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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 5

To Dance One's Understanding

One student's nontraditional expression of knowledge taught an entire class a memorable lesson.

Four years ago, I took a risk that changed my outlook on teaching. Mid-semester in my Consultation/Collaboration for Special Educators class, one of the eight graduate students approached me at the close of that evening's session.
“Patty, I need to talk to you.”
“Sure, Janet, what is it?”
“I just don't feel as if I'm contributing to the handbook that the class is writing. I have no background in education, let alone Special Education. Even though everybody's been really kind in including me, I feel like a fifth wheel.”
I thought for a moment and then asked, “What is your field of study? What do you do?”
“I'm a dancer,” she replied softly.
Oh fine. I'd asked her the question; now I'd have to do something with her response. I could think of nothing to say.
“Let me think about it. I'll get back to you next week.”

An Idea

On the way to class the following Wednesday, I realized I hadn't given it much thought at all. Now I wondered—what were some alternatives? An individual paper that wouldn't be a part of the handbook? A presentation on what she had learned by listening to and participating in discussions as the other students reviewed and edited their chapters?
I saw Janet before class, and to my own surprise, asked, “How would you feel about demonstrating your understanding of consultation/collaboration through dance?” Simultaneously, my stomach flipped. What would I do with the ramifications of this suggestion?
It felt absurd and terribly exciting!
Luckily, Janet had her wits about her, as she responded, “You're kidding! I'd love it, but I'd need to bring it to the rest of the students for discussion, since we make most of our decisions through consensus.”
“Fine. We'll talk about it tonight.”
As we gathered around the snack table before class began, I told the students that Janet wanted to discuss something with us before we started editing Chapter 3.
After arranging ourselves in circle formation, I nodded to Janet. She began a bit hesitantly, “Well, last week I told Patty that although I was learning a lot by being part of the discussions of each chapter, I didn't feel as if I was actually contributing to the class.”
Immediately, the students were shaking their heads indicating that this wasn't the case, but they let her continue.
“Patty suggested that I might demonstrate what I've learned about the differences between consultation and collaboration through dance. Some of you know, I am a dancer, not an educator.” I smiled and believed differently.
Silence. After what seemed an eternity, Tom spoke.
“Well, why not? In Special Education we're supposed to know how to individualize for students, aren't we?”
Silence. Then Laurel added, “I think it's incredible. But please don't ask me to dance my understanding of anything.” Group laughter relieved the tension.
During the lively discussion that ensued, each member expressed support for the idea; by now the students were not taking turns speaking. Janet knew we'd reached consensus.


In the following weeks, I thrilled at the students' excitement about the idea of dancing one's understanding. I knew in my bones that this was the essence of learning. I imagined what the classroom might be like the night of the dance. I had no idea how I would grade it. Perhaps these responses were what the poet William Blake referred to as the “four-fold vision” of feeling, sensation, intuition, and mind (in Bronowski 1958).
Wednesday after Wednesday, we reviewed chapters of the handbook: deleting here, adding there, and arguing over semantics and syntax. Janet's “performance” had taken a backseat to the more pressing issues of chapter deadlines. But the night did come, as all nights do.
I came to class early, wondering if we needed to arrange the room differently. After all, no one ever danced in Murphy Hall, where the College of Education is housed. People took notes, copied what was on the overhead projector, held small-group discussions, even sat in circles, but certainly never danced.
In my own preparation, I had resisted temptations to consult with someone in the Performing Arts about the technical characteristics of dance. Fortunately, I also resisted my old internal messages, which would have led me to believe that if I was not able to critically evaluate a student's performance, maybe learning had not occurred. This kind of dilemma and the response I choose is critical as I strive to avoid becoming an “impostor in the temple” (Anderson 1992).
So there I was that Wednesday evening, with extraordinary expectations and only my ordinary trappings. I would have to follow Janet's lead.

The Experience

And lead she did. Dressed in a black leotard, tights, and those rumpled sock-like leggings, she toted her boombox in one hand and a box of objects in the other. I felt awkward, even a bit shy in my own classroom. I wasn't sure how to assist her. So I asked.
She assured me that she didn't need help in setting the stage, but that I would need to follow a cue she'd give me during the dance. “My god, am I going to have to dance?” I thought anxiously.
Janet's classmates drifted in and gathered round the snack table to graze and visit.
“Yo, Janet! This is the big night, huh?” Tom kidded.
“Yep, and I'm just about ready.”
The desks were in a semi-circle. We took our seats as Janet waited. After moving the snack table out of the way, she picked up her box and walked toward me. Placing a pair of scissors on my desk, she whispered, “When I hand you the mask, cut a piece of it away and pass it to the person next to you.” I nodded my understanding with relief and hope that this was the only act I would have to perform.
Before turning on the music, Janet explained her goal and its rationale, as every other student had done preceding the editorial review of a handbook chapter. “I will demonstrate my understanding of the similarities within and the distinctions between the concepts of consultation and collaboration. In working and communicating with others, we need not only to know the definitions of our practices; we also need to understand how they are alike and different.”
The music began. Janet had her back to us. As she turned around, I wondered when she had put the half-mask on. She moved across the front of the room in measured steps to a strong percussive beat. Her body was more angular than I had ever seen; her gestures were precise and crisp. The music surged. She rose on her toes and peered through that half-mask at each of us. This manner of dance continued for several minutes. Pushing her palms away from her body; holding us at more than arm's length, expressing each movement as separate from the last.
Smoothly, yet distinctly, the music changed to a new tempo with an ebb and flow. We watched the message being transformed as Janet removed the mask and filled the room with her presence. She was no longer dancing solo. She moved toward me and handed me the mask, giving me my cue. I cut a small piece of the mask away and handed it and the scissors to Laurel, who had no difficulty knowing the next step in this dance. While each student followed suit, Janet moved alone and then in tandem with us. We were an integral part of this performance without ever leaving our seats. Soon the music brought us to the finale. Janet faced us with her head held high and arms outstretched. She bowed. We cried, we clapped, and we cheered—an ovation unlike any chapter of the handbook had received!

In Reflection

This story could have had a very different outcome. It might have been easier to resort to a traditional rule-bound response to Janet's request. To retreat into the written paper as the exclusive and elite measure of learning. But I didn't want to know how “smart” Janet was according to some predetermined standard; I wanted to know how Janet was smart. What connections was she making between her dance experience and the concepts of consultation and collaboration? How could she express her understanding through her natural kinesthetic intelligence (Gardner 1983)?
So I chose the uncomfortable and the ambiguous, and hoped that none of my colleagues walked down the hall the night of the performance. I chose not to be the authority but, rather, to authentically promote student autonomy. I knew what Maxine Greene (1973) meant when she said, “It is never easy to act upon what one—for good, defensible reasons—truly believes.”

Anderson, M. (1992). Impostors in the Temple. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Bronowski, J., ed. (1958). “Poems from MSS.” In William Blake. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

M. Greene. (1973). Teacher as Stranger. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

Patricia A. Lee has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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