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Diving into the Curriculum

By Sacha Copland


“Play is the highest form of research.”  Albert Einstein. The very first statement in the NZ Curriculum’s vision is for ‘young people who will be creative, energetic and enterprising’. Instantly I think of dance and in particular communicating an idea through dance.

As a dance theatre choreographer I am immediately excited by the prospect of the next generation of creative, energetic and enterprising people, some of whom will become dancers and dance audiences. Working in schools is a great way to connect with this exciting new generation; but the question is – how do we bridge the gap between the school curriculum and the professional dance world?

So I start by thinking and dancing, dancing and thinking.

Thinking is not simply about gathering and remembering information just like communicating an idea through dance is not about a set collection of steps. They are both about investigating, problem solving and experimenting. What I love about creating dance is the way it propels you to look at an idea from different perspectives. If the problem to solve is, for example, that you must create Antarctica, then this may be solved in an infinite and surprising number of ways. This could include making a skate park with smooth, slippery slopes, using breath for wind, using hip-hop steps to make people move like penguins or creating partnered counter-balances on a small spot to evoke a shrinking iceberg that is home to a seal and an albatross. There are so many different ways to solve the problem.

This approach can be applied to any topic and encourages students to think more laterally, to look at a problem quite literally from all angles, whether it is upside down or from the top of a partnered lift.

Dance is a way of diving inside a topic. By physicalizing ideas, you automatically put yourself in the environment, seeing with new eyes and experiencing the idea. Instead of gathering facts about a penguin (for example), you step into the skin of a penguin, giving you a new perspective on what you already know about penguins. Physical experiences help us to assimilate information. Our bodies are clever! They create solutions, reveal information and challenge our assumptions. Dance encourages students to participate and contribute with all their senses, to listen to their own perception.  

Along the way, the process of creating dance requires co-operation, negotiation, ideasharing and appropriate interaction. Partnering in particular offers a complex experience of what is appropriate, sometimes dictated by the laws of physics!

But physics isn’t the only subject we can explore through dance.

Eight years ago when Java Dance Company first started touring schools I remember a teacher approaching me at the end of our show and workshop and saying, “I loved the maths connections”. I remember thinking “What maths connections?” Then I thought a little deeper and danced a little more. I realised she meant the shapes and formations the dancers were making, the directions, the patterns, the musical relationships and the counting. This led us to formalise the way dance relates to school subjects. I started to analyse the physics of partnering, the maths of musicality, the English comprehension of interpreting themes in choreography, the biology of dance technique and the history and culture embedded in movement vocabulary. I explored the connection between dance and PE, warming up the body and developing fitness, strength, co-ordination and flexibility. The connections revealed themselves in abundance and I struggle to find a subject that doesn’t have an inherent connection with dance. The fact is we all start with the body and the mind. The connections are there to be found.  

This year Java offers dance workshops where the school can pick any topic they want and we use dance to explore that topic. Our South Island schools tour in May will offer a range of workshops from straight dance, through to dance exploring globalisation, science, citizenship, inclusion and cultural diversity.

We enjoy the challenge of peeling back the layers to reveal how dance can explore any given subject. There never seems to be any need to impose links. The connections hover beneath the surface, simply waiting to be found.

It is a fascinating research process and feeds back into Java’s choreography in unexpected ways. For example our Globalisation workshop entails learning a short dance inspired by the movement of a chosen country - Argentinian Tango, Spanish Flamenco, Greek Folk Dance, American Crumping and kapa haka. After establishing these distinct dances, we mix movements from each country’s dance to create a ‘globalised’ dance. The students experience ‘globalisation’ in their bodies, gaining an insight into each culture’s perspective, the way they interface with each other and what is created when the lines between them start to dissipate. As the students explore their globalisation topic, the Java dancers gain a deeper understanding of the relationships between dance styles and the influences that feed into the way we move in the world today.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this process is when you encounter a kinaesthetic young person who finds academic learning a challenge. I love the moment in the dance workshop when their face lights up and they realise they have mastered the given topic. They have mastered complex ideas through their body, their physical investigation and their creativity. They look relieved and the world suddenly makes sense. In that moment the function of dance in the wider world seems abundantly clear.

Dance is a way for people to unite body and brain. It is a way for them to fulfil all the key competencies in the NZ Curriculum, physicalizing thought, managing self, relating to others, using images and symbols, participating and contributing. Expressing an idea through movement is a kinaesthetic way into the curriculum and also, as we have discovered, a way into the audience’s hearts.

“Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery.”  - Martha Graham



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