show and I had torn the tendons in both my legs. I still performed in the show. I think I learned a lot about the Power of Dance then. I was in pain, but I didn’t notice and I became a better performer because part of my physicality was restricted.
As dancers, it’s very easy for us to become so much about our bodies, that if something isn’t quite right and you have to go on stage, you have to add something more. So in that moment of not having full motion in my legs, something else became bigger. My presence became bigger. In that moment, in my performance, I felt like, ‘Oh, now I’ve become a performer’. Actually, performing comes very easily and very naturally to me. But then I felt I truly understood what performing means and what it can do. The audience connected with my performance more, more even than if I had the full range of motion.
Life experiences will teach you the Power of Dance. You could be in the worst situation of your life. When my father passed away, I was filming a TV show. I had to go and film for it the next day and I didn’t have a choice. I was contracted. I had to go do it. No one else knew my part and there was no other option. My father was in the industry as a sound engineer who worked in movies and TV. So for me it was very clear, we both knew that you have to go and do what you have to go and do regardless of the situation. I almost felt like he would’ve wanted me to go and do it that day. And I went and did it. I had to become even more absorbed in what I was doing to be able to do it. Block out the self, the now, what’s happening. And just totally submerge myself in the performance. That developed into a coping mechanism for me. If I wasn’t a dancer, would I have been able to cope like that? I don’t think so. Only then did I realise how strong I am as a person. My strength, that I draw from, is that I can use dance to overcome literally anything. And that is a strength that no one can take away from me. No one can take dance away. In that performance on the TV show I grew as a person and I grew as a performer because I had to apply every cell of myself to it to cope.
You play music, you dance. And you find a way to cope within that moment. Real dancers use dance as a coping mechanism for life. Which again, adds to the Power of Dance. People dance for joy, right? People also dance when they’re sad. People dance to deal with emotion, aggression, anger. And all these things can be captured and used by us as artists to create things that in turn touch our audiences.
Teaching Through the Power of Dance
As a teacher I see the Power of Dance every day with my students. I’ve taught all kinds of students. And I think dance means something different to everyone. I teach all the way down the line. I don’t think dance means the same thing to any two students that I have.
It’s a very personal thing. People dance for different reasons. For example, in a class the other day, quite a few students came in looking like they were apologising for being there. They stood at the barre and did their pliés. I spoke to them, I corrected them, I shouted and in five minutes I got them fully present. I transformed them into looking like ballet dancers, and they stood and placed themselves and had the confidence to be another version of themselves.
It’s still them, but it’s not the version that they’re used to all the time. It’s like – I’m here, I’m present, I’m worth this. I am who I am. And so the physical space that they adopt in the room becomes bigger instead of smaller.
I think that’s what I’m trying to say really. Dance has the power to do something like that. To change the space someone holds in the room. And the space someone holds in the room is very important because that’s how they present themselves to the outside world. Will they retain it when they leave the class? Maybe not. But the more times I give them that experience, the more they will be able to retain it in the world around them. They will begin to be more aware of the space they hold. No one should come into a room like that. Whether it’s a ballet lesson or any other room. Imagine if you went for a job interview like that, it wouldn’t go well. How you present yourself to the world is very important, especially for teenagers. And I think dance plays a huge part in that.
A lot of teenagers who have gone to college and universities, say how much dance has taught them throughout their lives to be disciplined, to be structured, to be sincere about what you’re doing, to push yourself. All those things that dance does, it has also taught them to do that in their lives, in everything they do. And even though they’re not going to be dancers, I think that it’s a great thing that they’ve learned through their ballet and I’m proud of them for that.
Power in Connection
Dance fosters connections on a whole new level. For example, my NYB students who spend the whole of Saturday together from their early morning classes all the way to NYB in the afternoon. I’d be bored to death if I had to sit there for all those hours. But my students love it, they are like, ‘We are just one family and we all connect and then we don’t want to leave and we have to tear ourselves away from each other and go home!’ That shows the Power of Dance, right? They all have dance in common and they say that the connection that they feel with their ballet friends is at a whole new level compared to how they feel with their school or other friend groups. Here, everyone can be themselves and feel accepted. In schools, often everyone just wants you all to be clones of each other.
I feel here you all just accept everyone for who they are and love and admire them for it. And of course, you are a unit as well since you all dance together. You are a unit and you are unique individuals at the same time. No one’s judging anybody. You’re all just you. You have that freedom to just be yourselves with a common thread of just knowing what the Power of Dance is. And so you don’t need to be anyone else because you are enough.
All of these things are just some of the facets of the beautiful concept that is the Power of Dance. From medical therapies to connections between performer and audience. From a way to go on with life in the aftermath of loss to strong, unconditional bonds between people, and so much more. Dance is something integral to humanity; it has existed almost as long as we have. I believe everyone has experienced the Power of Dance in some way, however small or enormous. The more you think about it, you realise that the simple, natural act of moving to music holds within it all kinds of wonders. Wonders that you will discover. One step at a time.