Engaging Glacier Through the Arts

Climate change is a complex topic and often a daunting subject to teach. In recent years, researchers and educators have realized that some of the most successful climate change teaching tools are not traditional reading and lecturing methods but through somewhat unconventional approaches, such as repeat photography, film and art. Through a partnership with the nationally regarded University of Montana’s CoMotion Dance Project, the Crown of Continent Research Learning Center and Glacier National Park’s Interpretation and Education Division want to enhance public understanding of climate change using the visual medium of dance.

Climate Change Dance Engages Youth to 'Be the Change'

On Monday, September 12, Flathead Valley students experienced something a little different than your average school day. Nearly 900 students and their teachers participated in an educational dance performance on climate change. And, participated is not an exaggeration. In this dance, the audience is indeed a part of the performance.

Karen Kaufmann, director of the CoMotion Dance Project who performs Changing Balance/Balancing Change, calls her group’s work, “an immersive arts experience” that weaves artistic dance, original music, choreographed narration, video projection, and yes, even live interactions with the audience. The hour-long performance is designed to engage audiences with the science, impacts, and emotions at the heart of climate change. In addition to watching the performers, students are asked to join the dancers in movement that illustrates key scientific concepts. For example, at one point during the performance, selected students joined the dancers on stage to show how the greenhouse effect works on earth.

The Glacier National Park Conservancy funded the creation of Changing Balance/Balancing Change and partially funded this fall’s performances. Glacier National Park, the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Montana Cultural Trust, University of Montana, and the Cadeau Foundation also made these performances possible.

Changing Balance/Balancing Change was created and rehearsed throughout 2015-2016 and debuted in Glacier National Park during the National Park Service’s 2016 summer centennial celebrations. Many collaborators, from Jack Gladstone to the Whiz Pops of Missoula, came together to share their talents and help create this dynamic, educational experience. Researchers from the United States Geological Survey’s Climate in Mountain Ecosystems Program and climate change educators from Glacier National Park’s Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center partnered with the CoMotion Dance Project on the piece’s science content.

The performance was held at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center in Whitefish, Montana. Additionally, the CoMotion Dance Project performed the dance at the University of Montana to over 800 Missoula students. Kaufmann hopes to continue touring Changing Balance/Balancing Change across Montana and even throughout the nation. Her goal is to share how climate change impacts are affecting our world using visible changes in Glacier National Park as a fulcrum. Kaufmann also hopes this piece will open a dialogue about what each of us can do to start making a change.

With a theater full of students using their bodies to show how glaciers form, it seemed clear that the students were indeed immersed in the performance. One student walked out of the theater and exclaimed, “That was awesome.” Nikki Reed, a Whitefish Middle School teacher, wrote “I SO enjoyed your performance -- thank you! It is so neat when science and the arts deliberately unfold and teach.”

The CoMotion Dance Project also performs other works and teaches dance integration within Missoula schools.