When alumna Natalia Duong (class of ’02) spoke to Nueva students this winter, she immediately drew them in through song and dance, which is also how she connects with people who speak different languages when raising awareness about physical disabilities. In addition to playing performance footage, the performance artist, choreographer, and writer engaged students through a workshop exercise she uses to help build empathy and understanding around war's devastating effects.
Natalia first asked the audience to imagine what it would be like to cross the street without one’s legs. Then she asked a volunteer to attempt getting across about six feet of floor space without using her legs. The brave girl struggled across a carpet for a few minutes to triumph.
“I’m bringing more awareness with very simple exercises like this with groups of people who may not normally think of this,” Natalia remarked, regarding her kinesthetic empathy work, which uses interactive movement to engage people in empathy.
The sense of empathy in the predominantly student audience was palpable. For one girl, it evoked the memory of traveling in India and seeing a boy who was missing part of his leg. She said she felt sorry for him, while also feeling grateful she has both her legs. Another student said the activity made her think of how difficult it would be to have such a physical challenge.
Natalia first melded her passion for dance and her desire to make a difference in the world during her Eighth Grade Recital Project at Nueva. She explained that Project HOPE (Helping Orphans in Poor Environments) involved a dance concert fundraiser that raised $12,000 for Vietnamese orphans. This summer, she will return to Vietnam with a grant from SEALNet (the Southeast Asian Service Leadership Network) to continue researching how movement can help communities heal from trauma.
While attending Stanford University, the Bay Area native majored in neuropsychology and dance. She went on to found and direct Project Agent Orange, a movement-based research collective that investigates the physical proliferation of war as embodied by people affected by the herbicide Agent Orange. She focuses on kinesthetic empathy as a resource for conflict resolution.
“Dance is the language of those who cannot be heard, poetry the eyes of those blinded by surrounding injustices, theatre the space where one transcends the boundaries of one’s given circumstances,” Natalia states on her website. “Art liberates, empowers, and heals. It conceives when humanity destructs.”
Learn more about Natalia and her work here.