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Youth on Fire: Book Review

By Darcy Ottey


Melissa Michaels’ new book Youth on Fire is relevant—and in fact necessary—for any of us engaged in initiatory work in any way with young people. The body-centered approach Michaels has pioneered translates decades of somatic theory and research into rites of passage as they are consciously practiced today. In fact, her work is the first contemporary dance-based rites of passage process serving youth around the world.

I was first exposed to Michaels’ approach as a participant in the Global Passageways gathering she co-hosted in 2008. Having come from a wilderness-based rite of passage background, I had little context for movement-based processes as pathways of initiation. This book distills decades of study and practice to their core essence, making Michaels’ hard-won wisdom and insight widely available. The language is delicious: soft, lush, engaging. This book is very readable, while at the same time could function effectively as a textbook-type introduction to body-centered rites of passage.

Another key feature of this book is that it is a truly cutting-edge. Her narrative rests on a foundation of contemporary, global youth culture with all its many shades and manifestations: images, poetry, quotes, and stories of the young people touched through her Surfing the Creative process are found throughout the text. What she describes is a process that has clearly emerged out of her personal biography, training, and the raw material of the people, places, and moments that have shown up, grounded in a body-centered approach. Her love of young people rings through on every page. Meanwhile, the specificity of her narrative is sure to inspire some new experimentation in your own life and work.

At the same time, this book clearly draws on the wisdom, experience, and insights of many, over generations. Michaels impeccably references the sources of the ideas, activities, and concepts she draws upon. She highlights those upon whose shoulders she stands, and in so doing models effective recognition of those that have come before.

Do not put this book down until the end! The last two chapters offer new frameworks that anyone engaged in tending the hearts, minds, bodies, spirits, and souls of young people will want to read, highlighting all the while that Melissa is tireless in her work, continuing to tread new ground even now. Passing the baton to the next generation and dynamics of diversity are a few of the fiery topics she addresses. As soon as I finished this book, and I began to hungrily await its sequel!

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