Dance and Comprehension

In the 1990s a new structure for helping students learn to comprehend what they are reading emerged. This set of strategies has reached fairly wide acceptance, so let’s look at how dance helps engage students in these same avenues to comprehension.

Graphic ©2010 Randy Barron

To watch a dance is to try to “read” it, like a moving text. The strategies for comprehending a dance made about science or poetry or math are the same as for reading written texts, and developing skill at using the strategies transfers in both directions, making dance a powerful literacy tool. Here is my take on how this works.

Making Connections (Activating Schema). In the jargon of education-ese, “schema” are the existing perceptions and images of the world that we all hold. These are made up mostly of our past experiences. Students who are reading unfamiliar text are taught to think of times when they have seen or experienced something similar to what they are reading. We do this same thing in creative dance when we invite students to think about how they have experienced water as a solid, a liquid, and a gas, or when they have seen a particular tree or flower or insect. Not only does this help them to create movements when they are in choreographer mode, it also helps them to see what others have built into their own dance creations.

Developing Sensory Images. When students learn to pick out the onomatopoeia and other sensory cues in texts, they use this sensory imagining to put themselves into the story, conjuring up a rich context that helps illuminate unfamiliar words or phrases. When watching creative dance, students may spontaneously generate their own verbal or physical re-imagining of what they see.They also respond to hearing what images the choreographer / dancers had in mind when they created and performed the movement. This compare-and-contrast type of thinking using the senses as a guide unlocks comprehension in multiple ways.

Questioning. This is an important Habit of Mind in its own right (I’ll talk about Habits of Mind in a separate post), and crucial for making sense of new information. One educator I heard speak recently said that he did not ask his son, “What did you learn in school today?” but rather, “Did you ask a good question today?” I thought that was a wonderful way to illuminate learning for his child. This strategy is about knowing the kinds of questions to ask, and how to ask them.

It requires students to think empathically (empathetically?) and to decide what questions will get them the best information. In the creative dance context, the thinking changes from, “You didn’t look like an ice cube,” to, “I noticed you made an angular shape with your arms and legs but your back was curved. Why did you choose that shape?” Asking the right questions takes students to the heart of the idea the choreographer or the writer is trying to convey.

Inferring. The ability to draw inferences, or to make educated guesses about the meaning of what we see or read, is critical to comprehension. With dance, because the movement can be so metaphorical and abstract, observers may make inferences that, while technically “incorrect” in that they do not reflect the choreographer’s actual thinking, draw them into the discussion of the meaning of the dance.

Just as scientists must justify their hypotheses with data from their observations, children who are digging into a piece of dance integration choreography have to identify the specific events, dance elements, and other observations they have made that led them to their inferences. This skill, like the others, transfers readily between comprehending various types of “text,” whether written, danced, spoken, played, acted, painted, or sculpted.

Determining Importance. A crucial step between data (observations) and hypothesis (inference) is figuring out the relative importance of what may at first seem like equally important facts. For instance, is the circular shape of the group’s design important to the concept they are showing, or is it a visual and aesthetic choice that does not necessarily lead to deeper understanding of the dance? Which of a series of actions are the ones we are supposed to notice and which are the functional, pedestrian ones needed to connect the important parts?

Choosing observations and determining their relative importance in the context of the dance or other meaningful product throws us immediately into higher orders of thinking and helps us construct mental outlines of the meaning inside.

Synthesizing. Being able to take our observations apart analytically has the potential to leave us with nothing more than a virtual “pile of pieces,” unless we are able to reassemble our deconstructions into a meaningful whole. In Bloom’s Taxonomy, this is the second-highest level of thinking; in the revised Bloom’s, it is re-defined as “creating” and has gone to the top. In either case, it is a sophisticated and essential type of thinking. (This is also a link to Daniel Pink’s idea of “symphony.”)

At the point of synthesis, we have to make choices and assign values to the raw materials of our observations, questions, and inferences, all in the quest to put the pieces together into a coherent mental picture. It is this interior meaning-making that we call “learning,” as we put new information and experiences into our own interior landscape in a way that makes sense to us. A child who tells an interior “story” while observing a dance has synthesized that story out of many, many bits and pieces.

The act of synthesis itself is worth practicing. We should be creating our own narratives for new dances and new arts experiences, even if the stories we tell ourselves are quite different from the authors’. Those are differences we can explore to our benefit in lively post-performance discussions, but meanwhile everyone has engaged in the kind of synthetic, creative thinking that leads to what we call “comprehension.”

So (to synthesize), engaging in creative dance also challenges us to use our critical thinking abilities to solve problems. The search for comprehension of dance processes and structures can build student skills in ways that allow them to apply those skills to other areas such as reading, listening, and experiencing other art forms. Every school should be using a tool this powerful and yet simple to use. But, as we can see by the evidence all around us, the bindings of the factory education system are exceedingly hard to break. RB


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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One Response to Dance and Comprehension

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