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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Brain waves
Animated, Autumn 2000. Brigitte Doyle talks firsthand about her experience of translating Chris Dickinson's radical approach to Brain Based Learning, the keynote lecture at this year's National Conference for Physical Education, Sport and Dance, organised by the British Association of Advisors and Lecturers in Physical Education (BAALPE) into dance practice. Another vague set of theories that we are supposed to shoe horn into the principles and practices of dance education? It would seem not!

We all know in the industry that dance can make a difference - that through experiencing it lives can be enhanced, changed even - but sometimes it is really good to have this belief confirmed. Reinforcement can rekindle the enthusiasm and refuel the drive to go on teaching. I have been teaching dance for 20 years but it was only recently that I realised that I have neglected to consider the power dance has to 'unlock learning' and the valuable contribution it can make in this area.

In July of this year I was asked to lead a seminar at BAALPE's national conference based on Chris Dickinson's keynote lecture Unlocking Learning - Brain Based Learning. Each of the subject areas from the Physical Educational National Curriculum through a series of seminar groups were charged with putting into practice the theory presented. I confess I was sceptical, imagining that this would be just another detached and vague set of theories that we were supposed to shoe horn into the principles and practices of dance education. But I came away from the day fired up and ready to make a difference again. There seemed to be even more reasons why dance has so much to offer.

The aim of Dickinson's address was to present some of the recent findings from neurological research on how the brain can most successfully and efficiently learn. There are apparently nine principles that need to be in place for the brain to be able to engage in effective learning and it seems to me that all of these principles can be established and sustained through engagement in dance activity. Traditionally, the notions of 'teaching' and 'learning' have been associated with formal schooling and the education system but this article explores the idea that participating in dance in any context is likely to have a positive effect on the way we learn. Far from being daunted by the idea of making connections between neurological research and dance I was excited by it and would like to share some thoughts on it.

1. Dance and the senses
Environments in which there is a high level of sensory stimulation and sustained cognitive challenge apparently increase the connections between the brain cells making learning happen faster and more efficiently.

Some of my most successful and exciting choreographic workshops have been those where I have introduced a wide range of stimuli to support and enhance ideas for the purposes of opening up the creative process and drawing out more original and interesting responses. Using visual, tactile, auditory, kinaesthetic stimulation is a familiar addition to a dance class or workshop but it is also probable that we are encouraging the general learning ability of an individual without even trying very hard.

Also, review, reflection and consideration (ie. carefully, thought through) are the key activities when working towards a collective creative goal. In a choreographic workshop the process and the product are constantly reviewed through practice and developed and changed through reflection and consideration. For example, "wouldn't it be better if you took the movement in that direction?" 'Sustained cognitive challenge' is achieved when an individual is presented with a range of different ways of accomplishing a goal. Review, reflection and consideration are all suggested as examples of these 'different ways' of achieving the goal.

2. Dance is challenging
Learning environments need to be 'safe' and non threatening. Apparently our thinking and our memory are inhibited in conditions of perceived threat which in turn leads to low self-esteem. Certainly in dance tasks can be set that are too demanding or that make people feel vulnerable. Accounting for these concerns and worries and making people feel comfortable with dance is always an important element when planning and conducting a class or workshop. Research also suggests that a feeling of success generated through working in a safe, non threatening environment will increase self belief which in turn increases the capacity of an individual to take more risks. In the case of dance feeling safe enough within the environment to take risks both physically and creatively can have exciting and rewarding results.

3. Giving the right feedback
The brain, we were told by Dickinson, thrives on the acknowledgement that "all is well". One of the ways this can be achieved is through something called 'pole-bridging'. An example of this would be adding language and/or words to an activity or describing the activity as it happens. We already do this in dance when the technique teacher talks through an exercise at the same time as the class is copying it. For example, "draw the leg through to the front, push the weight forward onto that leg". According to research class members are getting instant feedback about whether they are getting it right. Their brains are getting the acknowledgement that "all is well". As an extension of this idea pairs of dancers in a creative class could describe each others phrases as they perform them to one another giving positive feedback at the same time as practising the phrase.

4. Dance and memory
It is suggested that there are many different types of memory. Apparently memory recall is at its best when a greater number of senses are involved in learning. So in a rehearsal for a performance where we require youth dancers to remember the dance phrases and their spatial orientation and entrances and exits and the counts in the music at the same time as reproducing the expressive content of their dance, it is likely that their memories are working at maximum efficiency. Sometimes I have marvelled at how well my youth dancers have coped in these circumstances. Perhaps I need not have.

5. Dance and both sides of the brain
This is where things get technical in neurological terms (for me anyway) but it seems that the parallel connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain do not get exploited enough. Well, they can through dance! Apparently if both sides of the brain are engaged when we are doing something the suggestion is that learning will be more effective. It seems that the relationship between the left side of the brain, connected with logical, analytical thinking and the right side of the brain usually associated with the more holistic modes of thinking, is critical to that effectiveness. Through dance this might be achieved by asking children to perform the steps and directions they have created at the same time as imagining that they are deep in a dark, dank forest. One side of the brain is engaged logically and analytically through dealing with spatial organisation and the other side is engaged with the concept of imagination. Thus, the connections between the two hemispheres of the brain are made through the act of dancing.

6. Music and dance
The relationship between music and dance needs no justification here but it is interesting to note the research that has been conducted into the importance of music in learning. It is thought that music has a positive impact on the state of readiness for learning because it has the capacity to promote connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain getting them to interact more effectively. This makes the brain more receptive to learning. For us in dance music accompaniment is often the trigger to remembering a dance phrase. Apparently because music carries content (in terms of rhythms, tempo or words to a song) it helps to remember things. It is another form of memory recall. For example we often remember the words of songs sung or listened to many years before. And how many times have you seen someone mouthing the words of a chart song as they perform their dance to it. It is annoying sometimes but is probably helping the dancer remember the movements.

7. Dance and motivation
Motivation is the key to successful learning (and maximum satisfaction) and can accelerate if a learner adopts positive, personal learning goals. Such goals are only possible when the activities we engage in give its a sense of Belonging, are Aspirational are Safe so that we can take necessary risks, reinforce a sense of Identity and engender a feeling of Success. This is the BASIS for developing a set of positive expectations which will shape the quality of the outcomes. In a dance class or workshop we regularly facilitate this through BASIS:

Belonging Group work nearly always goes hand in hand with choreography.
Aspirational "Imagining you are on stage, With lights and costume".
Safe Knowing you can make mistakes without reprimand is essential to creativity. (See Dance is challenginq)
Identity Young dancers' sub-culture can be acknowledged through dance styles, music and themes.
Success Positive feedback and comments are necessary for positive self esteem; "what did you like best about your partners' phrase?"

8. Dance and multiple intelligence
Everyone has a unique way of engaging with the world and a unique way of learning. In order to make maximum progress in any activity our unique kind of intelligence needs to be acknowledged and accommodated. Apparently diversity of teaching and learning can help foster different kinds of intelligences or modes of thinking. Often in a dance session it is necessary to employ a diverse range of teaching and learning strategies even if we are not always conscious of them as such. For example, a workshop might begin with a directed and closely controlled warm up where the participants are receptive but fairly passively engaged in terms of imagination or creativity: It might continue by exploring some movement ideas and discussing them with the group who are then more actively involved. Finally the group might be given total choreographic control and be left alone to negotiate with each other, solve the creative problems, sift the material and organise it into a dance phrase or whole dance. Even within this example many subtly different strategies are employed by both the workshop leader and the participants which would seem to fit the bill in terms of accommodating those different intelligences.

9. Movement and emotion
Learning, it seems cannot be separated from our physiological and emotional states. These two states cannot be separated from each other and the health of the relationship between them has a direct effect on our learning ability. It is possible that learning will take place more effectively if attention is paid to the physiological and emotional states. Again, this is an area that needs no justification in dance terms. The relationship between movement and the emotions is at its closest in dance. They are virtually inseparable. Feelings are mapped onto dance actions and movements, whether deliberately chosen for their expressive power or not, generate feelings and sensations. We cannot avoid the affective nature of dance and it is very difficult to separate the affective (the emotional) from the cognitive (the knowing and thinking). So it must follow that if interaction between the two states is going on all the time in dance we are always in a better state of readiness to learn.

Across the nine principles for brain-based learning some of the themes that emerge seem especially pertinent to dance:

  • the importance of self-esteem
  • the relationship between learning and a wide range of sensory stimulation
  • the important role music has to 'play' in successful learning
  • the need for the right environment for risk taking.

All of these have a well established link with the teaching of and learning in dance. We know how important dance is and what a significant contribution it can make to an individual both personally and socially but it has been an exciting revelation to me to discover that dance might also make a huge contribution to the effectiveness and efficiency of the brain and our capacity to learn which we never stop doing. We know these things but it is good to have that knowing confirmed. It can make you feel quite smug!

Brigitte Doyle, dance lecturer, University of Birmingham Westhill, and West Midlands representative of the National Dance Teachers Association.
Contact +44 (0)121 472 7245.

Follow-up reading
Gardner, H., Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligence, 2nd edition, Fontana Press: London, 1993

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001