Shall We Dance

Shall We Dance? How dancing can save the world

By Amy Brunvand

The challenge of sustainability and RDT’s Green Map Project.
by Amy Brunvand

To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work.
—Wendell Berry

The annual Wallace Stegner Center Symposium has always been a little more academic than activist, though it’s also a place where tweedy professors mingle with outdoorsy types in khaki. It’s the kind of event where the Natural Resources Law Forum sells t-shirts that say “I ♥ NEPA” and people have their ring tones set to “summer crickets.”

This year’s theme was “The Challenge of Sustainability,” and the conference offered an array of interesting presentations on how to apply sustainability to economics, population, corporations, transpor­tation, energy, electronics, energy, water, buildings, landscapes, oceans and agriculture. What drew me in, however, were a couple of presentations relating sustainability to dance.

Chip Ward, former librarian, citizen activist, author of “Canaries on the Rim” and “Hope’s Horizon,” and frequent contributor to CATALYST (see page 14 in this issue), used dancing as a metaphor in his key­note speech: “Dance, Don’t Drive: Resiliant Thinking for Turbulent Times.” Ward said that healthy ecosystems require a healthy civic environment; healthy civic environments require participation in resilient communities; and resilient communities require ecological literacy. “Ecosystems are not a world of things, but a world of processes—in other words, a dance,” Ward told the conference participants. He pointed out that since the opposite of sustainability is collapse, the threat that systems could collapse implies the need for a nonviolent and democratic version of survivalism. Ward suggested relocalization—that is, communities that rely on membership, not ownership—as the best strategy to provide security. “If ‘the big one’ hits Salt Lake City, backyard and community gardens could make the difference between crisis and catastrophe,” he said, but if systems collapse, people who are ecologically illiterate won’t know what is happening. To extend the dance metaphor, “If you are ecologically illiterate, you can’t hear the beat and you can’t do the moves.”

As Chip Ward spoke, Linda C. Smith, artistic director of the Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) sat in the back row of the Rose Wagner Theatre jotting notes and nodding her head. Earlier in the day she had given a presentation about RDT’s Green Map Project, which is a way to build ecological literacy through actual (not metaphorical) dancing.

The RDT project is part of the Green Map System, a global community-mapping project begun in 1995 to promote ecological literacy by helping citizens map their own communities. Green mappers use a special set of icons that represent progress toward sustainability, such as farmers’ markets, solar energy sites and bicycle transportation; but also challenges such as habitats at risk, waste dumps and air pollution sources; and even small moments of pleasure such as “special tree,” “duck pond” or “insect watching.”

This year RDT is inviting 60 Salt Lake County K-12 schools to create a Green Map, and then adding their own first-of-its-kind element by translating the map icons into a movement language—in other words, the kids will create a map they can dance.

The synergy between RDT’s Green Map Project and Chip Ward’s vision of resilient communities based on ecological literacy could hardly be more pronounced.

“The process is more important than the map,” says Smith. “It helps students form stronger ties to community and fosters a love of nature.” She invited dancer Colleen Hoelscher on stage to illustrate the concept by dancing “Recycling.” The dancer mimed drinking, placed an imaginary can on the floor, crushed it with her foot and a playful undulation rose through her knee, into her hip, and through her shoulder and arm, which swooped over her hair in a caress and held another invisible can. In the language of movement, recycling became both nourishing and sexy.

Linda Smith invited the audience to get up and try the move themselves. “This will change your life!” she promised.

Green Map Project events will happen throughout 2010. As the school kids work to create digital and printed Green Maps of Salt Lake County, lectures, movement classes and teacher workshops will support the process; and finally the Salt Lake County Green Map will be performed for the community.

Amy Brunvand is a librarian at the University of Utah and a dance enthusiast.
Green Map Project:
RDTs Green Map Project for Salt Lake County:

This article was originally published on March 31, 2010.