These are polarized times. Fights over masks and vaccines, the debate over policing, immigration reform and the border situation — even in this new political era, partisan divides feel as wide as ever.

For Janet O’Shea, fighting may be the solution.

She’s a professor in the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, and focuses on critical dance studies, performance, and the social and political contexts of martial arts.

Her 2018 book “Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals About Martial Arts Training” looked at how physical play and martial arts can help people learn to cooperate and manage conflict.

“We have this idea that play is for children, and it’s for the elderly, and it’s not for adults in their working life. And that if adults are playing a sport, it really should be for a reason, like, either it needs to be professional, or it needs to be a workout that is geared towards specific outcomes, or maybe it’s part of some various structured amateur activity,” O’Shea said. “But generally, there’s not a lot of space given for play, and there’s not a lot of value given to play, for adults within their higher education and working lives.”


O’Shea says she became interested in martial arts training and in writing about martial arts through the experience of sparring. She had dabbled in martial arts before, but a Jeet Kune Do class at UCLA introduced her to a fairly high level of sparring.

“I was really fascinated by how this practice can engage elements of violence and yet feel so profoundly different,” she said.

That experience led her to think more deeply about play as a mechanism and an approach for managing disagreement. Unlike violence, sparring has parameters for conduct, such as touching gloves at the beginning and hugging at the end, “and they frame it up as a game space, also as a space of teaching and learning.”

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