The First Steps: Luna Dance Institute

By Patricia Reedy


Dance teacher, Bonner Odell is on maternity leave. With the birth of her daughter, the count is five teacher-mothers (out of seven) at Luna. As our small organization juggles busy work loads with maternity, it surprises me how natural it all seems. Colleagues express concern, “What! You have another one out? That must be so stressful.” But really, the dance of parenthood is integral to what we are as a feminist, child-centered organization.

Teachers return from the life-altering experience of parenthood better at their jobs and more dedicated to the organization as a whole. I’ve noticed that returning mothers are better at setting priorities; they are more productive and efficient. They see themselves as learners again. All this new life is inspiring us to deepen curriculum for Waddlers & Toddlers, our earliest dancers and their parents.

Parent-child classes have always been a part of Luna. Our vibrant 12-year old MPACT project, relationship-based dance for families in the child welfare system, has inspired us to “unpack” the mysterious and universal Attachment Theory and apply its principles to dance curriculum. We’re asking the research question, “How can dance curriculum support attachment between mother and child while refreshing the parent’s awareness of herself as a creative mover?”

Attachment theory* is about the biologically-based dance between mother and child. As the child leaves the womb, maturing through infancy to toddlerhood, she develops such deep trust to a parent or primary caregiver that she can eventually separate, keeping her “self” intact. This is at the root of identity formation and self-esteem, and establishes the basis for future relationships. Louise Kaplan’s book, Oneness and Separateness: From Infant to Individual, written in 1978, remains for me one of the most beautifully written books on attachment and separation–in part because Kaplan uses dance language to describe this fundamental process of early human development.

Parent-child dance curriculum provides physical and symbolic opportunities for children to practice this oneness and separateness. We at Luna are creating curriculum based on the concepts in Kaplan’s book.

Concept: The Beginning/Limbo
During the first six weeks of life, the infant is attempting to create a bridge between the pre-birth environment and being newly in the world. Care must be taken to avoid “an onslaught of intolerably intense stimulation.” Tactile stimuli–stroking, tapping, squeezing, brushing the skin–reveal the “line” between inner self and outer world. The best dance a parent and newborn can do during this “getting to know your baby” stage is looking, smiling, touching, rocking, swaying, and holding tight within the family home.

Concept: Oneness
The baby enters this stage, between four weeks and five months, with a feeling of bliss at the unconditional love of the parent. At first, the baby cannot differentiate between herself and the parent–she senses that special voice, smell, touch and body movement to be her own. Soon, a strong biological pull her toward a dialogue called mutual cueing by infant experts. The baby “teaches” the mother how to respond. Kaplan calls the choreography of this period: molding and stiffening. As the infant is held, she curves her body and expands it, straining and wiggling to mold or contour it perfectly to the body of the mother. Stiffening propels outward toward others, helping the child discover the “rind” of her body. Although confined to the mother’s lap, the baby reaches and grasps. Parents support this by softening into the child and also letting the child “perch” at the end of the lap and by providing objects and fingers for the child to grasp. At Luna, we ask parents to lie beside their babies and practice naval radiation (core-distal stiffening and softening) simultaneously; thus giving the parent a visceral experience with how hard the child is working to be in the world. At the same time, a continuously responding mother needs some time for herself. We ask moms to take turns handing each baby to another parent and dancing it out–a great release and reminder that she is a separate being.

Concept: Early Conquests
Once the attachment bond is secured, between four and eleven months, the baby begins to explore the world outside of the mother-infant orbit. Babies know when they are ready to separate–the world is beckoning and curiosity rules. They begin to push up, creep backward, roll over and scoot around. Kaplan calls the choreography of this stage: creeping, home base, checking back, refueling Babies are playing with weight shift and finding their head-tail connection. Once seated, they will rock and fall over. On their knees, they will rock forward and back. The baby will creep forward, initially slithering on tummy, later working toward a crawl. She will be excited traveling a bit, then stop abruptly and look over the shoulder at parent, to begin again. During this period we play a lot of “chase” games at low level. We invite parents to spend a lot of time at floor level and to experience the developmental patterns themselves–rocking from head-to-tail, pushing up through upper body, slithering and scooting. We also encourage rolling–separately, together, and “roll your child up.” This is strange and unfamiliar movement territory to some, but we persist because of its important to proprioception.

Concept: The Upright Baby
From 10 to 18 months, the baby is standing independently and starts walking. Walking is a celebration–practicing and mastering the relationship between her body to the physical world of time and space. Earlier success with returning to “home base” allows the child to mature to a toddler who is totally absorbed with exploring her bigger world. The toddler is running, carrying big things and climbing extraordinary heights. Parents start to see danger everywhere. Kaplan calls the choreography of this period: balancing acts, open spaces, a new partner. The child is captivated by the sense of escape, invisibility and recovery. Chase games, now in the vertical plane, remain important to the dance curriculum. We encourage parents to move in and out of roles–from a peek-a-boo partner to rapt audience applauding the child’s amazing feats of balance and speed. Children are strengthening head-tail connections and homologous coordination. We encourage a lot of bouncing, playing with weight into the floor. Some parents like to hold their child’s hands and let them “climb” up their bodies. Teachers may offer a phrase: “parents, catch your child, let her walk up your legs, swing her, place her down, children run away, parents chase, repeat.” In this way, children experience both the exhilaration of being on their own and the safety net of parent protection. Both parent and child learn about dance as they respond to a phrased movement score.

Concept: The Thinking Baby
Between 15 months and three years the “self arrives.” The child is interested in controlling, using and developing body, language and social skills. Luna’s curriculum focuses on body isolation and control. The Freeze Game provides opportunities for children to practice “stop and go” and body control of holding a shape and then wiggling isolated body parts. Kaplan’s choreography of this period is called: clinging and pushing away, shadowing and darting, holding on and letting go. Psychologically the older toddler is ambivalent about separation, testing the mother’s attention by darting away, falling and hurting herself, often when the mother is engaged in conversation with someone else. Relying on new cognitive skills, Luna’s relationship-based curriculum supports the child through concepts such as toward & away, on & off, over & under, far & near, connected & separate, open & closed. The chase games of the younger child become shadowing or follow-the-leader. Entire lessons for 2-3 year olds center on falling down and getting back up.

We’ve just scratched the surface of the connections between dance and the earliest human development. It is exciting and meshes well with the work begun by Irmgard Bartenieff and strengthened by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. At Luna, we have the luxury of exploring these concepts through Action Research and our new mothers make the work relevant and engaging. Dance educators seeking ideas for their own parent-child classes should check out Anne Green Gilbert’s work ( Gilbert developed The Brain Dance(TM) based on Bartenieff fundamentals and created a DVD of sequences performed to popular nursery rhymes. Exploring tactile, head-tail, homologous and homolateral movement patterns to “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” is a great start to early child dance curriculum.

*Attachment theory is an interdisciplinary study encompassing the fields of psychology, evolutionary anthropology and ethnology first described by psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the mid 20th century. Its most important tenet is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally.

This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of In Dance.

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