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The potential of dance as embodied learning

Authors:
  • University of the Arts Helsinki, Finland

Abstract

In this article, based on my conference paper, I present several theoretical frameworks for considering dance as embodied learning. In doing so, my intention is to substantiate the claims on the educational potential of dance – a physical activity that at best engages the human being quite fully. Because dance often involves sensory processes, social interaction, various modes of reflection, creative processes, and performative elements it has the capacity to connect non-symbolic, multimodal sensations with symbolic information. The performance elements and cultural aspects of dance open wide possibilities for learning that is grounded in the body but reaches towards complex cultural meanings. When sensory experiences intertwine with the shared social world the pre-reflective level of consciousness may become connected with the reflective level. Dance, as well as many other creative and embodied activities may also support the ability to access and interpret messages that our embodied system generates and transmits. These messages, along with the immediate sensory experiences that dancing generates, can be seen as “raw material” for creating artistic expressions and interpreting cultural meanings. In my view, these processes form the premise for dance as embodied learning.
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Title
The potential of dance as embodied learning
Permalink
https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3s7118mr
Author
Anttila, Eeva
Publication Date
2018-01-08
Peer reviewed
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The potential of dance as embodied learning!
Proceedings of"A Body of Knowledge - Embodied Cognition and the Arts"conference
CTSA UCI 8-10 Dec 2016
Eeva Anttila
The potential of dance as embodied learning
Eeva Anttila
Introduction
1
In this article I present several theoretical frameworks for considering dance as embodied learning.
In doing so, my intention is to substantiate the claims on the educational potential of dance a
physical activity that at best engages the human being quite fully. Because dance often involves
sensory processes, social interaction, various modes of reflection, creative processes, and
performative elements it has the capacity to connect non-symbolic, multimodal sensations with
symbolic information. The performance elements and cultural aspects of dance open wide
possibilities for learning that is grounded in the body but reaches towards complex cultural
meanings. When sensory experiences intertwine with the shared social world the pre-reflective level
of consciousness may become connected with the reflective level (Maitland, 2006). Dance, as well
as many other creative and embodied activities may also support the ability to access and interpret
messages that our embodied system generates and transmits. These messages, along with the
immediate sensory experiences that dancing generates, can be seen as “raw material” for creating
artistic expressions and interpreting cultural meanings. In my view, these processes form the
premise for dance as embodied learning.
Theoretical frameworks for dance as embodied learning
My current understanding on dance as embodied learning connects theoretical views and empirical
findings from the fields of embodied cognition and socio-material approaches with dance and
performance studies, as well as somatic studies. My starting point is aligned with contemporary
This paper has been written as part of the ArtsEqual –project funded by the Academy of Finland’s Strategic Research
1
Council from its Equality in Society –programme (project no. 293199). Sections of this paper have been published in
the author’s previous publications (Anttila, in print; Anttila, 2015).
Proceedings of A Body of Knowledge - Embodied Cognition and the Arts conference CTSA UCI 8-10 Dec 2016
views on cognition and learning. These views maintain that human meaning-making is always
connected to the physical, material conditions in which we are situated, and that it is only partly in
our conscious control (see, e.g. Núñez, Edwards & Matos, 1999).
The growing scholarly field of embodied cognition, especially the enactive approach, concurs
closely with the above mentioned statements. This approach is highly relevant for developing the
notion of dance as embodied learning, as it departs from models that place the internal cognition of
individuals as the nexus of social dynamics (Rosch, 2016, xlvii). Enaction sees the lived body as a
system that encompasses the interaction between body and mind, body and environment, and
environment and mind, and focuses on embodied social interaction as mutual participatory sense-
making. As Evan Thompson explicates, “human cognition is not the grasping of an independent,
outside world by a separate mind or self, but instead the bringing forth or enacting of a dependent
world of relevance in and through embodied action” (2016, xviii). The enactive approach aims to
bridge cognitive science and human experience. Such cognitive science focuses on processes that
“bring about our experience of the world, including our sense of self … and extend across complex
couplings of the brain, the rest of the body, and the environment” (Thompson, 2016, xx). This view
on “the mind” is systemic and sees it as “a collection of constantly changing, emergent processes
that arise within a complex system comprising the brain, the rest of the body, and the physical and
social environment” (Thompson, 2016, xx). These views resonate with my lived experiences as a
dancer, dance educator, and dance scholar, and support me – and I believe many other dance
scholars as well – in articulating and understanding my deep interest in embodied learning.
Enactivism seems also closely allied with contemporary approaches to educational research referred
to as sociomaterial theories (Fenwick, Edwards & Sawchuk, 2011). These approaches consider
education and learning as systemic processes that take place within webs of entangled human and
non-human action and knowledge. They understand human knowledge and learning to be
embedded in material action and inter-action and seek to understand how knowledge, knowers, and
known emerge together with/in activity. A key theme is emergence: learning and knowledge emerge
within dynamic structures where events and actors are mutually dependent, mutually constitutive.
Human beings are fully nested within and interconnected with the elements of the systems in which
Proceedings of A Body of Knowledge - Embodied Cognition and the Arts conference CTSA UCI 8-10 Dec 2016
they are part of. Humans, thus, are not autonomous, sovereign agents of their learning and
knowledge construction. Knowledge, learning and action are understood as continuous invention
and exploration, knowledge performs itself into existence, and learning is defined as expanded
possibilities for action. Perhaps most importantly, sociomaterial approaches offer resources to
understand the unpredictability of educational processes. (Fenwick, Edwards and Sawchuk, 2011,
14-17) Emergence and unpredictability are qualities of learning in the arts and thus, approaches that
embrace these qualities are fruitful in building theoretical frameworks for arts education, including
dance education.
Supported by the aforementioned frameworks, I consider embodied learning as a systemic and
holistic process that takes place within the entire human being and between human beings, and in
connection with the social and physical reality. In order for learning to be experienced at an
embodied level, and intentionally framed to be so, it is indispensable that embodied activity
becomes a fundamental element in learning. Embodied activity refers to both actual movement and
inner bodily sensations, experiences and physiological changes. In embodied learning non-symbolic
sensations generated by physical action and multisensory engagement become interconnected with
symbolic knowing, and lead towards complex meaning-making processes within the social and
cultural world (Anttila, 2013; Katz, 2013; Svendler Nielsen, 2015). Through this process movement
and concepts become connected in space and time so that reflection takes place simultaneously with
action, and thus, “thought is placed in action and action is placed in the world” (Anderson &
Harrison, 2010, 11). When reflection continues after action in the form of sharing experiences and
ideas, bodily, prereflective experiences may become translated into language, concepts, and
meanings. This is how the living, organic body and the lived, phenomenal body may become
interconnected (Maitland, 1995; Thompson, 2007). Reality and imagination may intertwine in these
creative processes, and the borders between science and art may become blurred.
The element of performance, or performativity, adds yet another layer to this discussion. In order to
understand the significance of this aspect of (human) life, it seems helpful to shed light on some the
many meanings this phenomenon. As a noun, a performative denotes to (speech) act(ion)s; e.g, to
utterances that are events or actions in themselves, instead of descriptions of events or actions (see
Proceedings of A Body of Knowledge - Embodied Cognition and the Arts conference CTSA UCI 8-10 Dec 2016
Austin, 1975). The British philosopher John L. Austin, who coined the term, focused on
performatives in the context of ordinary life. Before Austin, the sociologist Erving Goffman (1959)
studied “life as performance”, utilizing the analogy between theatrical stage and everyday life, and
the many roles human beings take on, and thus, perform. The anthropologist Victor Turner (1982) is
widely known for his extensive work on cultural performances, e.g. rituals. During the last
decades, a growing body of literature on performance studies, and the so called performative turn,
has enriched our understanding on how various act(ion)s, whether on stage or in everyday lives can
be examined from the viewpoint of performance (Schechner, 2006; Fisher-Lichte, 2008). Further,
performative has two adjectival meanings: it either refers to the performance aspect of any object or
practice under consideration (see, e.g., Butler, 1990; Schechner, 2006), or it denotes
“impactful” (Bolt, 2008), to having an impact, in austinian sense. Again, these terms can be used in
the contexts of everyday lives, in the context of diverse cultural practices and in the context of
(performing) arts. It is my view that performing is a significant element of human life that should
be seen as a continuum where everyday life and art are interwoven. Thus, performing arts and
embodied, performative actions should be key elements in learning and education.
Concluding thoughts
Dance is an embodied, performative practice. The educational potential of such practice seems
promising, when investigated from the various theoretical viewpoints presented above. Based on
my practical research projects (e.g., Anttila, 2008; 2013; 2015), I am inclined to propose that young
pupils have an intuitive understanding about embodied learning, an inclination towards learning
through embodied actions, and a strong desire for creative collaboration with peers. A collaborative
approach towards creating dances incorporates embodied action with negotiation, decision-making,
opinion-stating, and demonstrating own ideas not only in words, but also with the entire body. This
process can be seen as series of embodied, performative acts that alternate with acts of receiving
and responding to others’ performative acts. The experiences related to performing, coupled with
witnessing others performing creates space for a shared experience and thus, may enhance the sense
of community. A sense of community may, in turn, generate a safe environment for performing
difference, and for an education that celebrates difference (Bhabha, 1994; Martusewicz et al., 2015).
Proceedings of A Body of Knowledge - Embodied Cognition and the Arts conference CTSA UCI 8-10 Dec 2016
Performing difference through dance may then be a path towards greater appreciation of diversity,
and pave way towards agency, identity, and community. To close, I claim that understanding the
significance of bodily activity coupled with reflective and relational processes is a key in
developing a comprehensive view on learning, and may have wide pedagogical implications. Thus,
dance as embodied learning and performative practice may have educational potential beyond
learning dance.
References
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entire school dances! The possibilities of embodied learning in a school community].
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Proceedings of A Body of Knowledge - Embodied Cognition and the Arts conference CTSA UCI 8-10 Dec 2016
... Embodied learning can be broadly defined as a conception of learning where learners are holistically engaged and intertwined in their social and material surroundings (see e.g., Anttila, 2018). This understanding has entered research on language learning with researchers acknowledging the embodied basis for language processing (Atkinson, 2010;Macedonia, 2019). ...
... This development has been fueled significantly by the seminal publication "The Embodied Mind" by Varela et al. (1991Varela et al. ( /2016, among others. Embodied learning entails that the human body-i.e., the learner's body-is actively engaged in learning processes (Anttila, 2018;Anttila & Svendler Nielsen, 2019;Nathan, 2022). Therefore, the often-presented claim stating that all learning is embodied, because the brain is part of the body, can be contested. ...
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