Mind Good, Body Bad

[manuscript excerpt]

Back in the Renaissance, some pretty smart people did some pretty deep thinking, and mostly we have a lot to thank them for. Of course, they based their theories on Greek philosophy, which didn’t always lead them in productive directions. For instance, Plato was convinced that the body was a  material, experiential, and eventually disposable thing, while the mind (or “soul”) was incorporeal, of the “shadow realm.”

By the time of the Renaissance, this had already taken root in such practices as the “mortification of the flesh” in the Catholic Church, leading to such extremes as self-flagellation and other self-mutilation in an effort to purge the soul of sin by debasing the body. Philosophers took this line of thought into sublime flights of fancy, and while those thought experiments contributed some new ideas, for the most part they simply justified or rationalized much older ways of thinking.  In particular, we can thank ol’ René Descartes for such gems as, “I think, therefore I am.” Whatever that really means.

René Descartes drew his theory of mind vs. body

One thing it meant to René that our minds (what we think with) are separate  from our bodies (where we house the thinking bits). Of course, this was not a new idea, really, inasmuch as the Church had been on for centuries about immortal “souls” that were separate from the body. This seemed to dovetail nicely with doctrine (not a good idea to ignore dogma; look at poor Copernicus and Signore Galileo), and Descartes was not excommunicated.

The problem is, this pernicious view of two things that are so inextricably linked that they are probably not two things at all [citation, if such exists] has colored our entire Western society’s way of looking at, and thinking about, the human body.

The religious, or “moral,” part goes like this: My, isn’t that a gorgeous human being. In fact, being as he’s a boy and I’m a girl, his appeal goes beyond the aesthetic. I’d like to mate with him. Those movements he is doing in those tights make me uncontrollably mad with lust. I must become impregnated by him even without benefit of matrimony. Ow! Ma! Stop pulling my hair, Ma! I’m coming home, Jeez!

Okay, maybe not quite like that, but close. The main message is the body is a vehicle of sin, and we should cover it up and ignore it as much as possible, or trouble will result.

Now, my purpose is not to debate theology here. It’s a simple matter of perspective. Is raising your hand to answer a question (or ask one) a sin? The kind of movement that kids do when engaged in constructive dance is not sexual or vulgar in any way. It is purposeful movement that the students design to contain and to communicate information about important concepts they are learning.

So we have two misconceptions to dispel: That dance is “dirty” (we miss you, Patrick Swayze), and that we can train the mind while keeping the body immobile. The evidence of student achievement and understanding, without any hint of carnality, should convince even the most ardent zealot that this kind of dance is not about sex in the way that social dance is.

And the flood, the tsunami of recent research on the interaction of human movement and human cognition must melt even the iciest anti-dance heart because it not only suggests but SHOUTS that to keep a human immobile is to disable that person in the worst and most damaging way.

If, as we are hearing from neurobiologists, the main mission of the brain is to put the body into motion, then we run the risk of almost literally short-circuiting children’s brains when we refuse to engage them in purposeful, attentive movement experiences as part of their learning every day. The brain sends the body into motion, and the act of moving provides feedback and stimulation for the brain, whose capacity to learn is thereby increased, and the cycle begins again, deeper and wider.

You know those kids who are always tipping back in their chairs in the classroom? They need the vestibular system stimulation that comes with full-body movement. The children who are tapping their feet, busy with their hands all the time? They need kinesthetic and tactile stimulation to generate new neural pathways.

For too long the unspoken model has been that the bodies of children are just vessels to carry around their brains. But if it is true that humans are built to run 20 miles [citation], to outlast and outwit their larger and faster prey by staying on their feet and on the move all day, then to keep children indoors and sitting down all day is to frustrate a genetically programmed need to move.

Humans have always learned by doing. Interacting with a wide variety of environments (accent on the acting part) has stimulated great creativity and adaptability in the human species. Now, just when we need those traits the most, when we are facing some of the toughest problems humanity has ever encountered, we are handicapping ourselves and our children by clinging to methods that do not work.

Author Rae Pica says, “It is a huge mistake to think the mind and body are separate entities.  The truth is that the domains of child development – physical, social, emotional, and cognitive – simply do not mature separately from one another.”(http://www.movingandlearning.com/Resources/Articles21.htm)

But this false dichotomy has already cost us dearly, in society and in education. Dance, as a possibly sexual and profane activity, has been marginalized to the point where most Americans simply do not engage in it, and very few know anything more about it than what they can see on television. And our school buildings have been constructed without any provision for dance, and with scant allocation of space for physical activity at all. Now that “drill and kill” test-taking strategies have swallowed the curriculum whole, even those spaces that schools did have available are being converted to “reading” rooms and places to store all the textbooks and materials that companies are selling to schools to help with test scores.

Business leaders must join with parents, teachers, students, and community advocates to send a different message to those pulling the levers, from legislators to superintendents: Movement is essential to learning, and creative movement and classroom choreography are the most powerful methods we know for integrating learning and the whole person. Make space and time for them, and we can transform the world.



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.
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