Breaking Down Barriers to Dance: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach | Annie Harrison Elliott

When I teach modern dance to a new group of middle school students, it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin. On the first day of class students, all with varying degrees of dance experience, self-consciousness, and barriers against movement, are often scanning the room, anxious and concerned about what might happen next. Some of the barriers I initially might face as a teaching artist frequently include:

The “I am trained in ballet and ballet is superior to all forms of dancing” barrier.

The “But dance is supposed to be done THIS way, otherwise it’s not REALLY dancing” barrier.

The “Boys are not allowed to dance” barrier.

The “I am so self conscious of my changing body, and the thought of moving in front of people is the most terrifying thing ever” barrier.

A question I repeatedly ask myself is “What is the best way to start gently breaking down these barriers and encourage students to move fully?” Over time, one of my best answers has been to utilize a multi-disciplinary approach using visual art as an entry point to discuss the elements of dance. For middle school, I usually start with the two dance elements shape and space and find ways to connect those ideas to well-known paintings.

I begin by asking students to examine paintings such as Wyeth’s Christina’s World, Picasso’s The Bathers, and Wood’s American Gothic. As a class, after discussing what the dance elements are, we begin to identify the use of space and shape within the paintings.

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For example, in Christina’s World, for the element of space, there is a diagonal direction with a low level. The primary subject of the work is located ‘downstage’ within the orientation of the painting.

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For the element of shape, the figures in The Bathers have asymmetrical and twisted body shapes with high, medium, and low levels.

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In Wyeth’s American Gothic the subjects are facing forward, physically touching, and in close proximity to one another, which is another example of the dance element space.

Once the students are able to start comfortably identifying these elements, they are ready to get on their feet and create their own frozen Tableaux (frozen pictures). Students are divided into groups of four or five, each one taking on a different artist. They use their artist’s painting as inspiration to create a ‘frozen image’ and utilize the dance elements in their particular painting. They are given 5-10 minutes to work collaboratively. The mood and feel of the class becomes exuberant, frenetic, and full of movement as they utilize the collaborative creative process. Once completed, they share with the group, and the class discusses what is ‘striking’ about each tableau. Using the word ‘striking’ to speak about the work is a way to engage the students and encourage them to start identifying their personal choreographic aesthetic. Then, once more, each group is released to work collaboratively to create three separate frozen images, the “beginning”, the “middle,” and the “end.” This orients the students to the process of making an entire dance, which is ultimately comprised of a series of striking images.

I enjoy this lesson for many reasons. Having the groups start with frozen shapes rather than abstract movement is much more successful with students who may or may not be oriented toward or previously exposed to movement. Secondly, this lesson integrates visual art and drama. I believe the arts are all interconnected, and I strive to find and elucidate these connections with my students as much as possible.

After this lesson is over, though the students may still have some barriers to moving fully, they are a lot more excited and trusting of the creative process in future lessons. The act of collaborating with others and creating exciting frozen images often sets a positive tone for future dance making. Through collaboration, creative process, trust, and play, a student’s barriers against the art of dance can be broken.

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