Learning from Dance

Saturday evening I had the pleasure of attending the final presentation of the improvisation/modern dance intensive workshop my dancer-daughter took part in–I knew that I was in for the always-rewarding experience of watching Nora dance, but I didn’t anticipate having the evening illuminate some of my own thinking about blogging in the classroom.

Although I have never experienced first-hand (first-foot?) dance improv, I have for years watched classes and performances at Middlebury College led by Penny Campbell and Peter Schmitz, and so on some level I knew that improv was about feeling patterns, about awareness of spatial relationships, about discovering connections in the moment. Ha–see where this is going? patterns, relationships, connections.

Saturday, Susan Sgorbati, a dance prof at Bennington, opened the evening with a little explanation of what she’s up to in this work. She is collaborating right now with scientists in La Jolla and at MIT on emergence–what happens to organisms and biological processes when no one is the leader, no one is scripting the action, something dancers have long understood within their own work. As she talked, and then as the dancers danced, I kept seeing the improvisation unfolding on the floor in front of me as a visualization of what’s going on here on this blog, in my classroom, and out in the blogosphere. I kept seeing Steven Johnson’s slime mold, his ant colonies though the dancers looked nothing like either of those organisms!

In the O’Reilly interview with Johnson about emergence, he turns to blogs:

To me, the thing that has to happen to the individual blogs is that they’re still too centered around the personality of the blogger him- or herself. They’re still too limited to emailing the blogger, or a crude bulletin board. What I would love to see is, one way or another, by force of personality or whatever, to have these clusters of 100 or 200 or maybe 1,000 people who offered real contributions and collectively owned the thing

IN the two years since that interview, that’s exactly what’s happening through trackback and RSS feeds. In some ways, the blogosphere is behaving magnificently according to emergence theory.

But we just don’t quite buy it in the classroom yet. Why don’t we take the time to have our students interact with our course content and each other spontaneously? Susan Sgorbati used my daughter’s experience in the workshop as an example, explaining that Nora had a well-defined vocabulary of ballet, modern, jazz and hip-hop technique and choreography that she used and undertood, but what she didn’t yet have was a way to use this vocabulary to find her own dance, and to see what would happen when it was bumped up against other dancers’ and musicians’ idioms. She hadn’t dared let the rules go!

What I saw that evening when Nora danced her solo piece, was a whole new dancer. She broke through to a new understanding of the space of dance, of the silences and the jamming that happens between a dancer and a musician. At dinner afterwards she said that she had gained in those two weeks a new, deeper understanding of the processes and goals and possibilities of dance. Two weeks.

I want that for my students, too. I want them to feel their own, personal singular voice as writer and budding scholar and then explore how it interacts, intersects, connects with an outer world–the classroom community and the world beyond. This is how in 12 weeks our students can take ownership of their learning, and see how they have a meaningful impact on their environment–this is how they can learn far more than any combination of classroom discussions and lectures and traditional writing assignments. I’m convinced of that.

Blogging has a role to play in this new classroom: it invites the staccato dynamism of improv under the exacting, even skeptical, eye of the audience much as performance dance does. It invites interaction and community-building. It allows individual voice, and on a group blog, it demands collaboration. I see the group blog as one of those group improv pieces performed that evening, and the individual blog as Nora’s piece. The more the blogger listens to the other bloggers dancing on their keyboards, and the new media explorers, and the thinkers in their fields and then play with a snese of the spatial and thematic relationships the more interesting and useful the blogs will get.

There are differences, of course, too–important differences: whereas dance vanishes, leaving no outer trace after the step is done, blogging stays there, archived, to be returned to and connected to again and again. And we blogging teachers are lucky in this, for we can point to blog moments and say, here! Here, you’ve pulled us all in; here you have hit a chord–what is it and how might you hit another one? How will you keep that freshness and thoughtfulness?

I’m thinking of having my classes do some movement improv as a way into the blog and as a way for arts writers to understand a thing or two about performance. Gotta think more on how I might do that well…

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