Watch a brief video about the Fall 2018 Pedagogy in Practice on this topic.

Have you ever noticed that when someone gets very excited about something they’re talking about, they will often gesture with their hands and arms to drive home their point? For this Pedagogy in Practice workshop, we partnered with two experienced members of the nonprofit organization Dance Exchange to help TCU faculty learn how to “listen” better for this sort of nonverbal communication in our classes, and help our students do the same. Our guest presenters were Matthew Cumbie, Dance’s Exchange’s Associate Artistic Director, and Dr. Bimbola Akinbola, a Dance Exchange collaborator who is currently doing a postdoc at Northwestern. Susan Douglas Roberts from TCU’s School of Classical and Contemporary Dance (SCCD), Marvin Gaye Jimu from Refugee Services of Texas, Fort Worth, and I from TCU’s Anthropology & Human- Animal Relationships assisted with the workshop, which I organized.

According to the Dance Exchange website, “The mission of Dance Exchange is to ignite inquiry, inspire change, and connect people of all ages more deeply to the questions at the heart of our lives through dance making and creative practices.” At the start of this workshop, Matthew Cumbie shared that Dance Exchange (DX) also sees itself as a research lab on how to use dance and creative movement in general to learn more about our world and our local communities, and to activate that research to work toward positive social change.
DX’s engagement with TCU began last fall, when they led multiple events as part of a mini-conference sponsored by the Office for Community Engagement on “Creative Expression for Social Justice.” Since then, DX has returned to Fort Worth several times, leading movement-focused activities in classes and off campus, in a partnership catalyzed by Susan Douglas Roberts of SCCD. Their work here will culminate in late March 2019 with a performance of Liz Lerman’s Still Crossing by TCU students, faculty, locally resettled refugees, and other community members.

I wanted to invite DX to lead a pedagogy workshop for TCU faculty because I have witnessed firsthand how powerful their movement “listening” and expression methods can be. I got the chance to experience them myself in several workshops, and to see them work with two of my classes in Spring 2018, “Food Justice” and “Little Animals in Art,Culture, and Museums” (the latter co-taught with Nick Bontrager in Studio Art). To me there is real magic in what DX does, and I still feel that way after having had a chance to peek behind the curtain at their methods.

For this workshop, DX demonstrated two kinds of movement activities they lead most often with their audiences: “Build a Phrase” and “Moving Q&A.” Build a Phrase begins with asking a question of the audience; for our workshop, the question was, “When you think about cultivating a collaborative community of learning, what support do you need to do that, and how do you do that?” The facilitators attend to how participants respond to the question with both their words and their bodies. They then select particularly evocative responses, and build a simple movement—a dance phrase—out of each response.

Next they link the phrases in a series, a choreography co-composed with the participants that expresses some of the deeper meaning within and behind the words that were said. Matthew and Bimbola explained that they look especially for spontaneous and idiosyncratic gestures— how our bodies show up as we express ideas—and then they look for movement metaphors, the action embedded in the language that can bring the ideas to life in a way that all the participants can both see and feel. I see Build a Phrase as a powerful way to build a more collaborative and cohesive classroom community, one that is open to supporting individuals as they take risks in expressing themselves, and listening in a way that empowers the speaker.

Toward the end of the workshop, DX demonstrated a trio variant of Build a Phrase, in which three participants take turns serving as storyteller, interviewer, and collector/reflector/ choreographer. For our workshop, the storyteller responded to the prompt, “Tell Me about Your Favorite Place.” The storyteller and interviewer work together for two minutes, and then the choreographer takes a minute to build a series of movements that express the story. Then all three participants perform the work together. I found this to be a very powerful way to build community among the participants, as well as to bring hidden ideas and emotions to light so that they can be observed and reflected upon. The other movement activity that DX performed and unpacked with us was the “Moving Q&A.” For this activity, wordless music is played over speakers; obviously a teacher could select slower or faster music, or music attuned to particular cultural and generational contexts. Participants are given a question to mull over while they walk; one we reflected on was, “What was a challenging moment in
your work with students, and how did you move through that?” After several minutes of movement, with participants interweaving their paths, the facilitator calls a halt, and participants find a partner with whom to share their answers to the question. In our workshop, one faculty member summed it up for all of us when she explained that moving to music helps loosen us up, get us out of our brains and fossilized thought patterns; she also said that when she was already moving, it felt more natural to pay attention to movement itself as a mode of expression, and of listening. By the end of this two-hour workshop, participants went away not just with new teaching tools, but also a new set of contemplative practices. Some comments expressed by attendees included, “I noticed I don’t notice how I move;” “I sensed, physically, an emotion from a story someone was telling;” and “I started to notice how much dance is in everyday interactions, not just in a studio.” We talked about different ways we might incorporate these movement tools into pedagogy in our classes, and I know at least one of the participants has already done so to good effect. Again, one faculty member spoke for many of us when she said, “a workshop like this should be mandatory on all Friday afternoons; I’m leaving feeling so much joy, so much connection.” I couldn’t agree more!

For more information about upcoming events and collaborations with DX, visit the TCU Dance Department’s website.

Dave AftandilianThis article was written by Dave Aftandilian, Associate Professor of Anthropology & Director of Human-Animal Relationships Minor for the Spring 2019 Issue of Insights.