Psychology Flexes on the Dance Floor
Last fall, Ragnhild (Ragz) Bruland received $10,000 at the AC3 Festival and Conference for Flex, a youth dance mentorship program she co-founded five years ago. The award — a major nod of approval at one of the hip-hop community’s biggest events — has given a major boost to Ragz, a Cognitive, Social, and Developmental Psychology PhD student at The New School for Social Research, as well as to the Flex teachers and students she works with.
As the New School News wrote in 2018:
The FLEX program employs renowned dancers from the local community to work with students on choreographing dance routines; stimulating students’ creativity while also helping them to develop their self-esteem, cooperation, and communication. Currently there are two modules of the program, “FlexIN” which works with students on-site in secure detention centers, and “FlexOUT” which provides free workshops for students in community centers in New York City.
The teacher-student relationship is absolutely crucial to the program. “One of the aims of this program is to introduce these kids to a community of dance where they can learn and practice a constructive artistic outlet,” writes Ragz. “Mentorship, one of the key components in Flex, provides youth with a touchstone of safely to rely on — developmental research shows that having one or more caring adults in a young person’s life increases the likelihood that they will flourish, and become productive adults themselves.”
The Flex program isn’t just grounded in psychology research; it’s also contributing to the field. Ragz has worked closely with advisor Howard Steele, Professor of Psychology, to develop an experimental framework to evaluate the program.
“The overarching inquiry of this research is to discover if there are aspects of Flex that may make it more beneficial than traditional mentorship alone,” she writes. Three groups are part of Ragz’s research: those who participate in the full Flex dancing and mentorship program; those who only receive mentorship; and those who do not participate in the program. Everyone involved in the study completes short questionnaires designed to assess social emotional functioning as well as resilience. In addition, all participants as well as Flex teachers join in semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions.
Research is ongoing, and involves several graduate students from NSSR as well as the Schools for Public Engagement. However, several Flex participants can already attest to how the program has changed lives. Sticks Harvey, a 29-year-old Flex teacher, got involved five years ago, right as Ragz was getting the program off the ground. “I liked Ragz’s vision and what she understood Flex to be,” he says. “This is an approach for youth to channel their anger and do something different. Instead of being violent, you could dance it off.”
He signed up to demonstrate the dance at a youth detention center but stuck around to teach. A highlight for him was working with youth to put a program together for a family visitation day. “When they perform and got praise, that was new for them,” says Harvey. “Even if they say they’re not dancers, it gives them a chance to try. And there’s no pressure. Not everyone gets it right away.”
He’s not the only one whose life has been changed. “Flex gave me a new path careerwise,” Harvey says. “My mind reshaped when I met these teens. I try to be a more positive leader for them.”
Marie Borden is a mostly self-taught dancer who began studying Flex about eight years ago and recently joined the Flex program as a teacher. “Flexing is a form of freedom, a form of creativity,” the 28-year-old says. Working with Ragz as well as with elementary and middle school-age youth, she has seen firsthand how dancing can help students express themselves and handle anger and pain. “They don’t know how to release their emotions, and I help them with that. When kids come to me with problems, I tell them, ‘Don’t think about what to do, just dance!’ And they feel a lot better.”
When Harvey and Borden talk about their experiences Flexing, they are careful to cite their many teachers and recognize their place in the growing Flex legacy. Now, they’ve become those teachers for another generation of youth. “What was passed down to me continues to be passed down,” says Harvey, commenting on both the dancing as well as the culture that surrounds it.
Flex is fundraising to expand the program and support the research project. Come see Flex teachers and students celebrate the program’s fifth anniversary with FLEX HYPE, performed live on Friday, September 27, 7 PM at The New School, and on Saturday, September 28, 7 PM at BRIC.