Ancient Becomes Modern


Excerpt from the opening chapter of the manuscript.

Light is blocked out of the ceremonial chamber. Shadowy figures enter from a hidden opening. They take up places in the open area, in front of those already assembled. They settle into active stillness, shapes that are motionless yet shout action to the observer. For the duration of  four slow, deep breaths, no one moves.

The near-silence is interrupted and organized by a steady drumbeat. Voices join in, intertwined with more musical instruments, including rattles and cymbals carried by the dancers, who have leapt into age-old movement patterns and who tell of tales and truths and teachings passed down across generations.

Quiz: Which of the following does the preceding text describe?

  1. An ancient Puebloan ceremony, taking place in a kiva
  2. A Japanese Butoh dance/theater event, held in a covered outdoor arena
  3. A classical ballet performance in an opera hall
  4. A choreography showing in an American elementary school classroom

Okay, you get it — It could be ANY of the above. Let’s try another one:

Q: How are the arts viewed in US schools today?

  1. As invaluable preparation for the challenges of the 21st century
  2. As important ways to focus student attention on what they need to learn
  3. As essential parts of the school day, with plenty of opportunity to move
  4. As a waste of time, money, and space that could be better spent on more books and more prepackaged curriculum

All of you who chose “4,” please pat yourself on the back, with mixed emotions. Those of you who chose otherwise: You must have an extraordinary school in mind. Please cherish it!

But the question is, what does this really look like in practice? How can it be worth the time it takes to go through all this when we should be “covering” the mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum? Let’s take a sample peek…


It is a sultry day by noon already, one of those late-October heat waves that used to be called Indian summer. The Waterloo, Iowa fifth-grade classroom seems to swell with the humidity in spite of the recently refurbished air conditioners’ best efforts. But the students seem barely to notice. They are intent on finishing up their final drafts of the dances they have choreographed to demonstrate various systems of the human body.

At this point in their unit on human physiology and the needs of creatures, the students are demonstrating their understanding of the complex systems that keep us alive by showing (and being able to explain) their science-based works of dance art.

Working in small groups of four to five, the students drew their system at random from a deck of assignment cards, and had a short working period — about seven minutes! — to create a choreographic interpretation of their assignment. For a sample of what these cards look like, see the Appendix at the end of this volume.

Despite the amazingly good quality of the first drafts, given the short deadline, each group had ideas for revision after exchanging ideas with their audience (the rest of the class) after their first showing. These ideas resulted in a dramatically improved set of second-draft studies. Now the students are polishing their work for a final showing and video-recording.

“One minute remaining!” proclaims the teacher, her voice penetrating over the excited conversations and stage directions of the rehearsing groups. “One minute to curtain, Dancers!” There is only a slight increase in the hubbub as the deadline approaches. These are experienced choreographer/performers, as we are about to see.

”Who would say, ‘It’s not perfect, but we think we’re ready to put it on stage?” The teacher pauses, notes that everyone’s hand is raised, and smiles as she says, “All right, then — Showtime! Who wants to go first?” Since all the hands are still raised, she chooses a group at random; they make a bee-line for the “stage” while the other students move into the “house.”

The students can all identify the limits of the “stage,” which is the section of the classroom they have chosen for most of their formal choreography showings. It has the least distracting background of all the walls, and has the most usable space in the room. The students chose it as the best space to present a visual art such as dance.

The place in the theater building where the audience sits to view the happenings on the stage is called the “house,” and the students love knowing this. When the teacher says, “Quiet in the house, please!” all the chatter stops and the audience focuses on the stage area as the first group goes to “places.”

The teacher acts as the stage technician, bringing up the classroom lights and pressing “play” on the classroom iPod simultaneously. The iPod is connected to a high-fidelity speaker unit that is capable of filling a much larger room with sound, so she keeps the volume reasonable for the sake of both her students and those in the neighboring classrooms, but the sound is solid and hefty as the Circulatory System group performs a dance that shows how the blood moves through two valves and two chambers in the right side of the heart, and how it is oxygenated in the lungs before passing through two more valves and chambers on the left and into the aorta.

The dance they have created has its own characteristic “lub-dub” rhythm, so the background music simply supports the dancers’ movements without dictating them. The audience has seen the prior versions of this dance, and they applaud the spin move Jamaal does to demonstrate the re-energized (with oxygen) blood coming from the lungs back to the heart. This group has made only cosmetic changes to their choreography, but their performance is honed to near-perfection, and they are clearly pleased by their own efforts, not to mention the enthusiastic response of the audience.

Group by group, the class shows their final draft studies to the audience and the camera. “I can’t believe I’m having an aesthetic experience,” the teacher mutters to herself as she watches the last of the beautifully thoughtful and imaginative interpretations of what had been prosaic science topics only a week before.

How did this class arrive at this point? What is the value, if any, of this approach to learning? We are blending a subject area with an artistic process, and that act of creation is where the true alchemy occurs. Is it truly worth doing?

That, esteemed reader, is the subject of this book. [excerpt concludes]


About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
This entry was posted in arts integration, dance, teaching artistry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Ancient Becomes Modern

  1. Susan Tower says:

    What a beautifully written article and well supported points about arts enhancing learning. Good Job Randy! I forwarded it to my boyfriend who is also an educator and is working diligently to create reform in the public schools…

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