Choreographer in the Classroom: At the Intersection of Dance and Academic Curriculum

By Deborah Karp


It’s Tuesday afternoon at Monument Mountain Regional High School in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. Much of the snow from the weekend storm has melted. There is a weak stream of February sunlight pouring in through the window of the Teachers’ Lounge, where standard-issue benches and tables have been pushed aside to make room for a class of twelve freshmen, one classroom teacher and one visiting Artist Educator to examine Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion, and related physics content, through choreographic problem-solving. This is week two of the two-week Jacob’s Pillow Curriculum in Motion® (JPCiM®) residency. A unique and innovative program founded by Jacob’s Pillow Director of Education “J.R.” Glover and Celeste Miller, a nationally acclaimed choreographer, artist educator and currently, Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Grinnell College. The program is the result of a long-term inquiry on the use of dance as a tool for teaching academic curriculum.

During the course of the residency, this Introduction to Physics class came a long way. On day one, I observed a group of young people who were hesitant to respond to simple movement prompts, a class that demonstrated fragmented dynamics and were shy to volunteer ideas. However, during the following two weeks, I witnessed remarkable growth in movement and risk-taking from them. I was privy to their dawning of connection between the physics curriculum they were learning and the choreographic assignments we used as a vehicle for understanding.

At this particular moment in public education, in which school administrations, teachers and students are under the weight of extreme pressure to measure learning through the quantitative lens of standardized tests, inviting choreographers into one’s classroom for an entire two-week period to engage students in a physicalized learning process of rigorous creative investigation is an act I qualify as generous, visionary, even radical.

Giving 470 minutes of instruction time over two weeks does, on its own, seem to constitute a minor miracle and tremendous leap of faith on the part of the participating school. But the JPCiM programming goes a step further: the classroom teacher and Artist Educator co-instruct the classes, each focusing on her or his subject of deepest understanding (i.e. movement for one, science for the other), modeling in real time the joys and challenges inherent in the collaborative process. Young people are thus offered the exquisite opportunity to experience their classroom environment not as a hierarchy of teacher – student, but as a platform for communal contribution. It is through this altered paradigm that the academic curriculum itself can begin to collaborate with choreographic approaches, and decisions about dance-making are inspired by the course of the classroom study.

Science teacher Daniel Gray has been participating in the residencies at Monument Mountain for close to twelve years. In discussing with him the reality of foregoing two weeks of instruction time in the typical teaching format, he tells me that although less content is covered than otherwise would be, he believes the value his students receive from engaging with the academic material choreographically is absolutely worth it. He goes on to note that his students who participate in the residencies consistently score five percent higher on the conceptual section of their unit exams than their peers who were not part of the residency.

Statistics aside, the continued, long-term investment of this dedicated public school teacher seems enough to demonstrate the efficacy of dance and academic curriculum integration. And yet, as I enthusiastically begin my residency planning, matching dance structures and skills to the biology, physics and anatomy curriculum I will cover with each of my three classes, a pedagogical question creeps in, a query of approach and best practice. I ask myself: is it enough to introduce choreographic tools and dance vocabulary for students to work with, or do I better serve my students by creating containers that foster the development of creative process? In other words, how can I give students the tools to make informed, choreographic choices that they come to on their own?

I allow this question to slosh around inside me as I enter my first class on the first day. Honors Biology is studying hydrocarbon skeletons and the students are off to a flying start. A gregarious group, they float, slash, roll, curve, swing, melt, freeze and burst through the classroom with the zest of seasoned improvisers. Their manner with each other is easy and they correctly answer each question their teacher and I pose about the structural makeup of hydrocarbons and the dance concepts we explore, all by the end of day one. This is a dream class.

As we delve deeper into the biology and the residency, we are enmeshed in questions of spatial design, energy quality and theme and variation. A hydrocarbon skeleton has a specific structure and sequence. Introduce something new (referred to as a functional group), and both the behavior and sequencing of the hydrocarbon skeleton display a marked change. As a class, the students generate a shared gesture phrase borne from their verbal explanations of hydrocarbon patterns, break into small groups and choreograph movement studies that place the phrase in space. Then, they spend time reworking each study using opposing pairs of Laban effort/actions. I later introduce partnering structures that involve vaulting, catching, carrying and sliding to invite deeper learning of the actions produced by functional groups.

This class developed more material than any other I have worked with. It was more than we could share at our informal end-of-residency showing. I began to cut and splice, tactfully proposing edits. But, the students stopped me. Instead, they rearranged whole sections of choreography, dropping some material altogether. During the process of reordering and simplifying, they revealed their understanding, both verbally and choreographically, of the shifts in structure of their hydrocarbon groups, the change in behavior caused by each functional group and the spatial reorganization that was required as a result. My answer to the question of process and learning, in this case, was clear: I provided a choreographic container and the students constructed their learning within it.

But, not all classes reveal their process so overtly. Although the physics class had come a long way in terms of confidence, movement invention and choreographic decision-making, they missed the academic mark when asked basic questions about the concepts at-hand: force, mass and acceleration. Their teacher and I met to discuss how to reinforce the learning that had been effective, and how to craft new choreography assignments that would illuminate these concepts more clearly.

On our final day together, a shift happened. I asked them how the dance should end. A pause. And, then an elaborate plan proposed by one student, amended by another, added onto by a third. Without any prompting from their teacher or me, they were experimenting with variations of the suggested ending, rising and falling, moving through and around each other, in solos and duets, trying to find the most appropriate solution that best fit the group’s dance and academic course of study. The final decision was unanimous and employed several key choreographic elements we had investigated.

After this success, their teacher asked several questions about the physics curriculum. These were the same questions he asked earlier in the residency, when the students’ responses revealed only a foggy understanding. Their answers on this day, however, relayed something different: not only did they have a firm grasp of the concepts but, they seemed to have made a subconscious correlation to another, related physics notion, one that was introduced before the residency began, but not examined during our time together. As they answered each question confidently and correctly, the students revealed the relational thinking that had taken place, in which they internalized, processed and applied the associated concept to the presenting curriculum.

Although I witnessed that not all students involved in Jacob’s Pillow Curriculum in Motion were primary kinesthetic learners, it is was clear to me that approaching the process of taking in information through an informed, guided experience of creative questioning produced results of understanding and personal ownership that could not have been replicated without the availability of an open container. Up and out of their desks, choreographing their physics each day, this group of learners engaged in an act of inquiry that allowed for transformational understanding to take place.

This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of In Dance.

Deborah Karp is a teaching artist, choreographer, performer and mom. She is on faculty with Luna Dance Institute and the manager of its School & Community Alliances program.