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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Group dynamic
Animated, Autumn 2000. Groups have enormous energy and potential for both creativity and destructiveness. If that energy can be harnessed and employed the benefit to the dance class is likely to be considerable. Julia Buckroyd explains
Ever felt irritated by the teacher who concentrates on one or two class members and behaves as if the rest of you are invisible?

Ever longed for feedback or correction and felt that the class was a waste of time when the teacher had nothing to say to you?

Ever felt worn out as a teacher by the task of looking at all those bodies in the class and feeling you have the total responsibility for noticing everything single-handed?

Traditional dance teaching almost always consists of a group of students and one teacher. But the way that those students are taught, especially in a technique class, often looks more like a series of individuals each being taught on their own by the teacher. Many community dance practitioners are more sensitive to the uses of the group, but even so may be able to develop their understanding of group functioning further.

In this article I would like to explore how more use might be made of the group and less importance placed on the individual relationship between teacher and student. The advantages of such a change of emphasis could be that the teacher learns to make more careful use of his or her energies. She or he can then maximise his or her value as a resource, whilst avoiding the exhaustion and discouragement that are the hazards of prolonged dance teaching.

At the same time the students who become more like group members and less like individuals, have more of an opportunity to learn from each other and a better education in taking responsibility for their own learning. Dance class can then help the development and maturity of its members.

This shift of values can begin to take place in three ways:

Collaboration and identifying shared goals
A first task is the establishment of the collaborative nature of the dance class via the use of inclusive language and the sharing of the objectives of the class. Many dance classes appear to be conducted without even an exchange of greetings: ("Hi, everybody! Great to see you here today"), let alone a communication of what is in store. ("Now I know a lot of you will have come here straight from work, so let's start as usual with a warm up. Then we'll continue with the programme of work that we discussed for this term. This week, you remember, we are focusing on .....?)

It is now required standard practice in mainstream education for the learning goals of any class to be expressed at the beginning and for them to be related to the broader goals of the work of the term and/or year. This is not only useful in creating a sense of shared task which allows a useful group purpose to be identified ("we're in this together") but also focuses the attention of the group on the particular task in hand. Dance teaching can easily incorporate these ways of working.

Secondly, the opportunity can be taken at the same time to encourage students to identify for themselves the particular focus they need to have within the goals of the class ("Now, before we start, I want you to think about what it is that each of you needs to work on to improve your... Think about the feedback you've been given by me and by other class members and what you've noticed for yourself, just spend a moment identifying your particular goal for today and then share it with the person next to you.")

Dance psychologists (1) have been particularly interested in the value of target setting in recovery from injury, but I am sure that it can equally well be used to good effect in technique classes. Furthermore, being asked to articulate personal goals will help dancers become more aware of what they do in class and thus enable them to use it better as well as developing their capacity to talk about themselves as dancers. These processes will together help develop a dancer as reflective practitioner. They will also begin to use the capacity of students to support and inform each other, rather than relying solely on the teacher's knowledge and descriptive powers.

Working in pairs and small groups
One of the myths of the traditional dance class is that there is no communication between students; the only communication is between teacher and student(s). Certainly it is common to forbid interaction between students, but just because the teacher does not permit it, dues not mean it does not exist. Often students have pre-existing relationships of different kinds with others in the class. They are unlikely to behave in class as if they have never seen each other before. Moreover dance students are being trained to observe themselves and others; they will certainly have thoughts, feelings and opinions about the work of other members of the class and will be communicating these opinions to each other by facial expression and gestures (even if the teacher has succeeded in silencing them!) It makes more sense to me to use and develop that energy and intelligence, rather than attempt to suppress it.

My proposal is that a format already often used in community dance is followed. When the teacher has given some input that needs to be assimilated and practised by students, they are asked to work in pairs or small groups of three or four, refining what they have been taught and using each other to do so. This strategy has a number of advantages: first it frees the teacher to watch the groups at work and see where his or her help is most needed; second it gives students an opportunity to observe each other closely and try and put into words their comments on another student's work; thirdly it requires students to take responsibility for their own learning.

Such a strategy obviously needs to be adapted to the age, experience and abilities of the students. "Go and practise that in pairs" is unlikely to be a precise enough instruction for all but the most advanced students. Something more like: "Now I'm going to give you exactly six minutes to practise in pairs. I want each of you to repeat the movement for one minute then have feedback from your partner for one minute, then try again for one minute. Then change so the other one has a turn. I'll keep the time and tell you every minute. Now before you begin let's just go over the essential things to remember: can anybody help say what those things are?"

In this scenario the students are asked to articulate the essential points made earlier by the teacher and are then invited to conduct a highly structured task. The room for independent thinking in this exercise is not large; as students get practice in working in this kind of way they can be given more time and more liberty. The task can usefully conclude with some kind of feedback on both the process ("Can you tell your partner one thing that you liked and one thing that you didn't like so much about the way she or he gave you feedback") and on the learning outcomes ("What did you learn from that exercise?").

Some teachers may be completely horrified at the idea of interrupting, say, a ballet barre, or feel that there is no time for this kind of activity. Yet it is known that the student's attention span for 'lecture' style teaching is only about 20 minutes. Many dance classes are like old style chalk and talk teaching except that instead of writing something down the students carry out a movement. At the very least the method of instruction needs to be varied. Small group work means that it is more difficult for students to become passive within the class and offers opportunity for learning the skills of observation and feedback which will assist their own development as well as that of their classmates. (2)

Observing group dynamics
All of those participating in the group that is the dance class, including the teacher, have prior experience of groups from their family, school, social contacts, etc. By the time they get to a dance class, even if they are still children, they have a history of interacting in groups and a characteristic way of doing so. For example people can interact in groups in ways that are competitive, aggressive, boisterous, compliant, placatory, withdrawn, silent, depressed, etc. Dance classes are likely to recruit relatively large proportions of competitive people and also of compliant people. So there may very well be a group of competitive people at the front and middle of the class and a group of passive quiet people at the back and sides. An interesting piece of research (3) suggested that the teacher alter her or his position, for example from front to back, to ensure that usually unseen members of the class get a share of the attention.

Teachers also need to be on the look out for bullying among students (for example elbowing others out of the way or treating less assertive students with contempt). Such dynamics are rarely acknowledged openly in the dance world but I am in favour of confronting them, especially where the group has developed sufficient cohesion for a teacher-initiated discussion to be held. ("I notice that you don't all have the same number of turns coming across the floor and I see that Joe, Miranda, Sam and Becky always come first. Why is that do you think?") Similarly where strong feelings of envy are likely to be aroused by auditioning or assessment, for example, I think it is helpful to be able to have some preliminary discussion ("We're about to start auditioning for the new piece. You won't all get a part and I would like us to be able to talk about what kinds of feelings the competition causes. These feelings are difficult but I think it's better if they're out in the open.")

The message given by the teacher who facilitates this kind of discussion is that such feelings though difficult are bearable and manageable. If addressed openly they are less likely to be acted out in disruptive ways within the class.

The teacher too is not immune from the temptation to bully, envy or compete. She or he also needs to think about her or his characteristic way of responding in groups. Teachers can help each other to develop and become more aware by observing each other in a spirit of mutual good will. Student evaluations can also be helpful in enabling teachers to improve their teaching.

Groups have enormous energy and potential for both creativity and destructiveness. If that energy can be harnessed and employed the benefit to the dance class is likely to be considerable. If on the other hand we persist in pretending that the dance class is not a group, we lose an opportunity to grow and develop as dancers and as people.

Julia Buckroyd, principal lecturer in counselling, University of Hertfordshire. She has written widely on the welfare of dancers and dance trainees and on eating disorders. Her most recent book, The Student Dancer, was published earlier this year by Dance Books.

1 For example Taylor, Jim and Taylor, Ceci Psychology of Dance, Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics, 1995 & Hamilton, Linda, The Person Behind the Mask: a guide to performing arts psychology, JAI Press: New York, 1997
2 Jaques, David, Learning in Groups, TX: Gulf: Houston, 1991
3 Skrinar, M. and Moses, N.H., Whos teaching the dance class? in Clarkson, P.M. and Skrinar, M., Science of Dance Training, Human Kinetics, TX: Gulf, 1988

This article is an edited version of a paper given at the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science Conference at Tring, Herts., in October 1999.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001