I am not a dancer. I don’t seek out dance classes because it is hard for me to learn dance moves and harder to commit them to memory. Compounding this, my sense of following a rhythm has been laughed at on a number of occasions, so moving in a routine to music is a double whammy. When the Electric Slide or Cotton Eyed Joe come on at parties, I want to be in the midst of the fun but when my line’s in front of the rotation I try to drift to the back as we turn. If I were being evaluated, one might conclude that I have a dance deficit, that I am low-functioning in my dance abilities. If dance were a core subject in school, I would certainly be placed in remedial dance classes; if mainstreamed, I would be at the bottom of the class. It might be whispered that, unable to master the national dance standards, my future will be limited. This would seep into my self-concept, and I would probably dread school, get frustrated, stop trying, pass notes, or act out. Unless I had an amazing teacher . . .
Let me pause the story for a moment, and invite you to consider your students who seem to have trouble learning a particular subject, and as you continue to read, please place them in my position as the learner in the narrative.
Despite my historic pattern of dance avoidance, I recently agreed to accompany a friend to a belly dancing class. After initially turning down the offer, I finally conceded when she said I could wear regular workout clothing and joked that since neither of us has dance experience or talent we would probably be in the back of the class laughing together because we would be such a sorry spectacle. My attitude toward the class upon arrival was reserved openness, slight annoyance that I was doing this, and an underlying conviction that I’d trip through this for one hour and laugh with my friend and that would be the end of it.
When the confident but gentle teacher entered the room, a slow evolution began to take place in my thinking. The instructor, Emily, came in with a warm smile, dimmed the fluorescents, turned on soft lighting, and rhythmic, Middle Eastern music. She offered us a selection of pretty, jingling belts that looked fun, so I tied one around my waist and submitted to instruction. I felt awkward as we learned the simplest moves even though she demonstrated slowly and threw a couple of compliments my way that sounded genuine. “She sees that I don’t have much skill in this and that’s why she’s complimenting me right now,” I thought on both occasions. It was clear to me that this was not going to be easy, and then I began to think about the popular belief that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get good at anything. My thoughts went like this, “It’s fun to wear this jingly belt, I enjoy being here in this calm, dimly lit room with my friend, the teacher is nice, but, yes, I’m still no good at dancing and in that case it is certainly not something I want to dedicate time to practice if I’m never going to be that good anyway.”
As the first few minutes of the class went on, I was reunited with that irritating feeling of trying to learn something that seems hopeless and pointless. Bumbling around with some sinuous arm movements, I heard Emily say, “It’s kind of like the backstroke.” My mind snapped to attention. “The backstroke! I can do the backstroke,” I thought. Immediately my arms cooperated, mimicking the swimming technique that I knew well.
A few minutes later, Emily compared another movement to surfing. Once again my focus emerged from the active thoughts in my head. “Surfing! I know how to surf.” And it was no longer arduous. It wasn’t easy, but it was in reach. I wondered if she noticed that each time she used a sports analogy I suddenly was able to complete the movement. A few minutes later I heard, “It’s like a rainbow. Just make a little rainbow with your hips.” So I made a rainbow.
Now I was having fun. Emily was speaking my language, and I suddenly felt good about learning dance moves. Never before had I been able to visualize and implement a series of complex gyrations directed from afar, but she was giving me something to hook into my own experience and bridge the gap. I thought, “Perhaps there is hope for me yet, at least to achieve a basic level of skill in articulating my body in an abstract routine.”
During a break, I joyously mused to Emily and the class, “Every time you compare a move to something else, like another sports skill, I then understand what to do.” She smiled, “So metaphor works for you.” Yes! Emily had tapped into my penchant for metaphor. I revel in good metaphor like someone else might appreciate a striking work of art. Metaphor is also practical: it builds a bridge between the abstract and the concrete while speaking to each person in a different way. As the class proceeded, we made crescent rolls, scallops, grapevines, and many other image-movements. Now Emily was actively seeking analogies when she introduced a new motion.
It was still hard work and I had to concentrate deeply to focus, but now I was engaged and felt that it was possible that I could learn, at least a little. Also, I was developing a trust in Emily. She had created a welcoming, accepting atmosphere from the start - including a calming physical space - and repeatedly encouraged us to make mistakes. She carefully observed the individual levels of the students, and differentiated instruction accordingly. She certainly responded to my need for imagery to illustrate body movements.
Well-known Harvard Business School professor Theresa Amabile has done extensive research on intrinsic motivation as related to creativity, productivity, and satisfaction in the workplace, lately focusing on the concept of inner work life. I paraphrase her definition of inner work life as the intersection of emotions, perceptions, and motivations that people experience in the context of a work environment. Amabile and colleagues conducted an extensive study that required workers to detail their emotions and reactions each day over a period of time in order to understand the effect that the state of inner work life has on productivity, creativity, and job satisfaction. The team gleaned much interesting information, confirming that praise, collaboration, and a fun, relaxing environment all assist in helping people develop and maintain positive inner work lives. The study also revealed that the most important management factor is “to give people the sense that they can make progress in their work.”
Now we arrive somewhat circuitously to the question at hand: How on earth can belly dancing help slow learners in your classroom? First, let’s apply Amabile’s theory to teaching. I entered Emily’s belly dancing class as a diffident learner who believed I had a pre-existing deficit in the content being taught. My “inner student life” (my reinterpretation of Amabile’s term) consisted of a mix of emotions (apathy, skepticism, self-doubt, happy to be out with a friend), perceptions (view of dance as difficult, view of myself as a poor dancer, view of myself as an athlete not a dancer), and motivations (no particular interest in the content, reticence to workout classes). Overall, my view was somewhat curious but apathetic toward the class content itself. I was not convinced at the outset that the experience would be a good one.
However, instructor Emily was an outstanding teacher. Beginning from the moment she set foot in the classroom, she met all of the basic qualifications that Amabile found lead to positive inner work life:
-created a welcoming, nurturing atmosphere;
-expressed positivity and joy;
-pointed out strengths;
-worked with students in collaboration.
Those factors all steadily improved my connection to the class and the content. But the most important point lines up with Amabile’s research: by laying the positive groundwork she made me feel comfortable; but when she began to use metaphor Emily gave me the hope that I could actually make progress in this learning. That was the breakthrough moment, and it was sustained when she realized my individual need for metaphor and actively taught to this need. Her effort solidified my trust in her as a teacher, and told my inner student life that I was safe trying this activity with her. This mentality allowed engaged me to try harder and even have fun while doing it.
As teachers, we’re always going to have learners that arrive in our classrooms lacking confidence and skill in one area or another. By establishing a positive, accepting climate and comfortable physical environment, we take the first steps toward engaging learners and dispelling the blocks that slow progress. By teaching with a variety of methodologies, as Emily did, we increase the chances that more students will connect with us, and, ultimately, the content. This might mean infusing the arts, picture books, problem solving, experiments, and opportunities for exploration. It certainly means diverging from the standard texts and photocopies of information to bring in other resources, multi-media, and interdisciplinary content. The more we vary our teaching strategies to students’ individual needs, the more apt we are to connect with them, which will result in expectation of potential growth, followed by engagement, real learning, and ultimate learning success.
Students have no real choice whether or not they go back to school tomorrow. I can return to the belly dancing class next week or not, it’s completely up to me. Because Emily was an effective teacher, she made the experience engaging and worthwhile for me and I have chosen to go again. You don’t have to engage your students. They’ll be there tomorrow anyway. But wouldn’t it be amazing if belly dancing sparked your inspiration to hook them in even more deeply?
Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (May 1, 2007). Inner work life: Understanding the subtext of business performance. Harvard Business Review, volume 120,7.
This article first appeared on The Creativity Post. Copyright 2017 Sparkitivity. All Rights Reserved.