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Learning inside-out, reflective and transformative learning

As documented in the range of intervention and action research studies exploring ways of implementing the new way of dance education, the progressivism way, there are promising results for this shift in dance education. The new way pedagogy is affecting the process of learning from three perspectives linked to theory and research: embodied, transformative, and reflective learning.


Embodied learning

The concept of embodied learning has, in the literature, been connected to the evolution of contemporary dance techniques as well as the introduction of somatic practices into dance training and dance education (Petsilas et al., 2020; Østern, 2017).

There is an implicit notion of the knowing existing within the doing, and therefore embodied practice is at the core, as ways of experiencing, being, participating, understanding, and communicating as a body (Andresen, 2011).

The experience of being present in the dance practice, to not think, is connected to autotelic flow-experiences, a state where body and mind melt together as one, without an external focus, a state associated with enhanced intrinsic motivation and wellbeing (Rothmund, 2019). In the doctoral work of Rothmund (2019), five themes of embodied learning describing the process of reaching this state of flow was identified:

  1. to listen to your body
  2. to verbalize bodily experiences
  3. to adjust movements to your own body
  4. to integrate body and mind
  5. to identify your embodied knowledge.

The embodied dimension of learning dance was also evident in a study exploring the intersection of the individual’s imagery ability, imagery use in dance training and performance, and learning style.

The findings demonstrated that most dance students showed relative ease when imaging. 79% of the participants reported a preference for “feeling” over “thinking” when gathering information for learning. The researchers concluded that imagery may be a good pedagogic tactic for reaching the embodied character of dance learners (Bolles & Chatfield, 2009).

Foto: Yaniv Cohen

Reflective learning

Dance scholars and practitioners highlight that the language of movement and the verbal language should not be muddled (Andresen, 2011). Both dance and verbal language are considered cultural forms of representation. They are actions with the potential to produce, express and communicate meaning.

The movement may be called text, the choreographer a writer, the dancer a performer and the audience readers. However, it is important for dance students to try to learn ways of verbalizing their physical experiences to communicate and document bodily experiences or embodied knowledge (Andresen, 2011).

This is emphasized in many studies – that despite the embodied way of learning, it is vital in the learning process of dance to connect the body and mind (Andresen, 201; Nordgård & Haugland, 2014; Leijen et al 2008, 2009, 2012, 2016; Rothmund, 2019). Reflections involve questioning existing assumptions, values and perspectives that underlie people’s actions, decisions, and judgments. The purpose of questioning is to liberate people from their habitual ways of thinking or acting.

The abovementioned practice-based studies have explored ways of verbalizing their physical experiences to communicate and document bodily experiences or embodied knowledge. In one study the dedicated reflective practice sessions was found to be of great value to the dance students (Petsilas et al., 2020).

Specifically, reflective practice was identified as a process that had a positive impact on both personal growth and dance practice of the individual student, as well as, through collective and collaborative sharing of experiences, on the development of the group as a self-efficient ensemble (Petsilas et al., 2020).

However, the level of understanding of the relevance of structured reflective practice varied, and the engagement with theoretical frameworks represented a challenge to some students. It seemed that the most beneficial discussions were when the large class cohort was divided into two or three smaller groups (Petsilas et al., 2020).

In a study exploring reflective practice in ballet and choreography students, results showed that 79% of the students’ reflections focused on technical aspects, and the remaining 21% focused on practical aspects, mainly concerned with the execution of technique (Leijen et al., 2012). The majority of choreography students’ reflections (65%) focused on practical aspects of their choreography and how their choreographic intentions were communicated with the composition. Whereas 22% of the choreography students’ reflections focused on the technical aspects of their compositions, and the remaining 13% reflections were characterized as sensitizing reflection.

Furthermore, this study revealed that the quality of reflection in peer-feedback was on a higher level than the quality of reflection in self-evaluations (Leijen et al., 2012). Regarding the level of reflection related to learning, choreography students’ reflections were on a higher level compared to ballet students, since more often, students presented justifications and critique than discussion and descriptive information (Leijen et al., 2012).

In another and more recent study of how to facilitate reflective learning in university dance students (Leijen et al., 2016), researchers found guided reflection was more effective as it enhanced the dialog and a transformative level of learning, while unguided reflection produced only a descriptive level of learning (Leijen et al., 2016).

In a Norwegian study, exploring ways of developing a conscious attitude and agency towards movement as expression in dance education, findings showed increased awareness of communicational codes. Several of the dance students also revealed new aspects of dance as an art form through the process of verbal reflection (Andresen, 2011).

Transformative learning

Transformative learning is the process of deep, constructive, and meaningful learning that goes beyond simple knowledge acquisition and through a process of becoming critically aware of tacit assumptions (see Mezirov, 2000).

In dance education transformative learning is part of the progressive ‘new way’ of teaching and learning and focuses on facilitating experiences that challenge the students’ tacit, taken-for-granted assumptions, beliefs, values, and expectations (Rimmer, 2017).

In a study of first year higher education dance students exploring the effects of transformative learning, the findings revealed some challenges since this new way differed greatly to the students prior learning in dance technique. Altering one’s perception of the teacher as the provider of technical dance knowledge to that of a facilitator of individual knowledge turned out to be a too radical shift for some students (Rimmer, 2017).

Consequently, the doxic understanding of dance technique largely remained intact despite the intervention. As a conclusion, the author claimed that the teacher or student alone cannot change the culture of the dance technique class (Rimmer, 2017).

However, in a Norwegian study of contemporary dance students in higher education, evidence of the process of the transformative was present (Rothmund, 2019). In this study there was evidence the students did go through a transformative process of learning that gradually shifted from a traditional teacher and subject centered way, to a progressive, holistic, and self-regulated way (i.e., from identify and reproduce [first year], via explore and transfer [second year], to personalize and develop [third year]). Agency was identified an important key of success in the transformative process (Rothmund, 2019).

Andresen, J. V. E. (2011). Embodied knowledge in high-school dance students; communicating the bodily experience (Master’s thesis, Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet, Det humanistiske fakultet, Institutt for musikk).

Bolles, G., & Chatfield, S. J. (2009). The intersection of imagery ability, imagery use, and learning style: an exploratory study. Journal of Dance Education, 9(1), 6-16.

Leijen, Ä., Lam, I., Simons, P. R. J., & Wildschut, L. (2008). Pedagogical practices of reflection in tertiary dance education. European physical education review, 14(2), 223-241.

Leijen, Ä., Lam, I., Wildschut, L., & Simons, P. R. J. (2009). Difficulties teachers report about students’ reflection: Lessons learned from dance education. Teaching in Higher Education, 14(3), 315-326.

Leijen, Ä., & Sööt, A. (2016). Supporting pre-service dance teachers’ reflection with different reflection procedures. Research in Dance Education, 17(3), 176-188.

Leijen, Ä., Valtna, K., Leijen, D. A., & Pedaste, M. (2012). How to determine the quality of students’ reflections?. Studies in Higher Education, 37(2), 203-217.

Nordgård, A., & Haugland, T. (2014). To læringsperspektiv i jazzdans: Fra formidlingspreget danseundervisning til prosessorientert læringsfokus (Master’s thesis, Høgskolen i Oslo og Akershus).

Petsilas, P., Leigh, J., Brown, N., & Blackburn, C. (2020). Creative and embodied methods to teach reflections and support students’ learning. In Dance, Professional Practice, and the Workplace (pp. 47-66). Routledge.

Rimmer, R. (2017). Negotiating the rules of engagement: exploring perceptions of dance technique learning through Bourdieu’s concept of ‘doxa’. Research in Dance Education, 18(3), 221-236.

Rothmund, I. V. (2019). Å gjøre dansen til sin: Bachelorstudenters levde erfaringer i moderne-og samtidsdans (Doctoral dissertation, Institutionen för kultur och estetik, Stockholms universitet).

Østern, T. P. (2017). Norske samtidsdansutdanninger i spennet mellom modernisme og postmodernisme-tidligere dansestudenters refleksjoner over påvirkningen av en danseutdanning.


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