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Youth Development-Celebrating the Sacred Dance of Body and Heart

By Christina Eisert
Boulder Weekly, June 3, 2004

Some people have a natural sexuality. Authentic beauty flows through them effortlessly, around them even. The rest of us can’t help but respond to it.

This kind of power seems to belong on stage, civilization’s longstanding vehicle for transformation. Theatre and dance, at their essence, are sacred. Stage productions make us cry because they ring a bell deep in the darkness where we remember that the ancient origin of comedy and tragedy is ritual. We worship actors and actresses because they have a power flowing through them, a stage presence, if you will, that we respond to. They move us. Technically, they change us.

What if we all could possess this stage presence? And what if we used that power not to transform an audience, but to transform ourselves?

This is the crux of Boulder-based Melissa Michaels’ work, Wild Life Productions. A movement-based educator, Michaels runs rites of passage programs for families and youth. Under her direction, dance is used to process emotions. For Michaels, using the body to work through childhood issues is part of the transition from youth to adulthood. Her local practice draws participants from all over the globe.

Michaels is currently in a doctoral program in education. Working with youth is her main focus, but she also trains adults-usually teachers and therapists-to work in body-centered ways in their own fields.

In her practice Michaels uses dance and movement both as somatic therapy and rite of passage. Her students learn how to process emotions, even the tough ones like trauma and anger, through movement-a process know as movement therapy. The focus is on life transitions: birth, adolescence, adulthood, death. Michaels calls it “threshold work.” “We use the dance to both heal our wounds and also to remember our essential selves, who we really are,” she says.

According to Michaels, our bodies hold our emotions within them. Dance, like theater, can be a vehicle for transformation, to release what the body holds and inspire what the heart will manifest.

“Our trauma and our brilliance are in ourselves, in our bones and our tissues and our organs and our fluids. I think we’ve all seen that just talking about our lives, telling our stories doesn’t necessarily catalyze transformation,” says Michaels.

In other words, telling the same terrible story over and over again may serve only to trigger the body’s memory of the negative event. Michaels suggests slowing down and trying to notice how the story is imprinted in the body rather than getting lost in the story’s text.

“We can begin to unwind the trauma,” she says. But “it really can’t happen just through talking.”

At the present Michaels’ major focus is her International Youth Camp, an intensive five-week program for young people ages 16-28 seeking a rite of passage into adulthood.

Movement and dance are the primary tools, but the experience is nothing like a traditional dance class. Instead, the work focuses on truthful expression.

Students learn to process their childhood, all its triumphs and its traumas, by discovering the connection between emotions and the body.

“We give young people the opportunity to renegotiate some of their earlier developmental needs,” says Michaels. “As a culture we’re having a hard time navigating and completing our adolescence.”

Young people are the re-inventors of culture, and Michaels’ effectiveness with youth might stem from her use of their own cultural inventions. Hip-hop and dance hall music and movement play a large part in her classes, alongside world music, live drumming and even silence. Ever returning to the threshold, Michaels says, “I feel like I’m re-enlivening something that is very traditional, yet in a strongly contemporary way.”

Working within the framework of youth culture helps Michaels create a level of emotional safety for her students. She wants people to feel good in their bodies. But often Michaels finds herself serving young people caught up in cycles of behavior that if unchecked could destroy their bodies. They come to Michaels to heal.

“A lot of young people come in with addictive behaviors. Whether it’s lying or doing heavy-duty drugs or being promiscuous or whatever. Most have been depressed or had some kind of habit going on,” she says. But this is where Michaels says change occurs most profoundly.

Dance and movement heal by letting the emotions be expressed through the body, she says. A certain honesty emerges. According to Michaels, it is harder to poison a body that has learned to feel its own heart.

As students’ work in the group progresses and their bodies become more limber and less self-conscious, emotions are released in waves of laughter, fits of anger, shouts of inner pain and gratitude. A certain intimacy develops.

Community is central to Michael’s’ work. The dancing is intimate, yet a class can have 40 people or more spontaneously moving together in relative harmony. Learning to respond to the emotional needs of others is part of the process. Michaels says healing comes from both the self and from the connection developed within the group as a whole.

Healing happens, she says, “through the strong, loving, integral community of young people around each other, and also through the presence of an elder community that’s really dedicated to these kids.”

Michaels considers modern adolescence to be seriously lacking in substance and guidance. Her youth camp is designed to bridge the gap between youth and adulthood through dance with the direction of a group of elders who themselves have completed an apprenticeship program. Young people become accountable to themselves, to each other and to this group of mentors. From this fertile medium, transformation begins. Dance becomes the journey, the ritual, the rite of passage.

“Throughout time there was a marking of the end of childhood and the journey into adulthood. The elders took the young people through some sort of initiatory process, along with teaching them the skill they needed in order to navigate,” Michaels says. “We do that in a pretty haphazard way in our culture.”

Through the youth camp and through her work with adults-including parents and teachers-at different stages of life, Michaels hopes this lost legacy can be restored.

Already her work is having an impact. Many of her students are making their own way in the world now and are incorporating the work into their current projects.

“The people who’ve worked with me are out there doing really interesting multi-cultural work through the body. Working in schools, running programs of all kinds, just doing really interesting things through the body with young people,” says Michaels. “Not just here [in Boulder]. I had a student who just was in India working with village youth. So it’s got its own little wildfire.”

Michaels says the young people she sees getting involved with Wild Life are very serious about making a difference on the planet and in their communities. They may have learned these values from their teacher.

Ever the dancer without an audience, Michaels says, “My deeper commitment is not to a beautiful dance form, but to keep humanity alive and mobilized.”

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