Finding Creative Action in the Teaching World

By Patricia Reedy


Teaching artists can no longer afford to wait for administrator buy-in or to be offered a seat at the table.

In the January/February 2014 issue of In Dance, I described the genesis of Luna Dance Institute’s (LDI) Summer Institute, a six-day intensive born of the need to bring dance teaching artists and classroom teachers together to transform the cultural practice of how dance is taught to children, preschool through high school. Over the past two decades, LDI’s Professional Learning division has swelled in response to our field’s evolving needs. Initially, the offerings responded to practitioners in the field, addressing how to better prepare themselves for the realities of the classroom, improve teaching practice, and maintain their artistic integrity within a system that valued neither creativity nor risk. LDI courses empower dance teaching artists and their classroom allies to create captivating environments for arts learning and performance and to increase the presence of dance in public schools and social service agencies. Although practitioners have brought dance learning to a higher level of artistry and purpose, there is a point when practitioner-directed programs become endangered because decision-makers do not understand dance, and the institutional practices and structures reinforce an outdated definition of dance teaching and learning. In short, the educational bureaucracy has created gridlock for what is possible in education through the art of dance. To break through this, LDI’s Building Cultures of Dance Initiative takes a multipronged approach: continuing to support practitioner-leaders, modeling a critical pedagogy approach to dance teaching and professional learning, and working with teams of in-community artists and allies.

What teachers need to know
Learning happens in the wild triangle of interaction between teacher, student and subject content. [In Dance June 2013] It is dynamic and relational, with shared ownership of experience and knowledge. Dance teachers can best prepare themselves by addressing all three areas. The teacher starts with clear goals so that the experience provided enhances the lives of everyone involved. Clarity addresses all three points on the triangle; it creates a satisfying experience for the teacher, is true to the needs of the students, and reveals an inclusive understanding of the content. For example, I might have as an overarching goal that students gain an enduring understanding of themselves as creators, that they make new discoveries in action, and that each idea can be voiced in more than one way. Content objectives for a fourth grade modern dance class thus might center on a performance task; for example, students create paragraph length dance studies that reveal an understanding of four Laban efforts—Weight, Space, Time and Flow—to express an idea and its opposite. Depending on the students, goals can be made collaboratively with the student or solely by the teacher, with an eye to giving students freedom of interpretation and choice in the classroom. In either case, articulated goals and objectives guide the many in-the-moment decisions that the teacher must make in the classroom or studio. As one aspect of the triangle, the teacher continues to probe her/his own beliefs, assumptions, biases and aesthetic points of view. Reflection and collegial exchange guide this process, as does creating a feedback loop through embedded assessment practices.

Beyond knowing their dance content, effective teachers know their student population and understand, in general, how human beings learn. All people learn in different ways, using various strengths and drawing on varied experiences. At the same time, different stages of development influence the efficacy of timing and approach in dance teaching. Teachers will get “more bang for their buck” by presenting material well-matched to a specific developmental stage rather than oversimplifying an activity best experienced at a later age. For example, preschool-age children learn in motion. They are exploring the temporal, spatial and tactile experiences of their bodies every single moment. Their cognitive processes are also concrete. Repeated attempts to get them to listen to instructions or explanations of abstract concepts are not the best use of time and energy. A more natural fit for their developmental level is allowing them to move freely through space, interspersed with concrete prompts to momentarily stop, shape or otherwise control their bodies. They will then absorb the language and concepts quickly because they are fully immersed. Offering a variety of activities through a range of modalities accommodates diverse learners.

The third point on the triangle is dance content. In this three way relationship, teacher and student each relate independently to the content. The teacher’s knowledge derives from experience, study and values. Given a finite amount of time for class, semester or course, the teacher selects what she/he believes to be important, in an order that makes sense. Each student, however, has her/his own experience, knowledge, and values. Learning happens in a spiral, so students may or may not recognize the order presented by the teacher on the first round. Understanding this constructivist approach leads the teacher to revisit material, inviting students to apply their experience and knowledge to the new learning, and allows space for both inquiry and disequilibrium.

All levels of LDI’s workshops address the three points of the triangle with increasing depth. They also invite dance teaching artists to continue the investigation of themselves as choreographers and reflect on the confluence of the two aspects of their professional selves: dance-maker and dance-teacher. Values based, professional learning at Luna Dance Institute invites the teacher to critically examine assumptions and to question and problematize the known. As a result, teachers find innovation in what was previously known and develop new levels of artistry in their teaching.

What decision-makers need to know
As teachers develop confidence and unite their artist self with their teaching self, they become leaders in dance education. Once freed from the pressure of having to be the sole expert on dance education content, they experience rejuvenation and often want to bring their new-found energy to bear on improving, expanding or creating dance programs in their communities. Luna’s recent Building Cultures of Dance Initiative works with the artist practitioner to develop curriculum, courses, projects or departments that place the art of dance at the center to meet a district’s or neighborhood’s goals.

Over the course of seven years of applied action research, we have learned that the most successful dance education programs are child-centered, teaching-artist-practitioner directed and administratively supported. Teaching artists can no longer afford to wait for administrator buy-in or to be offered a seat at the table. As professionals who know first-hand how dance works, we must create and direct the programs and then request backing. Support includes funding, presence and a clean, safe space, but most of all, it requires will. The administrator must be willing to see what is happening, to understand it just enough to endorse or protect it, and to articulate its value to the larger school or organizational community. Luna’s Dance Education Leadership cohort is our latest effort to investigate the transition of dance teaching artist from skilled instructor to change agent.

Luna Dance Institute’s 2014-15 Calendar of Professional Learning is available June 15, 2014. Our 14th Summer Institute will be held July 17–25, 2014 in Oakland, California

This article appeared in the May 2014 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.