Esperanza: Choreographing Body Love

beth-braunBeth Braun is a woman who knows how to move. Beth is the Director of Dance at Rincon and University High Schools in Tucson, as well as the Artistic Director for the Esperanza Dance Project. The Esperanza Dance Project seeks to eradicate the stigma, secrecy and shame associated with childhood sexual violence. They also work to raise awareness about childhood sexual violence and deliver a message of hope, strength, and empowerment. I caught up with Ms. Braun to talk to her about the inspiration for her activism and what dance means to her.

Beth grew up in Long Island, New York. She started dancing when she was five years old. Beth started out learning ballet, tap, and jazz-style dancing. Her first dance teacher wanted to share his love of dance. Beth says that the dance studio had a very positive environment. She knew that she wanted to grow up and be a professional dancer because she felt like she had a sense of weightlessness and freedom when she was dancing.

Beth auditioned when she was ten years old to attend a ballet school that had a very competitive atmosphere. It didn’t have the same supportive environment that her first dance school did, but she still wanted to be a ballerina. The instructors told her that she couldn’t be a professional dancer because she didn’t have the right body type. Beth started dieting when she was just ten years old because of the pressure she felt from her dance instructors.

Braun eventually gave up dancing because she didn’t love it anymore. Beth explains that she realized it was more important to be alive than it was to dance, so she started to focus on other creative outlets. Beth took up visual arts in high school. After graduation, Beth moved from the East Coast to California because she could be “anonymous” and just do things for herself. She started taking dance classes again. Beth says that the classes were fun and that she started to feel like herself again.

Beth was immediately drawn into modern dance when she discovered it. While ballet focuses on strict and rigid movements, modern dance made Beth feel like her body was free, that she was expressing herself through dance. She didn’t feel like she had to compromise her health in order to be a dance. Beth made a promise to herself that if dancing didn’t enhance her life, she wouldn’t do it.

Braun was a senior in college when her parents move to Tucson. Beth had never intended to move to Tucson, because as Beth explains, “most young dancers feel that New York is the only place to have a dancing career. However, Beth visited her parents after she graduated and decided that Tucson was a good play to live. She found a modern dance company in Tucson and developed the skills needed to be a dance educator.

Beth started the Esperanza Dance Project in January 2011. According to Braun, “dancing and choreography are a form of expression. We can create dances with messages that are important to the community.” Their first production was called Free to Be Me. Braun collected stories from children about self-esteem. She got permission from local schools to ask children what it was like to be part of divorced families; how they dealt with separation from their parents and siblings; and what they wanted to be when they grew up. “This was the start of getting strong messages out to the community,” says Braun.

Part of the motivation to focus on family life came from Beth’s own experience of going through divorce. Beth explains that her daughter was ten years old at the time. Her daughter suffered from chronic migraines because of the stressed that was induced by forced visitations with her father. The two year struggle inspired Beth to volunteer with the Mirasol Eating Disorder Treatment Program in Tucson. She realized that teens need to be part of a group, that dancing for the sake of dancing itself wasn’t enough. The students Beth worked with would talk to her about everything. This helped Beth realize that dancing could be a vehicle to help young adults embrace their bodies and freely express their emotions. “Young people need a way to find their voice,” says Beth. “Esperanza helps them find hope.”

Braun’s work isn’t limited to the dance floor. Esperanza works with other community organizations in Tucson that focus on sexual violence to help provide training for staff and volunteers at behavioral health and women’s crisis centers. Esperanza’s goal is to help people connect with others who have shared similar experiences. Beth urges people to get involved to build the kind of community they want to be a part of. “Do your part. If you see something you don’t like, create the change you want to see. Be a part of the solution.”

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