Teaching in a Wild Triangle

In my position as Director of Teaching and Learning at Luna Dance Institute, I am often contemplating all that goes on in the teaching of this multifarious art form. Consider, for example, if one “simply” wants to train human bodies to perform a particular style of dance for performance or legacy, one must understand the physical attributes of that form, understand the historical and cultural significance of the form, and be skilled in employing multiple teaching methods to communicate that knowledge to students of varying learning styles.

Often in this situation, the dance teacher can count on students who are motivated to learn the particular techniques of the genre and have accepted the teacher as an expert. Even still, the teacher has many decisions to make. Are we transmitting the form in historically accurate precision or encouraging students to evolve it? Is our understanding of the form specific to a point in time—how might others interpret the same information and what is our responsibility to knowing/conveying that information? Do we know the historical and cultural context of the genre and from what perspective was the heritage passed on? The dance teacher might also need to “read” students well—recognize when students are “getting it” at the level of understanding what they are doing or are merely lucky at replicating? And, does it matter?

To help students who are struggling, teachers must find ways to help them understand, accepting that not everyone learns the same way. What are the various ways students learn and what teaching methods does one need to employ to reach all? Do we care if everyone in the class learns or do we believe that some can and some can’t? What is our responsibility in that case?

In most cases, teaching dance is even more complex. Each teacher must decide what to teach and since dance is too huge to teach everything, we choose to teach what we value. This involves personal reflection informed by experience. Content, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Once one makes a decision about what to teach, we answer the same questions as the traditionalist about transmitting vs. evolving; historical and cultural context and multiple modes of sharing that knowledge. We consider how to make our values transparent through our choices even as we create space for our students to bring theirs to the experience in a dancing human to dancing human interchange. Thus, pedagogy is personal and relational. “Real teaching,” states Joseph MacDonald (1992), “is a wild triangle of relations—among teacher, students, subject—and the points of this triangle shift continuously.” This opens up an entire new set of questions for the dance educator. Who am I and how do I learn? What do I know about the subject matter? How do I know it? What do I know about the students? In the finite amount of time I have with my students what do I care about most? All of these questions are subjective and values-based.

As a field, therefore, no two classes will be exactly the same. That is OK because it is the essence of human endeavors and maybe the promise of creating future artists. At the same time, what is our responsibility to preparing students in our class for future classes? As an educator, working in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 30 years, I’ve witnessed hundreds of debates about what should be taught—often, unfortunately, through disparaging comments about the choices our earnest teachers and colleagues have made. This is because we have been naïve in our understanding of what it takes to teach—we believe that there is a best way. Instead, by seeing it as a series of choices, and making those choices transparent, our students can be the deciders of their own educational fate.

Many popular and applied ideas about teaching indicate unexamined assumptions about how people learn. Despite more than 50 years of research evidence about learning, verifying that students must construct their own knowledge and assimilate new experiences in ways that make sense to them, many still believe that a teacher can make a student learn something. This implies a view that learning is uni-directional; that teachers hold knowledge and transmit it to students who then consume it. Educational philosophers from John Dewey to Paolo Freire and their progenies discuss the problems with viewing teaching and learning as a linear transmission of selected content, yet our belief systems hold firm. And these beliefs are embedded in power dynamics. We, as artists who teach, have an opportunity to shift power, by examining and challenging the underlying assumptions that influence our approach to teaching and learning dance. It is now commonly held that the learner plays a key role in the process. In education and business circles, a great deal of energy is put toward “engagement”—how do we “get” students or employees to engage. Yet, again, back to the triangle—students learn in active relationships to teacher, peers and content.

As students of dance ourselves, we know that until we experience something, we don’t know it. The teacher brings to the curriculum a lifetime of experience and knowledge and try as she may—through stories, lecture, demonstration, admonitions, praise, encouragement—it isn’t until we practice in our own bodies that we truly understand. That “aha” moment seems to come by surprise. Yet, it is actually the result of a dynamic relationship between the content (our bodies in space and time), the teacher (trusting her enough to participate in the experiences she provides) and our learner selves (being ready to receive either due to developmental maturity, emotional readiness or will). In essence, each of us constructs our own knowledge. However, we can’t do it by ourselves—we still need the triangle.

We need the experiences of peers, the narrative of our art form, thoughtful presentations of practices by our teacher because we, as humans, are social creatures. The “aha” moment and the act of transformation may occur in private studio moments; moments, sprung from a lifetime of encounters of ourselves with intimates, adversaries and forebearers.

PUBLISHED June 1, 2013



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