The Art of Teaching Dance

By Patricia Reedy


“’Artists are people who play hide-and-seek but do not know what they seek until they find it.’ In a similar sense, teaching is a form of human action in which many of the ends achieved are emergent—that is to say, found in the course of interaction with students rather than preconceived and efficiently attained.”
— Elliot Eisner, quoting H.W. Janson

I recently began teaching a seminar for MFA students interested in a career in dance teaching. What inspires me about this particular group is their passion for teaching and their commitment and gratitude toward the communities from which they have sprung—community colleges! Many of these students credit their community college dance teachers as role models for the kind of teachers they would like to become.

Unfortunately, many of today’s MFA and MA graduates will be catapulted into teaching with little or no teaching practice. Left to rely on their experience as students, they will most likely replicate what their teachers did, without understanding that teacher’s goals or aesthetic or pedagogical assumptions, and not knowing much about how people learn. Some will figure it out on their own; through a process of trial and error, having a particular personality type, or devouring everything they can read and taking workshops and master classes, they will become generous, effective teachers themselves. Others will perpetuate the stereotypes and myths that continue to keep dance from evolving and constrain dancers from knowing their bodies deeply or taking responsibility for their own learning.

Paolo Freire’s liberation educational theory rails against what he calls the “banking system” of education, wherein a teacher deposits information into the student’s mind to be withdrawn, upon request, when it is time to demonstrate that the student has in fact swallowed the information whole. Critical pedagogy, in contrast, views the student as an active participant and views learning as a relationship between human beings. Freedom, according to Freire and writer-educator Bell Hooks, requires that both teacher and student show up and stay present for the process. In her book, Teaching to Transgress, Hooks writes, “Freire’s work affirmed that education can only be liberatory when everyone claims knowledge as a field in which we all labor” (p. 14). Critical pedagogy is not always easy—it requires all of the “laborers” to show up, be present, take risks, tell their truths, and relate directly with each other and with the subject material.

As dance students, we are very experienced at showing up—at the studio, the theater, the barre, the mat. Yet when we contemplate teaching, we often have expectations of being the expert, of sharing what we know, of telling what we know, of there being one right way—and we expect this of ourselves too, measuring our teaching skills by evidence that the students are learning. When we’re talking about the human body, moving in space, time, and energy—about creativity and expression—where does the expertise truly live? What is the teacher’s role in this process? And how does one prepare teachers to teach in this liberation model? I ask myself, how can I, in one very short semester, help these bright MFA students become the teachers they passionately want to become?

I want students to be so engaged in learning that they can move the field forward beyond my generation’s wildest dream. Critical pedagogy is the only theoretical structure I know of that can lead to authentic engagement. But engagement is a two-way street. Although risk taking by the teacher may seem scary or vague or too personal, I suggest that the teacher’s role is simpler than that and can be supported by transparency. Transparency, to me, means three things: (1) naming your lens or the perspective from which you are presenting an idea (in dance this could be crediting the historical shoulders you are standing on, admitting your aesthetic preferences, articulating what is important to you); (2) naming any assumptions you are making about the students’ points of view or the material being presented; and (3) telling the truth as you know it.

At the second seminar meeting, a savvy student asked, “Can I be a good teacher if the student doesn’t learn?” We all thought on that awhile. I responded with a new question: “Do teachers always get to see the immediate fruits of their labor?” The current age of accountability and high-stakes testing demands immediate gratification—I show you, tell you, teach you this; you demonstrate that you learned what I showed, told, taught you in my time frame. The climate of education has returned to the banking model that Freire railed against. But real learning doesn’t happen that way. It happens over time.

Another important and useful theory of how people learn is constructivism. Based on the cognitive studies of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner, it offers teachers a way to examine how students learn by “constructing their own understanding” through a combination of experiential activities, developmental readiness, peer support, social/cultural contexts, and the conscious, skilled guidance of a teacher or caregiver to help each person reach his or her potential (Reedy, p. 47). The art of teaching requires striking a balance between, first, the rigor of discovering strategies that give students the maximum opportunity to learn, and second, an attitude of patience and humility—accepting that you may never know the effect you’ve had on a student.

This is similar to the experience of performing. You make a dance from your own experience, skill, cultural background, values, and place and time in your life; you perform it on a given day, with a body that may ache (or not), a heart that may be broken or very excited, a crooked stage. The audience members receive it from their own situations: their knowledge and experience of dance, their cultural background, values, and a place and time in their lives on a particular day—preoccupied with a traffic jam on the way, hushing a new baby, trying to ignore a growling stomach. Where those two intersect is where art exists and where learning and transformation live. Most artists never get to see their effect on others, and some audience members never realize where their subsequent new ideas originated—they may not trace it back to that moment in time, but it becomes a part of their world view going forward.

As artists, dancers have the skills they need to be liberating, constructivist teachers. They value discovery, risk taking, and the union of body, mind, and spirit. Dancers know that learning is personal and a result of experience and practice. If dancers can remember that they have constructed their own knowledge of their bodies, movement, space, energy, time, and performance, they will have a strong foundation from which to launch their teaching practice.

Patricia Reedy is the Executive Director of Creativity & Pedagogy at Luna Dance Institute. A lifelong learner, she enjoys sharing her inquiry process with others.