Learning By Leaps

By Lynne Schreiber — January 01, 2001 6 min read
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It’s the middle of a cold fall day in Clinton Township, Michigan, and 3rd graders at Erie Elementary School are studying math.

In the gym, with their shoes off.

A girl with blond hair and cuffed jeans rolls on the ground, then pulls to her knees, stands, and skips around the room. She sashays past her teacher, Vicki Majewski, who raises her arms in a V, leans her head back, and looks at the ceiling. A boy in a striped T-shirt swings his hips and arms, then freezes on one leg. Feet slap-slap against the gym parquet. Everywhere in the rectangular room, kids are feeling the lesson.

“When you lie down, all the energy goes into the floor,” shouts Paula Kramer, the consultant leading the class. Kramer is a modern dancer, easily in her 60s, with dark hair in a severe bun and oversized glasses that slip down her nose. She hits a drum, and the kids halt. “Let’s see your first shape,” says Kramer, moving like a cat through and around the children. The students and their teacher bend and pose, balancing tentatively.

Through dance, these students are learning to make maps. They count steps to understand distance in feet, and they estimate space between each other. And after the music quiets and they tie the laces on their small shoes, they return to their desks and draw a map representing the experience: how they got there, how to get there again.

Kramer is a co-founder of the Detroit Dance Collective, a group of professional dancers who work in K-12 schools to infuse schoolwork with movement. “We try to find the areas in which curricula link,” says Kramer. “Maybe it’s vocabulary, maybe it’s concept, certainly science— dance is physics and how you move with space, how you deal with scientific principles such as gravity.” Given a language arts class studying prepositions, the group may portray “over,” “under,” “above,” and “around” with students striking poses. (“The best teacher I ever had said, ‘Paula, be a verb—never be a noun!’” laughs Kramer.) In a poetry class, the collective’s dancers help students feel the images in language by having them swing like gauzy curtains in the wind or softly fall to the floor like leaves. In social studies class, the group teaches traditional dances of the cultures students are studying. Talk about learning by example.

This four-day workshop at Erie Elementary will probably just make students eager for more arts, says principal Gerard Evanski. But he says long-term residencies, when collective members return repeatedly to the school over months or even an entire academic year, have lasting effects on learning. “The end product is that it opens minds,” he explains.

When Kramer and fellow dancer Barbara Selinger created the collective in 1980, they had a hunch that movement could reinforce or even spark learning. And, in recent years, educators in Michigan have seized on that idea as part of an effort to reach all types of learners in their classrooms, including those who need to get out of their seats and physically work through concepts. These days, the collective’s members find themselves invited into more schools than ever—they taught 300 classes in schools during the last academic year alone.

Dance has been big in Detroit schools since the 1930s, when Ruth Lovell Murray, a pioneer in the field of dance education, did her most important work in the city. A modern-dance performer, Murray “believed [dance] was the method of having every child experience movement in a different way,” says Kathryn Ellis, a contemporary of Murray’s, former Detroit high school teacher, and past executive director of the National Dance Association, a Reston, Virginia-based organization that promotes dance education. “I don’t know that she ever formally made the statement that dance could contribute to academic performance. But one could see that it motivated you to go to the art museum and learn about music, to be interested in the environment. We were excited about finding something that involved the entire human being.” Today, Detroit high schools have the largest dance program in the United States, with nearly 36 full-time dance teachers working at more than 200 schools.

Kramer and Selinger met as students in the Maggie Allesee Department of Dance at Detroit’s Wayne State University, where they were exposed to Murray’s theories. After graduation, the two elected to stay in the city and work with local schools. “We always felt that dance was a powerful form of communication,” says Kramer. “We were very excited by the dance scene in Detroit, which was vibrant and alive, and we wanted to be part of that.” So they gathered four fellow WSU dancers into a group that would teach workshops in schools as well as produce performances together and share the costs of studio space. The Michigan Dance Association, now the Michigan Dance Council, introduced them to schools, and they performed in 15 schools in their first year.

The collective currently consists of Kramer, Selinger, and eight dancers who range in age from their mid-20s to early 60s. Most of the dancers have been with the group for more than 10 years. While collective members perform as well as teach, their work in schools has a way of spilling into their choreography; members often involve the children they teach in their dance shows. Kramer and Selinger divvy up the work among members, closely guiding the curricula.

Dance education proponents praise the collective’s work, describing it as rooted in a strong progressive tradition.

Eva Powers, chairperson of the WSU Maggie Allesee Department of Dance, says dance in school “lends an atmosphere of creativity and spontaneous invention, especially when you have the opportunity to improvise. In creative dance, nothing is wrong; you have every opportunity to be right, to explore, to invent, to be assertive about me and what my body can do and how I can solve a problem or how I can create something that is entirely mine. This lends a lot to self-esteem and helps [students] feel successful in school.”

Oddly enough, the collective has flourished at a time when American education is focused on improving kids’ work in core academic subjects. As schools feel pressure to meet rigorous standards and improve test scores, activities not directly related to academics are being squeezed out. Yet in Michigan, school officials contend that using dance in the classroom is a critical teaching strategy designed to reach students who don’t respond to traditional instruction.

Explains Elsie Ritzenhein, a curriculum integration consultant with the Macomb Intermediate School District who regularly brings dancers into her district, “We have all the theories on brain-mind research and theories of multiple intelligences that support the need for students to learn kinesthetically; it supports the teaching of the whole child.”

Educators who bring dance into their schools must make peace with the notion that, while kids may enjoy classes and learn, there may be no tangible payoff in improved test scores. Some results you can measure, says Erie Elementary’s Evanski; some you cannot.

That doesn’t stop dance education supporters from proselytizing about the collective’s methods. “Kids need to be actively engaged—moving, thinking and reflecting, memorizing,” says Renate Nummela Caine, a brain researcher in Idyllwild, California. “How many of us turn that off throughout our learning? I remember in an 11th grade art class, the teacher had her systematic process, her lesson plan. We’d sit and draw and be graded. She killed my sense of art....She focused on her lesson, not on me. That’s been repeated a billion times. The learner is not in the equation.”

“Children who may not be achieving or interacting in a valuable and acceptable way suddenly, through dance, find themselves quite powerful in their space,” adds Kramer. “They become creative problem solvers in movement but not in academics; then we have to look at this child differently because one thing does not happen without the other.”

The value of the collective’s work, says Kramer, is that “we are unique, but we are not unique—putting the child center to the experience. We are really doing what teachers already know how to do very well.”

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