Illustration created by Griffin Moores using Midjourney.

CSU student dance performances in non-traditional spaces awarded for community engagement

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re attending a dance performance.

You’re probably envisioning dancers on stage, perhaps with dramatic lighting, an audience seated in front of them in a dark theater.

But for Grace Gallagher, an assistant professor of dance at CSU, it can – and should – look a lot different.

For her, she imagined students performing contemporary styles in unexpected spaces: moving fluidly over the glossy floors between H&M and Zales at the Foothills Mall as curious shoppers passed by, or maybe following the rhythm in the falling snow at Buckingham Park, performing for people experiencing homelessness.

“As part of the dance faculty, I’ve been thinking about how we can increase access to performative dance,” continued Gallagher.

So, she started planning.

grace gallagher

“[Dance] creates a bond that I’ve yet to see anywhere else. ”

– Grace Gallagher, assistant professor of dance

Together with Nick Heimann, Fort Collins’ cultural community programs manager, and her students, Gallagher launched a series of 15 mini performances in non-traditional spaces around the city, with a focus on low- and moderate-income communities.

The series aimed to combine improvisation, choreography, and audience participation.

“Dance is really… there’s something that’s magical about it when you’re moving together and sharing space,” said Gallagher. “It creates a bond that I’ve yet to see anywhere else. It can disarm people and open them up to having conversations they otherwise wouldn’t.”

However, helping people unfamiliar with performative dance – or dancing with strangers for that matter – find a way to share that experience proved to be more easily imagined than implemented.

“We planned what we thought were really cool pop-up performances,” said Gallagher, picturing how great it would be for people to stumble across dance performances along city streets and in public parks.

“Instead, we saw people shy away from us. They didn’t know how to receive it,” she continued. “They’d even walk further away to avoid us because they didn’t know what was happening.”

However, the way Gallagher confronted that challenge helped her earn CSU’s Emerging Community Engagement Scholarship Award from CSU’s Provost’s Council for Engagement for how she and her students were able to connect with community members through dance.

More than access, an invitation

Gallagher soon realized that just presenting the opportunity to engage with dance wasn’t enough, and that a little more encouragement was needed to break the ice.

Soon, the dancers added a sign reading “Come dance with us” to their performances. And, after striking a pose to end their choreographed dances, they began going out into the audience to personally invite people to participate.

“We found a verbal invitation goes a long way,” said Gallagher, encouraging more community members to join them.

The group also used games, like pass the groove, to draw people in, as well as familiar songs like Lovely Day by Bill Withers and the electric slide.

Dancers together

“There’s something that’s magical about [dance] when you’re moving together and sharing space.”

– Grace Gallagher

Assessing the impact

On first pass, the work might seem like a lighthearted way to bring levity and joy to people in communities across the city – which it is. But, Gallagher also knows there are opportunities to affect meaningful change.

She sees dance as a vehicle for bridging stark cultural divides, reducing emotional isolation, and providing environments for people to gain confidence and build meaningful relationships.

Through the effort, her students have also built invaluable skills.

“Our students are leading community workshops and developing their abilities in public speaking, learning to connect with a diverse range of people, and becoming expert collaborators,” Gallagher said.

“Working with Nick and the City of Fort Collins, we really wanted to balance our planning with providing the students enough room to make it their own and feel like co-creators in the process,” she continued.

As part of their class, students spent the first semester preparing for the programming and building trusting relationships with each other. So, when they went out into the broader community they knew that they had each other to lean on, as well as skills to take on the unexpected.

“The experience is really eye opening for college students who are developing their own ideals of the world and being asked to learn from people who have different beliefs and a different set of life experiences,” Gallagher said.

The next steps

For Gallagher, she still considers herself a student of the emerging field of community engaged dance, honing her expertise in engaged inquiry.

“We’re continuously asking questions about what’s working and what’s not and it’s evolving constantly because we’re leaving that space for other stakeholders,” she explained.

“Engagement really encourages dialog and I’m excited to continue the process of co-creation as we continue to build relationships and programming with our community partners,” Gallager said.

For her students, they’re now taking their work outside of Fort Collins, traveling across the state and hosting workshops for local schools, theaters and dance groups, spreading a sense of connection and a little bit of ‘magic’ to even more communities.

About the Provost’s Council for Engagement

The Provost’s Council for Engagement advances the practice and recognition of our integration of academic scholarship and community engagement. As a faculty-driven initiative, established in 2016, the Provost’s Council advances the scholarship of engagement, including engaged teaching, engaged research and engagement with communities across Colorado and the world.

Learn more >