Speaking Their Language | Judith Sachs

As a dancer, I think in movements—lifting an arm, twirling a foot, jumping from side to side. But as an adaptive dance teacher, I also have to think of ways to communicate clearly what I want my students to do through language.

Theories of movement education indicate that different brains learn movement differently. Harold Gardner’s multiple-intelligence theory and Neil Fleming’s VAK (visual-aural-kinesthetic) model offer two different ways to look at people’s learning preferences. Some people like to watch you do the movement—see it and mimic it. (Doing it while the instructor is demonstrating has been shown to be more effective than just watching.) Some students like verbal instruction, and others like to be physically placed into the pose. And some students need all methods used alternately or simultaneously.

Most of the teaching I do is in chairs, seated in a circle, and most of my students have never danced before, so they aren’t up on quick methods to pick up choreography. They’re also not aware of all the moves I’m borrowing from dancers throughout the ages! So I combine speech and demonstration, saying exactly what I’m going to do a split second before it happens. I also use lots of analogies to activities of daily living… “like you’re lifting your grandchild,” “like you’re putting something up on a top shelf,” “like you’re stepping out of the bathtub.”

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Photo by Peter Whitehouse

But even with these strategies I came up against some real challenges when I started working with a group of Chinese women in a senior center. One spoke English, and although the others would look to her for translation, most of the time I had to get across what I wanted without words. I was fortunate in that this elder group probably knew tai chi or had learned it in their earlier years, so their facility with grasping new movement was actually better than that of the other students in class.

Instead of speaking the instruction, I would mark the movement and make eye contact with the women, indicating they were to follow along. I often find it hard to get non-dancers to do the choreography with you when you’re teaching it, but had no such problem here. They seemed to be throwing themselves into the idea of moving before they moved!

Another thing I’ve learned was to let go of specifics and concentrate on the general flow of dance ideas. Whether my Chinese students started with right or left side was immaterial; whether their elbows were bent or straight didn’t matter. I wanted them to sense the coordination of upper and lower body; of sitting and standing moves, and they got this! They did very often speak to one another (but not at a whisper, they spoke loudly) while I was instructing, and there was a lot of laughter. I had no idea whether the joke was on me or they were just having a good time, but again, I decided feeling self-conscious was ridiculous. They were coming to class week after week, they were improving in a variety of ways, so why should I worry about what was going on behind my linguistic back?

My next challenge, in a different class, was a blind student I’ll call Joe. He was led in by a friend and seated in a chair. I went up and introduced myself to Joe and asked if I could take his cane. I told him I was putting it up against the window and that I would return it to him at the end of class. I noticed that he was markedly uncoordinated, and really didn’t want to wait for my instructions before he started moving. I found it interesting that when I said, “Take your right hand and put it behind your back, then reach around and shake hands with yourself,” he immediately shook both hands in front of his body. He got the end of the direction but not the beginning.

One of my longtime students went over to work with him and placed him in positions as I talked—this was very helpful. The next time I saw him flailing I went over and placed his hands in position. When I moved his arm or touched his shoulder, he got it. Our last number, where I had the class arrange their chairs in a tight circle and passed a ball from dancer to dancer on the first beat of each measure was the most successful for Joe. He immediately got that he was supposed to extend his right hand and give away his ball away while taking a ball from the person on his left side. Use of the prop seemed to anchor him, as well as the driving rhythm of the music.

These two experiences helped me to correct my course as a teacher. In one instance, I was creating verbiage where none was needed; in another, I was not directing clearly enough with words and touch was necessary.

We get into habits as teachers and sometimes only our students can break them! I’m grateful to have a lot of help in that regard.

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