Dancing with Sustainability: The role of dance in sustainable development and wellbeing

During my master’s in dance anthropology, I completed a dissertation on the relationship between dance and sustainability, in particular, the potential of dance in improving wellbeing and quality of life.

Very little academic work has been conducted on dance and sustainability, a field that is characterised by intersectionality and interdisciplinarity. This dissertation seeks to fill that research gap. Humans are biological beings deeply reliant on the natural environment for its life-giving services. As we fast approach a point of irreversible climate change, coupled with global pandemics and violent conflicts, the pressure is now greater than ever to find solutions to the impending crisis. This dissertation argues that the problem lies, to a large extent, in a broken system of a complex set of relations between socio-economic and political forces that have created a disembodied society where individuals are removed from other people and from the natural environment.

It determines that dance has a host of effects, including improvement in people’s wellbeing, a greater sense of belonging and a strengthened connection to nature. Using dance as a tool, and ecology and anthropology as the lens, we examine the case of dance in Bassano del Grappa, Italy. Through visual ethnography and participative observation, the study sought to examine participants’ embodied experiences. Borrowing the concepts of regeneration, adaptability and diversity from the fields of sustainability science, systems thinking and biomimicry, the study concludes that dance could be an effective tool for sustainability.

It was found that when faced with various injustices, such as ableism, racism, and sexism, participants were able to overcome them through dance. Practising dance allowed participants to get in touch with their bodies and develop skills, such as improvisation and community building, all of which are key components of regenerative sustainability. This approach puts the focus on the body and embodied learning in creating behaviour change rather than on people’s values and beliefs. We envisage a society that spends less time watching TV and more time engaging in embodied activities like dancing. It is hypothesised that dancing allows people to shift from resource and energy-intensive behaviours like driving a car or shopping, to an experience-based activity like dancing, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and material consumption in the process. It is clear that what is required now is a civilisation-level shift and how we get there will require a different kind of thinking and being. This study shows that dance may not make us sustainable per se, but can be a valuable tool to shift our society in a sustainable direction.

For more information, you can read the full dissertation below.

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