What are the Olympics all about? Not, historically, the million-dollar endorsements, the extreme feats of nearly inhuman strength, and the inevitable cries of doping that accompany them. Look no further than the iconic, intertwined Olympic rings, which represent the five inhabited continents, for a reminder that the Olympics are about a set of values for living peacefully together on this planet. Or go back to Ancient Greece, where any wars happening between participating city-states were postponed until the Olympics were over.
Peace is as foundational to the Olympics as athleticism. In fact, Sara Potler would underscore how closely the two are related. Just after college, Potler found herself in the toughest neighborhoods of Bogotá, Colombia, where she discovered a type of conflict resolution — or what she calls “conflict transformation” — through non-violent physical expression.
She calls it Dance 4 Peace. Her participants call it life-changing.
The seeds of Potler’s idea were planted shortly after she arrived in Bogotá on a Fulbright Scholarship to work with renowned peace education scholar Enrique Chaux Torres. In their first meeting, Chaux challenged the recent graduate to come up with her own project. Potler had always felt a twin allegiance to the practice of dance and the promise of social justice; here was her opportunity to merge the two. She found the path a few months later while watching a classroom of students learn about peace.
“These kids were sitting behind desks and reading about empathy,” she explained. “They were looking at the chalkboard for steps to mediate conflict, and their faces were washed over. I knew that dancing was in their blood; it was essential to their culture. What if we used dance as the vehicle for teaching non-violence?”
Before long, Potler had created a program to do just that. Students learned techniques for transforming conflict and managing anger, and then turned those techniques into original choreography. Dance stood in for sports in a peace program undergirded by the same principles behind the Olympic movement.
Upon her return to Washington, D.C., Potler kept tinkering with her idea while working full-time. Gradually, more and more schools signed up — from the U.S. to Asia — and Potler realized she had to make a decision. “We’d never reach a million kids unless we changed our model,” she said. “We can’t parachute in the instructors. Teachers know their kids and their classrooms better than any outsider ever could. We need to make this about capacity building, about training teachers in the methodology, and giving them the support they need to succeed so that the work can be sustainable.”
Today, Dance 4 Peace operates in Baltimore, D.C., Newark and New York City (where schools pay a nominal fee) – and Colombia, Germany and the Philippines (where adults pay to be trained as facilitators). Student choreography from one city gets performed by other students around the world. “It’s a chance for kids that may have never left their neighborhood to feel like global citizens, Potler said.
The program is assessed via a thoughtful set of metrics — and an innovative use of movement-based evaluation. “This is not a fluffy immeasurable concept that we casually came up with — we’re producing measurable quantifiable change in students that is systemic, community-based, and empathy-driven,” says Sara. And, indeed, Dance 4 Peace has the stats to back up that statement: Dance 4 Peace students use the curriculum’s anger management strategies nearly 50% of the time in peer-to-peer conflict situations. Similarly, there is a nearly 50% decrease in violent responses to bullying after students have been exposed to Dance 4 Peace.
D4P’s impressive impact brought Potler to London for this year’s Olympics, where Dance 4 Peace was shortlisted for Best Conflict Resolution Program in the Beyond Sport Awards. “It totally affirms the power of movement and bodies to evoke emotion, spirituality, and learning.” And, of course, peace.