City Creatives: Moving forward: Local Motion Project merges dancing and teaching to affect social change

City Creatives: Moving forward: Local Motion Project merges dancing and teaching to affect social change
LMP strives to create movement experiences (Photo/Kevin D. Dohmen)

By Olivia Anderson |

At a recent Local Motion Project dance rehearsal, nine women clad in earth-toned flowy dresses leapt, darted and splayed across the studio floor. Ranging in ages from mid-20s to early 60s, the group moved with a cohesive dynamism as dance instructor Sara Lavan watched intensely. The energy was unified and spear like.

The Alexandria-based collective was preparing the final number, Silo(ed) Stories, for an upcoming show at the GALA Hispanic Theatre in Washington, D.C. The performance has been a long time coming, Lavan said.

Silo(ed) Stories encapsulates the complexity that comes with womanhood, touching on sensitive subjects like abortion and sexual liberation. The piece explores what might happen when women come together and support one another in sharing their stories.

“[It’s] the idea of women coming together because we’re all so siloed and we are a lot of times pitted against each other because of things in society like thinness, fatness, the way you look, ageism, sexism,” Lavan said. “… There’s a reason people are keeping us away – because we’re really powerful people.”

The piece’s objective, along with LMP’s as a whole, is to create movement experiences that engender social change and personal growth. For approximately seven years, Lavan – a long time dancer, teacher and current executive director of LMP – has used the organization as a vehicle for expression and human connection.

Although Lavan has been dancing for most of her life, there was a time where she thought she wouldn’t continue the craft. A Newtown, Connecticut native, Lavan began dancing at a local ballet school, which she said fostered an environment of creativity and connection.

She enjoyed dance, but decided against pursuing it upon entering college at New York University and majoring in English. After signing up for recreational dance classes as a way to find community,

Lavan rediscovered her love for the art form and ultimately minored in dance.

Lavan continued her dance training at Peridance Center, where she met an instructor and National Dance Education Organization member named Deborah Damast, who introduced her to the beauty of teaching.

“[The NDEO goes] beyond just the skill building. It’s how do you observe dance, how do you make dance, learning histories of dance. It is a very encompassing approach to teaching dance,” Lavan said.

While in New York, Lavan tried her hand at teaching to supplement her income. She quickly realized that doing so was incredibly fulfilling in more ways than one.

“It filled my desire for learning, history, philosophy, writing, creating, expanding,” she recalled.

When Lavan relocated to Alexandria in 2012, she eventually opened her own studio, Local Motion Studio. That studio became a nonprofit dance organization called Local Motion Project when it received a 501(c)(3) status in 2016.

Though LMP was initially created for youth, it grew to include all ages. According to Lavan, the aim of LMP is to increase accessibility and the understanding of dance by expanding the definition of what it means.

“We’re trying to bring diverse experiences to the community, and then engage people in any way that they want to be engaged, whether it’s through participation in classes, watching performances, educational ways, maybe watching a film that we’re showing or reading our newsletter,” Lavan said. “We’re increasingly working towards a more inclusive and accessible dance field. I feel like we’re a part of that – removing the silos in the dance field to make a more inclusive space, and that inclusivity means a lot of things.”

Part of what that means to Lavan is including artists and educators as a whole, rather than separating the two into different categories. According to Lavan, dance culture tends to divide educators and performers, in the process shielding aspiring dancers from the reality that making a liv- ing as a dancer is not always possible.

“[We emphasize] teaching our students more than just performing, because if they don’t learn any other skills then they may try to be a dancer and may go into the world and audition, and they may or may not get a company, but no one is teaching them what to do if that doesn’t

happen,” Lavan said. Lavan wants students to realize that there is a world where they can acquire both performance and teaching skills, which might ultimately make the dream of a career in the arts more sustainable. She also hopes that dancers view the art of teaching as a valuable skill, rather than a fallback. Instructors at LMP are able to teach adults and youth through residencies at recreation centers, dance integration programs and a creative aging program with Encore University. The studio also has a multi-generational dance company that offers a space for artists to perform, choreograph and create.

Additionally, through LMP Lavan aims to promote equity through exploring current events and societal themes.

“[We’re] realizing how dance is this amazing tool and vehicle where you can address sociological, psychological, physical, mental [themes]. There are just so many issues and social issues you can address through dance that I think people don’t always understand outside of just the skill building,” Lavan said.

One of the ways Lavan achieves this goal is by diversifying what the studio shows, who it shows and what kinds of themes are discussed. For example, when LMP is in spaces that have a more racially or ethnically diverse population, staff undergo culturally responsive, antiracist and allyship training.

LMP also values equitable pay with teaching artists and performing artists, an emphasis that stems from Lavan’s own life beliefs and understanding of “how much harm is done in the dance world.”

That harm is experienced by different people in different ways, Lavan said, and it’s imperative to listen to those who have experienced it in order to mitigate future harm. LMP strives to remain curious and open to evolving.

“Anytime you are continuing to listen to people who have experiences that are not your own, you’re expanding your worldview and you’re expanding the way you want to teach, and to me that is what a true educator is,” Lavan said. “When you’re an educator hopefully you’re always expanding and always wanting to be inclusive and always wanting to bring everyone into what you’re passionate about, and meeting them where they are so they feel welcome when they get there,” she added.

For Lavan, the future of LMP is wide open. She’s the first to admit that Alexandria isn’t exactly a hotspot for dance. Because not many dancers or educators live in the city, performance spaces are few and far between. However, the organization is still relatively new and change is happening, albeit gradually.

As of late, she’s currently exploring the possibility of moving to a larger space to accommodate the growing need. She hopes to continue to spread awareness about the benefits that dance – all facets of it – can provide.

“[Dancing and teaching] work together, in conjunction, because the more people you teach, then the more people you meet, then the more perspectives you get, then the more training you get [on] how to reach different people,” Lavan said. “Hopefully your artistry expands, and when your artistry expands you can bring that information back to your students. It’s this amazing cyclical inspiration that doesn’t have to separate.”