Too Much to Ask: Dance Without Music | Meg Mahoney

Alimah and Farihah are my students. They’re both cheerful, attentive, kind, lively, quick, and participatory. Alimah, a first grader, is shy, but she’s a great partner for anyone in the class. Any student, boy or girl, calm or wildly off-task, gets their work done when paired with her, because she can be on-task and have fun at the same time. Her sister, Farihah, is in second grade, and she’s joyful and happy, as her name suggests.* She’s also a great partner, but not a bit shy. She loves to demonstrate, with me or with a fellow student, doing a practiced move or trying something for the first time.

It’s such a pleasure to dance with these girls. They dance as if they love it, and they offer so much to their classmates, as we develop movement skills, learn cultural dances from around the world, and choreograph dances to express ideas and feelings from the classroom. They thrive in this public school classroom, where dance as a fine art qualifies as one of the required content areas for a model education.

But I feel such sadness as I look ahead, because they’re bound to experience tremendous conflict in my classroom. Although they’ll remain their friendly selves outside my class, open and enthusiastic in their greetings, their presence inside the classroom will change: movements restrained, participation reserved, and expressions guarded or even sullen.

Last month, their father contacted me with a request to remove them from dance class. Although my school has families for whom dance is not acceptable, that was not the main issue in this case. In this case, his note cited religious restrictions on cross-gender contact (especially touching) and listening to music. He asked to have them placed somewhere else during dance class.

We met and talked, Dad, myself, the girls’ teachers, the principal.  I can — and do — offer alternatives to cross-gender contact. I teach that anyone can be your learning partner, in dance as well as science, reading, or math. But we explore ways of being connected without touch, as you would in science, reading, or math. Picture two partners facing each other, with hands palm-to-palm — not touching but with a two inch cushion of space between the palms. Students can do space-between elbow swings, space-between leading and following, space-between turns. After we talked, the girls’ dad was satisfied about my willingness to accommodate the restrictions on cross-gender interactions.

We had less success concerning his desire to remove music from their lives. There are several things he didn’t realize. First, within a public school, there’s no surplus of adults to supervise children who want to be somewhere else. And second, given research suggesting that music and dance support academic achievement in positive ways, you can’t escape music by moving from one location to another in a public school. Many teachers integrate the arts!

But music! How can you take music out of dance class, especially when all the children love it?  In deference to families that feel conflict between their traditions and the society in which they find themselves living, I already limit our musical repertoire: instrumental selections that offer rhythmic variety, clear listening cues, and lyrics chosen to support educational concepts and content. But music and dance are interwoven, through energy, accuracy, synchronicity and just plain fun.

So we’re stuck: I with my experience of what music can offer, and the girls with their developing awareness of how music is viewed at home. I with my vision of how the girls will be affected over the years to come, and the girls, as yet unaware of how life in two cultures will feel.

*Of course, I changed their names for this article, choosing names to fit the personalities I know: Alimah means “dancer or musician,” and Farihah means “joyful, happy, cheerful, and glad.”

Meg has an update on this story, posted on her personal blog:

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