Prompted by two very different but related events of the week I’m thinking about how the arts shape our lives. First, against the backdrop of white supremacists marching in Virginia I was left wondering about who those marchers were as children, who and what helped shape the perspectives and alliances they formed and then shouted on the street. How did their fears and limitations become their dogma?

Second, I presented a workshop this week for teaching artists who provide arts programs for homeless and abused children. Free Arts Arizona, the organization that asked me to present the workshop, provides programs for youth using the healing powers of the arts to help build resiliency and trust.

Discussions have and will go on and on about the value of the arts; art for art’s sake and participatory arts in communities; in learning and training, in civic engagement, in medicine, in therapies. We don’t need to decide the relative impact or value of watching extraordinary theatre on stage versus a performance devised by youth finding their voice. The relative value is, well, relative – housed in our own experiences and the impact of making, listening to, and seeing the arts.The arts have to do with communication, with artists melding talent, skill, creativity, and reflection to make work that didn’t exist before they did the making.

As I left my workshop I couldn’t stop thinking about all the kids throughout this country who are abused, fearful, on the street, without resources or hope. What can we do to keep them from banging up against limitations that may lead them to become marching neo-nazis or members of the KKK who exhibit racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and antisemitism? How can we help them build their health, find options, develop curiosity and access humor as they recover from being thrown off kilter by the circumstances of their life?

There are no simple answers to these questions. The interplay of emotional, physical, economic, and social circumstances that influence individual lives is complex and dynamic. The arts help us recognize and navigate that complexity, igniting our creativity and connecting us to our inner and outer lives. The arts provide us a way to move forward, expanding our comfort zones and building tolerance and interest in other ideas and people. When we do something we didn’t know we could; sing a song, perform on a stage, create a film, painting, or sculpture, dance with another, we find greater possibilities in life. If we don’t offer these options to struggling youth now what will our society be in the near future? The challenge is upon us to be less tolerant of violence, bigotry, and hatred and more responsive to the human heart.

Alison Marshall

Free Arts of Arizona:


I’ve just returned from a visit to New Orleans for an extended celebration of Mardi Gras. Now that is a city that knows how to celebrate. Oh ha la!

The first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations were formed in New Orleans in 1781. By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches, or “flambeaux,” lit the way for the parades. The Mardi Gras krewes, (originally private social clubs) created fabulous themed street parades that included floats, music, beauty and antics. These days a krewe is any group or organization of revelers who band together to host a Mardi Gras ball, ride on a Mardi Gras parade float and participate in social events throughout the year. They have created what New Orleanians call the “Greatest Free Show on Earth.” In 1875, the Governor signed the “Mardi Gras Act,” making Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) a legal holiday in Louisiana and it still is.

Throughout the celebration, parade after parade wove its way through the streets ( oh, the beads, the beads…) Riders on the floats were dancing. Marching bands danced their way down the street while those watching joined in from the sidelines. There were parties up and down the French Quarter with people dancing in the streets and on the balconies. There was music at Riverfront Park with people of all ages dancing along to the music from various jazz bands. I’m telling you — there was dancing! And all that dancing put me in a mind to think about some of the ways dance has defined us throughout history and herstory.

As long as humans have existed so has dance. Movement is our first – and shared-language. Throughout time and across the world people have expressed their thoughts and feelings, and marked occasions in their communities and lives, through dance. Every human society includes dance in someway or another. It is one of the fundamental ways we express ourselves, individually and together.

Dance is a part of our celebrations and rituals. We dance to celebrate life events- graduations, weddings, birthdays, and occasionally, the lasagna we made turning out well. We commemorate a nation’s heritage and traditions with dances like the Chinese Dragon Dance, the Pueblo Indian community dances or the Irish harvest dances. Dance is elemental to the pageantry and participation in ( the wave !) sporting events, including the Olympics. It has been a part of religious worship, like the Aboriginal dances that help dancers reach the spiritual Dreamtime, or Sufi whirling dervish dances done to achieve a trance state. We come together to dance at all kinds of community social events from high school proms to square dances, elegant balls to folk dance gatherings, and make our own impromptu dances when a favorite song comes on the player.

Carnivals ( Mardi Gras) have allowed people to dance in the streets and generally turn the social order upside down. Throughout the weeks of this years New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration there was dancing, dancing, and more dancing. The dancing connected us as street neighbors as we watched the parades pass. It connected us as we raised a toast and danced in the street. We danced to enjoy, to mark an occasion, to be part of a larger whole. As we danced to the music from the bands or a DJ’s song choice, we were in good company. We were adding to the collective celebration and community that dance affords and encourages. Dance on.

Alison Marshall

Dancing in the Street – Martha and the Vandellas

Dancing in the Street – David Bowie and Mick Jagger