Using Dance to Heal

            "Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one." - Stella Adler

Drawing by BZTAT (used with permission)
           As the end of last week rolled around, I had a new blog post on Post Performance Letdown ready to be published, but in light of the tragic events unfolding in my home state of Connecticut, it seemed inappropriate to simply publish the post and pretend everything was normal.

            As a parent I wanted to get my children home and keep them safe, as a person I wondered how this event could possibly be happening, and as a teacher who frequently works with the elementary age group, I could envision exactly how the young children involved must have reacted.

            I spent the weekend wondering how I could go back into a classroom of young children again without falling apart, and I began searching for a path to healing.  I searched far longer than I needed to.  I am a dancer, and I knew what dance therapists have always known:  the arts provide a means of expression that grounds us, brings joy, and promotes healing.

            On Monday normal routines were occurring in schools.  Students were still reading, writing, and solving math problems, and many of the young ones at my local elementary school knew little, if anything, about last Friday’s events in Newtown, Connecticut.  One only needed to look into every teacher’s eyes, however, to see where the healing was needed.

            Yesterday a very special principal agreed to allow a passionate music teacher and myself to help facilitate that healing process for her staff.  During the annual holiday sing-along, we were allowed to turn the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” into a school-wide dance.  Smiles lit up the room as kindergarteners, first, second, third, and fourth graders became dancing reindeer and filled the gymnasium with light and laughter.  The sadness was forgotten for a while, hope sprang eternal in the faces of students and staff, and the healing process was given a jump start.

            The arts have always been a source of healing, and, at times like these, instead of letting life beat us down, we must find a way to rise up against the evil in the world.  We must not forget that dance can help us do that – dance elevates the soul.

What Good Will It Do To Watch Someone Else Dance My Part?

You learn something every day if you pay attention.  ~Ray LeBlond

         Dance is a physical activity, and, like most physical activities, is taught through a teacher modeling the steps while the students imitate the movements.  Kinesthetic learning is extremely effective, and research has documented that motor skills are acquired faster and more accurately via this method than any other. (2)

         In last week’s post about using mental rehearsal, I wrote about a new motor pathway being created in the nervous system each time a new physical activity is learned.  Each time the learned activity is repeated, a specific region of the brain is activated. A study conducted at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that this same region, appropriately called the action observation network, is activated when dancers watch someone else performing the learned activity. (1)

         It is for this reason that observation can and should be used as a tool in dance education.  When the action observation network is activated, blood flow to the brain increases, motor pathways that were created when learning the activity are reinforced, and muscle reaction time improves.

         There are many times in dance classes and rehearsals when dancers are not active, but scientific research indicates that those times can be used to improve through observation.  This evidence is exciting for the educator who may teach a young child that often refuses to participate in class.  That student is benefitting and learning simply by observing from the perimeter of the room.  The activation of the brain and nervous system also means that the student who arrives late to class, misses a substantial portion of the warm-up, and is not allowed to participate is also learning by actively watching his or her peers plié, jump and turn across the space.

         There are times during a dance class when the students are placed into groups and spend time waiting to take their turns.  Teachers need to find ways to ensure that those students are actively watching their peers perform.  By doing so, the group that is waiting will be working on skills without even realizing it.  Moreover, dancers are often double cast in roles.  The research suggests that being present and watching his or her alternate rehearse and perform the role will aid in improving the dancer’s performance.

         Dance educators have always believed that dancers could benefit from watching others, and now there is scientific research that not only supports this belief but also makes observing others a requirement if a dancer wants to improve.

(1) Grafton, S. & Cross, E. (2008) Dance and the brain. Learning, Arts, and the Brain.  The Dana Foundation, 71-9.
(2) Mattar, A.A., & Gribble, P.L. (2005) Motor learning by observing.  Neuron 46:153-60.