Student Teaching Tuesday: Sharing the Dance in Elementary Classrooms

Contact improvisation is most frequently performed as a duet, in silence, with dancers supporting each others’ weight while in motion.  Unlike wrestlers, who exert their strength to control a partner, contact improvisers use momentum to move in concert with a partners’ weight, rolling, suspending, lurching together.  They often yield rather than resist…Interest lies in the ongoing flow of energy rather than on producing still pictures, as in ballet; consequently, dancers doing contact improv would just as soon fall as balance.  Although many contact improvisers demonstrate gymnastic ability, their movement, unlike that of gymnastic routine, does not emphasize the body’s line or shape.  Even more important, they improvise their movement, inventing or choosing it at the moment of performance.” — (Sharing the Dance, pg 8)


I discovered Contact Improvisation (CI) this winter, when I took a class on the recommendation of several friends.  With no previous dance experience, I spent a term “rolling, suspending” and “lurching,” experimenting with my classmates’ bodies and my own. 

I learned an incredible amount during the 10-week course.  As a queer Woman of Color, I often try to distance myself from my body.  I try to minimize my physical self, wearing loose clothes to avoid cat-called reminders of my body’s vulnerability, walking on the edge of the path so I occupy the least amount of space. In My CI class, it felt uniquely safe to experience having a body, paying attention to physical sensation and taking pleasure in movement and touch.  It was freeing and empowering to have — for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday–  a body that was just a body, and not a site fraught with race and gender oppression.  Though I gave and took weight, I felt unburdened. 

This winter I was also preparing to student teach, and it struck me that CI could be an ideal addition to the arts-integrated elementary classroom. I see empowering students as an essential part of being an educator, and increased agency is an unavoidable side effect of any CI practice. During the spring of 2017, I explored the idea of bringing contact to the classroom.  The end product was a set of 3 lesson plans, one of which I implemented in the 4th grade class that was my practicum site. 

After a term of thinking, researching, and lesson planning, the following list details the reasons I am excited to include CI in my future classroom:

  1. Contact Improvisation redefines the roles of teacher and student.  The line between teachers and students of CI has been blurry since the form’s conception. On a practical level, this makes CI accessible to classroom teachers who lack formal dance training.  (This is not to say that CI should be taught by teachers with no knowledge of the form.  Rather, CI could be implemented by classroom teachers after the teachers themselves experience several classes or an intensive, rather than the years of training necessary to teach other dance forms).  It also means that incorporating CI into an elementary classroom can provide a frame for destabilizing traditional power relations between student and teacher, providing an avenue through which students can take greater ownership of their learning. 
  2. CI is a developmentally appropriate practice.  Elementary students are developing physically as well as cognitively, and need opportunities to explore their rapidly changing bodies.  Incorporating movement in classroom instruction is a best practice and has been shown to improve students’ information retention.
  3. CI teaches self-regulation and social-emotional skills. The improvisational element of CI calls for creative problem-solving.  As I hang upside down from my partner’s shoulders, I must engineer a way to return myself to right-side up.  As we weave our bodies around one another, I am constantly challenged to think of new ways to move from sitting to standing, from giving to taking weight. With it’s emphasis on sensation, CI requires students to pay close attention to their own and their partners’ bodies, a skill that translates to intentional responses to environmental stimuli.  “Get the dance you want, or want the dance you get,” is a favorite phrase of my dance professor. In my practicum, I constantly heard my mentor teacher remind tattling students that they have the power to solve disputes, to tell their friends to stop bothering them, or to walk away from a conflict.  I was struck by how well the self-regulation and problem-solving skills engendered by a CI practice could support students navigating such situations.
  4. CI can support peer-to-peer relationships in the elementary classroom, an essential element of classroom management.  Dance partners learn to trust one another.  As the name implies, contact involves quite a bit of touching.  As a result, one must take responsibility for one’s own body and believe that one’s partner will do the same, speaking up if a sensation is unpleasant or a touch is unwanted.  This foundation of trust allows for physical experimentation.  Without trust, experimentation stops short of the unknown.  With trust, one can see just how far an arm stretches, how much weight a shoulder can support.  In my experience, the most learning occurs when risk-taking is supported by a foundation of trust.  This is true in my dance life and my classroom life, and I see this as a powerful reason to merge the two.


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