Dance teacher uses movement to sharpen minds
Nineteen second- and third-graders move in unison, each tapping, pinching, scraping, brushing her or his head, neck, torso, limbs and feet...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Anne Green Gilbert's Web site: www.creativedance.org
Nineteen second- and third-graders move in unison, each tapping, pinching, scraping, brushing her or his head, neck, torso, limbs and feet. They are in the midst of the "tactile" phase of an eight-pronged routine that modern-dance educator Anne Green Gilbert calls the "BrainDance."
Her immediate goal for this late-afternoon dance class is to get these kids settled and focused enough to learn, but she also embraces the larger concept: that a movement practice like this can help enhance the mind-body connection and cognitive development for people of all ages.
Soon, the kids alternate between huddling themselves into balls and spreading their limbs wide like starfishes. They stretch and scrunch their spines, explore the relationship between lower and upper limbs, and then each of their sides. They move up and down and diagonally, careful to track their hands as they reach. They make climbing or crawling motions. They end the warm-up by spinning, then hopping with eyes closed to test and engage the vestibular system.
Gilbert is known internationally as an advocate of not just teaching dance, but teaching through dance. She has done it for about four decades and continues to refine her approach.
She infuses "brain-compatible" dance concepts into all classes at her nonprofit Creative Dance Center in North Seattle and with her two youth dance companies, including Kaleidoscope, which has performed for 26 years from Japan to Finland. She espouses the concepts and the power of movement in brain development in teacher workshops and through her choreography, books and videos. The BrainDance represents the latest stop in her long exploration.
"It has been an evolution," she says. "I've been working with developmental patterns since the '70s. They are patterns I didn't make up but patterns a baby does and that help wire the brain. I believe these are the foundation for all our movement, whether it is sports, dance or just daily life."
You can watch a baby do his or her own BrainDance, she says. It makes connections with the world through touch — the tactile phase — especially through skin on skin. It reaches into space and curls back into a protective womb position. It discovers its upper and lower halves and how they work together as it pushes with arms and hands and then to feet and knees.
It moves its sides independently while crawling — and it develops eye-tracking while doing it. Eventually, it begins a cross-lateral reach exhibited first on hands and knees and later through toddling. The vestibular system, critical for balance, develops intensively through the first 15 months as it learns to walk.
While some brain scientists may dispute her conviction on just how much rewiring these BrainDance movement patterns can achieve, especially in later life, there is a good body of research that shows the value of movement in cognitive development. She says she sees the effects, especially in the classes that include kids who appear, on the surface, less committed or capable.
"These are the sorts of children you see in every class in public schools, but rarely at traditional dance schools because they kick them out," she says. "It makes my teaching challenging, but quite rewarding."
Helping elders, too
She is also certain that the patterns used by the BrainDance can help older people and those with neurological and central nervous system problems. You can do all the crossword puzzles you want, but that can't compete with the added creative spark that dance provides, she says.
While a stickler on fundamentals, Gilbert is more interested in teaching movement concepts than step techniques. She wants pristine lines, but not at the expense of organic expression. She builds lessons around concepts of space, time, energy and shapes and movement relationships such as heavy/light and straight/curve. She even works subjects like spelling and math into the classes with younger students.
As does any good teacher, she urges critical thinking over rote learning, a lesson she relays in the workshops she puts on across the country. Her ultimate goal is to get dance schools to develop not just performers, but more educators.
A former elementary teacher with a master's degree in education, Gilbert taught dance at the universities of Illinois and Washington, consulted for the Washington state superintendent of public instruction, and has written books including "Teaching the Three Rs Through Movement Experiences." She was hired by former Seattle Public Schools Superintendent John Stanford to write the dance standards for an arts-based curriculum in the Seattle Public Schools, but the idea went by the wayside with his death.
Creating a model
She opened the Creative Dance Center in 1981 partially out of frustration over the lack of opportunity for both students and teachers of dance in public schools.
"I opened this dance center hoping it could serve as a model for what could happen in public schools. I want every child — and I've been working on this for 40 years — to have a chance to dance," she says. "Part of the reason they don't is because we are not training enough dance specialists."
Decades ago, she was director of children's programs for Bill Evans when the dance master based his professional company in Seattle. She also trained his professional dancers how to teach. Evans now teaches dance at State University of New York College at Brockport, but choreographed a part of Kaleidoscope's May concert and occasionally returns to Seattle and works with her youth dance troupe.
"I work with college students and professional dancers, but when I work with her kids, I find it exceptional how at such young ages they come completely prepared to participate in the piece," he says. "Teens are often unaware. They haven't been empowered to spark their own creative voice at that age. But her kids seem to be able to work with conceptual information."
That sophistication, says Evans and former professional modern dancer and now educator Christine Roberts, is the result of Gilbert's empowering approach. She encourages students to devise their own choreography and prohibits adults from being backstage at performances. She wants the kids to work it out by knowing when to lead and when to blend.
Roberts worked with Gilbert upon moving to Seattle and considers her a mentor. While working at the dance center, Roberts began applying specific movement patterns to her young son, Sam, who suffered a brain injury and paralysis on his left side. That work inspired Roberts to begin Nurturing Pathways, a creative movement program for children 3 and younger.
Gilbert recently published a BrainDance video and a book titled "Brain-Compatible Dance Education," but she knows fusing dance into curriculums is especially difficult in today's WASL and SAT world of learning. She remains committed, in part because of a gifted teacher she had as a child with a speech impediment.
"All we seemed to do was play games, but through that I quickly learned how to re-pattern my speech," she recalls. "If not for that class, I probably would have dropped out of school! Ever since, I've been fascinated about how we learn."
Richard Seven: 206-464-2241or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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