Watch Your Step: Contemporary Dance and Coral Reef Biodiversity

Allison Roux

Photos: Aaron Bridgman

“I took a trip to Hawai’i last summer. There’s a place called Tunnels Beach, which has underwater caverns formed from lava tubes. You can see tropical fish, eels, sea turtles, and vibrant, colorful coral. They’re really careful in Hawai’i to protect the reef, and there are signs everywhere explaining what type of sunscreen you should wear, what products are 'reef-safe,' and rules about how to look at wildlife safely. The most important rule is you can’t touch the coral. This means you must enter the ocean further down, then swim back to the reef and float above it. As long as you enter from that spot and are careful, there’s enough space in the water to see stunning views and keep the coral safe. Again, signs are everywhere!

I’d spent the morning snorkeling at Tunnels Beach and was resting when a man and his three daughters walked to the water with their snorkeling gear and flippers on and stepped right into the ocean, crushing the coral. I stared, shocked. Didn’t they see the signs? Maybe I should walk over and explain how to enter safely. But I also don’t like confrontation, so I hesitated. A man nearby swam over and explained not to walk there and that his family needed to enter further down. This man, this grown adult man, started screaming at the stranger and saying that he could walk wherever the hell he wanted. A second person, a woman on the beach, also tried to explain why he shouldn’t walk on the coral, and he yelled at her, too. I was glad I hadn’t tried to talk to him. I’m not trying to fight today.

So I sat there, thinking about the example he was setting for his daughters. It made me think about how our coral reef crisis is caused not just by this large looming thing we call climate change but by the individual actions we take daily. Refusing to follow the rules of the beach, not taking the time to recycle, and failing to hold corporations accountable for their emissions. And ultimately, not teaching our children to respect the earth we will pass on to them. Maybe the next generation will get it right. I just hope it’s not too late.”

This is a monologue from my recent choreographic work, Watch Your Step. The piece embodied the devastation of biodiversity in coral reefs due to climate change and global stressors, and featured eighteen dance students at Converse University. The piece was inspired by my trip to Hawai’i in June 2022, where I witnessed mass coral bleaching and death alongside an appalling disregard by tourists for the fragility of the reefs. An artist rooted in social change, I created Watch Your Step as a plea to humanity to increase respect for our planet and showcase the beauty of the remaining reefs through an embodied movement practice.

Photos: Aaron Bridgman

Although they are fleeting forms, dance and movement can be valuable tools to raise awareness and promote solutions for social and environmental issues. When scientific research is paired with artistic outcomes and a call to action, this interdisciplinary work becomes an impetus for increased ecological awareness and personal change for audience members. In one weekend, almost 400 individuals experienced a performance that educated them on the climate and coral reef crises, witnessed an embodied experience, and walked away with resources and action items to continue the conversation, shift their habits, and donate to change-making organizations.

Before my Hawai’i trip, I was vaguely familiar with how climate change affects our oceans, but I was not acutely aware of the immediacy of the situation. In many ways, coral reefs are the building blocks of our society (Hamylton, Hutchings, and Hoegh-Guldberg 2022). From the ecosystem they provide for ocean creatures to the economy of coastal cities, coral reefs play a crucial role in our world. When I returned home, I began reading articles and meeting with my collaborator, Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell, Associate Professor of Biology at Wofford College, specializes in coral reef restoration. He had just returned from a six-month sabbatical in Australia, where he ran a lab studying coral bleaching and restoration. Originally a cancer researcher, he’s spent the last decade replicating his research on cancer cells with coral reefs to learn about their processes on a cellular level (Cato et al. 2019). Our conversations led to an exciting interdisciplinary collaboration that pushed Watch Your Step into existence. I’m grateful to Dr. Mitchell for collaborating with me on this project and for the time he spent with my dancers in the rehearsal room, ensuring they understood the material they were embodying.

I would also like to acknowledge my collaborators, Melissa Owens (costume designer) and Ashley Pittman (lighting designer). These images are my favorite examples of how these collaborations elevate my work. I wanted to make a manta ray, so Melissa bought a white gym parachute and some PVC pipe to create this prop while Ashley used gobos and LED movers to create a pulsing, textured light that helped this dancer appear underwater. I’m grateful for the layered craftsmanship they brought to our production.

Photos: Aaron Bridgman

Our collaborative work began in the summer of 2023 with a practice-as-research choreographic process involving two of my student researchers. We started by bringing the scientific process of coral bleaching into the dance studio to explore how we could articulate this process through movement. Coral bleaching occurs when water is too warm, and corals expel the algae living in their tissues. Over time, this causes the coral to turn completely white. When a coral bleaches, it weakens or dies. Usually, following a major bleaching event, the coral hardens and creates a coral graveyard (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2019, 19-22). I used a generative practice of intertwining language and movement to create a core phrase for the larger piece that emulated this transformation. This phrase was about thirty seconds long and eventually became a full-length dance work. Watch Your Step once completed, was around 45 minutes.

Climate change and coral reef bleaching are heavy topics. These issues have received much media attention lately (Einhorn 2021), and it can be hard to remain positive. But hopelessness does not function as a call to action. And the purpose of dance for social change is to move our audience members toward action.

Photos: Aaron Bridgman

The purpose of dance for social change is to move our audience members towards action. One way Watch Your Step conveyed this call to action was through the appearance of the sweet daughter of one of my fabulous colleagues at Converse University. She so graciously allowed her daughter to be a part of our production, and I used this cute-as-a-button six-year-old to end the piece and provide a visual representation of the “why” behind this message. Her generation didn’t cause this crisis, but they will surely live with the consequences. We must have hope for their future and fight for change while it’s still achievable. As the lights go down at the end of the piece, this young dancer repeats a section of the core phrase and works to rebuild a block city previously used as a metaphor for the tumbling building blocks caused by coral reef bleaching. And, of course, she stole the show.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, marine biologist, climate expert, and co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab, has been in the news recently for her books All We Can Save and What If We Get It Right? She is working to shift the narrative around the fate of our planet and speaks about getting things as right as possible (Johnson 2024). I appreciate this perspective around a topic that can feel gloom and doom, and this is how we tried to leave audience members at the end of this piece. The reality is that most of us don’t recycle perfectly. We don’t work in positions where we can hold corporations and politicians accountable. We aren’t going to get this perfect. But we can vote. And we can educate our children. We can also make art that emphasizes the importance and cumulative results of these small actions. We can get things “as right as possible” and be more intentional about how we treat our planet.

Photos: Aaron Bridgman

During our weekend of performances, close to 400 individuals were confronted with the consequences of walking without thinking. And while large audiences and a move toward communal change are essential goals in my work, one of the most fruitful aspects of the process was the transformation of student performers, specifically, their increased awareness of environmental concerns and their urgency in motivating others to join them in pursuing a solution. The thirty-six student performers and technicians involved in Watch Your Step dealt intimately with this topic for months and were changed in the process. They are our next generation, and I believe in them.

Photos: Aaron Bridgman

Works Cited

Cato, Michael L, Hallie D Jester, Adam Lavertu, Audrey Lyman, Lacey M Tallent, and Geoffrey C Mitchell. 2019. “Genome-Wide Analysis of Cell Cycle-Regulating Genes in the Symbiotic Dinoflagellate Breviolum Minutum.” G3 Genes|Genomes|Genetics 9, no. 11 (November 1, 2019): 3843–53.

Einhorn, Catrin. 2021. “Climate Change Is Devastating Coral Reefs Worldwide, Major Report Says.” The New York Times. climate-change.html.

Hamylton, Sarah M., Pat Hutchings, and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, eds. 2022. Coral Reefs of Australia: Perspectives from beyond the Water’s Edge. Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing.

Johnson, Ayana Elizabeth. 2024. What If We Get It Right?: Visions of Climate Futures. New York: One World.

Johnson, Ayana Elizabeth and Katharine K. Wilkinson, eds. 2021. All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. New York: One World.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. “A Research Review of Interventions to Increase the Persistence and Resilience of Coral Reefs.” Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: