Deirdre Moore | June 2015

When Learning is the Dance, Share the Lead

Dance With Me

The first time I took a ballroom dance class, the instructor gave me some feedback that I will never forget, “Let him lead you.” I was an Irish step dancer and a ballet dancer with little partnering experience.  When my little sister (my favorite dance partner) and I danced together we would share the lead.  We just tuned into one another and felt when the other was taking over.  I found, however, when dancing with anyone else I had trouble really letting them lead me.  I always had the urge to control or resist a lead if I wasn’t completely sure where I was being led.  In some situations, that’s a good instinct but it partner dancing it’s not.

Using the Fundamentals of Dance in Teaching

Not surprisingly, the same is true of my instincts in teaching.  I love to create detailed, well thought-out lesson plans and lead my students through a fun and educational experience.  I like to feel I am in control and know exactly where the students and I are going.  But as I mature and try to be a better educator, I try more and more to share the lead.  I really can enjoy when the students lead me in another direction completely or when a student has an idea I never would have entertained.

In some of my previous work in my district, I was modeling the teaching of arts integrated lessons plans pairing dance with science.  The movements were already created for the students.  There was no question, I was the lead.  The students learned the movements and we talked about how the movements reflected the science learning but the students were not the creators of the movements; they were dancers, not choreographers – followers, not leaders.

Giving Students the Lead

While I loved those lessons and while data showed the lessons to be effective, especially for English Language Learners, I always yearned to have the students do more of the choreographing.  To have them struggle with both the dance and science concepts and have the students find ways the content of both subjects informed and enriched the other seemed the deepest and most meaningful way to integrate the two and have the students lead and take ownership of their learning.  So, when I had an opportunity to do just that in one of my current positions, I jumped at the chance.

A few weeks ago, I gave a class of 5th graders a crash course in the elements of dance.  There, I took the lead.  The next time we met, I had them brainstorm the components of the circulatory system and the components of any other systems with which the circulatory system interacted.  That was their turn to take the lead.  Then we set about choosing parts of the circulatory system to demonstrate through movement.

Here is where the shared lead comes in.  I guided them through a process of my creation but they were the creators of the movements.

We started with blood carrying oxygen throughout the body.  I asked how we could show when the blood was oxygen rich and oxygen poor.  They took the lead by creating the movement to answer that challenge.  I led them through a refinement of the movement.  I told them to get into groups of 4 to represent the chambers of the heart and asked them to create movement to show the contracting and releasing.  When I asked them how we could differentiate the upper chambers from the lower, they altered the levels.

When I asked if anyone could think of anything else the heart does that we needed to show, they suggested valves.  I succumbed to the old temptation to take control and started telling the students where to stand to show the valves rather then letting them grapple and experiment with the movements.

It has been invigorating and inspiring to watch as the students take what very few basics they know about dance and effective choreography and create something of their own which is interesting to watch and demonstrates scientific understanding of the circulatory system.  It is freeing to allow the students to lead me.  So, for a richer more satisfying experience for all, when learning is the dance, share the lead.

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.