Watching an inspired dance can evoke unexpected emotions, but can it push us to see society’s problems differently and elicit a paradigm shift in the way we see the world?

The performers at this weekend’s Dance for Social Change festival believe it can, with this year’s event delving into issues of mental health.

Past festivals put together by Dancing Grounds, the nonprofit organization in the Bywater, have tackled such weighty topics as domestic violence and the treatment of African-American men. But today, with mental health in the headlines, the dancers chose to focus on the often-misunderstood issue, which has contributed to school and church shootings, a massacre at a Las Vegas concert and the rise in teen suicides.

“Our 13 high school dancers met with representatives from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) to discuss the stigma involved with this disease,” explained Chanice Holmes, a Hollins University graduate with a degree in dance and Dancing Grounds' program manager.

 “It was a teaching moment for the dancers, and the meeting informed them as to which elements they wanted to include in their performance,” she said.

For dancer and NOCCA sophomore Akilah Toney, discussions with NAMI put her  own  life in perspective.

“It made mental health a more tangible condition to me,” Toney said. “My grandmother had schizophrenia, and I never understood what it meant. I knew she saw things that weren’t there, but I have a better understanding now of what it means to live with mental illness.”

Dancing Grounds is the brainchild of Laura Stein, who realized that with cutbacks in public-school arts funding, there was a need to establish a community dancing hub. To her, this was about a lot more than performing: Dance promotes discipline and teaches young children coordination and spatial relationships.

One of Stein’s primary goals was to make dance affordable to the community.

“We’ve come a long way since 2012 when I offered classes from my living room,” Stein said. 

“Back then, it was $5 for a class, which included dinner, and my roommate was the cook. With the help of many wonderful people, we moved the so-called Speakeasy Studio (because you couldn’t find it unless you looked closely at the name painted on the front door) to a property on St. Claude Avenue.

"The build-out was donated to us by the benevolent property owner in our neighborhood. A $15,000 Kickstarter campaign for furnishings reached its goal on Christmas Eve 2013 when a philanthropist from Oregon donated $2500, putting the campaign over the top.”

Dancing Grounds is now aligned with neighborhood schools, particularly Arise Academy and Kipp Renaissance High School. It introduces young students to the world of dance and, for those who study and excel, it is a vehicle into the performing arts.

For Jeremy Guyton, the group's youth programs director, who also oversees the annual festival, it’s all about spreading the gospel of social change through movement. 

As a Georgetown University graduate in theater, a local choreographer and a former kindergarten teacher, he knows what happens in the early years is important to the trajectory of a child’s life, and he believes the arts, including dance, serve to enrich it.

“The arts have been cut back everywhere in today’s schools, our children are stressed out about test scores, and there’s little or no time to chill, to just be,” Guyton explained. 

“Our schoolchildren need time and space to explore their world, so they can excel elsewhere.”

With the 2018 festival focus on understanding mental illness, it means conveying a complicated concept through dance.

“Many of us in the dance company are members of the Youth Council, where high schoolers talk about things we notice in the world and want to change using our arts as a tool to express it,” said Empress Wilson, a freshman drama student at NOCCA.

“If you noticed that we all took our phones out during the dance rehearsal, and heard us muttering 'she’s crazy,'  it was to draw attention to the fact that many responses to mental illness are just misguided. 

"Our program director, Chanice, told us about witnessing a man jump to his death from a parking garage. Sadly, the witnesses were most concerned about taking pictures and posting them on social media. We want to make people stop and think about their behavior.”

The two-day festival is a collaboration among Dancing Grounds, NOCCA faculty, Junebug Productions, youth leaders and other local organizations from across the city.  It will involve a day of action with workshops, food trucks and performances by local youth dance groups at Arise Academy’s playground on Saturday, March 24.

Dancing Grounds' performance on mental illness, a hip-hop/contemporary/African dance piece will premier at 2 p.m. and again at 4 p.m. Sunday, March, 25, at the Contemporary Arts Center. All tickets for the 45-minute performances are free, but reservations are required to reserve a seat. Call (504) 535-5791 or go to info@dancingrounds.org.