To: Educators, Philanthropists, Influencers, Chairs of Dance Departments, and to the relevant Academic President, Dean or Academic Administrator.
Re: The importance of Social Dance, and other Interactive, Non-Competitive Somatic Disciplines in Post Pandemic Academic Curriculum.
And, a Co-Curricular Proposal for Social Education in Dance at the University level.
From: Daniel Trenner, M.Ed. in Dance, Lesley College, 1985
Lecturer in Dance at Mt. Holyoke College from 2004 – 2019
Lecturer in Dance at Smith College from 2007 – 2018
Coach- Hampshire College Salsa and Tango 2009 – present
Coach- Amherst Tango Club 2003- 2019
Dancer since 1974.
Influencer in the International Community of Improvisational Dance, 1979-present
Influencer in the International Community of Argentine Tango, 1987-present
Influencer in the International Community of Cuban Salsa, 1999-present
Author’s Note, September 2021:
The latest news includes positive developments in vaccines, therapies, and testing protocols, and yet is even more exhausting than ever. With science politicized, with the developed world selfishly hoarding vaccines even as the possible horror of unabated new variants coming home to complicate our possible recovery, and public health experts predicting that Corona Viruses may remain in circulation in perpetuity, much like the flu, only deadlier. With all of this, the alarm I am trying to raise, about the crisis facing our next generation of youth losing their access to even the most basic of social and intimacy skills, becomes even more urgent.
This proposal was originally created pre-Pandemic. All of the challenges outlined herein have increased dramatically. We are facing a world where the society we return to, when we do ever return, will be transformed, having retreated inward, and ruled by ever present uncertainties about the safety of physical interactions. The way people conduct their social lives will have to change. Will retail or restaurants ever return in the way we knew them.? How about bars, clubs, concerts, and all public gatherings?
What is needed is a conscious effort to distinguish the parts of social gatherings that are significant for the development of healthy social relationships, the meetings with compatible people that foster relationships in business, and in personal lives.
Social Dance, when organized consciously and conscientiously, is representative of how social experiences can be created in safe environments. What is needed is study and experimentation with planned social gatherings, beginning with smaller ones, and growing as we learn. And, what is needed is the study of social skills that are essential in the conduct of personal relationships, including the boundary keeping that would lead to safe and healthy possibilities for intimacy.
In a prior world leaving these things to chance was the default, perhaps lacking in consciousness but not in a society of constantly occurring random possibilities. Now, in this new, post pandemic, world such possibilities will be severely limited, chance curtailed. Planning for the possibility of deeper social contact, and corresponding pathways to initiate intimacies, not just keep them safe, will be necessary. Otherwise, I believe, we will face a world where individual lives will be increasingly isolated and devoid of the social interactions we have spent thousands of years taking for granted, but which now must be consciously arranged if they are to occur at all within the general population.
I have been on the cutting edge of bringing consciousness to these issues. For the last 16 years I have been teaching social skills thorough Social Dance at the Five Colleges in Western Massachusetts. (Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire, Amherst, and UMASS Amherst) My experiences here can be a vital resource as we attempt to recreate the opportunity for student social lives on campuses, and beyond. Facing these issues will directly inform how we can meet the same challenges both in elementary and secondary education, and in the greater society.
The circumstances of the Pandemic have made this proposal more important and urgent than ever, and I hope you will consider how to incorporate this work into whatever strategic planning you are undertaking for the restoration of Campus Life at your school, or in a broader sense, in the 2021-22 and 22-23 academic years. For it looks like this disease, and the possibility of further such diseases, will remain a critical focus for the foreseeable future.
Author’s Note: November 2019:
The news is exhausting. Everyday more is revealed about the deficit of character in Leadership. The political reality is obvious. The constant drumbeat of the “Me Too” movement, and the constant revelation of new arenas where so-called “leaders” are called out for inappropriate behaviors. Sexual violence on campuses, in schools, the Boy Scouts, churches. Male energy out of balance.
My work is based on the idea that somatic learning is lacking. The mind is quick, learns in a flash, learning that is neither hard-wired nor reliable. Learning in the body is by disciplined repetition. Habits formed this way become imprinted in the more primitive brain. Social behavior related to conduct, and etiquette, is best formed in this way. Social dancing was traditionally a part of advanced leadership trainings, for example, in military officer’s academies. It fell out of fashion as a casualty of the 60’s social movement toward free and independent expression. Society lost a time tested foundation for one-to-one social interaction. What is needed is an updated model of social dance for today’s emerging culture of gender diversity, intergenerational integration, and aimed toward an end to the “mythology of male dominance”.
This author is a cis male of 63 years, who may not be the perfect messenger, but who is working diligently, and listening as he goes. I have lived an adult life through these epochs of changing norms, working in dance, which is considered a “feminine” profession, teaching social dances created out the fusions of culture from different races and cultures, and therefore lacking the respect given to other disciplines. I have been fortunate to work at the Five Colleges since 2004, teaching beginners as an adjunct and coach, but with a very successful Level 200 section at Smith College for a six year run. My students have been my teachers. Somatic education, and its link to healthy social skills, taught through dance, would be useful throughout our educational system at every level, beginning in grade school. Post-pandemic I believe the need is now most urgent. Here is what I propose to do.
The next generation of students entering College will have endured a high school pandemic experience of social distancing and fear of personal contact unlike anything since 1918. The needs for renewal of safe social gathering, safe and appropriate boundary keeping, and the negotiation of intimate space will be challenging. Any solutions we can develop will be interdisciplinary in the truest sense of that word. I believe that Social Dancing offers a unique social skill set, and has a huge contribution to make to the interdisciplinary dialogue. I believe that Universities are the institutions uniquely suited to rise to this challenge, and that the success we have at the College level, will be broad and essential, resonating throughout the educational system, and the society.
Before us are educational challenges of historical importance. The present generation of youth, even before the pandemic, have fewer social and civic skills than ever before. So-called Social Media has turned out to be an anti-social set of constant distractions and false narratives. Competitiveness is being emphasized in education without complimentary awareness of somatic, non-competitive and contemplative “human” skills. Competitiveness is traditionally viewed as a “masculine” trait. What, traditionally, are assumed to be “feminine” traits, such as intimacy and empathy, have been relegated to shadow or silence. Social Dance is a synthesis of such iconically feminine skills packaged in a seemingly male-centric Social Interaction of lead and follow, but including robust attention building skills through physicality, or whole being participation. It is a non-competitive, relationship-building, team-building skill set. While superficially couched in the language of binary gender, it also also offers a pathway to non-binary analysis of gender roles, through a modern pedagogy requiring every participant to learn both iconic roles, engaging in dialogue that supports exploring new roles and freedom in gender expression. All of this is achieved by honoring the uniquely “feminine voice” in traditional social dances. Consciousness of this work emerged here at my advanced section at Smith College (2012-2018). During these more advanced sections the work became more focused, expanding beyond the container of a Performing Arts focused Dance Department, and becoming the core of this Co-Curricular proposal.
The work has emerged from my 40 years of international teaching experience, and, while interacting with the unique group of students, principally women, here at the Five Colleges over the last 15 years.
1- The generation presently in school, and the next ones after them, will face an unprecedented challenge. The recovery of social norms, as many as possible. The students who were in primary and secondary school during the pandemic, will arrive at College with a unique set of challenges, fears, and social deficits. Screens, with all of the challenges enumerated herein, which before had been seemingly winning the battle for the social lives of youth, have now crushed in-person social contact during the outbreak of the pandemic, and our necessary social retreat. It is incumbent upon us, within higher education to meet this challenge, and lead the way back to healthy social contact, norms of intimacy, and the constructs of safe physical relationships, and to do this for students at every level of the educational system.
Today’s youth are the first generations to be raised throughout the whole of their lives in the presence of, and with access to, screens and social media. They are arriving at College with deficits in their abilities to focus their attention in general, to create meaningful social relationships, and to set boundaries in intimate relationships.
Their civic skills are some of the most nuanced and subtle of the deficits. They consume less real news, and are subject to the constant echo chambers of their own, often rather random, and sometimes infantile, “choices” about how to learn about the human society functioning around them, and, how to gain their personal foothold in it.
These crises are visible broadly throughout the levels of our educational systems, and worst among those with the weakest levels of academic support, but are evident even among the groups at the highest level of academic rigor, like those at College. And this is the next group that will function at the highest levels of societal and civic leadership someday, all too soon.
Social and civic skills have been seriously neglected in an educational system obsessed with STEM and career building. Simultaneously Social Media has emerged at an unprecedented pace and overwhelmed youth, short changing them of relationship building skills in physical interaction, and attempting to replace the physical with a still barely understood “virtual reality”.
2- Therefore, youth are graduating from secondary schools and entering college with limited boundary keeping skills, in a crisis of “attention deficit”, and often over-medicated as well. There is a growing awareness of how challenged this generation of youth is at dealing with isolation and stress, and therefore managing and preventing sexual violence and harassment.
3- Social Dance has become a lost art in education. It was never a very self-aware form to begin with, being composed of folk dances, square dances, and ballroom dances, very much couched in traditional and confining binary gender roles. However, it was, for generations, a unique experience at school where students could learn to meet eyes, express desire, and touch hands and bodies for the first time with safe and understood boundaries. This is a discipline ripe for reinvention right now.
4- Social Dance, at the present, has no home in Academia. Performing Arts Dance, which is a competitive model of Dance, with the talented being groomed for success on stage, became ubiquitous in College Dance Departments in the 1950’s when Modern Dance was cutting edge. The modern, Performing Arts focused, College Dance Department is, unfortunately, no longer a home for Social Dance, which is a root form of dance, birthed in ceremony and ritual, where societies have transferred so much of character and ethos from one generation to another. Competitive Dance, and Athletics, are designed for the talented to rise to the top of a pyramid, where they perform for the rest of us at a high level. The majority are left behind. In social dance the success of the endeavor is measured by broad participation, with good dancers at the base of a reverse pyramid, supporting and aiding the majority at the top, expressing the essence of collaboration, and non-competitiveness. The talented only thrive through the participation of the larger group.
5- Every “STEM” needs a “ROOT” if it is ever to flower. Liberal Arts Education is in crisis. Students trained in science, math, technology, and reading, are NOT fully prepared for the social lives they will lead when they enter the work force. There needs to be awareness of the Somatic, Non-Competitive, Interactive, Social skill sets that form the basis of a “ROOT” curriculum, one which every child needs. And this root curriculum needs to be an evolved one that meets the needs of the next generation rather than looking backwards at what traditionally came before. Social Dance as it has been developing for the last 12 years here in Western Massachusetts, at the Five Colleges, is an exceptional example of how this material can be presented. It is a shame that it has developed in the shadows, mostly as student led activities, and introductory classes within departments which have been principally obliged to offer them out of a College wide commitment to diversity. Performing Arts, competitive, Dance Departments lack consciousness of the non-performing arts aspects of Dance as a community building activity. There is not yet recognition of the urgent need for Interactive, Non-competitive Somatics to have their own programs, and departments, in Academia.
6- Colleges have generally embarked on a process of self-evaluation, with the goal of becoming more self-aware, diverse, and inclusive, in both academics, and in student life. A presentation of these ideas in a purely intellectual way is insufficient. People must interact with their physical bodies in order to attain “somatic awareness”, and awareness that lives in the more primitive brain, and where behavior is sustainably imprinted. Social Dance could be a College-wide vehicle for providing students, staff, and faculty with opportunities to meet each other without the baggage of their caste, class, titles, job descriptions, and competitiveness. Rather, they could interact in the status leveling, community (relationship, and team) building experience of physical one-to-one, and group, encounters in the context of music, dance, and play. (And play must no longer be seen as frivolous!)
College professors are in a unique position of awareness as they receive successive generations of learners who are arriving in institutions with fewer (than ever before) of the social skills necessary to function as a human being outside of the necessities of their chosen fields of study, and work.
As a professor and coach in Social Dance I have experienced the last four or five generations of college students, and observed them in both their academic and social environments. I have been a witness to both the brilliance of youth, and the frustrations of social lives fueled by social media, constant distraction, and the absence of “social norms” in their accumulation of social information, and the resulting general lack of skills for making personal contact.
A possible solution is achieved through the described Interactive Somatics. This is a fancy way of identifying an underlying set of physical skills taught in the context of “social dancing” (And surely also a larger set of interactive somatic disciplines including experiential anatomy, body oriented therapy, massage, and play.). Interactive Somatics is achieved through a raising of social consciousness, the shedding of conventional boundaries of gender, class, and race, and an emphasis on empathy through embodiment of the roles of others. This is an area in which of necessity youth become the teachers, and we who came before them the witnesses. The Five Colleges has been a uniquely suited environment in which to learn, and attempt to synthesize, these overlapping and conflicting layers of social development and deficit.
Social Dancing was once a subtle presence throughout the educational model. Usually it was associated with “physical education” and was taught as social ritual, both advancing the necessary social behaviors, and etiquette, and confining the student population in the accepted “binary” expressions of their gender identities.
In the post World War II, and “baby boom” generations, Social Dance was generally dropped from school curriculums, being both out of fashion, and victim to a wave of social individualism, and general loosening of social restraint. Social dance was, in fact, too rigid in its concepts of social etiquette and gender, and was easily discarded and replaced with “contemporary” performing dances, and “freestyle” improvisation.
What has emerged here in Massachusetts, principally in the “advanced” laboratory of social dancing I created for six Springs at Smith College, is a pathway to rethinking social dance as a medium for the studies of social awareness, focused attention without distraction, and the navigation of personal intimacy.
The terrain that is fertile for accomplishing these aims, is the very same physical space that has been relevant for generations of dancers, but perhaps unnoticed for these particular benefits. The dance studio is a perfect “leveler” of the social playing field. The dancers are limited to simple adornment. Expensive clothes, jewelry, and devices are left in the dressing room. Dancers in the studio live in the “now”, present in a way which used to be taken for granted, but which now can be seen as inadvertently taking on new and unexpected relevance; an exceptional environment for the disciplined focus of attention on the one-to-one relationship with a partner, a relationship which is also a foundational building block for effective group skills.
In addition, the pedagogical discipline I brought here from Argentina, the learning of both of the conventional gender roles by every dancer, (Though in Argentina the students are historically separated by gender.) has become a key teaching tool in our modern learning environment, one with overt inclusion, and acceptance, of participant “gender fluidity”. Every dancer, of every gender expression, even those who are “questioning”, are obliged to embody each of the traditional binary roles, all in the presence of one another.
The resulting open “processing” of the experience, with partners, and in groups, is the “new territory” of this way of studying human interaction. The creation of the individual boundaries that define a comfortable, even pleasurable, one-to-one interaction. The boundary keeping skills that help an individual define where their “safe edges” are, and to keep others from trespassing, while at the same time avoiding unintended rejection born in fear of the same trespass. The building of “social” consciousness, grasping the reasons why humans gather socially for these intensely personal one-to-one interactions, and all the while changing gender roles as their skill sets grow, provides a level of empathy in the understanding of true “leadership” and “follower-ship”. It is a unique pathway to the learning of “civic” consciousness, based in engagement, joy and fun.
In many ways, I believe that this study could not have been nurtured as well as it has been in any other educational environment. The (mostly) women who have studied with me are uniquely suited for revealing the “feminine” voice in social dance, freeing the discipline from its conventional patriarchal container, and opening pathways for deepening the conscious study of the material. And for seeing, its potential as a way forward, toward reintegration in academic curriculum. This is hugely beneficial for the (few) men who have braved attending.
Increasing attendance, and comfort with attending, by MEN is an essential goal of this proposal.
Proposing a Program, or an Office, or an Experiment:
At this writing I believe that a Working group on Safe Social contact, and a return to Healthy Campus Life should be established on campuses everywhere. Maybe your school, or any school with your support, can and should lead in this regard!
I have had a unique voice, and a deep, and lengthy experience, both in social education through social dance, but also in pre-pandemic Campus Life here at the Five Colleges since 2004. I believe that including my voice and experience, in leadership or as a consultant, would strengthen the work of any group dedicated to this task. I am suggesting that Social Dance offers a unique skill set, one that will be necessary on campuses in fostering any return to safe and fluid social and physical interactions, and will influence anything we may learn that we can then be implemented at other levels of the broader educational system.
Instituting such programming for the training of new teachers is made more relevant due to our broad pandemic experience in educational institutions. Concerns are being generated in the technology world about how youth are being dissociated from in-person physical connectedness. The need to re-establish pathways to healthy in-person human contact and relationships is more urgent than ever.
Social Dance is truly Co-Curricular. It could live in Dance, Anthropology, Gender Studies, Physical Education, Sociology, Psycology, Education, and more departments. Yet, in reality, it fits in none of them as they are presently constituted.
It could be that this work also belongs in Student Life, becoming a vehicle for healthy socializing during down time from academics. Yet, if presented in only this way, we would never train the teachers necessary for bringing the work back to secondary, middle, and elementary education, where ideally it would begin for all students.
I believe these Interactive Somatics (in this case Social Dancing), deserve their own roles in academics, as fields which could become concentrations, and careers, for interested students.
I propose the creation of an Office of Development, or a Department, for Interactive Somatics in Social Dance, in the institution of your choice. And, that we develop programming together that includes classes for credit, and experiences designed to foster community through social dance as part of campus life. I propose including classes at the Introductory and advanced levels, and ones that are supervised as independent studies for the most committed students. I propose that the initial commitment by your institution be for 4 years as a pilot project that allows work with one full student generation. This would allow a first generation of students to consider taking the work seriously.
The Office would organize co-curricular activities with other departments, organize campus wide social dancing, and special events. We would devote time to further fund raising, for such a Program or Department, as we may collectively envision for the future. I believe that having a specific designation as an Office, Program, or Project now will facilitate the success of such fund raising with the goal of sustainably endowing a full Department for the long-term.
People in the leadership of the Technology Industry are in a unique position to see the crises described above from the ground level, where they have been tracking the data in a competitive race to “capture” youth as a “market”.
One of my long term colleagues in the dance world is also one of the top LinkedIn Influencers. She has a blog that is read regularly by entrepreneurs and leaders in the Technology field. I have discussed this project with her. We both feel that many people in the industry are aware of the challenges discussed earlier in this proposal, and will be willing to participate in expanding research and programming that would advance solutions. She is interested in offering her platform for such dialog. She deeply believes that social dance should be part of the social fabric of humanity, and is willing to engage with this project.
We propose using social media to create an international dialog around the topic of over immersion in technology and devices, and under exposure to physical interaction skills. Human beings are experiencing a species level evolution because of devices. Is this how we want humankind to evolve? Our solutions may be keys to how such evolution is engineered going forward.
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has said he wants to facilitate the building of meaningful groups.
Meaningful groups obviously need to be physically rooted, not just virtual. Social media can be very good at facilitating the building of groups that ALSO meet in person. For social dance, it is an interesting opportunity to facilitate in-person community building using the existing technology. This would be one of the charters of the effort that we would drive. An office and titled program at your Institution would give us the calling card with which to approach Facebook, and other companies, for money and support.
We would also reach out to your alumni. Stressing community building is quite important. We want to train people to become community leaders, and to be the teachers and mentors of youth. Leaders who can bring people together and create joy and connection, etc., to counter the growing isolation of individuals in our society.
There’s a loneliness epidemic in the world and this is one natural way to mitigate it. It’s a lot nicer, natural, romantic, etc., to meet people through social dance, establishing somatic connection as a ROOT academic curriculum for physical interaction. People seem less and less able to know how to build meaningful friendships anymore. Groups of people dancing together are great ways to make friends, and to establish the kind of meaningful in-person connections that underlie all good relationships from the personal to the team, and finally lead to those of civic or societal engagement.
To flower, every STEM needs a ROOT.
Thank you for giving my proposal, and my work, a look.
Daniel Trenner, M.ED.
Dancing in the Corona Vortex
A Suite of Papers by Daniel Trenner authored during the Pandemic of 2020-2022