in Dancing through the dissonance

Throughout this book, we have pursued our commitment to peace, arts and pluralism, and have explored the links between dance and peacebuilding. In particular, we have examined existing theories and approaches to peace and conflict through the lens of creative movement, which presents itself as a relevant way to engage with aesthetic politics. Drawing on our training and the existing evidence base in Peace and Conflict Studies, IR, Politics and Dance, we have taken a deep dive into practice as observed and experienced through the work of one global NGO working for peace through dance across three different countries – Colombia, the Philippines and the US. We observed and interviewed the young peer leaders in the programme across these diverse sites, and were able to situate our learning with nuance and draw out commonalities across difference.

Although traditionally IR and Peace and Conflict Studies are seen as central to investigating, preventing and redressing conflict, they have rarely engaged with dance and creative movement. Even during the course of writing this book, the visibility of dance as a means of embodying the political has continued to increase, while young peoples’ voices are gaining strength in the pursuit of peace. We have benefitted greatly from those pioneering scholars and practitioners who have stretched their imaginations to engage with multiple senses and connect with bodies as political and capable of social transformation, including through everyday practices of peace. We have drawn on their insights in our investigation of dance and peacebuilding.

Overall, our research leaves us confident that dance and creative movement can be effectively engaged in the creation of peace. Dance, as an embodied, aesthetic vehicle, can support relationships among diverse actors; enable the expression and embracing of emotions; add to the range of avenues to engage in dialogue; and traverse perceived boundaries between the local and global. In considering the process of how such changes may occur, we have witnessed challenges as well as prospects when it comes to peacebuilding and transforming conflict.

Creative movement and dance, like other means for peacebuilding, are subject to risks, including outcomes that may not best support sustainable peace. At the same time, due to its flexibility and ephemerality, dance resists the dominant tendency to focus on quantifiable, technical approaches to peacebuilding. While making it more challenging to measure, this intangibility provides a useful counterpoint to established narratives of building peace.

Dance can teach us how peace might be enacted and articulated, including through playing a part in broader transformative social movements for peace. In this study, we have worked with young peacebuilders across diverse communities locally and globally. In doing so, we have sought to shed light on ways that violence and conflict may be experienced and peace may be enacted and understood. Our investigation includes attention to how cultural or geographic differences and other factors, including but not limited to age and gender, may play an important role in what peace means and how it can be realised.

Retracing our steps: reflecting on the research

Around the world, dance and music are recognised as important to both cultural expression and social cohesion. We argue for recognising the ways dance can support a range of approaches to communication, assist in building relationships across difference and promote the participation of diverse actors in peacebuilding. To better understand these prospects, we shared a basic typology of six categories to understand efforts in dance-based peacebuilding – therapeutic; artist-led social change or protest; community-led social change or protest; collective forms; educational; and diplomatic (see Chapter 1). While acknowledging that these categories can coexist, blend and/or overlap, we suggest that considering a programme's intent and the category or categories into which it might fit are useful in further articulating the field of practice.

In our research we explored how working with youth across diverse sites illuminates the need for intersectional, plural approaches to understanding and practising peace. This builds on previous research identifying the importance and political significance of young people in peacebuilding. We also question why, despite international efforts, young people remain on the sidelines of peace initiatives and are not sufficiently recognised and engaged in policy or practice. Our research indicates that dance can be a meaningful, impactful pathway to support youth leadership for peace. The data gathered also points to the significance of ensuring peacebuilding efforts are flexible, age specific, gender sensitive and culturally relevant.

We investigated what dance can tell us about local and/or global approaches to peacebuilding, including how the two are defined and interact, and the political implications of this interchange. To consider this in practice, we looked closely at ‘hub dance exchanges’. The hub dances were seen as a way to create cross-cultural exchange in the pursuit of peace. The hub dances prompt further examination of the different cultural contexts in which conflict occurs and the tensions between the possibilities of instilling stereotypes or being valued for difference. We also considered the ways in which the creation, practice and exchange of hub dances enacted meaning around identity for self, others and the community, and how this relates to peacebuilding more broadly.

We then explored the concept of empathy, including the prospects and challenges it poses in arts-based peacebuilding. To do so, we analysed a set of creative dance activities involving the use of mirroring. A common dance activity, mirroring has been deployed in many settings and contexts, including use as an icebreaker in some mainstream peacebuilding resources. As seen in our three case studies, mirroring can invite interpersonal exchange and support the development of empathy. This empathy can promote understanding across difference and likewise contribute to peacebuilding, including the restructuring of relationships after violence. In short, we suggest that (1) nonviolent ways of expressing emotions are crucial for peacebuilding; (2) empathy is a key emotion to address in the aim of peacebuilding; and (3) dance activities, including mirroring, when used with critical reflection, can offer a promising way to foster empathy and thus support peacebuilding.

We noted how practitioner self-care has been underexplored in Peace and Conflict Studies, even though peacebuilders themselves could benefit immensely from further investigation in this area. We propose that dance has broader implications in peacebuilding because it can enable a more reflective stance for considering conflict. It has the potential to offer new and creative directions for pursuing peace. Our research suggests that through dance, participants had an opportunity to express a deeper sense of self-understanding, embodiment and strength to go on with the work of peace. In the midst of difficult work in circumstances of conflict, the peacebuilders we worked with appreciated opportunities that dance provided to relieve stress and re-engage with their bodies. Acknowledging that diverse bodies may be placed differently in settings of conflict, we also interrogated the prospects and challenges posed by gender and age norms in particular sites of peacebuilding.

Broader reflections on our research themes: choreographing next steps

As the global community continues to seek ways to build peace that are inclusive of people across differences – such as race, religion, gender, culture, age and locality – and that revise, supplement or replace existing dominant approaches, this book provides a valuable in-depth analysis that includes exploring the benefits and challenges of arts-based peacebuilding practice. In considering dance and peacebuilding, this book seeks to build the resources available for understanding sociopolitical and aesthetic effects at work in different communities with varying conflict dynamics.

This book incorporates multiple perspectives including elements of dance practice, participant voices and critical political analysis, and it reveals important implications and nuances regarding an arts-based peace initiative that, when applied, can offer needed understandings within the peacebuilding field. By exploring the politics of dancing peace, and the interpersonal interactions and ability to ‘practise peace’ as well as the local and global connections, this book highlights and analyses key themes in arts-based peacebuilding work. Key findings from this research include the ways in which dance is perceived as being useful in peacebuilding, the value of embodiment and practising peace with others, and the potential for dance to bridge perceived local–global divides.

Firstly, participant statements indicated ‘that dance can be useful in engaging youth in peacebuilding but that it must be applied in sensitive, reflexive and culturally relevant ways to appeal to and include both young men and young women’. 1 Considering age is salient, given the importance of and growth in attention paid to the roles of youth in peace in conflict. The young participants in this project articulated the ways in which dance had been useful for peacebuilding. For example, they explained how dance served as a nonviolent means of communication and a way to connect with one's feelings in a peace education context. Dance was seen as something that many young people could relate to, as it was culturally relevant and familiar, and it was also something that did not require a great deal of expensive equipment or training. Dance was also understood as a way to release and reduce stress, an important aspect of recovering from violence already witnessed or experienced.

Participants also pointed to a variety of limitations regarding what dance could do and how. In particular, they identified how short-term funding cycles, which are common across global peacebuilding initiatives, can at times create short-sighted programmes. They also noted that, without attention to access and inclusion, efforts to engage youth in dance and creative movement for peacebuilding might overlook the needs of some people – for example, people living with disabilities or those who speak a different language from the one deployed in the dance programmes. These limitations are not inherent to dance, nor are they always present, yet they should be given careful consideration across arts-based peacebuilding approaches nonetheless.

Through looking at young people's practice and understanding of dance and creative movement for peace, we can gain insights into local and global peacebuilding efforts, while noting how the two are understood, connect and may aid in creating one another. By listening to the young people involved in this research across the three case study sites, we learned of the ways in which they get involved in building cultures of peace locally, nationally, regionally and globally, despite so often being sidelined in formal political efforts at building peace.

Instead of accepting their exclusion, the young people we worked with explained how they envision peace, like violence, as occurring on a spectrum that crosses a number of scales. Many of them saw this as beginning with the self or the individual, expanding to the local community, and then more broadly to create and sustain global communities committed to peace. For young people in particular, this offered important connections they could use in building peace as well as opportunities for themselves in a connected world that often values international networks.

Research participants reported that they found dance and creative movement relevant for making these global connections for peace. While dance may not be a universal language, it is nonetheless commonly understood as a platform for sharing meaning, including across difference. Many participants also highlighted the need to better ‘translate’ programmes across cultures to ensure local relevance and respect for various cultural contexts.

Connecting with and expressing emotions is a vital aspect of peacebuilding. This emotional engagement can be accessed through empathy, and dance and creative movement facilitate that process. We have also highlighted limits and challenges to studying and practising empathy in the pursuit of peace, as well as how these challenges were addressed (or not) in the case studies. Through exploring these tensions, we have made a case for incorporating emotion in peacebuilding without sidelining the faculties of critical reasoning necessary for the pursuit of social justice – a key element of positive peace.

Lastly, the young peacebuilders involved in this research often referred to aspects of understanding and caring for the self as critical for peace, with many expressing the opinion that peace could only be possible or sustained if it started in or was present in the self. They explained that self-knowledge or awareness and self-esteem could be crucial for this process, as could the ability to feel relaxed or safe in one's own physical body. They also provided insights into the complex ways different bodies may be placed and understood in this context.

As young people around the world are increasingly taking up the work of peacebuilding, it is useful to reflect and share knowledge and approaches. The young peacebuilders we came to know provided insightful knowledge on how dance and creative movement expressed in physical and embodied ways can foster and sustain peacebuilding. In particular, self-care for peacebuilders has been underexplored, and our research suggests that dance and creative movement can offer an important means for nurturing self-care for peacebuilders. This may occur through practices that enable individuals involved in peace efforts to deal with stress in healthy ways and find methods to relax, breathe and re-engage with their bodies so that they can access the strength, courage and stamina to continue their crucial work, including in conflict-affected and often overwhelming circumstances.

Overall, it appears that dance and creative movement, when applied in thoughtful ways, can help foster peacebuilding. This is not to say that dance cannot also be used ineffectively, sometimes even creating exclusions. However, when used well in the pursuit of peace, dance can have much to offer when it comes to seeking harmony within the dissonance of conflict.

While the research for this book has taught us a lot, as with any truly interesting and timely research area, it also poses a number of further questions. While it would be impossible to outline them all here, providing some potential future directions is worthwhile in aiming to stimulate further discussion and research in the pursuit of peace. Some key questions among the many that merit further exploration include:

  • What are the long-term effects of dance-based peacebuilding initiatives?
  • Are there differences in whether and how creative movement for peace might be encountered, experienced or adapted across different age groups beyond young people?
  • Do different styles of music lead to different groups participating?
  • What are best-practice efforts for better accounting for and including people with a wide range of mobility issues or other disabilities when conducting movement-based peacebuilding?
  • How might the use of different dance styles or genres influence who takes part and what the outcomes of dance-based peace programmes might be?
  • How can dance best be shared across different countries and cultures without creating or reinforcing existing stereotypes?
  • What differences might arise between programmes where leaders choreograph movements compared to those where participants are also co-creators of the dance?
  • How do experiences where participants generate their own creative material contribute to their peace work?
  • How would the activities we describe in this book fare in settings with different contexts of conflict?
  • Does it make a difference whether such programmes refer to their work as ‘dance’, ‘creative movement’ or another term?
  • How might scholars, practitioners, policymakers and donors reimagine evaluation in peacebuilding to include and value more embodied and creative approaches?
  • What practices might effectively support peacebuilder self-care?

Following insights from Roland Bleiker in his work on aesthetic politics, our investigation of dance and peacebuilding has not been aimed at being prescriptive, but rather has been conducted in the spirit of seeking to uncover new ways of ‘sensing the political’ in ways that allow our research to speak to a broad audience while eschewing all-encompassing explanations in favour of fostering self-reflexivity and pluralism. 2 As Bleiker explains, it is crucial that we open our hearts and minds to ideas and people that have been excluded, including in our pursuit of peace. While we will have surely failed at many points, we aspire to continue in our quest to be reflective and maintain an open mind in our search for new aesthetic ways to encounter and address ever-evolving political dilemmas. 3

Keeping this overall goal in mind, and following the wisdom provided by ‘Juan’, one of our research participants in Colombia, we hope our readers can walk away challenged to ask questions, risk the vulnerability of creativity and move towards a more peaceful world. As such, we leave you with some of his words:

What's next? Leave them a little seed; somehow make them see a different world … I think that there are … things that move the world and that can be done by any person … These are love, peace, willingness and courage.

May you search for and find them all in your daily dance of life.


1 L. J. Pruitt, ‘Gendering the study of children and youth in peacebuilding’, Peacebuilding, 3 (2015), pp. 157–70.
2 R. Bleiker, ‘In search of thinking space: reflections on the aesthetic turn in international political theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 45 (2017), pp. 258–64.
3 Ibid., p. 264.

Dancing through the dissonance

Creative movement and peacebuilding


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