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Sarah Grigg

Sarah Grigg | Martin Scholar

Bodies Never Lie: Exploring dance as tool of international diplomacy


“The truest expression of a people is in its dances and its music. Bodies never lie.” 
- Agnes George de Mille


by Donna Emert
Originally written Spring 2011

Dance is an ancient and fluid form of expression, seamlessly engaging the body and mind. But at first glance, it may not strike the viewer as a powerful tool for international diplomacy.

Sarah Grigg, a Martin Scholar in the University’s Martin Institute, has begun to see dance in that light.

Grigg is researching how to use dance therapy to help women and children traumatized by physical, psychological and sexual violence inflicted during recent and still raging conflicts in Africa.

Africa’s civil and international wars have resulted in nearly nine million refugees and internally displaced people throughout the continent. To help address a tragedy of that scope, Grigg is exploring the healing powers of dance --particularly dance that is indigenous to Africa. She sees dance as a dynamic approach to problems that will take generations to overcome.

“When you lay on a therapist’s couch, you’re stagnant, focusing on the brain and emotions,” said Grigg. “But with dance therapy you’re actually getting up and doing something about it. Dance melds the physical and psychological, so victims of violence are able to act out what they’re feeling, expressing it through their bodies.”

Dance therapy, or dance movement therapy, is recognized as an effective method of addressing emotional, cognitive, social, behavioral and physical challenges.
As a Martin Scholar, Grigg is majoring in international studies with research focus on international development and a minor in dance. She’s selected Africa as a region of emphasis for her research.

“Dance is such a significant experience, and particularly in Africa,” said Grigg. “DMT can help victims deal with trauma, and enable them to rejoin society.”
Martin Scholars pursue research on a topic relevant to international peace and diplomacy. This year, the scholars are delving into how they would use the performance arts to foster international diplomacy.

The year of study is divided into two sections. First, with Martin Institute Director Bill Smith, the students study global issues and diplomacy and build a common language for their research. Then students work with U-Idaho Music Professor Barry Bilderback, whose expertise is African music and dance. Bilderback has established a popular and powerful study-abroad program focused on the music and dance indigenous to Ghana, Africa.

Among the many lessons he teaches, Smith stresses the reality of diplomatic relations, says Grigg,” We never forget that U.S. international policy must benefit the United States, as well as the partner country.”

Grigg is studying the history of professional ballet exchanges between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which provides some insight into the complexity of her topic: The cultural benefits to the US of the Soviet exchange included the high profile defections of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev. The international relations benefits—including the fallout of those defections—are far more difficult to parse.

Dance, like all cultural exchange and expression, is politically charged.

Grigg says that because dance is a form of cultural, political and personal expression, its healing powers can also be used to strengthen diplomatic relations.

“I really feel that it’s a cultural exchange in both directions: We’re taking dance ideas and therapy developed in the U.S. and applying them and allowing them to reflect African culture,” says Grigg. “The misconceptions and stereotypes that often breed conflict can be lessened through these cultural diplomacy actions.”

After graduation, she hopes to work with a non-governmental organization to help build a dance movement therapy program abroad.

She’s got very specific plans for changing the world.