Teachers Learn the Two-Step
By Martha Beach [Traduire]
Dance is a language. It’s a way of communicating that requires no speaking at all. It’s beneficial to all students, simple to teach, and easy to incorporate into everyday classroom activities. Yet, because of a lack of training and therefore a lack of confidence, teachers across Canada can be reluctant to teach dance in the classroom.
“Dance provides students with another language to express their thoughts and feelings,” says Christine Jackson, Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) Program Coordinator for the Arts. For those who can’t communicate very well in traditional ways—through written tests, essays, and exercises—dance is one way for them to share feelings.
Dance can benefit students in a variety of ways. “Dance communicates emotion, culture, and abstract qualities. It teaches focus, agility, communication, community, and compassion,” says Janice Pomer, dance instructor and author. “Through dance, we’re developing critical thinking and non-verbal communication,” she says. Pomer writes dance guides and teaches modern dance, improvisation, and choreography workshops in Toronto. Students must critically interpret emotions then feel empathy and compassion in order to recreate these feelings and communicate them to others.
“Dance is about connecting,” says Pomer. “We’re helping young people make mind-body connections that allow them to be more conscious of their reactions to things.” Students connect with themselves, their thoughts, with others, and with the environment around them. Dance can also be a way of positively expressing anger, hurt, fear, or other complex emotions.
Dance, however, cannot be beneficial if it hasn’t already been integrated into the classroom. “It’s hard to do dance arithmetic if you haven’t already established a dance language,” Pomer points out. The following is a basic way for elementary teachers to begin building dance vocabulary. Implement a daily stretch and strength routine. Anything that gets students moving, but can be done on the spot between their desks, is a simple way to incorporate dance. Begin with some simple stretches; reaching to the ceiling then to the floor. Next, work on rhythmic on-the-spot movement such as, jumping up and down, easy arm and leg combinations, or something fun like circus activities or karate poses. To end, have students cool down with an easy yoga stance like tree pose or cat stretch, or even simple balancing. The entire routine should last approximately ten minutes.
Let students choose what kind of movements to do and allow them to create their own combinations, suggests Ann Kipling Brown, Professor of Dance Education at the University of Regina. When children use their own expressions, they learn more about the way their bodies move. “Using their own movement rather than an adult-imposed movement, it’s the child’s own vocabulary,” she says.
Dance in the classroom benefits both teacher and the student. “If a teacher has already integrated dance or movement into their class, the teacher can use it as a way of refocusing the class,” Pomer points out. For example, if students are really antsy during a math class, get them to do a small amount of rhythmic movement on the spot to get their blood pumping, their oxygen flowing, and help them to think clearly.
Dance can also help a student’s understanding. “Children are kinesthetic learners,” says Jackson. Kippling Brown points out that smaller children love using props like ribbons or umbrellas while they dance. Props can be used individually or in a group, but shared props help children understand each other. “They must learn to do things together, as a shared responsibility,” she adds. Many students understand a subject better when they can experience and visualize it. Dance can be used to teach Math, Science, History, English, and Social Science in a hands-on way. For example, using movement to illustrate the way neutrons move around or explore symmetry through body shapes. Also, fractions can be taught by having students regroup themselves or teach students dances from medieval times or other cultures. Finally, have students interpret a poem or the characters in a story. Experiencing ideas physically helps students visualize and understand them.
Kipling Brown however, has concerns about using dance as a tool to teach other subjects. “You lose the integrity of the dance,” she says. If a teacher merely uses dance to teach, but doesn’t teach it separately, the students are not building their dance vocabulary. “You need to study dance and its conceptual framework,” she says. Dance needs to be taught separately and not be used merely as a tool to teach other subjects.
Even older students can build their dance vocabulary. Pomer suggests having students keep a dance journal. In it, they can write what they notice about movement in their everyday lives, whether it is the movement of traffic or the movement of their favourite sports team. They can also clip and paste articles or photos they see about dance. After a couple weeks, collect the journals, pick out common observations, and use this information to create a theme. Have small groups of students choreograph a dance, for example, about their daily commute to school. Put a time limit on the production and check in frequently with their progress. When they’re done, have them share their creations and have a group discussion about the creative process.
The creative process is not just about the final dance. Students’ work should be theatrical and physical, involving emotion, critical thoughts, and interpretations. Each one of the arts is connected because they’re about interpreting emotions to an audience and this can be done through visual art, dance, or theatre.
Oakwood Collegiate in Toronto is not a specialized arts school, but it does have an extensive arts program. “We have a special arts program that encourages students to look at all art subjects,” says Heather Saum, dance teacher at Oakwood. Students get serious exposure to all art forms. The arts teachers at Oakwood make connections for the students between all of the different art forms. “It gets them to see dance as a viable option in their life,” she says. Most students who attend Oakwood don’t have dance training outside of school. To students who tell her they can’t dance, Saum says, “If you can move, I can train you in the art form.”
Jackson was directly involved in adding dance to the fine arts curriculum in Toronto. The TDSB held full-day meetings with teachers to teach them hands-on ways of incorporating dance. “Workshops are excellent,” Kipling Brown says. “Teachers do require those workshops. It really benefits them.” Most cities have dance groups that offer seminars to teachers and students. If no formal training is available, Pomer suggests identifying teachers that have a movement background or feel comfortable teaching dance. Have them show other teachers how to use and implement dance vocabulary in the class.
Bobbi Westman, Executive Director of the Alberta Dance Alliance (ADA), stresses the importance of specialized dance being taught by professionals or by teachers who have been trained by professionals. The ADA has been lobbying for dance to play a bigger role in the Alberta curriculum because it plays only a small part in the fine arts strand. “It’s a fine-tuned art form. It should be taught by people that know what they’re doing,” Westman says. Saum agrees. “Dance is a physical activity and people need to be aware that people can be hurt,” she says. Saum is a trained dancer and has her Masters Degree in dance.
Dance is incorporated into most curricula across Canada. In Saskatchewan it’s part of the core curriculum. All children in grades one to eight must have at least 50 minutes of dance per week and many teachers use dance interspersed throughout the day. For the rest of Canada, dance is usually part of Fine Arts. For example, Ontario’s older grades can take dance courses that are divided into three sections: theory, creation, and analysis. They first learn the theory of dance and the concepts and conventions that create a foundation and context for dance in culture, today and in history. Then they choreograph pieces and refine their skills. Last, they analyze and review their work, finding connections with themselves and the world around them. Conversely, dance education in British Columbia focuses very much on learning about the cultures from which dance comes. Younger grades learn to move in different ways and interpret patterns in the world. In middle grades, students learn to demonstrate balance, agility and the ability to follow rhythm and tempo. In older grades, students create sequences and apply the principles of movement to their pieces, as well as learning about the cultural, historical, and social context of different dances.
Many school boards’ curricula focus on creating character: building individuals who will become a fully developed person. “The arts is one of the few areas where we develop character, individual character, because we’re asking [students] to make individual choices,” Pomer explains. “Dance creates strength. Not physical strength, but mental strength.” When a student learns to dance, they are not just learning steps. They are learning about themselves, others, and emotions. “The tool we are using is movement, and the result you see is movement,” Pomer says. But the process that takes place between learning a movement and being able to convey an idea or an emotion through body language is what really builds a student’s individual character.
Many teachers across Canada need some professional training before they are able to teach dance and experience its benefits. Workshops and seminars are available in most places and once teachers are trained, dance vocabulary is easy to incorporate. Also, creative movement can be used to teach subjects in a hands-on way.
“It’s important that we’re constantly pushing the envelope of what dance is and what it means,” Westman says. Start to teach children early on in life what dance is about. “Start them young and keep it going, keep developing it,” Pomer says. If students learn dance at a young age, the benefits of dance—empathy, compassion, responsibility, teamwork, and communication skills—will grow and carry over into the rest of their lives.
Take a couple workshops, talk to other teachers about dance, and there should be nothing standing in the way of incorporating dance into the classroom. “What does dance cost?” Pomer asks. “Nothing. All you need is a bit of space.”
Martha Beach is a journalism student streaming into the magazines industry at Ryerson University in Toronto. Her experience includes feature writing, lifestyle pieces, copy editing, and fact checking.