What is Expressive Arts?

We have posted portraits of our musical work with refugees in France and Greece. Today, we back up to explain expressive arts and how it serves as a refuge.

Expressive arts is the expression of a feeling or experience through art, music, movement, or words. The expression we refer to comes from inside oneself, and draws from a rich cultural tradition. Such expressions – tracking the shape of a melody, singing a tune or harmonizing in a group, beating out body percussion on one’s body, drawing on paper, writing one’s story — can become a refuge in hard times. They can also forge a path toward healing from loss or trauma. Story takes the form of an expressive art, and people who tell their story have a leg up in healing from the tough parts of life.

EAR members Moira Smiley and Betsy Blakeslee are pioneers who use a combination of song, entrainment and body music patterns with refugee children and adults. This mix balances their jangled nervous systems. Moira and Betsy draw on Balinese kecak dance, South African dance, and years of study with Keith Terry. To watch the simple body music patterns and songs they lead in refugee camps is to see confusion turn into loosely coordinated grace. One glimpses magic in the moment a roomful of refugee kids begins to entrain.

What we mean by entrain is a coming together in a simultaneous motion or musical blend where everyone steps on the same foot, slaps the same thigh, or sings in a coordinated rhythm. Entrainment also happens when a group feels its way into a kind of harmonious comfort. EAR’s Tami Halaby and Tawfic Halaby send out an exquisitely calm love – charging the atmosphere with a field refugee kids nestle into. This provides a special safety that magnetizes people into entrainment.

One example of using music and body music to entrain a group is Moira Smiley’s popular song and body music arrangement of Bring Me Little Water Sylvie. It’s so compelling that youtube hits number in the thousands, and covers in the hundreds. People sense the joy and intimacy of beating out and singing Lead Belly’s Bring Me Little Water Sylvie in a group, and want to be a part of it. When EAR teaches this song in camps, we simplify the body music to bring the satisfaction of success.

Moira-Smiley.jpgMoira Smiley, whose release Refugee was inspired by her work in refugee camps with EAR

Expressive Arts Refuge is a team of mostly American singers who form a circle with people who live in refugee camps, with little more than airwaves as support. Little by little, refugees enjoy the stimulation of learning and sharing music and body music, feel good as their bodies move together in rhythm, express themselves musically, feel the satisfaction of learning, and relax into a respite from all kinds of ordeals. And we westerners learn from them, receive their broad generosity and trust, and enjoy entraining with their ways of being.

All of us are surprised by how quickly a sense of family, acceptance, and love emerge in the tiny space of a shipping container or a tent. Those spaces become safe because all of us co-create the safety that comes from taking refuge in expressive arts, and because human beings glom onto the tribal feeling that entraining provides.

Author: earefuge

I direct EAR (Expressive Arts Refuge) whose work focuses on refugee youth in France and Greece. At home in Oakland, California, I direct World Harmony Chorus and World Harmony Ensemble.

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