Most often when I lead a dance class for the first time, the response I get from the boys is, ‘Yuuuuukkkkk dance! It’s for girls!’; and from the girls it is, ‘But when are we going to dance?’ By the end of the session all the children would have engaged with ideas, and used their bodies to express these in space. This style of dance may not fit the traditional expectations of what a dance class should be like. It is in fact a very new approach, which for lack of a more imaginative name I call, ‘Creative Dance’.
Currently, and traditionally, dance in schools is strongly rooted in a particular form. The form could vary from folk to classical, martial to Bollywood! In such a scenario, the teacher is trained in a particular dance form and comes to the class to pass on that training to the students. The value of this is undoubted because here the students learn the details of a formal language, concentrating on the specifics of the shapes and patterns of that language. Usually, in such a class the teacher would stand in front of rows of students and demonstrate the steps, requiring the students to learn by copying. At its worst, this method can appear very rigid, with the teacher unwilling to question the way he/she was taught—and the way he/she is passing on that learning.
A further pressure on such a method of dance classes is the performance aspect. Since the students have learnt a sequence in a particular form, the emphasis is on the accuracy of execution. The most ‘talented’ child (usually a girl!) will stand in the front and the rest follow as best as they can. When the main aim of a dance class and the teacher is to get the students ready for a show there is very little time for questions or change. The focus becomes the detail and the ability to execute the steps as precisely as possible. While this method suits some, it can take away the interest of the majority of the class. In my opinion this kind of form-based dance training works best when the student is there by choice and is interested in the particular form.
If we were to look at creative dance as a ‘tool’ rather than a form, there is much more scope to engaging everyone in the class in a meaningful way. By ‘tool’ I mean that the body is looked at as a medium of expression, thus allowing children of differing physical and technical ability the chance to explore things somatically. Here the creativity and expression of the child is the focus. Individual quirks and choices have as much validity as group decisions. For example, if you ask the children to each come up with a sequence that includes a turn, a jump and a floor movement, what each child chooses to do will be unique. You might then ask the children to find partners and teach each other their sequences thus encouraging sharing and stepping out of comfort zones.
Also central to creative dance is a sense of play. There is no one way to do something and each variation is valuable. Children are encouraged to explore different ways of solving a creative task and to then refine their solutions. Since we are not using a predefined dance vocabulary the potential of the body is limited only by what is physically possible!
So one might ask what the role of the teacher is in such a dance class. For example, would the teacher teach any set material? What would be the place of set material in this context? I believe that taught dance movements and sequences have an important role in a creative dance class. These serve two purposes. Firstly, when children are faced with something unfamiliar they are often unsure of what is expected. Teaching them some movements and illustrating in movement what you are saying is helpful. If you ask the class to make ‘a very big, strong movement’ and demonstrate an example as you speak, the class will copy you the first couple of times and then begin to explore their own movements.
Secondly, the dance teacher can use set material to push the limits of what children see as dance, and of what they think they can do. There is an undoubted pleasure in mastering something challenging. However, the focus on the technique and accuracy of the steps is gentle. Here a taught sequence can later be reworked individually into original sequences. For example, you might teach a phrase of four counts and ask the students to make up another four counts themselves. In such a context the taught phrase provides some of the building blocks that a child can use. In a typical creative dance class there would be a balance of taught material and creative tasks. This allows for both the discipline of learning together and individual creative expression.
A creative dance class requires a lot of planning. Since the teacher is not coming to the class to pass on what he has been taught, he needs to think through his ideas, how he will articulate them to the students and what he would like them to get out of the class. Ideally a whole term’s worth of work is roughly planned at the start of the term and each weekly plan is filled out with details as the term unfolds. The two questions I usually start with are: ‘What do I want the children to explore?’ and, ‘How can I devise a physical task that enables them to explore this?’ This is probably how a teacher would approach the teaching of any subject in a creative way; that is, looking at the content and the form or methodology. The only difference is that the games, exercise and tasks are set within a movement context. Thus a creative dance teacher could be previously trained in any dance form (or even, perhaps, have no formal dance training) but would need to be willing to experiment and explore the possibilities of using movement differently.
Since one of the most fundamental properties of dance is that it is metaphoric, I believe any subject matter can be explored through this medium in a safe and educative way. One can start with an idea or theme and look at it in a non-literal manner, abstracting the essence into images and then manipulating them. For example, one of the classes that I currently teach wanted to explore ‘War’ as their theme for the term. We have been looking at body shapes that are powerful and powerless, moving together as if we are a single body; exploring movement without using one body part such as the legs and other similar ideas. These ideas use images of war without making it a literal depiction of ‘I’ll shoot you and you shoot me’. Similarly any theme, and I really do mean any theme, however abstract or real can be investigated through dance and movement.
When you consider dance in this way the potential for linking it with other areas of the curriculum are immense. No longer does the poor dance class sit outside the overall educational experience of the child, but rather it forms an integral part of it. In today’s classrooms where the ‘project’ method of teaching is widely used, creative dance can play an important role. The social sciences, language, science or mathematics can all be drawn upon in a creative dance class. This allows us to go beyond the details of the things we learn and explore their essence. It is the dual nature of dance—the metaphoric and the artistic—which encourages a different understanding.