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How Dance Can Teach Literature

Five Ways to Use Dance in Your English Class

Overview

Dance, as an art form, is perceived by many to be outside the domain of serious academic study. However, dance can be a highly successful method of instructional support in many core subjects. The English (or language arts) classroom is one excellent example. Dance can complement the teaching of several diverse elements of the English curriculum. Five “centerpieces” in the teaching of English that can be illuminated and enriched through dance are: the language of analysis; the explication of a specific text; comparative analysis of literature; the essay-writing process; and the nurturing of creative imagination.

1. The Language of Analysis

A vital step in readying students to read literary texts with understanding and discernment is the inculcation of specific ways to examine literature. An effective way to achieve this goal is by first helping students learn what to look for—to grasp insight into the logical and aesthetic forces of human expression that, when woven together, build the narratives, characterizations and themes, shape the forms and individual styles, and achieve impact. Such “readiness” also helps students develop a critical eye in a probe of what contributes to the success of a manuscript, what specific aspects could be strengthened, what makes a “classic” a “classic.”

Dance can be a great assist in clarifying the language of analysis and inculcating understanding of and appreciation for the strong undercurrents that fuel the power of literature. Explanations of tone, the basic concept of rhythm in poetry and prose and variations in rhythm, patterns of syntax, diction, and rhetorical elements such as parallelism, emphasis, subordination, coordination, compression and expansion are deepened when demonstrated through dance movement. Students in a class or in the larger school community who have had dance training could be the primary “demonstrators,” but an entire class also could participate in dance movement aimed at clarifying and reinforcing aspects of the language of analysis.

2. Explication of a Specific Text

The explication of any genre of literature—poetry, short stories, dramatic scripts, novels, essays —can be enhanced by the infusion of dance into the explanation “lessons.” Drawing on the “readiness” step of using dance to clarify the language of analysis, students can identify discrete elements of the narrative, characterization, theme(s), and form of a specific text and showcase them through dance. An effective starting point could be to have small collaborative groups “script” the structural drive of a literary selection through a graphic drawing and/or a brief written explanation of their perceptions, then present the evidence through dance movement. For instance, the assertion that the text starts slowly, then builds steadily to a climax at the end or builds to a climax then drops off in a sustained denouement, could be augmented through dance demonstration. The structural ebb and flow generated by a series of climatic points within the overall structural drive of a text could be punctuated by dance movement.

Clarification of the linguistic “texture” of a text also could be enriched through dance “translation.” For instance, dance can underscore whether or not a text is developed in a sustained rhythmic pattern (metered or unmetered in poetry) or that the rhythm changes sporadically to dramatize elements of the narrative, characterization, or theme. Dance also can be effectively used to delineate the tone quality of a literary selection including variations of tone achieved through shifting patterns of syntax, rhythm, and diction. Selected segments of the narrative and/or theme can be “interpreted” through dance. Rhetorical devices such as parallelism, sustained imagery, and alliteration can be highlighted through dance. Particularly valuable is that using dance to clarify and enrich the explication process of literature helps students perceive how the artistic tensions of a literary selection emerge from the organic unity of narrative, characterization, form, and theme. In fact, the intellectual, emotional, and psychological impact of a literary selection on a reader or observer is affected not only by narrative, characterization and/or theme, but also by the aesthetic designs of form.

3. Comparative Analysis of Literature

One of the most valuable study techniques for deepening students’ grasp and appreciation of fine literature and of their own writing is to hone their skills of comparative analysis. Again, dance can serve as an agent for helping students sharpen their perspective in making comparisons. Drawing on their background in the explication process, students can articulate a range of comparisons through dance.

As example: Are the selections being compared shaped by similar points of view? Are both interior monologues? Or is one source built from an “inner self”—with the emotional and psychological “voice” of the protagonist dominant in molding narrative and theme, while the other(s) source is developed through the “voice” of an objective or omniscient observer? Is one heavy with exposition and characterization, released in formal patterns of syntax while the other is sparse in description, terse in tone, developed in sentence fragments, and the interruptions of the mind stream? Or do the literary selections being compared include both outer and inner “voices,” with fluctuations of expanded lyrical passages and stream-of-consciousness?

Students with dance training could be called upon to project such similarities and differences in literary selections through dance. Non-dance trained students could be asked to improvise movement that they felt projected aspects of similarity or differences. Vignettes of videos of the choreographies of celebrated classical ballets such as Don Quixote or La Sylphides compared with Martha Graham’s modern dance version of Lamentation and/or Cave of the Heart could deepen perception of differentiated elements of development in literature.

4. The Essay-writing Process

An essay—analytical, persuasive, or personal (such as a college admissions essay)—is like other literary sources in that it is a focused entity with external boundaries and internal structure. It is formed out of the chaos of raw thought that streams through the mind of the writer when confronted with an assigned topic or when working to shape a topic of personal choice. Like all composition, it is a mathematical equation organically forged from a composite of logically related parts and, when compelling, infused and enriched with well-chosen and effectively integrated rhetorical devices.

Success in developing any type of essay is best achieved by the writer formally or informally following the steps of the writing process. Such an approach helps the writer to flush out a rich range of ideas, to narrow and limit those ideas into a manageable focus, and then to craft a manuscript that has appealing logical structure, substantive support, energy in expansion of ideas, and rhetorical force.

Following the steps of the pre-writing process helps the writer generate a wealth of ideas and bring focus to that creative flow of ideas. These steps also help the writer harness his or her individual “voice” through capturing the thoughts, points of view, creative vision, personal experiences, and reactions that stream through the mind in focusing on a topic, a memory, or experience.

Dance can be instrumental in helping students understand the power of this pre-writing process. Asking a class (with all members participating) to choreograph the pre-writing steps helps students inculcate not only the pragmatic elements of the process as an organizational tool, but also sharpens their awareness of how the pre-writing process “mines” what they know about their topic, helping to expose what they don’t know and need to explore, and generating creative vision of what they want the final product to be.

The steps of the pre-writing process:

  • capturing the chaos of the mind when brainstorming a topic 
  • narrowing to a focus through trial and error 
  • forging, as an early narrowing down process step, to discrete focal points that relate to the topic in a variety of ways 
  • aligning interrelated focal points in categories ( for instance, if the general topic is “skiing,” some of the focal points may relate to “ideal places to ski,” others to “lodge accommodations,” others to “traveling challenges and/or experiences,” some to “après-ski”) 
  • constructing two or three mini-theses (assertions) for each category—again, as a trial and error step 
  • deciding what assertions could be woven together to forge a logically sound and compelling thesis that would serve as the controlling purpose of the essay

When initiated as a collaborative problem-solving activity designed to give added insight into pre-writing steps, the choreographing of each of the above steps in sequence (as one would choreograph the structure of a ballet) could serve as a meaningful support for teaching the pre-writing process in an English class.

The opening out of the units of thought embedded in the thesis when writing the paper and experimenting with ways to achieve rhetorical power in structuring the paper also can be crafted in dance expression.

5. Nurturing Creative Imagination

Each of the ways suggested to use dance in an English class, although defined above as a way to achieve other purposes, nurtures students’ creative imagination. Some English class assignments involving dance, however, could specifically target “imagination” as a primary goal. Consider, for instance, assigning students, as an extension of a creative writing exercise, to articulate an abstract concept in dance idiom (individually, in pairs, or in collaborative teams). Such abstract concepts as “jealousy,” “revenge,” “circumscribe,” “separate peace,” and “payback” are just a few possibilities. Citing existing literary sources built around some of these concepts could clarify the assignment and help evoke imaginative possibilities.

Another prompt could be to have students create a brief script for a dance drama. Some possibilities could be the scene of a homecoming, preparation for a wedding, an athletic practice session, a love triangle—there are numerous possibilities.

Integrating dance into the teaching of English serves many purposes: It supports differentiated learning by tapping into special talents and interests. It can open doors to discovery of unrealized talents and interests. And it serves, in numerous ways, to clarify and enrich essential English class lessons in the study of literature, expository, and creative writing. It supports problem-solving, collaboration, and other communication skills in a fresh and provocative way. A teacher need not have dance training to pull it off. Think of dance as an intrinsic element of human nature. Encourage students to tap that self-magic to implement their study of English.

Credits

Writers

Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

ARTSEDGE [AB]

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