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.