Deirdre Moore | March 2015

Listening with Intention: Building Better Listeners through Improvisational Dance

Talking and listening go hand in hand and both involve important skills our students need to be successful.

The district I work for currently focuses on developing purposeful talk and active listening involving listening with intention and creating meaning.  Recently, I had the privilege of attending a dance event involving an evening of improvisational dance.  As I reflected on that experience, I got to thinking how alike purposeful talk and active listening improvisational dancing with others is.

When we educators structure talk for our students, we want it to be purposeful.

21st Century Skills

We want students to connect to, elaborate on, and deepen ideas they receive from their talking partners.  When students are listening to talk we want them to listen actively with clear intention but this can be difficult to monitor.  The beauty of Improvisational dance is that it is nonverbal.  When you facilitate talk, you cannot step back and know talking partners are on task simply by observing.  With improvisational dance, however, you can visually sweep the room and know who is clear about the purpose of the “conversation”, which groups are “talking” about the topic, and which students are good active “listeners”.

Arts integration at its finest connects different disciplines in an elegant way. Plus, it helps the two disciplines illuminate and deepen the understanding of each other.  When we make analogies to other situations and experiences, students have a better chance of clarifying their understanding. We can make that analogy for students between being constructive conversationalists, and active listeners and being good improvisational dance partners.

As I sat in the audience of this special dance event and watched these professional dancers respond to the audience’s suggestions to create dance with their fellow dancers on the spot, I was amazed at how well the eight dancers remained focused on the task while working together to achieve the objectives (like improvising a Improvisational dance that incorporated low to high movement, use of a diagonal and slow motion movement among other things).

All of this happened without exchanging one word, yet it was like a very rich, deep conversation between active listeners.  It is impossible to improvise as a group or in a partnership, if the dancers are not attentive to one another.  Improvisation becomes difficult if all members are not staying “on task”.  It is the common understanding of the task that aids the nonverbal communication.

Talk and Listening Through Improvised Dance

If we practice this idea of talk and listening via improvised dance, the students can embody the process. Then, practice the necessary skills without the challenges verbal language can present.  As students process the improvisational experience, they can think about how they made it work without verbal language.

“How did you know what your partner was trying to have you do?” (I knew that we were supposed to move from low to high and my partner started jumping like a frog starting at a low level and jumping up to a high level.)

“How did you respond to your partner’s movements?” (I started jumping like a frog too.)

“How did you add on to what your partner did or how did you elaborate?” (After I jumped like a frog a few times I started to float like a balloon from low to high.)

“Did you reach your objective?” (Yes, because we showed two different ways of moving low to high.)

“What challenges did you encounter?” (When I started to float like a balloon my partner kept jumping like a frog.)

“Did you resolve those issues?  If so, how?” (Yes, I just kept floating until my partner noticed I had changed my movement and then we were both floating from low to high.)

Having students notice how they have to actively be thinking about the purpose, be intentional as they watch their partners’ movements and how they can let their partners know they understand and elaborate on what their partners are “saying” can then be directly related to the talking/listening process.  The more experiences children have of listening with intention and responding appropriately and the more the teacher can facilitate reflection on the connection between verbal and nonverbal “conversations” the stronger the students’ ability to have meaningful conversations will be.

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.