Dancing with Whales

For the last few weeks, my dance companions have been humpback whales. I have been swimming in the South Pacific with the humpbacks, listening for their songs, and scanning the surface of the ocean for signs of their presence; a spout, a tail slap or a breach. Our time together was a mesmerizing mix of physically demanding swims through choppy water with the hope of encountering the humpback mothers with their calves and male escorts. Initially, our swims began with a bit of trepidation (they are SO big!), but we quickly transitioned to swimming with absolute joy at each encounter. I watched closely, observing their behavior, and then tried engaging them, with turns, swirls, and swoops of my own in the water, following the whales’ cues.

Isn’t it amazing that we all have a  particular body language, no matter our species? We communicate across distance, genus, and location through our gestures and inclinations – leaning and moving toward and away from one another as circumstance requires.

Movement – it is our first language and in many ways is the language that connects us all. As I responded to the whales in the water, moving closer as they allowed, swimming back to create a bit of space for them to lift a pectoral fin and slap the surface, I thought of my dance classes and how these swims contain some of what we do in studio – transferring movement from one part of our body to another, sequencing movement with mobility and expression, building phrases, mirroring one an others movements and then  responding through movements of our own.

As I teach, I look to my dancers for clues during class.  Are they comfortable with the particular combination I have given them?  Has it prompted the intended result?  Is there challenge and enjoyment as they follow the movement sequence?  How are they expressing various movement qualities and styles?  Is there something in the movement experience that is both challenging and engaging? 

I also looked for clues as I looked into the eye of a whale.  Did they seem to be comfortable with my presence?  Were they interested in engaging with me or others?  Were they feeling playful, or intent on demonstrating their superior strength, skill in navigation; or just how magnificent it is to be a whale?  They spoke through movement. Eye to eye with a whale it becomes evident that across species we are all connected, and that we humans bear a responsibility to Step Up (ah ha – another dance term) to understand and, through our actions, protect these amazing creatures and their ocean home.  It’s all there in the whales’ eye. 


Alison Marshall


Photo credits:
Grant Thomas

Michael Hughes


Building on last year’s successful launch of World Dance for Parkinson’s Day, twenty-three dance organizations from 16 countries came together again to honor World Parkinson’s Day on April 11th. That celebration will be followed by International Dance Day, celebrated each year on April 29.  The richness, power, and impact of dance is showing up everywhere; in cities and communities across the United States and Canada, Europe, Asia, Africa,  and Australia…. We celebrated the day in our Parkinson’s dance class by dancing a little Tango ( Argentina) and the Tarantella (Italy). We included some dance improvisations and crossed the studio floor to the music of St. Germain, ( France)  Los Lobos ( US)  and Baaba Maal (Senegal).

One of the dancers was waiting for class to begin by rolling out some tight muscles with a spiky ball (http://www.melbourneosteopathycentre.com.au/how-to-make-the-most-of-your-spiky-ball/). A friend came in and sat down next to him.” How are you this morning?“, she asked. “Man, I can’t even reach down and tie my shoes today,” he said. “Oh, would you like me to tie them”? his friend responded. “Sure,” he replied. “Will do” she answered, “you’ll just need to help me up from the floor afterward.” We laughed, finding humor in the shared understanding and wonderful give and take of the moment. We smiled at the spirit of collaboration and community that is a part of all the dances we dance together. Our end of class reverence included a shout out for all the Parkinson’s Dancers across the globe. Here’s to teamwork in all its forms.

Alison Marshall


Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCIHPdx1OAs

St Germain: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6_DcCqD7dA

Los Lobos: https://www.youtube.com/user/loslobosmusic

Dance for Parkinson’s:https://danceforparkinsons.org/about-the-program

A celebration of International Dance Day https://www.international-dance-day.org/celebratingdanceday.html




Prompted by two very different but related events of the week I’m thinking about how the arts shape our lives. First, against the backdrop of white supremacists marching in Virginia I was left wondering about who those marchers were as children, who and what helped shape the perspectives and alliances they formed and then shouted on the street. How did their fears and limitations become their dogma?

Second, I presented a workshop this week for teaching artists who provide arts programs for homeless and abused children. Free Arts Arizona, the organization that asked me to present the workshop, provides programs for youth using the healing powers of the arts to help build resiliency and trust.

Discussions have and will go on and on about the value of the arts; art for art’s sake and participatory arts in communities; in learning and training, in civic engagement, in medicine, in therapies. We don’t need to decide the relative impact or value of watching extraordinary theatre on stage versus a performance devised by youth finding their voice. The relative value is, well, relative – housed in our own experiences and the impact of making, listening to, and seeing the arts.The arts have to do with communication, with artists melding talent, skill, creativity, and reflection to make work that didn’t exist before they did the making.

As I left my workshop I couldn’t stop thinking about all the kids throughout this country who are abused, fearful, on the street, without resources or hope. What can we do to keep them from banging up against limitations that may lead them to become marching neo-nazis or members of the KKK who exhibit racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and antisemitism? How can we help them build their health, find options, develop curiosity and access humor as they recover from being thrown off kilter by the circumstances of their life?

There are no simple answers to these questions. The interplay of emotional, physical, economic, and social circumstances that influence individual lives is complex and dynamic. The arts help us recognize and navigate that complexity, igniting our creativity and connecting us to our inner and outer lives. The arts provide us a way to move forward, expanding our comfort zones and building tolerance and interest in other ideas and people. When we do something we didn’t know we could; sing a song, perform on a stage, create a film, painting, or sculpture, dance with another, we find greater possibilities in life. If we don’t offer these options to struggling youth now what will our society be in the near future? The challenge is upon us to be less tolerant of violence, bigotry, and hatred and more responsive to the human heart.

Alison Marshall

Free Arts of Arizona:http://www.freeartsaz.org


Joseph Campbell, the American mythology professor, writer, and orator best known for his work in the fields of competitive mythology and religion shared a bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: As you go the way of life you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think.

I’ve spent many years in and out of schools bringing ideas and challenges from the worlds of dance and theatre to the world of education. I’ve encouraged, maybe more than encouraged, taught, prompted, and occasionally exhorted teachers in school and community programs to “jump” by adding arts based learning experiences into their teaching practice. “You go,” I say, “activate creative thinking and watch the learning and energy that develops. Watch how arts experiences engage the learners in your care. See the ways that kids can enjoy their own learning, make meaning of things, and learn to work together.”

I have met many teachers who have been excited to try something new and see what happens. But time and again I have met and worked with teachers who take various workshops brimming with good ideas and approaches, who talk about the value of the arts and the ways arts integration can make a difference in students learning, yet they stop short of actually trying out the approaches. They could ask kids to get up out of their chairs to physically ‘discover’ a character by trying on various gestures, postures or walks embodying a stance or reaction to help them to find the “right” describing word for their story. They could ask students to create a movement phrase representing the essence of a Greek mythological god or explore how sound waves travel. Yet they don’t, and I wonder about the barriers or challenges that stand in their way.

I know that teachers navigate full plates of demands and expectations. With large numbers of learners in their classrooms they are expected to individualize instruction, be alert to changes in a students behavior based on something going on at school or home, and cover identified curriculum on a specified timeline. Schools are also expected to provide medical care, meals, and police supervision for students The plate is full and getting fuller. And now I’m asking them to use the arts in their teaching practice as well. Yikes!!

And yet, imagine……How can an active classroom help build attention, focus, and interest with learners? How will using image and action build clearer understandings? How does making and viewing help learners find evidence within the art work to support their interpretations or conclusions? How do the skills used in making a movement study or theatre scene make learning more memorable, nuanced, novel?

After years of encouraging teachers, modeling the work and scaffolding the learning I feel its time to take a deep breath, summon a full voice and say “Just give it a go. Please.” In this era of 140 character tweets and 24/7 news cycles that condense complexity to sound bites I hesitate to call upon a marketing motto but really, as Nike has so successfully told us, JUST DO IT.

Try asking kids to show what they think by moving their ideas. Ask good questions about the work. Be alert to the learning within the making. Try doing what so many parents have said at so many family dinner tables, “just take a bite.” Take a bite of new learning. TRY IT. See what you think, what you notice about the process and the outcome.Maybe that bite of broccoli needs a little seasoning or to be mixed with other ingredients. Adjust. Then try it again. A familiar theatre game  is called “GO” – improvisation relies of the idea of “yes, and…..” When we move our ideas to investigate and show our thinking we go farther, forward into broader and deeper understandings. We can all gain new insight and perspective about teaching and learning when students are invited to access arts based entry points to ideas and avenues to understanding.

I keep thinking about the ways the arts open doors and shed light. I think about how students are as unsure and nervous about learning, about doing it “right” as we older learners are. Teachers are asked to be the knowers but perhaps the best knowing we can offer comes in helping those we work with to consider ideas in new ways modeling our willingness to try something different, to experiment. Light may spill over the minds and actions of learners as they get up and move contrasting qualities of two poems or move a sequence of tableaux showing prediction, evidence, outcome. A process of draft and revision develops persistence in those making the work.

I met recently with colleagues from a performing arts and education center that I work with. They were questioning, lamenting really, the gaps they see between teachers being given professional development resources, support from arts organizations and artist in residence programs and teachers bringing those ideas and approaches into their work and classrooms. For those struggling with uncertainty or hesitation I say, “Jump”.. It doesn’t have to be a big jump. As with many things a first step leads to next steps. That happens for us as teachers, as students, as humans. We are explorers in our learning and our lives. So take a deep breath. Take two. Jump. It’s not as wide as you think.

Alison Marshall

Joseph Campbell Foundation http://www.jcf-myth.org

The Basics

It’s the start of a new year (we get the month to call it new, right?) and with it comes a chance to imagine some new options and outcomes for ourselves and for all those in schools.

I recently taught a University masters dance course for teachers in Montana and I’m teaching another now in Colorado. I’m thinking, once again, about what is taught within school classrooms across the country, about what might be taught, and about how the choices will be made.

Debates are launched and polemical pronouncements are made about curriculum that should be included in a public school education. People discuss the standards, state based, common core and whether they should exist at all. With the recent vote in Congress we have bid the “No Child Left Behind” bill farewell and moved onto the “Every Child Succeeds Act” which emphasizes state based decision-making regarding curriculum,standards and assessment.

When it comes to public education there is the oft heard cry,“we need to return to basics”. Education has become focused on the mastery of a large body of information, even if it’s not likely to matter, in meaningful ways, in the learners lives. But what qualifies as basic? It is, of course, more than simply learning to decode and compute. Basics provide a foundation for learning and include finding ways to apply what we have learned to advance our understanding. Learning grows out of the basic practice of identifying and making meaning, accessing, analyzing, and synthesizing information.

Considering the basics, what could be more meaningful than learning how to support, maintain, and use the body we live in? As the author Kobi Yamada has said, “ Be good to yourself. If you don’t take care of your body where will you live?” In this age of high levels of obesity and sedentary lifestyles how much do we know – and use – our physical selves? How do we learn to develop our kinesthetic sense and body awareness? We may study body systems at a rudimentary level in elementary school and figure out circulatory and respiratory systems – we might even re-visit anatomy at more complex levels later in high school and college. But, unless we have found our own avenues of interest, including sports, physical theatre or dance, how, or where, do we learn about our physical capacity? How do we learn to pay attention through action and sensory perception?

We all speak with our physicality, with individual style, variation and specificity. Yet during our school years – and beyond – we are seldom asked to communicate, with purpose and intent, though movement. We are not learning about our own bio mechanics, ( the study of the structure and function of biological systems), developing somatic practice (internal physical perception),or exploring and expressing ideas though movement. Very little of our learning, in school or out, is devoted to finding ways to move effectively, efficiently, and expressively throughout our lives.  How can we learn to be active participants on our lives using our bones for stability and our muscles for mobility? When will we take the chance to find structural alignment in our posture, dynamic flow in our movement, energy in our step?

The basics? What is more basic than the need to learn about our human design, to move in ways that help us guard against potential injury, build focus and energy? What is more basic than learning through our whole being, finding ways to employ creative, expressive and complex approaches to understanding? How can returning to – or exploring the “basics” for the first time help us to become more comfortable in our own skin, better able to express ourselves and to understand others? As T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Alison Marshall

Future Wise by David Perkins

Ideas and emotions come together – Liz Lerman

Kobi Yamada


Well, I’ve meant to get a new blog written for a some time but I’ve been waylaid….

I’m choreographing new work, consulting on projects, studying, and teaching dance.  Recently I’ve been in New York to meet and dance with Parkinson’s Dance teachers from across the country and world to develop and explore our own dance technique and our approaches to teaching dance to people who are navigating the challenges of having Parkinson’s disease. While in New York I saw several dance performances including the good-bye to the magnificent French dancer Sylvie Guillem who bid her farewell to performing. www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/arts/dance/sylvie-guillem-prepares-to-end-her-ballet-career.html?_r=0

Closer to home, I was in Flagstaff for a Parkinson’s Dance master class and sessions with the Northern Arizona University dance students and students from the graduate Physical Therapy program. I’ve been teaching several Parkinson’s Dance classes each week and talking with people about starting Parkinson’s Dance classes in Tucson and Prescott.

Our friends and family Thanksgiving celebrations included toddlers to sixty year olds dancing together. This month I’m beginning work with a consortium of International schools ,The Common Ground Collaborative, www.thecgcproject.org developing discipline standards, understanding goals, and teaching approaches in dance.

Dance is everywhere – in schools and neurological wellness and movement centers, in University classrooms, on stage. I’ve been so busy making, watching, and teaching dance I haven’t had a chance recently to write about it. And that, at least in part,is the point. Dance has a vibrant presence throughout our culture and society. We dance in our homes, in our communities, on our own, with one another. Maybe we dance with music, maybe we are accompanied by our ideas and questions. As I advocate for dance’s greater presence in art, school, health, fitness and community life dance confirms its importance in so many ways. Dance. Do it for fun. Do it for expression. Do it for health, for meaning, for learning. Do it.

Alison Marshall

Dance for PD

Sylvie Guillem

Common Ground Collaborative

Dance and Ice Cream

My consistently very healthy husband recently had some necessary surgery. Reporting back to friends and family about how he was doing I said one his approaches to recovery included eating plenty of ice cream. My sister replied, “Perfect, I mean, when doesn’t ice cream help?”

In thinking about the impact dance can have on learning and community I have the same response. When it comes to learning, when doesn’t dance help? In the hands of engaged, thoughtful facilitators, artists, and teachers dance experiences can deepen and extend understanding.   We  can make and appreciate the arts while learning about ideas, ourselves, and others. Dance has to do with embodying and presenting images and ideas. It is based on critical and creative inquiry. It helps build empathy as we put ourselves in the positions of others. It encourages us to build a reflective practice,to connect and collaborate with others. As a bonus it helps us be fit and well.

The conversations I have with professional dancers and performing artists are the same kinds of conversations I have with the elementary aged through Masters level University students I teach, with the teachers I work with who are engaged in professional development, and with participants in my Parkinsons Dance classes. We consider ideas, problems, solutions and conclusions. The conversations include some kind of reflection around the questions: Where are (we) headed?, Where are (we) now?, Where to next? We identify the questions that intrigue us and explore our research and response through dance.

Need to understand how sound waves travel or how photosynthesis works? Build a dance about the sequence and timing in your elementary science class. Investigating literary or musical form? Make a dance in the form of call and response, theme and variation, or rondo form. Need to practice balance, cross lateral movements, and movement flow in skillful and beautiful ways? Any dance technique class, including a Parkinsons Dance class, will include that.

Dance is an artistic process based on perceiving,analyzing, and reflecting. Rehearsing for performance or working with a group of classmates to show an idea requires inventing and presenting images, drafting and revising patterns and phrases, collaborating with others. The artistic process is how we learn and the arts provide the mediums by which we show what we think. Of course, the artistic process is not limited to the arts. Acts of analysis, idea testing and reflection are critical in math and the sciences as well. The reach of the arts extends beyond the arts themselves.

Alison Marshall

Greek Mythology and a Beat You Can Dance To

I’ve just finished teaching this terms masters program course in Dance and Kinesthetic Learning for Lesley University. http://www.lesley.edu  This course brought together a group of wonderful,varied educators from the front range of Colorado. All of them share a background in art, though few of them share a similar focus in their artistic work. One is a ceramicist, one a songwriter, a few are musicians and perform in musical theatre. Several of them are writers, one is a painter. Other than frequent forays to a local country western bar that offered line dancing class, some zumba classes and a bit of show choreography none of them had studied dance for several years – or ever. We had a great time throughout the course, exploring the elements and layered expressions of dance, considering choreographic process, and the ways that dance and  movement informs our cognitive process, our perceptions and interpretations, the development and demonstration of meaning.

During the course we listened to Alvin Ailey talk about the family stories he heard growing up in Texas and saw those stories fuel his choreographic vision leading to his signature piece Revelations. https://www.alvinailey.org/performances/repertory/revelations.  We explored the relationship of music and dance while looking at Mark Morris’s choreography and project partnerships with the cellist YoYo Ma in the piece Falling Down Stairs – Bach cello suite.  We considered  how dance and music  can stand as compatible but separate mediums ,exemplified through Merce Cunningham’s choreography and collaborations with the composer John Cage. We thought about dance as spectacle – the Olympics! as religious celebration and an expression of national heritage and pride. We considered dance as a personal expression and as a way to build community. We watched contemporary dance from Brazil,folk dance turned toward balletic form from Spain, and traditional dance transferred from its historic roots in agricultural India to contemporary wedding celebrations in England. We worked with pattern, dynamic,structure and narrative. Making improvised studies and crafted pieces, using the time-honored process of draft and revision we created,rehearsed, and presented our work.

By the end of the course we felt like we’d done it all – right along with feeling like there was so much more to explore,discover,and make. Exploring that much territory requires playlists galore. We stretched, boogied,swooped and swirled through Bach to the Scissor Sisters, from Jay Z to Cuban rhythms.

These masters students are teachers, which brings a particular flavor to the class. We thought about pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching. My challenge is to help them develop their artistic skills and alertness within the context of  dance based learning  with in  their teaching practice and curriculum. And, as the restaurant server says” all served on a a bed of…..” In this case the bed is exploration, development, research, perception, production, and reflection ( this is where the terminology of waiters and teachers differs).

So here’s what happened. We made dances that explored choreographic structure and form.We made studies about the elements of plot and music and mathematical vocabulary and form. We created dance based learning experiences to practice verb tense usage in a foreign language, to identify cause and effect in Pavlovian conditioning and to learn distinctions between bilateral, radial, gliding and rotational symmetry.

This kind of dance/topic integration is in keeping with what is going on today in the field of choreography and performance. The environmental choreographer Jennifer Monson, did a project called “Bird Brain” based on the multi-continental migration pattern of ducks, geese, osprey and gray whales. http://www.birdbraindance.org/about.cfm?id=2 Dance your PhD is a yearly ‘contest which asks the question so, what’s your Ph.D. research about? Students, or those who have a PhD in the sciences, turn their thesis into a dance as a way of creating access and understanding of complex topics.   http://gonzolabs.org/dance/   The alban elvĕd dance company has presented the “Turing Machine Dance,”where the dancers act out the computation of two binary numbers. http://www.scienceandentertainmentexchange.org/blog/scientific-movement-art-science-and-dance  .Liz Lerman, the choreographer, performer, writer, and educator has created pieces based on a variety of topics and ideas all informed by her artistic curiosity and her research and collaborations with shipbuilders to physicists, construction workers to ballerinas. http://lizlerman.com/about.html

Moving ideas – creating stories and images – and  dancing. On our last day of class the group choreographed and presented a nine phrase dance based on the gods and goddess of Greek mythology. The dances became a performance of understanding  that demonstrated content knowledge and interpretation. From Hades rule of the underworld and Poseidon’s rule of the sea, to Athena bursting full-grown from the head of Zeus,the work was fantastic – informed, inviting, thoughtful, fun!

Alison Marshall



Stirring the Soup, Making the Dance, Sharing the Meal

The other day I was asked to give a talk about the dance classes I teach at a Neuro Wellness Center that offers a variety of classes and resources for people with Parkinson’s. I’ve been teaching dance classes there for a few years along with classes that combine dance, theatre games, and vocal work. New members continue to join the Center and the weekly community “Coffee Talks’ provide a place to talk about the classes with new and continuing members alike.

Dance is one of the arts notoriously hard to describe — “ Talking about music is like dancing about architecture” as Martin Mull famously said, capturing three arts in one sentence. Just the term dance can be a little off-putting to some. People hear it and immediately picture tights and pirouettes and movement phrases too long to remember. It can be worrisome, the idea of stepping on a partners foot or starting on the right foot when it was supposed to be the left. Those concerns can become more pronounced when the dancers are navigating a neurological disease that impacts their movement.

People often think of dance strictly as performance on a stage, and most typically as a series of steps a dancer needs to learn. They are of course partially right, and yet….

It seems to me that dancing is kind of like sitting down to a good meal rich with benefits and delights – (lots of great dance happens while sitting) – especially the benefit of it being good for you. At its most basic, a healthy meal provides the nutrition we need; vitamins, fiber, proteins and fats. It fuels us. But a really splendid meal offers so much more. It includes all those warm smells wafting up from the table linking the present with our memory of past meals, events, and people. It includes vibrant images of color and form with tastes that are good unto themselves and delicious when combined with others. A good meal is often a shared meal and it provides sensory satisfaction as well as a coming together with others to enjoy the offerings. As does dance. At its most basic it is a series of steps – nutritious building blocks made through shape, time and effort. Yet as we dance – as the meal is made and eaten – those building blocks lead to something larger or greater. Yes, we move breath through the body, warm the muscles and consider our alignment as we move. Yes, we practice shifting our weight, finding our balance, recalling a pattern. But the dance, like the meal, is made up not only of the parts – combinations of steps and phrases – but of the whole. It fuels not only our energy but our spirit. Our cooking and our dancing, are expressions of who we are and encompass feelings of wonder, delight, passion, frustration, learning, fun, and companionship along the way. There is a deliciousness in both.

All safe movement is good for us, but it is dance movement that is an expression of who and how we are. We dance to inhabit our whole self and in doing so we enjoy the experience as we enjoy a wonderful meal. Through dance we bring color and feeling to our movement. We put elements together to create the flavor, and along the way we find some dishes or steps that we’re not that fond of, others that we love and want to have and do again and again. Dancing with others – sharing the delight, the frustration, the community of fun, is sharing the meal.

“Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are great because of their passion.”
― Martha Graham

About Dance for PD®

Weekly Parkinson’s Dance Classes are offered at Banner Neuro Wellness Center
207 N. Gilbert Road in Gilbert, Ariz. (480) 699-0537 
Wednesday: 9:30 -10:45
Friday 10:15 – 11:30

Dance for PD® ( Mark Morris Dance Group ) offers dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease in Brooklyn, New York and, through a network of partners and associates, in more than 100 other communities around the world ( including the Phoenix area ). Participants are empowered to explore movement and music in ways that are refreshing, enjoyable, stimulating and creative. The Dance for PD® method has been presented at the International Congress for Parkinson’s Disease and Related Disorders in Berlin (2005), the World Parkinson Congress in Washington, D.C. (2006) and at Neuroscience 2008 in Washington D.C. The program was recognized as a model program at the Society for the Arts in Healthcare’s annual conference and The World Parkinson Congresses in Glasgow in 2010.

Visit www.danceforpd.org for more information. DVD’s for classes at home are available for purchase through the site.


Open Invitation

We had our annual termite inspection at the house today (all clear! ) – with a great, smiling guy named Rocky. He made his way through my husbands darkroom, filled right now with photographs of landscapes and old trucks, and then the movement studio, with scattered balls and foam rollers on the floor. He laughed and made a joke about having two left feet but really liking trucks. As he was leaving through the back gate he did a ( very) little jig kicking both feet up to the right in a final flourish which immediately disproved his claim of two left feet.

It’s a statement of the obvious yet one that we often forget – we are physical beings who are born to move. Our neurological development and health is dependent on our movement. Movement enables us to process information effectively and efficiently. Movement can be our joy, our challenge, our expression, our learning process. It informs our days and our lives. And dance, like sports, is movement that plays out in many different ways. The term dance may bring to mind ballerinas on stage or ballroom dancers kicking through a two-step, yet it is also a celebration dance at the arrival of good news, a rocking the baby to sleep dance, a flashmob at the museum, and the renaissance dance included in a social studies unit in middle school. Our dances communicate who we are and what we value.

While traveling in Uganda last month I spent time in a couple of schools and danced with lots of students. It was so great, – these kids in their school uniforms, shorts and sweaters and gingham checked dresses, many barefoot, dancing with limbs akimbo and beautifully controlled young grace. They welcomed me with dances, taught me a language lesson through dance, bid me good-bye with a dance. They were all dancers! Dance was one of the languages they spoke beautifully and effectively. It was one of the ways they connected to one another and to me, a visiting teaching artist from the southwestern United States. They danced with commitment, as a way to express themselves and their culture, wholly present to the whys and hows of their dances.

It set me to thinking about the ways dance plays out in schools in the US. Dance education here may include learning about history, health, and music and provides practice with imagining, persevering, and collaborating. Yet outside the social events of “school dances” we tend to focus on dance as performance. Dance class, particularly in the older grades, addresses style and technique and results in particular individuals becoming beautiful, skilled dancers. Yet as wonderful and rich as that training may be it tends to separate dance from other aspects of life, to keep it only on stage or in competitions, and helps build our identification as dancers or “non“ dancers.

Watching all those Ugandan students dancing – seeing their engagement and joy, the meaning they expressed, the comfortable way they used the language of dance I thought of the ways we might be short-changing students in our schools here. There will always be artists, like athletes, who are exquisitely skilled and expand existing limits. Dance is a performance art We need to support and celebrate the artistry. But dance is action and idea – big enough to provide an invitation to all of us to participate in ways that are social, spontaneous, trained, fun, purposeful, professional, performance, or approach to learning. It can include a welcoming, in classroom and out of classroom learning, a jig at the gate, and a way of saying good-bye.

Alison Marshall