DOC Journal: July/August 2011, 3rd Article

Dance Education: What Are The Benefits? A Personal Reflection by Jeremie Gluckman
A group of young adults are dressed in formal wear. One by one, they rise from a row of black chairs to stand and face the camera. Mechanically, the mass of students begins to dance. As a carnival song plays, their feet shuffle and their hips jut out in perfect synchrony. This is the opening scene of the documentary film Dancing Dreams, directed by Anna Linsel and Reiner Hoffman. The film follows a group of teenagers as they prepare to perform Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof. The students are put through their paces under the watchful eyes of two Bausch dancers who have been working with the material for years. I grew up dancing. Watching Dancing Dreams I began to reflect on my time spent studying this art form and how it has impacted my personal development. Dancing is truly a social sport. I watch an Afro-Caribbean youth smile as he dances with a European girl. Dance classes gave me the opportunity to make friends outside of my social circle. Kontakthof is a German word which means meeting place. A Muslim student originally from Bosnia faces the camera and explains the misconceptions he encounters in his daily life. In contrast, during rehearsals, the students work together towards a common goal and manage to put their differences aside. Dancing here serves the purpose of bridging gaps. Tenderness, empathy, and respect are behaviors that can be learned in the dance studio. Initially, the young performers in Dancing Dreams are out of their comfort zone when encouraged to interact with one another. The contact they have with their own bodies and with others seems rushed and tense at first. Their teachers, always attentive, suggest that they take their time. The dance of expression they are taught is universal and the gestures they learn are not necessarily masculine or feminine. Then the scene shifts: Two boys talk about how they interact differently with women in the studio than in real life. In this meeting place, they learn to be with each other as equals. Kontakthof explores human relations. Pina Bausch’s work is tanztheater, a form which incorporates theater, dance, speech, and movement. Questions are posed and the dancers provide the answers. The piece contains aspects of violence and aggression as well as tenderness and naivete. These are feelings that one begins to explore in youth and continues to encounter in old age. One student explains her difficulty when learning to embody an assigned sequence of movements. Unable to fully let go, she describes the frustration she felt in throughout the process as well as the exhilaration when she finally achieves her goal. To fully embody a movement requires commitment and patience. Above all, it requires the courage to place oneself in a vulnerable position. The situations explored in Dancing Dreams helped me realize that being posed such challenges, especially at an age when the body is ever-changing, can help young people gain the confidence that comes with self-awareness. In developing their characters, these performers discover that dance can be a vehicle through which to express their emotions. One young girl describes her character as a woman hiding her sadness behind a barrier of extroverted personality traits. Another dancer explains that her character has a strong temper, is never happy, and criticizes everyone. Both girls relate to these characters, even as they exaggerate their traits. In one compelling interview, the girl playing the aggressive character reveals her memories of the political tensions in Serbia and Kosovo. This sequence includes her recalling an incident in which her grandfather was burned by Serbian fighters. The link between her experiences in the studio and these painful memories reveals the far-reaching scope of dance education from the studio into the realms of memory and emotion. I too have a set of experiences that have shaped my personality. Dance has allowed me to gain a better sense of why I respond in a certain way to a given situation. As I gain in awareness, I can learn to construct creative ways to cope with difficult feelings, rather than resorting to destructive behaviors. Dancing Dreams doesn’t shy away from the delicate topics. One of these is suicide. A young woman in a satin dress tightens a purple scarf around her neck hoping that someone will approach her before she dies. The students respond honestly to this staged situation and manage to openly express their views about the topic at hand. These difficult conversations are facilitated through corporal expression. Things that can not always be said in a straight forward manner can be effectively explored through dance. This challenging process, which culminates in a final performance equips the young participants with key skills that will translate to their academic, professional, and personal lives. Dealing with pressure, being accountable, receiving and giving constructive criticism, being patient, communicating clearly are a few of the skills we watch them acquire. Because only some students could be selected for the final cast, a certain degree of pressure was placed on the performers over the course of the several month-long preparation process. Such exposure to high pressure situations can be good preparation for future academic, professional, and social environments. Understanding how one responds to stress can be crucial in developing a coping strategy. Throughout the weekend days spent rehearsing the show, the teachers empower their students with constructive feedback, creating an environment that honors hard work and commitment. As they learn new material, there can be a tendency to seek instant gratification, which at times leads to frustration. The students are encouraged to be patient with themselves and others. Working as a group in order to put on a show these young adults learn to be accountable to one another. This is rewarding work: One of their teachers says that witnessing these different personalities working together sometimes moves her to tears. In the closing scenes of Dancing Dreams, I found myself touched by the positive energy emanating from these young performers. One student tells us that his grades in oral exams improved since he took up dancing. We often hear, especially during the recent economic crisis, that the job market will reward creative thinkers with good communication skills who can approach issues in fresh and innovative ways. Investing in educational programs that develop these traits is worthwhile. But more importantly, this film demonstrates an even greater asset. By learning to dance Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof, the students achieved an unchangeable sense of personal integrity.
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