Community Engagement is Not Optional for the Arts


MALAYSIA 2016: “So, what brings you here?” asks the woman sitting next to me in a Kuala Lumpur coffee shop during BODYART’s most recent ‘Decay Project’ venture. A simple and direct question, but one with pretty deep roots in my personal ideology and purpose.

Me: Well, I’m here to engage with a new community about a shared topic through movement.

Woman: Does that mean you are teaching dance?

Me: Yes, but that’s not why I’m here.

Woman: So, are you performing on stage?

Me: I’m providing a platform, in this case a dance film, but that’s not the point either.

At the risk of sounding like an inspirational dentist office poster (insert kitten hanging from a ledge here): It’s the journey, not the destination. Creative success lives in the process, however cheesy that sounds, but it couldn’t be more true.

The Decay Project, which took me to Malaysia, finds beauty in unexpected places through collaborations with local artists. The performers seen here in the film and photos are dancing on a palm oil collection site. Structures like this, now in ruin, speak to the history of manual labor integral to Maylasia’s history. I offer special thanks to our Malaysian producer, Bilqis Hijjas and the Damansara Performing Arts Center who were our partners on the project.

As someone who has participated in the contemporary dance booking and touring circuit nationally as both a producer and performer for the last decade, I’m increasingly aware that the artistic goal of a tour or performance has to be couched in something more than a plane ticket to the other side of the world/country.

What if we, as artists and arts organizations judged our success based solely on how well we connect to the immediate community that supports us?

What if traveling with art making was a result of a deep connection to a specific population rather than the next geographical step? The exciting news is that result can be true, and young arts professionals have more opportunities than ever to help make these connections.

Community engagement is not extra. It’s not optional, or a tagline in a grant proposal. In fact, it’s essential. As presenters we are struggling to make connections to audiences with more choices than ever, simply showing up and walking on stage is no longer a viable option.  In the 90s the dance community in the USA saw an influx of opportunities to present your work “on the road,” making touring a way to raise funds for potentially more risky work at home. As a young dance maker taking note, I started a company in the mid-00’s with my sights set squarely on touring as the only metric for success. DanceUSA released numbers this year stating that large US based companies had, on average, 4 bookings per year. That number is still on the optimistic side for more than half of the art makers in that group. That number also doesn’t include whether or not the companies reported a financial gain from those opportunities.

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The shift from companies using terms like ‘outreach’ to ‘engagement’ is a powerful statement but, in my estimation, it’s not the last stop in a quest towards connectivity. The implication, that working in and with communities is a two-way street, sends a clear message and an exciting one. I didn’t ‘art’ on you, we ‘shared’ an experience together.

You can’t mention engagement and dance in the same sentence without immediately shouting out the pioneers over at Urban Bush Women who have found authentic pathways for dance in the office, classroom and community at large. As the next generation of art makers are looking towards the future this poses exciting opportunities. I think it blows the lid off of traditional models of the artist/presenter and allows for engagement on infinite platforms. In turn, young arts administrators have the opportunity to be more creative than ever with what that looks like.

The arc of authentic community engagement for artists begins at a young age. Whether volunteering to find new avenues for presentation of your high school’s arts event or taking an internship; outreach provides a chance to dream big, and be just as creative in the classroom or office as you are on stage and in the studio. This is not padding for a college resume, but the real work of defining yourself as an emerging artist in your community – wherever or however you define that.


There are as many ways to engage with communities as there are dances to make. Starting out, I was frustrated by filling out diversity forms for grant applications but seeing consistently the same faces in the audience. My company, BODYART, started the Decay Project in 2013 and since then I have had the fortune to work with amazing movers and makers from New York, Connecticut, New Zealand and now Malaysia.  This project was dreamed and built. It wasn’t an application process, but a series of opportunities that came through creative problem solving. Working in this way has crystalized the notion for me that community engagement IS the artwork. I can’t encourage young arts’ enthusiasts enough: start now, look for new platforms and don’t be shy. The kitty on your dentist’s wall is right.

The Decay Project

The Decay Project is a series of 5 movement-based short films born out of broken down and/or decayed spaces in our everyday landscape. From natural disasters to spaces left in ruin by years of neglect, The Decay Project finds beauty in unexpected places through collaborations with local artists. Rather than focusing on the issues that caused these stages of decay, it is the project’s goal to focus on beauty through rebuilding, sustaining or reflecting. In today’s social climate beauty tends to have ridged constraints and this project seeks to shine a new light on unconventional beauty in both the space and the performers. With so much history embedded in the skeletons of many of these locations, The Decay Project hopes to bring new generation of audiences to these striking spaces.

Current Series

After the Final Curtain – Bridgeport CT – 2013

BLOW – Fort Totten, NYC – 2014

(re) BUILD – Christchurch, New Zealand – 2015

Gather – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia –  2016

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