Dance Will Save The Planet: Field notes from an elementary school
by Jocelyn Edelstein
I've recently discovered a profound new level of hope. It lives in a wordless place - in a small elementary school cafeteria - in a circle that is formed on the painted line of a blue basketball key. It is here, along with twenty to thirty kids, that I decipher the ecstatic code of music with limbs and bones and muscle. It is here, I become certain, that the antidote for a world hardened by fear, is a new generation opened by movement. It is here, looking into the shining eyes of youth enraptured with dance, that I believe the best preparation for a warm, uncertain future, is for all our children to be educated in the coexistence of flexibility and strength.
Two months ago I started a new job. Thanks to the Oregon Arts Tax, I'm a part time dance teacher at a public elementary school in Portland. This means that for multiple thirty minute sessions, three days a week, I get to turn up the volume on the stereo and encourage every child, between 5 and 10-years-old, to anchor their minds in rhythm and their bodies in movement, right smack in the middle of the school day.
I've taught this age group before and this in itself is no novelty. What is notably different, however, is the context.
The opportunity for children to utilize their physical energy in diverse ways and assimilate knowledge through kinesthetic channels, has been neither amply nor consistently available in the public school system for quite some time. Since measure five wreaked havoc in the 90s, the way kids related to the arts in school and the way artists envisioned school-based teaching careers, was indefinitely altered. I can say, that not once, in the last nine years of teaching dance, did I imagine this position as an option. Salaried art teachers have simply been a public school rarity for a long, long while.
But here I am. With large groups of open-minded, intuitive, physically intelligent kids, who are absolutely aching for more chances to revel in the unspoken secret of music, to experience the satisfaction of syncopating movement with other people and to empower themselves through one of the most human tools we have - our body.
It is amazing to me how readily the children I encounter in class, hook onto the universal principles of dance - ones that can easily translate into essential components for being alive - our relationship to space, time, shape and other movers, the implementation of quality and the force of impact.
The understanding that there are various types of learners and the need for versatile teaching methods that apply to diverse learning styles is not new. I feel confident, especially after witnessing the wonderful work of my colleagues at school, that this is being enacted in their classrooms in many different ways.
The new territory I believe we enter in dance class, is the opportunity to learn how to cooperate in non-verbal, kinesthetic, spatial and musical formats. Learning how to tune into someone else's movement is a humanity enhancing skill. Being able to find tempo with a group of people is not only empowering, it allows for new solutions to emerge - solutions that aren't stymied by verbal misunderstanding, by tones of voice, by lack of desired vocabulary.
This past week I experimented with a new exercise in the classroom. I gave each of my 3rd, 4th and 5th graders a group challenge. The rules of the challenge were simple - they had to form the shape I drew on the dry erase board, as a group, without using words.
Not one child was daunted. Rather, they relished the challenge as I watched - stunned and moved - while all cliques, opinions and backstories disappeared. While every person in the group became a part of the moving orb of wide-eyed humans, gleefully signaling each other, with hands and gazes, as the shape took form. Every single group accomplished this, in silence.
Wow, I thought, as I watched them find new pathways.
Wow, I thought again, as I witnessed that everyone had a role to play in the formation of a new pattern.
This is the thing we most need to learn to do as a planet.
To put idle chatter and accusing diatribes aside. To listen in on the deeper pulsing directive. To look everyone in the eye and move as a group into a shape that will better nurture the world.
The younger generations deserve the chance to cultivate this practice on a daily basis through every channel we have available. They deserve the opportunity to familiarize themselves with an abundance of cooperative platforms. They deserve the time to develop this skill set and grow a sweet, firm confidence in their ability to relate to the world with positive impact.
For they are the ones, that while using the globally reaching, revolutionary power of social media, will undoubtedly need to dip into a complimentary well of knowledge.
Their knowledge of the felt sense, the lived experience and the understanding of how to move successfully through actual space with other human bodies - so that when the compass of our future is placed in their hands, they have the unspoken instinct to navigate as a collective.