November 4, 2019
A thematic unit on sports is likely to appeal to the athletes in our classrooms. The frequent use of songs and Clozeline activities delights the singers and musicians. Literary texts may appeal to the future writers and journalists. Creative projects bring out the artistic talents of many of our students. But what about the dancers?
Despite being an important part of the cultures we teach in our modern world language classes, dance is a frequently underutilized authentic resource. I would argue that its absence in many classrooms is due to its being ostensibly difficult to implement: Neither educators nor students may feel comfortable dancing publicly and may not have any technical dance vocabulary in the target language or even in English. Teachers may feel that they do not have access to materials that would help them carry out dance-related activities, nor to sufficient classroom space for movement to occur. Also, while movement-based games can be popular with elementary age students, they may seem less suited for higher-level courses.
But as many educators today focus on incorporating authentic resources and meeting the needs of diverse learners, using dance is a logical choice—and easier to integrate into curriculum than it may seem. After all, movement is language, too (many forms of dance even predate modern languages), often with communicative goals much like the ones we write as daily objectives. And using dance as an authentic resource does not require any dancing at all!
Here I will share examples of lessons in which I have successfully incorporated dance as an authentic resource for two different courses that I teach, as well as suggestions for how you can experience similar success in your classroom.
Dance as a Window into History and Culture
As part of a unit on national and cultural identity in my AP® Spanish Language and Culture course, we study La Malinche. Through prose, artwork, and dance, we explore the ticklish question of whether she was merely a translator or in fact a traitor.
At approximately 15 minutes, “La Malinche,” a seminal work by renowned modern dance choreographer José Limón, is the perfect length for any class.1 Knowing that students likely do not have any dance vocabulary in Spanish, I have a worksheet with these guiding questions in the target language:
- What are the symbols (objects or movements) that you see in the dance? What do you think they represent?
- Do you think the music is appropriate for the dance? Why do you think Limón chose those songs?
- How would you describe the characters’ movements? Do you think they reflect who they are?
- What might the final scene—when Malinche offers the rose—represent?
- Do you think the dance is a good representation of the history of Malinche?
The phrasing of these questions allows students to respond without having to know specific dance vocabulary (which I can give to them as necessary), but instead drawing upon language they already have to describe, analyze, and give an opinion—communicative skills I would expect from their level. Thus, I am able to reinforce ways in which students can apply pre-existing skills to an unfamiliar source, a particularly useful skill for the AP exam.
I also wrote the questions to meet some of the National Core Arts Standards in Dance, released in 2014 by the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. Of the four standards—Creating, Performing, Responding, and Connecting—the latter two are the most appropriate when using dance as an authentic resource. The questions for this assignment addressed Anchor Standards 7 (Perceive and analyze artistic work), 8 (Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work), and 11 (Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical context to deepen understanding), which I can easily transform into Can-Do Statements for the lesson or unit. For example, I use the descriptors for Standard 7 to identify one of the specific goals I want students to accomplish: “Describe … and discuss patterns of movement and their relationships in dance in context of artistic intent” (DA:Re.7.1.8). During class discussion, students show they meet this objective by describing how the three protagonists in the dance move and how they think that reflects what Limón, a native Mexican, was communicating about Malinche.
Student feedback on this activity has been positive. As a Presentational Speaking assessment to conclude the unit, students use Flipgrid to record their thoughts on which medium they enjoyed the most and/or felt was most faithful to Malinche. A student once noted that “almost never” in school had she learned about history (or any other topic) through dance, so Limón’s piece stood out to her. It is clear to me that, although that the unit was compelling in previous years, my decision to add dance—only an additional day of class time—has enriched it.
Of course, the story of Malinche may not connect to everyone’s curriculum. But there are many other examples of dance works related to literature, mythology, and culture in the world language classroom, such as the great ballet Don Quixote and the Mark Morris Dance Group’s Dido and Aeneas.
Dance as a Vehicle for Language Function
Like many teachers, I use fairy tales to model the uses of the preterite and imperfect tenses. Thanks to renowned Spanish flamenco dancer Sara Baras, I can easily incorporate dance as another layer to this unit.
After working on various retellings of Caperucita Roja with my Spanish 2 class, we turn our attention to Cenicienta. Together we watch Baras’ rendition of the story, part of a 2013 promotional spot for CaixaBank.
She uses such clear facial expressions, intonations, and gestures that students can easily use context clues to infer the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary and to understand her usage of the past tenses.
After focusing on the language, we turn our attention to the dancing. I pose a series of questions in both English and Spanish to guide students’ thinking:
- How would you describe Baras’ dancing? [Standard 7: Demonstrate and describe observed or performed dance movements from a specific genre or culture.]
- What props does she use? Why do you think they’re important? [Standard 11: Select and describe movements in a specific genre or style and explain how the movements relate to the culture, society, historical period, or community from which the dance originated.]
- Does her dancing help tell the story? If so, how? If not, what do you think it does? [Standard 8: Interpret meaning in a dance based on its movements. Explain how the movements communicate the main idea of the dance using basic dance terminology.]
- Was this an effective advertisement? Why do you think Baras was selected for this campaign? [Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work – Discuss movements and other aspects of the dances that make the dances work well, and explain why they work.]
Students answer in the target language to the best of their abilities and I aid them with additional expressions as needed. By the end of the lesson, what started as a seemingly straightforward grammar lesson has led us to much richer conversation. For students curious to know more about flamenco, I can show them more clips of Baras and other famous flamenco dancers on YouTube (a terrific resource); assign a WebQuest on flamenco dancing; or show a clip from a film such as La Chana, a 2016 documentary about the eponymous Spanish flamenco star.
Since rethinking my lessons in this way, the preterite and imperfect tenses have never been more engaging for my students!
Suggestions for Finding and Incorporating Authentic Dance Resources
– Start small. Identify one unit where you could incorporate a dance/movement activity and test it out. Dance connects easily to the global AP themes of Contemporary Life and Beauty and Aesthetics. You can also consider including dance as an option for end-of-unit projects or other creative assessment opportunities.
– Contact dance educators and performers in your community who may be able to help you brainstorm some ideas. Depending on your school’s resources, you may even be able to hire them to come into your classroom, or they may know of local dance events that could be potential field trips or extra credit opportunities.
– Don’t be afraid to contact dance companies directly, either. Many ensembles have educational outreach programs that could help provide you with some materials to introduce their art form to an unfamiliar audience.
– Familiarize yourself with the National Core Arts Standards for Dance (www.nationalartsstandards.org), which are aimed at K-12 educators. The National Dance Education Organization website (www.ndeo.org) has detailed information on the dance standards and ideas for assessments.
– Collaborate with your performing arts department, who may already be using the National Core Arts Standards.
1 A video of the dance came with my purchase of José Limón and La Malinche, from the University of Texas Press, although I obtained a link to an online version after sending a polite request to the José Limón Dance Foundation, explaining my educational objectives.
NCCAS, National Core Arts Standards: A Conceptual Framework for Arts Learning. Last modified February 18, 2014. https://www.nationalartsstandards.org
Ryan Casey teaches Spanish at his alma mater, Lexington High School, in Lexington, MA. His dance career has taken him around the country and abroad, appearing on television and on the cover of Dance Magazine. He holds a B.A. from NYU Gallatin.
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