• “Ninety percent of us were laughing the whole day! It is nice to be around such happiness.”
  • “We have been ‘doing fun’…and now my mind is free.”
  • “My mind is so clear I can think about other things. [Now I can] dream on!”
  • “Speaking is healing.”
  • “My mind is healed.”

The 20 women from Warrenvale and Ikhutseng, Northern Cape, spoke of their experiences in one of the most recent intergenerational and gender dialogue workshops with IJR. They had been laughing together all day – a kind of laughter that was releasing something deeper, something that fundamentally needed to be let out. Activities using painting, games, dance, music, performance, poetry, free writing, and craft unlocked a neglected door, through which the much-needed expression of joy could flow.

From July to December 2016, Lindsey Doyle, Rotary Peace Fellow hosted by IJR, has been implementing a pilot project to closely examine the role of dance, movement, and artistic expression in supporting dialogue, justice, and reconciliation. Building upon the work of the Memory, Arts, and Culture Project, as well as IJR’s in-depth dialogue work, the pilot project began by engaging second- and third-year students from the University Of Cape Town School Of Dance to explore how they could expand their artistic craft to include improvisational storytelling. The pilot project entailed preliminary research, consultation with South African artists, dance companies, historians, and international dance practitioners, project design, and eight improvisational dance workshops with the students. These activities culminated in public performances at the 2016 Baxter Dance Festival Fringe Programme in Cape Town on October 15 and a performance at the 2016 IJR Reconciliation Award event on November 23 at the District 6 Museum Homecoming Centre. Preliminary findings from this pilot suggest that dance movement and performance, if designed to reflect stories from the audience’s lived experiences, have the potential to catalyze key moments of increased understanding between historically disparate groups.

Given the success of the initial pilot, movement-based approaches were then applied in a two-day IJR intervention in Warrenton, Northern Cape that worked with a group of 20 cisgender and transgender women. Although not formally evaluated, this experience anecdotally revealed lessons about the utility of the arts in transforming attitudes and behaviours. In general, the application of a variety of artistic mediums allowed the women to increase their own self-esteem, improve their communication with family and neighbours, and feel motivated to work for change in their own communities. Such an intervention has important implications for future work with trauma-affected people. Rather than working with people’s trauma directly and explicitly as the objective of a dialogue, utilizing artistic approaches allowed the women to bring to the process what they wanted to, whether that was the expression of traumatic events or a desire to have a break from the stressors of their daily lives. Moreover, the challenges presented by using artistic mediums caused some people with little previous artistic experience to realize that they were talented in ways they had never imagined. Such experience in self-care and the arts led to the development of self-esteem and action at the family and community levels.

To continue to leverage the gains of this pilot project, in late November, IJR was invited to advise Jazz art Dance on an upcoming choreographic work that will explore reconciliation, gender, and space at the Dance Umbrella Festival in Johannesburg in February 2017. IJR will also contribute to an online course about the role and effectiveness of the using the arts for peacebuilding that is currently in development. The course is the product of a collaboration between the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the United States Institute for Peace. Stay tuned in January 2017 for Occasional Paper No. 22: Creativity in Conflict: Performing Arts for Sustained Dialogue, Justice, and Reconciliation for full details on the pilot project and IJR’s recent arts-based work in Warrenton, Northern Cape.

Parts of this newsletter article were excerpted from the author’s forthcoming Occasional Paper.

Lindsey Doyle is a Visiting IJR Fellow for the Building Inclusive Society Programme and dance choreographer.