Earlier this week, in Washington, DC, I had the privilege of teaching one of my dance integration workshops (Scientific Thought in Motion) at the Kennedy Center. The audience was a mixed group of arts and education administrators, classroom teachers, teaching artists, and Kennedy Center Education Department staff. It was the largest group (65) of adults I had ever tried to guide through a 3-hour workshop, but the challenge turned into a wonderful opportunity to experience the power and flexibility of classroom choreography.
One of the gratifying compliments I received in the debriefing the morning afterward was how safe everyone felt when it came to not only creating but sharing their dance products in such a diverse and large group. I hear that in one form or another a lot, and it not only makes me feel good, it lets me know that my central approach to teaching works with every audience. Simply put, my attitude is, “Anyone can do this, and have fun doing it.” After all, we all are dancers, we just tend to forget that.
Teachers, students, and just about everyone else usually enter my workshops with varying degrees of trepidation. They know they will be engaged in something relating to dance but they are not sure exactly what, and they are understandably anxious. After all, how many of the 300-plus million US citizens know anything more about dance than what they see on television, or at their daughter’s dance recital? American culture only values dance as a spectator sport, roughly equivalent to figure skating or gymnastics in its importance in the daily life of the average Josephine or Harry. Women, I think, value dance more highly than men, to baldly generalize, but not to the point of demanding its inclusion in education.
But I digress.
The point of this post is that in my approach to teaching, we intentionally do things that move us outside our comfort zones, into what some psychologists have called the “performance zone.” Robert Yerkes, an American clinical psychologist, reported (1907) finding that, ” Anxiety improves performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached. Beyond that point, performance deteriorates as higher levels of anxiety are attained.” (1) We can call that third area the “danger zone.” That’s where our involuntary nervous system kicks us into “fight or flight” mode and all possibility of learning is shut down.So my job as facilitator is to encourage the learner to stretch outside the comfort zone into the performance zone, while staying well away from the danger zone. I try to create a non-judgmental space in which invention and discovery are the goals, and respect for each other’s risk-taking is the norm. And of course, at the outset, I take a risk myself by demonstrating a dance that I do not explain in advance, and that looks very different from what most of them have ever seen as dance. I also take a risk every time I set a group into motion, because I have to be present for that particular group and not just following a rote sequence. That means I never know for sure exactly what will happen. But I make it a playful experience for all of us, because play is an important way we all learn.
During guided practice, all of my feedback, if participants are making a sincere effort, is positive, ongoing, and focused on what I am seeing that connects to both dance and the integrated subject matter. “I like the way you are using different levels and moving in curving pathways to show me liquid water.” “Great job not using your voices to make sound effects.” “Beautiful melting energy as you go from solid to liquid.” “I love how you are making your movements so quick but so light as water vapor.”
When we watch each others’ dances, either in two large groups for the guided practice experiences, or the initial drafts from our small group choreography process, we make positive comments and ask respectful questions. Every single person has had to grapple with inventing movement to mean something important about their learning, and everyone has had to work as part of a team to achieve something that no one of them could do alone. So as audiences, these learners are sympathetic to their peers, while remaining able to think critically about each of the dances, based on our rubrics for dance content, subject matter content, and focus in performance.
What this means is that students who work in this way, as well as the teacher / facilitator, all experience success at every step of the way. One success leads to the next challenge, which everyone successfully meets, and so on. In an astonishingly short period of time, this chain of success invites students to craft and polish their products into the best possible vessels for the meaning they have put into them. They begin to invite questions and critique, because the focus has shifted from them to their work, and the freedom from fear that that provides is priceless.
What happens next is that our comfort zones get larger. Now we are more confident about moving freely with and in front of others, and that lets us expand into a new learning zone, setting ourselves new challenges. We know from experience that “failure” just means something didn’t go as expected. But unless we didn’t get any information from the experience, it’s only a step toward eventual success and nothing to get upset about. And we certainly don’t point fingers at one another with derision, because we know our own efforts are equally chancy but ultimately rewarding.
To move outside our comfort zones as teachers, we have to make success about the children, not about any external measure of their achievement, and not about any need we have to remain the Fount of All Knowledge. To “educate” means, from the Latin, to “lead out,” to elicit from each child her or his talents and abilities. That in turn means meeting each child where she or he is and creating a safe environment for all children to stretch, learn, and grow into our birthright: healthy, playful, productive, and happy adulthood.
(1) Yerkes, R & Dodson, J. – “The Dancing Mouse, A Study in Animal Behavior” 1907 “Journal of Comparative Neurology & Psychology”, Number 18
Update: I just read up a bit more on Mr. Yerkes, and it seems he was a bit of a racist. I think his quote still makes sense, though, so I hope you will pardon my introducing him.