Ask most people to describe what a dance lesson looks like and it will probably involve the students evenly spaced out, replicating the movements of the teacher in time to the music – and I wouldn’t disagree with them if you were talking about dance training.
This is the traditional model used in most dance styles that I can think of where a set movement vocabulary is passed from dancer to dancer, the specific skills and demands required are finely honed and those attending are prepared for performance. However, in schools our concern is not solely focused on preparing students for life on the stage but to support their knowledge and understanding of the art form and their ability to create, compose, reflect and analyse.
Through doing this they will discuss, describe, explore, negotiate, justify, question, challenge, share… and so many other things (including developing performance abilities).
So the big question inevitably is how?
I hear many people justify the training-based approach saying that you have to give them a starting point… really? They have been moving since they’ve been in the womb – they may need time to refine some actions, but I’m sure we’ve all seen a child respond beautifully to music that seems to come from deep inside them. So maybe we just need to give them some prompts, guidance or challenges to inspire them to explore?
My personal approach is to ask questions which usually start with… “can you find a way of…?”
- Can you find a way of travelling around the room at a low level?
- Can you find a way of stretching and expanding?
- Can you find a way of making different body parts rise and sink at different speeds?
- But why?
Years ago someone commented on a dancer that I was working with that ‘she moves just like you’. It was meant as a compliment but I was disappointed. I wanted the dancer to move in her way, to develop and value her unique movement style, not mimic me. Asking questions makes the lesson a much more dynamic and democratic space – the variation of responses is fascinating with opportunities to ask about their train of thought or to reflect upon the ideas and feelings evoked in the observer.
But there’s more to it than that.
It automatically makes the lesson more inclusive – not only accommodating different body types but also varying levels of experience. If you’re the child that has limited experience of copying the dance teacher, or you’re at the back of the room and can barely see the demonstration then you are likely to soon lose confidence in your ability and we all know where that typically leads. If you start with “find a way of travelling around the room” the less experienced child may start with a walk or a run… which is a starting point… they’re in & they’re working with you, not messing about at the back. When they feel more confident they might include a jump, stretch or a turn.
And these open-ended questions allow the children to work at a level that’s right for them, each succeeding in their own way, so if you had asked them to find ways of drawing circles in the air you may have one child circling a finger whilst another maybe spinning on the spot – each an appropriate response, each bringing skills of placement, control and projection to the task – and yet they appear wholly different.
But there’s another significant reason why posing a question is useful – they problem solve. They are not passive in this experience, they have to bring something of themselves. And when working in this way I always ask supplementary questions (and these are easy for the teacher) – “Can you find a tall shape?” “And another one?” “How else could you make a tall shape?”…their first response is likely to be obvious and they are all probably going to be quite similar… so with a little gentle pushing they move beyond the generic responses into the interesting, personal and challenging… and now they’re into the creative zone!
They are starting to fully appreciate there can be multiple responses becoming creators, performers and critics. Once this is established, they develop confidence in their ideas and are more likely to share them freely giving reasons behind their choices and offering articulate interpretation of their action choices; they are open to constructive criticism since this is an extension of the process they have been going through. They will have a greater appreciation of difference valuing the ideas that others came up with and prizing originality of thought. It also improves their ability to read movement and facial expression in others which will promote improved relationships.
But most of all, working in this way embeds a creative curiosity. Artists endlessly ask themselves – “what would happen if…?”
So what would happen if we viewed our young dancers not as empty vessels needing to be filled, but as artists with ideas and opinions of their own – ready to engage in an artistic dialogue?
Shall we ask the question?