Creative Dance-in-Education (CDIE)
(Published in the book ‘Contemporary Dance: Practices, Paradigms and Practitioners, Aayu publication, Delhi, 2018)
In most ancient cultures, including India, it was the ordinary people who ventured out and created ‘folk’ or ‘social’ dances, through their regular gatherings and dancing. Farmers, fishermen, construction workers and hunters created group dances which reflected the movement language of their daily chores and celebration of life. In recent times, dance as a communal art form has almost disappeared, except during some annual festivals and marriages in India, where men and women dance together.
With changing life styles, we have forgotten to think creatively with our bodies and nourish ourselves with dance, which used to be a part of our daily life. Technological advancements have thrown up endless opportunities for us to use our minds creatively – visualizing, perceiving, memorizing, predicting, problem solving and more. Our bodies instinctively respond to the mind’s commands and have become functional tools that perform everyday tasks in a mechanical manner.
Therefore, our range of movement has shrunk and become task-oriented; we live in our minds and feel disconnected from our bodies too, leading to a sense of alienation from ourselves. The same attitude is being transmitted to children and young adults in schools. Most of their growing up years are spent on academics with a sprinkling of dance, theatre or sports. Like adults, they live completely in their heads, thereby lacking an awareness, understanding and appreciation of their bodies as well as its creative potential.
Large number of schools in India are over-populated, with almost 45 to 60 students in every section (there are usually 6-8 sections) of each grade. Most subject-oriented teachers find it easier to control these large numbers when children appear to be uniformly alike, in thought and action. The larger and more diverse the group, the more difficult it is for the teachers to manage their creativity and thinking. Perhaps that is why individuality and questioning are not encouraged in class room settings.
Needless to say, this is a common occurrence in dance classes where teachers have to handle 45 to 50 children in each class, irrespective of the fact that each child has different movement capabilities. A formula is set into motion by the school authorities in collaboration with the dance teachers – children are trained to perform dances in different styles, based on various themes, for dance competitions, Indian festivals and annual day functions. They learn Bollywood, Indian folk, classical, semi-classical dances, hip-hop, Jazz (the Indian version), contemporary and so on. All movements from these forms are performed in unison by children in various geometric patterns. The themes for these dances are set by the teachers and their job is to consistently orchestrate ‘attractive’ dances, which can be performed by large groups of children throughout the year.
Dance training in most school settings (public, private, primary or secondary) is becoming as mechanical as learning academic subjects that are rote-learnt, memorized and reproduced during examinations. Dance, too, is learnt, memorized and performed. Similarly, dance ‘items’ are taught either by academic subject teachers, who have learnt dance as a hobby in the past, or largely by contemporary and classically trained dancers appointed by schools. In both cases, teachers have not trained in dance pedagogy, and therefore train children through age old methods, through which they had learnt dance themselves.
Students, in turn, do not have to think creatively or be innovative with their bodies. Those with an aptitude for dance, good imitation skills and memory for movement, are often selected to participate and positioned in the front line. Predictably, children with non-dance skills are hidden behind the good dancers. Students, in fact, are not taught dancing from basic to advanced levels, but are trained to follow choreography planned for various events. In this situation, the notion that ‘everyone can dance’ regardless of size, shape, gender, age and class, becomes a myth.
Dance, in this context, has become a ‘performing’ art, completely focused on technique and performed by a select ‘trained’ few. Though the creative as well as therapeutic potential of dance is enormous, Indian dance is largely considered to be purely performance-based art, whose sole purpose is entertainment. Continuous performance pressure shifts the focus, from children exploring, playing with and discovering movements, to mastering group synchrony, body coordination, learning about stage presence, precision of movements and imitation skills.
This is the dominant aspect of one end of the dance-in-education spectrum. On the other end, there are a handful of alternative schools in India, like the Center for Learning and the Mallya Aditi International School in Bengaluru and Aman Setu My School in Pune, among a few others, where classes have lesser number of children. There are 20 children in each class and it is in these schools that dance-in-education has taken shape. Rajyashree Ramamurthy, who has served as a dance educator at Aman Setu says, “Dance, at our school, is being used more in a process-oriented manner, instead of children having to produce a performance piece or a ‘product’ to be consumed”.
Interestingly, in such schools, even academic subjects are taught to children in a creative manner, with field trips, experiential learning, individual attention, collaborative projects, etc. However, it is a pity that pedagogic shifts in dance-teaching have taken place mostly in elitist schools, which can only be afforded by financially well-to-do parents. These schools have trained dance facilitators with skills to customize dance according to different age groups, and induce themes and movement material from the children themselves.
The biggest challenge in most schools, is the socio-cultural and ethnic diversity amidst children in any given group. In this context, ‘creative dance’ is an ideal form which can be used for children within mainstream, special and inclusive educational settings, from various age groups, gender, religious and economic backgrounds. This form is extremely relevant to fostering their creativity, learning and well-being. They also learn the alphabets of dance, prior to learning a formal dance technique. Creating theme-based dances (as opposed to mastering a technique) and integrating reflective verbal dialogues after each movement activity, helps children relate dance to their real lives and deal with their emotions and relationships, thereby helping them learn to better adapt to the social settings that they dwell in.
Apart from its inclusivity, Anne Riordan (Movement Therapist/Dance educator, USA), argues that creative dance engages with the physical, psychological, mental, emotional, creative, social and spiritual layers of individuals. When undergoing movement experiences based on these layers, children heal, change, grow and also learn to let go their hyper-active and surplus physical energy. No doubt that ‘creative dance’ as a concept has emerged in the U.K. and the USA, and when applied to Indian schools, specific modifications and changes are needed in the dance curriculum. Therefore, dance educators need to negotiate with school authorities to change the way dance is taught and perceived.
Just as Math or Science take nine months to be taught, and culminates in students taking those exams, dance too should have a similar time scale, in which students learn the language from basic to the advanced levels, before performing it at the end of the academic year. When a dance performance happens once a year, facilitators have enough time to let movement activities breathe, and for children to get deeper into the skin of an activity, rather than superficially learning the ‘item numbers’ of dance. Dance, in this sense, needs to become a ‘co-curricular’ subject, rather than an extra-curricular past-time.
Some practical prerequisites need to be considered when conceptualizing a meaningful dance-in-education program. Dance educators need to have an overall vision of their teaching methods within the educational settings. It is not about randomly choosing movement activities for classes or spontaneously choreographing a Bollywood or classical dance. The primary concern of dance educators should be to define their aim of teaching dance - is it for the purpose of recreation/entertainment, therapy, education, choreography, sharpening of a dance technique, building an awareness of our socio-cultural context or a combination of all these? Or is it to enhance the creativity of children or increase their appreciation for dance?
When we fully understand exactly why we want to transmit dance to the younger generation, only then would the teaching methods and outcomes emerge more clearly. Elaborating on the above-mentioned idea, dance educators need to ask themselves specific questions – how do I teach dance (define methods and techniques)? What do I teach? Creative movement or a dance technique? When do I teach what? (Grading movement activities according to their complexity and the age group of the children), and what outcomes do I expect at the end of the year? Dance facilitators should also possess the passion and skills to work with children. In most cases, great performers might not possess qualities like the ability to motivate and increase the child’s receptivity to dance, or facilitation skills and evaluative tools to track the children’s progress or even their teaching skills.
Every dance facilitator should create a movement activity basket that contains at least a hundred games and movement experiences. These activities are based on specific ‘themes’ and promote confidence, self-awareness, social skills, trust, stress release, emotional expression and creativity. As children go through these activities, they befriend their bodies, get in touch with pent-up emotions or thoughts, and are able to unleash their creative energies in a ‘safe’ space, which is created by the facilitator. Creating and linking these activities in sequential sessions and embedding them into a dance curriculum, spread out over one year, are the primary prerequisites that precede dance teaching.
Structuring each session into four parts - a) warm-ups, b) creative body expression, c) cool down and d) verbal reflection, helps facilitators unfold creative dance in a methodical manner. They can construct preparatory exercises to initiate sessions at three paces - slow, medium and fast. Warming up the body can be done according to the energy level each group brings. If a group has a high level of hyperactive energy, then a slow warm-up routine, to ease them into the dance session, could be considered. If another group walks in with passive and low energy level, a fast-paced rhythmic warm-up can be done. In the ‘creative body expression’ segment, it is crucial to have specific goals in mind, the objective being to encourage children to ‘return to the self’, reclaim their bodies through dance, be at ease with their body and its language, and thus, learn to communicate more effectively with their peers.
The session needs to end with a ‘cool down’, in which there is an inter-play between breath and movement. Children feel a unity within themselves while tracking and internalizing the facilitator’s movements. The energy of the entire space changes into a zone of peace and quiet, where they also feel at one with each other. In verbal reflection, which is the last part of the session, children can share what they felt and experienced, perhaps revelations about themselves and the learning(s) that they want to take away into their real lives.
There are different steps to be considered when introducing movement activities to children, especially because in most Indian schools, children have not been exposed to creative dance. For example, a simple movement sequence might be for them to make a hand gesture, in which the right hand’s fore-finger is extended while other fingers are folded in, with the thumb resting on/touching the other finger tips. This is a titled hand-gesture (suchi) in classical dance. Children, in this activity, need to follow their suchi with their eyes and bodies wherever it travels through space.
A physical and visual adaptation takes place as children get accustomed to this activity. The facilitator then gradually introduces variations of the same, by asking children to move their suchi in different levels and directions of space. Later, each child follows a partner’s suchi. Gradually, the facilitator encourages the children to use this activity in a thematic manner, relating it to images from their lives. For example, a child once said, “I want to use my finger pencil to draw big pictures in the space around my body, rather than doing math in my note book”. After a certain point, children, rather than imitating a facilitator, can create their own movement-patterns in space.
In this simple activity, lie huge outcomes, such as discovering one’s movement language, adapting to a partner, learning about spatial awareness and working independently of the facilitator. For activities similar to this to be effective, it is important to keep these sessions ‘interactive’ and ‘playful’, amongst the children in a group, as well as between the children and the facilitator. Children at the Baldwin School, Bengaluru, during a session have used different body parts as paint brushes to color imaginary bubble-like canvases around their bodies.
At the end of the exercise, they were guided into reflecting, verbally, on what they had painted. One child had painted the colors of the rainbow around her to create happiness, another had felt that he was part of a Holi celebration and had thrown colors in space, yet another had painted a ‘fantasy cave’, in which he had wanted to stay forever. Effective techniques and approaches to encourage children to think, feel, learn, memorize, express and communicate through their bodies, need to be continuously articulated by dance educators in their sessions.
Similar movement activities, in addition to other creative ones, can be done in a meditative silence, without the aid of pre-recorded or live music. But the first question that children ask, as they prance into a class is, “Where is the music?” This is because in their minds, music and dance are interlinked, and they cannot think of one without the other. Music does provide the motivation for children to move with ease and confidence, and therefore, pieces of music need to be selected carefully according to the objectives of a planned activity. For instance, if the goal of a particular activity is to encourage gross motor movements, Indian orchestral fusion music helps children move across the floor, performing largish movements. These not only expand their personal kinesphere, they also generate a sense of self-confidence and open body language.
Another activity in which children can surprise themselves, is dancing to different kinds of music with eyes blindfolded. This is a powerful exercise because children don’t see each other dancing, and therefore move in complete abandon, without feeling awkward or shy or self-conscious. There is a conscious effort on their part to change their body language with each piece of music. They articulate different body parts and verbalize with regards to the evocative images and colors that they see, as they dance. They are also able to articulate a change in their emotional states with changes in music and begin to actually pay attention to movements that emerge within themselves.
After performing the above activity, in which they have descended completely inwards, it would be interesting for the facilitator to take the children through an activity based on ‘eye contact’, in which they learn to interact and communicate with each other. In a mixed workshop for teachers and students, Amrita, a nine-year-old girl, had to make eye contact with her teacher for one minute, sitting opposite her. During the exercise she became sad, with tears rolling down her cheeks. At reflection time, she shared that this was the first time in her life that someone had looked at her with love.
At her house, she was constantly beaten up by her alcoholic parent, or completely ignored. This exercise helped her feel connected within a group, where others assured her of their love when they realized what kind of a dysfunctional family she came from. During the verbal sharing, her tears were that of happiness and sadness, mixed together. She also realized that while the situation at home would be difficult to change, she had found a nurturing space in school with her group of friends.
In this context, developing emotional intelligence – feeling, recognizing, acknowledging and expressing emotions, effectively and appropriately, is a crucial aspect of growing up. This process is lacking in the lives of many children, because they are taught to repress their feelings, especially anger and sadness. Therefore, much ‘masking’ happens, in which children rather than expressing a felt emotion, mask it with another emotion. For example, they might mask anger with being sad or mask sadness with a cheerful disposition.
Dance educators need to help children have a playful, yet profound experience while expressing emotions. The concept of ‘Nava Rasa’ or the ‘nine emotions’, constituting a component of every Indian classical dance comes in use here. The activity is made up of expression of emotions with the body, related to the nine primary emotions of joy, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, love, disgust, courage and calmness. Children have been known to respond hesitantly to this activity initially, but, as they become involved in the process, there is an impromptu release of emotions that may have never been expressed before.
Cushions can be introduced as props to help children to facilitate their emotional expression in a circle. They have to pass or throw the cushion to their neighbors expressing each of these emotions with their bodies. This activity has culminated in emotion-based skits consisting of sounds and movements - a collective expression of emotions enacted in two or three groups. There is usually a lot of verbal exchange and increasing range of responses after the activity. They are surprised at how many emotions they have left unexpressed in their real lives, and how difficult it is for them to express emotions like courage, shame, love or sadness.
In one class, surprisingly, children realized that their emotional expressions were not balanced; they either controlled their emotions and acted numb in different situations, or suffered from emotional hysteria and outbursts on some occasions with their parents or friends. They enjoyed the feeling of releasing emotions in an appropriate manner and shared mixed emotions that they could not identify easily. They also discussed that the lack of emotions made them less human, more self-absorbed and disinterested in others.
In recent times, several school authorities have asserted that children should develop a sense of national identity and acknowledge the indigenous cultural diversity that exists in our country. They feel ‘western’ dances have inappropriately influenced the aesthetics and creativity of Indian children. It is a fact that most children prefer to learn salsa, hip hop or break dance, rather than participating in Indian classical or folk dances. One wonders if this is due to the rigid manner in which these Indian dances are taught. In this context, then, ideas of extrapolating elements from Indian dance forms need to be seriously considered.
Pan-Indian dances consist of movements inspired by the elements of nature - animals, birds or movements of hunters catching their prey, or movements related to agriculture, of farmers harvesting crops. Most urban children have not experienced these forms, nor have they experienced the chores and lifestyles of the common man. Therefore, there is often a disconnection between them and their environment. Dancing these forms, could help children reclaim their lost Indian identities, by physically experiencing the aesthetics and artistic expressions of folk and tribal cultures. For example, when children learn the fisherman’s dance (Koli dance) from the state of Maharashtra, they get a sense of how the most basic tasks connected to fishing are performed - rowing the boat, preparing the fishing net, throwing in the bait, spreading the net over the water, catching the fish and the general joys experienced by the fishing community of men and women.
In this context, dance educators could combine the principles of creative dance to teach these forms in an interactive manner, which allows questioning, re-interpreting and making these forms relevant for contemporary times. When movement experiences are based on an Indian theme or dance form, they can, in fact, have multiple objectives.
A folk dance from the Gujarat, Dandia, uses colorful pairs of sticks as props, hit together in different directions in the space around the body in a wonderful rhythmic pattern. In fact, children can make up their own rhythms which can then be repeated in different ways. They can dance in a circle, in lines, in square formations or in scattered positions. They can dance in the same place, or travel through space. Children can sing a folk song as well, while performing this dance. Rhythms, created in unison, bind the group together, while the members dance to songs and rhythms that they themselves have created.
One can also encourage them to have rhythmic conversations with each other, by either imitating each other’s rhythm or countering a rhythm with another. Children, in this manner, have created their own version of communal folk-social dances, which have helped them to respect each other’s creativity. Interestingly, the folk dances children come up with are very similar to the folk dances that have been done for several generations. Once children have created their own folk dance, they would feel more interested in learning an ancient folk dance, which has been passed on to us, over several generations.
Gender divide is a confusing concept in many Indian schools. In several schools (in urban and rural areas), girls and boys sit separately for their academic classes. In contrast, during dance sessions, boys and girls are gently coerced into interacting with each other. Dance actually throws a challenge at them to treat each other in a neutral manner, rather than only seeing each other from a male and female perspective. Another problem related to the gender issue is, that certain athletic movements like cartwheels, handstands, back and front rolls, etc., are mostly performed by boys. Girls, it is wrongly believed, do not have the strength and physicality to perform these movements. Therefore, athletic movement patterns are often given to the boys, while girls end up performing dances that have softer and more decorative movement qualities. Boys too do not get a chance to experience soft, curved movement patterns. In this situation, having a similar dress code and common movement patterns for girls and boys can help dilute the gender disparity.
It is also important for school authorities and teachers to perceive the direct relationship of dance to education – the fact that there could exist a strong interlink between dance and other bodies of knowledge, like Math, Science, Language or the Arts. Teachers could address how dance can actually reinforce topics from their subjects, by playing a movement game that reflects different aspects of that topic. This of course is easier said than done! Because most academic subject teachers have never moved their bodies in a creative manner, owing to the cerebral and theoretical nature of teacher training programs in India. To address this lacuna through CMTAI (Creative Movement Therapy Association of India) I have facilitated workshops in dance pedagogy for teachers in different cities in India.
Titled ‘Dance-in-Education’, the workshops exposed teachers to the theory and practice of dance in educational settings, methods and techniques of how to teach dance to children and develop movement games related to academic subjects. Teachers also learnt to build their own movement language and worked towards developing a dynamic personality, by getting rid of body blocks, inhibitions and awkwardness attached to their own movement behaviors. After the initial cries of ‘we have two left feet’, the teachers, albeit a little hesitatingly, underwent all the movement activities that children go through, in a creative dance class. One of the ground rules of the workshop was that the ‘teachers needed to be like children - physically, mentally and emotionally, while experiencing all the movement segments’.
After the initial exploration and development of their movement vocabulary, in addition to the discovery of new movement patterns, teachers gradually learnt to be innovative while creating movement games, related to certain topics from their subjects. They were usually divided into four clusters, working with science, math, arts and language skills. In each of these groups, teachers brainstormed about concepts around which they wanted to build movement games. For example, the lesson ‘solids, liquids and gases’, was selected and related to a movement game called ‘walk in a maze’, which had been done in a workshop. They also modified the game, to layer it with elements from this topic.
Another group came up with a choreography based on the ‘water cycle’, in which each cluster of teachers became an element of the water cycle, namely the sun, clouds and water, with sub-divisions of the ocean, clouds, rain, water vapor, etc. The group wrote a script about the water cycle, and a story teller recited a poetic representation of the water cycle’s sequence and order. The different clusters collaborated with each other to create movements, body sounds and rhythms, to represent different components of the water cycle. Needless to say, the teachers found that the lessons which they usually taught in a mechanical manner, suddenly came alive and became more exciting.
At the end of every workshop, each cluster of teachers demonstrated the games they had created and then received critical feedback from the other participants. Teachers have gone back from these workshops with ideas of how dance education should evoke the child’s curiosity and excitement. With this small beginning, they have realized that there needs to be a revolution and re-thinking in the process of teaching dance to children in schools.
It is important for dance educators to mix theory with practice, and to slip in ideas, principles, history and concepts of dance theory into everyday teaching. At the end of the academic-dance year, children should be able to experience the various facets that dance offers, such as improvisation, active participation, creative choreography, presenting dance studies and developing a love for the art form. Only through this, will children be able to become part of an educated dance audience!
Suggested list of books:
Abbs,P. (ed) 1987 Living powers: the Arts in Education, Falmer Press
Abbs,P. 1988 A is for Aesthetic: Essays on Creative and Aesthetic Education, Falmer Press
Best, D. 1985 Feeling and Reason in the Arts, Allen & Unwin,
Boorman, J. 1973 Dance and Language Experience with Children, Longman Canada Ltd
Brinson, P. 1991 Dance as Education, Falmer Press
Carline, S. 2011 Lesson Plans for Creative Dance: Connecting With Literature, Arts, and Music, Human Kinetics
Dance UK, 2002 Dance Teaching Essentials. London.
Gawain, S. 1978 Creative Visualization, Full Circle
Gilbert, A.G 2000 Creative Dance for all ages, 2nd edition, Human Kinetics
Gough, M. 1993 In Touch with Dance, Whitehorn Books
Gough, M 1999 Knowing Dance, Dance Books
Harrison, K., and Auty, J. 1991 Dance ideas for Teachers, Students and children, Hodder and Stoughton
Harrison, K., Layton, J. and Morris, M. 1989 Bright Ideas: Dance & Movement, Scholastic Publications Ltd.
Haynes, A.1987 Changing Perspectives in Dance Education in Abbs, P. Living Powers Falmer Press
Jordan, S.1992 Striding Out, Dance Books
Joyce, M. 1980 First Steps in Teaching Creative Dance to Children, Mayfield Publishing Company
Kashyap, T. 2018 Contemporary Dance: Practices, Paradigms and Practitioners, Aayu Publications, Delhi
Laban, R. 1948 Modern Educational Dance, Macdonald and Evans
Langer, S. 1953 Feeling and Form, Routledge and Kegan Paul
Lengel and Kuczala 2010: The Kinesthetic Classroom: Teaching and Learning through Movement. Corwin press
Morningstar, M.1986 Growing with Dance, Windborne Publications
Osborne, H. 1970 The Art of Appreciation, Oxford University Press
Redfern, H. B. 1973. Concepts in Modern Educational Dance. London: Dance Books.
Reid, L.A, 1969 Meaning in the Arts, Allen & Unwin
Schneer, G. Movement Improvisation, 1994, Human Kinetics
Smith-Autard, J.M. 1992 Dance Composition: A Practical Guide for Teachers, A & C Black
Smith-Autard, J.M. 1994 The Art of Dance in Education, A & C Black
Spurgeon, D. 1991 Dance Moves – from improvisations to dance, HBJ Publishers
Ware. M. 1987 Time to Dance, Belair Publications
Witkin, R. 1974 The Intelligence of Feeling Heinemann Educational Books
Suggested Music list
Scenes from Childhood - Robert Schuman
Child’s play – Piano music by Mark Andrew Hansen
Children’s Corner - Claude Debussy
The Nutcracker Suite -Tchaikovsky
Earth Tribe rhythms & other albums - Brent Lewis
Dance Pieces (in the upper room) - Phillip Glass
Feet in the Soil / Temple gates & other albums - James Asher
How to Name it & other albums - Illayaraja
Winds of Devotion – Peter Kater
New Orleans/ Hawaiian Playground & Sing along: Putumayo Kids
Global Drum Project (2007) & other albums – Mickey Hart, Zakir Hussain
Sikiru Adepoju, Giovanni Hidalgo
The Voice: Bobby McFerrin
Relaxation for Children - Instrumental Music & Harmony - Detlev Endlich Schlafen
Children's Song (Extended Instrumental) - John Patrick McKenna
Instrumental music – singles. Nubeat.org
Sarod sings with children – Amjad Ali Khan
Diga Rhythm band – Sweet Sixteen
Planet Drum / Spirit into sound & other albums– Mickey Hart
Spring Time south of the Yagtze River – Lu Chunling
India/middle eastern pop music – KJ St.King Music
Namaste India – Kenny G & Rahul Sharma
A life in Music / Missing you & other albums – Anand Shankar
Golden strings of the Sarode – Aashish Khan & Zakir Hussain
Inner Voyage & other albums – Aashish Khan
Conversations – L.Subramanium & Stephane Grappelli
Short Films on Dance-in-Education
Creative dance in education: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZkgq8hLrEM
Creative dance: Just for Children: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jyp9qoRBfh0
Creative movement & dance: Teaching strategies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23ULyr79pCk
PS Dance: Dance Education in public schools: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICyS65MyoIE&list=PLiVB704fQrW2yUn1wHl1gV0b9UJBR6XbU
Luv2groove: Dance Education: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-wK0ZrJu9o
Brain Breaks: Action songs for children – Move & Freeze! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=388Q44ReOWE
Growing Together: Intergenerational dance project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqJnA2tSukg
Why the Arts matter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gy50_YqxkwY
Pink Floyd: Another brick in the wall (dance and music to stop creating bricks in Education!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YR5ApYxkU-U