“Adopting a new posture allows you to embrace a new attitude” – Evaluation shows that dance can have an impact

Sanna Kangasluoma, 7.1.2019

The Break the Fight! – Breakdance Against School Bullying project developed by Arja Tiili has been the object of unusually close scrutiny. The Finnish Youth Research Society used action research methods and got out and about amongst young people to see for itself what the workshops involved and what the young participants had to say about the dance performance. The resulting research provides a wide array of background material for decision-makers to use when exploring how best to implement youth work in schools and municipalities – as well as tools and results showing what, how and where dance can have an impact.

Arja Tiili © Studio Elite

Classically-trained dancer Arja Tiili’s background lies originally in ballet, and she later trained as a choreographer at Uniarts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy. She has been nurturing hip-hop culture in Helsinki’s eastern suburbs since she was a teenager in the 1980s.

“At a basement party once, I showed my childhood friend Petri Kanerva the moonwalk, which I’d learnt from an American teacher at Helsinki Dance Institute. Right away, Pete wanted me to teach him how to do it too!’ Pete would go on to become B-boy Hypnotic, a pioneer of Finnish streetdance, and the rest is Finnish breakdance history.

“Classical ballet requires you to adapt to externally defined forms and predetermined roles. But soon after graduating from the Swedish Royal Ballet School, I got into contemporary dance, which was very liberating, as I felt like it allowed me to become part of the creative process.”

“I’ve always wanted to do lots of different thing and find my own niche.”

Now, I put on performances that combine contemporary dance, breakdance, rap, beatboxing, everything. Imposing boundaries is pointless – they’re performances, and that’s enough for me. I’m doing my thing.

Finding your ‘own thing’ is the theme of many Break the Fight! performances and the red thread running through the workshops. Having your own special niche supports self-esteem and encourages young people to believe in their own abilities and opportunities. The key themes at play are meaningfulness, encouraging individuality, and understanding differences – and through all of this, reducing bullying.

Combatting violence through breakdance

Back in 2010, choreographer Arja Tiili launched anti-violence workshops in the lower grades of comprehensive schools in eastern Helsinki.

“The functional, communal element came fairly naturally to my work. Gradually, the idea that this had the potential to become something far bigger started to grow.”

Break the Fight! – I was here. The performance © Laura Oja

In 2014, the Break the Fight! – Breakdance Against School Bullying workshops were born – a concept Arja Tiili wanted to spread throughout Finland, along with performances on the theme of accepting differences. In autumn of the same year, young people voted it the winner of the Axe Peace One Day charity campaign, and a video made in collaboration with the rapper Uniikki quickly spread online.

“Wow, this is really something special!” Arja remembers thinking at the time, having surprised even herself.

The next step was starting to develop BTF activities further and into a more professional framework. School bullying is not an issue to be taken lightly, so those holding the workshops need to have a broad skillset and support behind them. Arja set about looking for youthwork experts with whom she could explore how to develop the project. First, they needed to take a good look at and establish what works in the BTF project and what the project has to offer.

How can dance have an impact – a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation study

It was at this point that the Finnish Youth Research Society got involved, taking on the task of monitoring and evaluating the different elements of the project throughout 2017–2018, with the project also being awarded support from the Finnish Cultural Foundation. BTF activities were extended to four areas, with the aim of creating a national anti-bullying operating model. In recent years, Break the Fight! has reached well over 5,000 pupils throughout Finland.

The evaluation work is something Arja Tiili considers invaluable: “This means that our further development isn’t just based on assumptions and ideas without any real grounding, but rather on long-term research, real evidence and proven research results.”

Break the Fight! activities comprise four elements: breakdance workshops, watching the dance piece Break the Fight – I was here! performed by professionals, participatory workshops, and discussions with decision-makers and young people held as a result of them.

A key basis for development work has been expanding the reach of the workshops equally to all pupils, regardless of any prior skill. In the workshops, the focus is not on the breakdancing itself, instead it is used as a tool to help young people accept differences and as a global language familiar to young people, with which to strengthen participation.

Teaching young people to dance could also be seen as a way to help the pupils explore new stances, new ways of being, and attitudes towards the world, ponders Susanna Jurvanen, who observed the breakdance workshops as part of the research project through the medium of drawing.

A street-smart adult can quickly form a connection with young people and earn their respect – says Doctor of Social Science Sofia Laine

In its the early days, in The Bronx in New York, breakdancing was an alternative to violence.
“In its original form, breakdance served as a symbolic expression of young people’s creativity, frustrations, hopes and fears, which were brought into the public eye thanks to the physicality of dance,” explains Doctor of Social Science Sofia Laine, who took on the role of senior researcher in the research project. The communal aspect of the activities is also significant, as a way of expressing things important and specific to each individual.

The research report states that amongst the alternatives to traditional forms of exercise available, the new forms favoured by young people place emphasis on equality and opposing discrimination. Multiculturalism is present in BTF activities in a number of ways, including in the themes of the performances.

Break the Fight! – I was here © Laura Oja

The workshops and discussions are led by breakdancers, who also use the sessions to tell participants more about their own personal experiences.

“A street-smart adult can quickly form a connection with young people and earn their respect in a completely different way to the other adults they might come into contact with at school,” Sofia Laine noted at the study’s publication event.

One of the outcomes of the evaluation of the BTF activities is the finding that it would be beneficial to bring young adult into schools, to break down and traverse the boundaries between children and adults. Such measures could help to create a space where pupils can learn to accept differences and understand one another, and through this reduce bullying.

“The research highlighted that there is a need for multiform, art-based education in our schools.”

Workshops encourage participants to be themselves

When pupils were asked what they liked about the workshops, a large percentage responded that it was the movement, breakdancing itself or instructors they liked in particular. The discussion elements and hearing instructors’ own stories also proved popular. Elements that made the workshops successful included their fun nature, the good atmosphere and formation of groups, as the workshops were felt to have increased the sense of team spirit amongst participants.

“The development of emotional skills and movement support one another – and this is particularly important during puberty,” explains researcher Sofia Laine, who is herself a keen dancer. “What’s more, the discussions held after the dance and movement sessions led to those involved opening up in a completely different way.”

For many of the young participants, this was the first time they’d seen a professional dance performance, and it awakened powerful feelings, the young people explained. The anti-violence message of the dance piece (‘No to bullying!’ as a number of pupils wrote in their feedback) reached young people in every age bracket.

When the pupils were asked whether they thought street dance workshops could be a force for preventing school bullying, 72 per cent of the respondents replied yes or maybe.

Result: Break the Fight! to continue and grow in eastern Helsinki

The in-depth research into and evaluation of Break the Fight! led to the development of the project from one-off workshops into longer-term activities, bringing together street art and artists, schools, and youth work taking place outside of schools.

The City of Helsinki is providing three years of funding for three-month workshop periods held in schools in eastern Helsinki, which are linked to the Break the Fight! hobby activities organised at youth centres. Furthermore, a space dedicated to young people, for hobbies and hanging out, has been established at a local shopping centre.

“This development wouldn’t have happened without the comprehensive monitoring and evaluation work carried out by the Finnish Youth Research Society. The research gave us some pretty conclusive results and ideas for development: longer workshop periods are needed, as are multiple chances to engage with the young people,” summarises Arja Tiili.

The systematic and scientific evaluation of art-based activities is valuable not only for the artists themselves, but also for decision-makers and funding bodies. Now it’s time to show off these results and exactly why these kinds of activities are both necessary and beneficial.

Research report: Väkivallattomuuden sanomaa yläkouluihin hiphop-kulttuurin keinoin. Break the Fight! -hankkeen seuranta ja arviointitutkimus [An anti-violence message for secondary schools through hip-hop culture. A study monitoring and evaluating the Break the Fight! project.] Ed. Sofia Laine. Finnish Youth Research Society/Finnish Youth Research Network. Online publications 134. 2018. Download @ www.nuorisotutkimusseura.fi ›  (in Finnish, abstract in English p. 195)