Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Rose Within a Rose, Within a Rose ... A Dance Journey

A few weeks ago, I was preparing for a teaching inspection, trying to finish a choreography for the class, get the notes written up to my satisfaction and review (and formally write up) my scheme of work and lesson plans.  I do plan my lessons, but having thought about and decided what I'm going to cover in a lesson, I seldom refer to a written plan as I teach. As I wrote them up, I had my usual tussle with the 'learning outcomes', those TSSBAT (at the end of the lesson, The Student Should Be Able To ....) objectives. There's an implication that an objective is an end point. It's the idea that you cover a topic and it is 'learnt'. Learning to dance is an ongoing process. Like all the arts, there is usually a gap between theory and practice; the knowledge of how something should be done, look, or even sound, and the physical achievement of it. While learning some background theory may be quick, the basic objective is to learn some moves and apply them in dance. Ya Leil means Oh Night. Fact. Remember it. What does Ya Leil mean? Oh Night. Correct. Learnt. Tick the box. That a dancer is still working to get her hips under control doesn't mean a lack of learning. Anyone who has a go rather than giving up is learning; the control will come, it's just not there yet. YET. It's a very important word.

I struggle to define realistic 'learning outcomes' for a mixed level group, as each dancer may be at a different point. I can change the language and expectations of the learning outcomes so that, for instance, all dancers should be able to tell me what a move is even if they can't do it, and that can be assessed. Sooner or later, though, a dancer needs to be able to demonstrate the moves, the transitions, flow, musicality, posture, gaze, expression - in other words, to dance!

For the lesson, hip 8s were a case in point.  We covered (in fact, revised) the four main symmetrical hip 8s - Standard (front to back) and Reverse (back to front) horizontal and Taksim (down-out-up) and Maya (up-out-down) vertical 8s. However, much as I would like to say that at the end of a lesson everyone will be able to do these 8s, it's not a realistic aim. I can't spend the whole lesson just on those 8s, everyone would get frustrated and/or bored. While some dancers may be more or less proficient, others may still be struggling to access muscles, control the movement and coordinate the transfer of weight.  Some may get the movement quickly, others will need to work on it for longer, and that's okay because everyone is different.  Then the process of refinement begins, practising until the movement is smooth, symmetrical and defined, with good isolation and musicality to match and reflect the music. This can take years, an idea which can be a little off-putting for someone wanting belly dance as a recreational and social activity, for an hour or so once a week.  However, it is the journey which is important here, not the destination.

The learning journey is a common analogy used for many dance styles and arts in general. Good teachers who are committed to CPD are also on a journey, just (hopefully!) further up the road than their students. It's a journey which dancers should enjoy, so these lessons have to be as much about the students' experience of the lesson as what they get out of it; in some ways, more about what they want to learn than about what I want to teach. It needs a lightweight, stealthy approach to corrections and assessments. The learning objectives are just milestones, waymarkers on a route which can meander through drills and combinations, choreography and improvisation, different belly dance styles and props, rhythms and musical instruments, history and culture, fantasy and fact.

As I was dancing through the choreography and working on transitions, I had an image of dancing in a garden with many-petalled roses, all with beautiful scent and lovely colours. For each thing you learn about and every time you practise a move, a petal falls. As you learn and work, the petals drop away, and you discover another rose within the rose, with a different shade of petals and a slightly different rose scent.  You start to explore further and after a while, find yet another rose, with yet another colour and scent.  By now, you are dancing through a drift of roses, surrounded by lustrous petals and their scent fills the air.

Don't worry about the journey, just enjoy the rose petals.

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