I have been fortunate to work with children and youth extensively in my life: from volunteering extra lessons with orphans at Mount Mellary Primary in Zimbabwe, teaching graphic design and literature with the Breakthrough Collaborative in Florida, or English as a Second Language (ESL) through art with Summerbridge in Hong Kong, building orphanages in Cambodia and Sri Lanka, to arts camps in Maine. I engage in creative practice, and facilitate workshops with/for people of all ages, but this excerpt reflects loosely on relating to the ‘young ones.’ Though I draw from all my experiences teaching, I focus on my work (or play) with the Stonington Opera House Arts and the REACH Performing Arts Center in the Summer of 2014. My interest is in understanding the value of cultural worldview in learning. Rather than teaching ‘things’, can we bring awareness to each individuals capacity to learn?
Learning How You Know: A reflection
I am teaching 4 classes at a summer arts camp for children with the Stonington Opera House Arts and the REACH Performing Arts Center on Deer Isle, Maine. The classes are draw from practices of dance, physical theater, object theater, creative writing, improvisation, and music. The children range from ages six to fourteen. Some are from the island, others ‘from away.’ It is strange thing, the concept of “native” or “indigenous”, especially considering how in history, the ones who coined the terms to label the “other” where “from away”. In the summer, it is clear that there are three groups of people: those from the island, year-round residents, and those from away. The children at the program span all three groups. They are divided into four groups by age and I work with each separately. My title is “dance instructor.” I am purposely investigating the efficacy of centering Afrocentric pedagogic principles as outlined by Dr. Linda James Myers (1993) for a population that is neither African, nor of African descent.
What are the benefits of deploying Africana worldviews in pedagogic contexts? How are “African” pedagogic approaches different from normative modes of teaching and learning? How receptive or resistant will the children be to these different approaches? To what extent will the learning objectives be achieved through this approach? What would a syncretic approach (fusing Euro-Western and Africanist methods) to teaching look like and how effective would it be? What new or different knowledges or ways of knowing might arise out of conscious deployment of varied worldviews in dance pedagogy?
The camp is alight with creativity. Printing, sculpture, theater, music, poetry and many more classes are available to the children over the period of three weeks. It is a frenzy of morning drop-off by family members, and chaotic pick-ups at the end of the day. The little ones rush in in the mornings excited to see their teachers and facilitators. Young alumni of the program–late high school or pre-college age–stand in a assistant to teachers, or class leaders to help the program-goers from class to class. The staff is generally familiar with each other. They are artist from the island, or away. Some are elementary or high school teachers. Some are musicians, of choir directors. The option for one facilitator to collaborate with another toward the final performance held by the children is always available, and highly encouraged. Nothing less could be expected of the Opera House Arts, whose motto is “Incite Art. Create Community.”
So where to begin with this experience of working with children? I realize as I use the word “child,” that matters of epistemology and ontology begin right away for there is in each worldview, a socio-cultural construction of “the child”. (Kessel) So where in some cultures, a child is seen as an underdeveloped version of a grown up who is yet to mature, an Africanist worldview of a child may be summed up in the saying, “a bird does not wait it is old to fly.” Understanding that I am working with little human creature that have been labeled as (and possibly socialized to be) children, I must accept and be aware that I am already engaged in an encounter with a particular cultural worldview, with cultural expectations, and implicit understandings that may or may not be know to me. So I prefer to approach such an encounter as a dialogue between worldviews in which everyone is learning and everyone is teaching (hence my general preference of the term facilitator rather than teacher).
Each of the seven subtitles below is (verbatim) a principle outlined by Myres as a recommendation for an epistemologically aware approach to pedagogy that can be applied to any subject or field of study. The principles seek to center the cultural worldview as pedagogic method. Though Myers uses it to address asymmetry in the educational lives of minority–mostly African American–populations, I explore the possibility of deploying “foreign” worldviews as a way of expanding, opening, and inspiring young minds toward the ability of empathy, wholism, creative problem solving through access to alternate worldviews.
- stress that cosmology is a rubric to make technical skills meaningful:
One the first day of each session with different groups we stand in a circle and each person shares their name. I insist they speak their name proudly, knowing that it – like them – is a story. It is not enough to speak one’s name, one must “be” it. A name carries us through our lives and around the world. Our brains can recognize it spoken amongst a multitude of voices. In the documentary film Movement (R)evolution Africa, choreographer and perfromance artist Nora Chipaumire is heard insisting, “Tell me who you are,” while facilitating a movement workshop. Chipaumire asks the participants to show her their identity through their movement. The body is articulate, and she asks that dancers allow it to “speak” its mother tongue. My classes begin from here. They speak their names, then I speak their names back to them.
Hearing their names draws their attention outward. They enter a space of readiness. I then ask each group as we begin to work: “who are you?” The children giggle and laugh. With each group group, there is the inevitable, obvious answer, “I’m me!” to which I respond, “That’s right!” Then I ask, “Tell me about “me”. Before long we realize that “me” is many things: a boy/girl, a brother/sister, nephew/niece, artist, writer, scientist, athlete as so on. So I ask them, “How can you be so many things at once?” And so the dancing begins.
We walk in two single-file lines down the space (a large theater stage). At the edge of the space, the two leaders step outward, away from each other and repeat the motion backwards. The line follows suit. Movements are switched out in same travel pattern. The “convections”, as I call them, these cycles of backwards and forwards, will be part of our daily ritual of warm up. Whether upright, on all fours, inverted, or in deep plié, the question is not to ‘do it right’ but to focus on how you learn? When a participant says, “I can’t do it,” I always say, “Build to it,” or, “look at how others are doing it, and figure it out. I know you can.” Whether we know or not, how do we understand the patterns in our knowing or not knowing, and recognize which knowing from our past is useful in this moment. In time perhaps we learn to understand how we know. We can learn to remember how we arrived here, all the ways of knowing that we’ve accumulated. Is it possible to forget the things that we know? And can our bodies guide us toward new ways of knowing?
“Cosmology” implies worldviews in four dimension–time being the fourth. It connotes how we understand our being-in-the-world, and our ways of knowing the world. These are primarily a product of our social conditioning. Processes that entrench within us particular habits of thought if you will, and also habits of embodied behavior. These habits shape our relationship to the world. By questioning these habits of thoughts, beginning with teh most basic, the individual becomes more agential in their self-actualization.
- use worldview to make a cohesive reality evident in daily life
After the first class, we ‘check-in’ at the beginning of each class (a practice I adopted from Millicent Johnnie in Dallas). “Just say how you’re doing briefly and end by saying “checked in”, ” I tell them. We acknowledge each other and the state we are in when we enter the class. We know, after a few classes, that we will feel differently by the end of it because emotional states are like weather, ever changing be it swiftly or gradually. No need to say or share something profound or intimate, just say hello. Tell us who you are. Speak your name so we may move with you. We acknowledge where we are, knowing that: how you feel is not a ‘condition’ you are in, but a sign from your “bodymind” (Forster, Dychtwald); an awareness that you may interpret. Learn these signs that we call “feelings” as you move through your journey. I remember also how Neale Donald Walsch (2012) reminds us how, too often thoughts are confused with feelings. So: “how do I ‘know’?”
I move from one analogy to another to connect movement to daily life, to sensation, to images. We play with exploring various movement qualities. To draw various “efforts” (Laban) out, images, stories, and adventures to to activate sensation through the body-mind connection. Ideokinesis (Studd) resonates strongly which storytelling; with the concept of story. Stories are the curious, complex and chaotic “archives and repertoires” (Taylor) of onto-epistemology. Stories, in the form of images in our minds which are linked to lived experience, can inspire movement through memory, which sustains story as memory itself is story. Now again, story is strange. The relationship between image and sensation is complex and non-linear. Moreover, these complex threads between memory, story and sensation affect each other too. They are responsive to one another.
When I move through the space I keep my fingers alive. I guide them using questions,”Do I have claws? Are they long, digging into the earth? Are my fingers glowing? Have you ever seen bioluminescents in the water at night? Speaking of water, how do your legs feel? Are moving through water?” The boys yell “quicksand!” and sure enough everyone begins to “sink”. Five minutes later, after the joyous chaos subsides, we continue.
Comedic physicality is always a good inroad when working with younger demographics I’ve found. But I soon realize my prejudice against the social construction “child” when they begin suggesting imagery of their own. From quotidian movement situations, the range of imagery expands exponentially. Before long the descriptions as we talk and improvise, take on deep, multi-faceted, whole, emotional tones. A movement is described as being like sadness, or like when someone you like is happy. I tell them to re-member and to trust what they know. By creating a safe space for personal expression, the children are allowed time to engage in embodied meditations on various experiences that–in the “real world”–too often pass us by before we deeply, bodily, and emotionally grasp their meanings to us.
- continually illustrate interconnectedness/interrelationship
Also too often, I remind them they are not alone. In space as we move: who am I? Where is everyone else in relation to my space? What is my awareness as I move forward; then backward? How to I see without eyes behind my head? What is to see? What is awareness?
The trail of questions and play is endless and before long I feel like the blessed camp-counselor at a retreat for baby Buddhas. When we do not know – when the entirety of our resources cannot seem to solve a problem? We laugh and I dwell and ramble about the beauty of the question.
I ‘am’ because of community and not simply because of the communion of two. Around mother and father, there are others of our blood and those beyond. Before mother and father is an endless river of others flowing ecstatically and continually toward this point in time that is you. You are yourself a part of this expansive river that is ‘being’; this migration of intelligences as Rumi puts it. (1996) It works on a continuum: diverging infinitely in one direction is your understanding of your effect on your system; in the other, your understanding of the ecology/ecosystem of which you are a part.
To hurt others dancing is bad, to get hurt dancing is bad. The youngsters laugh when I relay the familiar wisdom of capoeiristas I have learned with: “if you kick someone it’s your fault, if you get kicked it’s your fault.”
What are the many ways we can encourage awareness of the interconnectedness of being, rather than warn of (or cultivate fear of) upsetting the balance? How to we remember that risk and awareness are not in conflict?
- establish space to discuss identity and self-worth
We lay aside right and wrong and good or bad. We perform a comical pantomime phrase as a group. There is spider-eating involved, some vocalization when my hand becomes a snake as attacks me. Afterwards: How did y’all feel about that? What could we add? How do we make it better? Better? Yes, as in, more fun for both the audience and us.
But I’m not good at the cartwheel. You wanna learn how to do one? Hey everyone! Come here a moment. You know what I mean when I say you can ‘modify’ the movement? That’s right, change it, alter it till it feels good in your body, then build. Let me give you an image – a tangent if you will. I like to think of movement as a tree or a plant. It starts small and is always growing, getting bigger and bigger. Always becoming. Start small, find the movement and grow it, cultivate it. Don’t try to do it, find it. How does it feel?
- explore worldviews of other cultures and examine ramifications
This circle we are standing in is not the first circle that has been stood in, nor will it be the last of all humanity. People say things about African circles, about Native American circles, about Druid circles, American circles and on and on. I tell them many of these stories. How are they different, how are they the same? How does difference and alikeness exist simultaneously?
When we are upside down, I tell a story of yoga or capoeira. Who are all these people who have shared in these movements? what did it mean to them, or do for them? We watch YouTube videos. Reactions: a) whoa, that’s awesome! b) I wanna do that! c) That girl can kick butt! d) I wish I was strong enough. I antagonize with some questions: Are you surprised about the girl? What does it mean to be strong? Before long we are lined up against walls practicing handstands. We tumble about learning to walk one our hands. Knowing that through practice, we can cultivate a seed that will grow.
Imagery of popular culture ‘types’ become inspiration for relaying movement qualities we aim to embody for a group phrase. Children are hyper-aware of the information passed through all popular mediums.
What do you think this movement should feel like? Like a matador! What country are they from again? Europe! Close…Spain? And why do you think they fight bulls? Suddenly our group knowledge reaches an end. We realize there are questions we have never not yet asked about the images, the stories we are given, they they accrue so much meaning. So I tell them a story of the matador. There may also be brief mention flamenco, or machismo, or tangential references to pasa doble in this windy tale. I lose myself in ‘story’.There many head-knods going round on the little bodies sprinkled around the stage. But…wait for it. Why do they fight bulls?
- emphasize similarity and analyze the sustenance of conceptual systems through history
Why do we have rodoes? Coz their fun. Fun for who? Everyone. For you, for the riders, the bulls, the clowns, the horses-? Those aren’t a ‘who,’ they’re a ‘what’! To who?
I remind them that Chinua Achebe says that there is no story that is not true, that the world has no end, and that what is good in one place is an abomination in the other. The relevance of this phrase is unclear to some of them. But there are some things that are not true, like flying pigs! (Well have you seen the Gieco add? But I digress…) How do you ‘know’?
- encourage creativity by suspending previous limits
So today I don’t know what to do. What do you guys wanna to do? (And in unison – I kid you not – they yell) ‘Freeze Dance’! They tell me to play the song “Oliver Twist” by Nigerian hip-hop artist D’banj and U.S artist Kanye West (soon to become the class anthem). The music plays, they dance like crazy. The music stops, they freeze. If anyone is caught by the referees (myself and one student who didn’t feel like freeze dancing) moving too long after the music has stopped, they join the referee club. In a single day we had democratically added a new practice for our class ritual.
My prejudice against the ‘child’ is trampled once more in wake of dance freeze. I see beautiful movements that they were outside my framework of suggestion for group “their age”. The group member perform contact work, lifts, partnered inversions, and of course, a conga line. The group phrase we are constructing grows dramatically through this spontaneity of dance freeze. How much room do leave or create for play to produce knowledge?
Dychtwald, Ken. Bodymind. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1986. Print.
Kessel, Frank S, and Alexander W. Siegel. The Child and Other Cultural Inventions: Houston Symposium 4. New York: Praeger, 1983. Print.
Maulānā Ğalāl ad-Din Rumi. The essential rumi. HarperSanFrancisco. A Division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 1996.
Myers, Linda J. Understanding an Afrocentric World View: Introduction to an Optimal Psychology. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co, 1993. Print.
Studd, Karen A. Ideokinesis, Mental Rehearsal and Relaxation Applied to Dance Technique. M.S. University of Oregon Press, 1983. Print.
Walsch, Neale Donald. Conversations with God. Hachette UK, 2012.
special thanks to –The Stoning Stonington Opera House, The Ohio State University Department of Dance, The Ohio State Department of African American and African Studies, American, Carol Shutt, and Rocky Mann.