The Dance of Change

Lisa Doolittle once lived the life of a professional artist, drawing on the passion for her craft as a dancer and choreographer to create a shared experience with her audience.

That passion still burns inside Doolittle, only now the outlet is academia, where her research expertise and love for dance and theatre have come together to effect real change in the community.

Doolittle, a professor of theatre arts in the University of Lethbridge’s Faculty of Fine Arts, is the Teaching and Learning Research Coordinator for the Art for Social Change (ASC) project, a comprehensive five-year national research program that examines the effectiveness of using the arts as a means of community engagement and to encourage positive social change.

“This is the kind of collaborative research that can ignite new ideas, move people’s hearts and possibly change behaviours and communities.” - Lisa Doolittle (Photo by Leslie Ohene-Adjei)

“We’ve known for years that the arts are an effective form of initiating change,” says Doolittle. “There are countless examples throughout the country where arts programs are used as a way to connect and engage communities, but there has been very little evaluation of why and how these programs are effective.”

What exactly is Art for Social Change? It is the application of arts-based processes to address issues of social concern and to encourage social innovation. It is an artist acting as a facilitator to spark dialogue, new ideas and actions with members of communities who would not otherwise define themselves as artists.

Doolittle cites an exciting international program based in Quebec, known as Social Circus, where Cirque du Soleil is working with at-risk youth and teaching them circus skills.

“It sounds almost counterintuitive to be working with at-risk youth and teaching them what most people believe to be very risky and dangerous behaviours,” says Doolittle. “But when you think about it, circus work is all about trust and when you are flying off a trapeze and have to be caught by somebody else, you learn a lot about responsibility and trust.”

That is the essence of ASC, bringing together diverse groups and using the arts as a catalyst to open lines of communication, to create community awareness and inclusivity and to encourage engagement for the betterment of our communities.

For Doolittle, dance is a powerful vehicle for change. This new research program enables study of an ongoing project initiated by the University of Calgary’s Anne Flynn (professor of dance) that involves residents of subsidized-housing complexes for senior citizens, many of which are first generation immigrants to Canada with varying degrees of English-language proficiency.

Doolittle and Flynn are also working with people who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and, in partnership with Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, will study the impact of their participation in dance classes – not only looking at how dancing may assist in increasing independence and mitigating symptoms of the disease, but also how effective these classes are in creating a sense of community for an often-marginalized population.

“The arts bring people together,” says Doolittle. “The arts do not separate people – they are communal activities and when communities come together, big things can happen.”

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) understands the potential value of ASC to Canadian communities. It is driving the national research program with $2.5 million in funding, allowing 20 collaborators, numerous national and local organizations and six partnering universities to come together for the first large-scale, systemic project of its kind in Canada.

Doolittle’s role as the teaching and learning coordinator is key for the project’s long-term sustainability. Its success will be dictated by the capacity that is built nationally between educational institutions, artists and both arts and non-arts community-based organizations.

“It’s so important that we are able to continue producing excellent practitioners who understand high quality artistic work as well as social-change work, and then are able to communicate with and bring together all different kinds of people,” she says, adding that the U of L could eventually become the site of a research institute that furthers the study and dissemination of ASC practices.

Doolittle will oversee the research and the eventual implementation of new teaching and learning practices, with considerable local support from Dr. Cynthia Chambers and Dr. Erika Hasebe-Ludt of the Faculty of Education, Ramona Big Head (BA ’96, BEd ’96,  MEd ’09), Dr. Jean Harrowing (BSc ’78) of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Dr. Rachael Crowder (who teaches at the U of L for the Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary) and the U of L’s Teaching Centre. Alumna Candace Lewko (BEd ’95, BFA ’95, MEd ’09) contributes an additional perspective from the context of her position as Curriculum Consultant, Educational Enhancement Team, at Lethbridge College.

“It seems like the time has come for this kind of work to get a higher profile,” says Doolittle. “This is the kind of collaborative research that can ignite new ideas, move people’s hearts and possibly change behaviours and communities. When people get together you can move mountains and I think that is the impact we will see in our communities – people will move mountains.”