Moving and Talking


Teaching is dialogue, but dialogue in dance is not limited to just reading, or speaking and listening. We often do not talk.  We understand meaning through kinesthesia.  We communicate by sharing weight, eye contact, rhythms, and movements.  We do not feel like we “really know” a fellow dancer until we have danced together.  We watch each other.  We cradle each other’s heads, gently caregiving, providing physical support.  As teachers, we are constantly modeling modes of engagement. It doesn’t mean you will (or even could) be fully engaged at every moment. Certain days, your body will drag. Sometimes your students will notice, sometimes they won’t. 

But every class: Your dancing body teaches. Even the most limited mobility old dance teachers, sitting there on a stool, are waving their sticks around to help their dancers to see and feel the movement. So if you need to wave a stick, wave a stick!

But if your body still moves, keep moving throughout your classes. 

move your body

When you teach, you use your body. Your body becomes a site of knowledge and how you mobilize this knowledge is a choice you will make. Your choices will vary throughout a class: sometimes you'll demonstrate a clear outline of a phrase, sometimes an example of an improvisation, sometimes the spirit of risk-taking.   Learn to trust this knowledge and experiment with the physicality of instruction. Different from the physicality of performance, the teaching body is a tour guide--not the sculpture on display.  Sometimes dance teachers feel they need to demonstrate their expertise by verbally explaining the theory and background of each exercise. Trust the movement. Get moving.  Your words will frame the class, but after all, your students came to dance. 

Here’s a pattern I see when I watch teachers. It’s familiar to watch because I’ve been this teacher: 

  1. Teacher has idea. 

  2. Teacher demonstrates.

  3. Teacher talks about idea.

  4. Teacher talks more about idea and students think about lunch.

  5. Teacher tells students to dance.

  6. Students don’t dance the idea. 

  7. Teacher stops and starts talking again. 

This is boring. Preprofessional dancers can train themselves to pay attention or move and mark along the way. But when teaching in a community center you are teaching dancing, not teaching attention spans. To get, and keep, your students moving, try this. 

  1. Demonstrate something.

  2. Do it as a whole group.

  3. Do it in small groups—with you dancing with each group.

  4. Have them dance it without you. 

  5. Watch carefully and think about the main point you want to get across. 

  6. Say that succinctly.

  7. Have the dancers dance again. 

do talk! 

As a dancer, you know that we talk about what we do.  We ask questions.  We articulate movement qualities and images.  We use words to describe what we have seen and to suggest something different.  We use language to process our experiences.  We verbalize emotional resonance.  We complain. 

In speaking with our students, we are engaged in two levels of dialogue: instantaneous dialogues (the words that are spoken) and the transcendent dialogues (the dialogues of lineage, culture, and philosophy that reside within our experiences and practices).  Dialogues contain not only the polyphony of culture, experience, education, and emotional state but also the residue of prior actions.  

When we talk after dancing, our dancing reverberates; when we dance after talking our words resonate. In the studio, there is a constant interplay between the physical and the verbal. That is both a rich opportunity and a responsibility to approach language in teaching with critical care. 



The struggle with demonstrating is that if you do it too much, your students rely on watching you instead of learning sequences. But if you don’t do it enough, you miss the physical transmission so key to learning dance.  To find the right balance, look for what the students need to learn. If the movement is in Shape or Space, they need to discover without you. If it’s about Effort (particularly Weight or Time) or Body they likely need to feel you with them. 

Try teaching a toddler to skip (Weight and Time oriented) without skipping or singing. You can explain yourself into a headache, but she won’t get it. Now sing and skip around the room with her and you’ll get her skipping (eventually).  Same with adults. You can’t just explain how to locomote.

Try teaching a toddler to move from High Space to Low Space. Ask him to touch the sky like a kite and crumble to the floor into a ball (Shape and Space oriented). No problem. You can stand still in the center of the room and call these instructions out. 

In your teaching your dancing and your embodied voice will create opportunities for your students to experience movement competence and confidence. They won't try and dance like you, but they'll dance with you. 

discussion questions

  1. Discuss how your teachers use dialogue in the classroom. What works for you as a learner? How do different teachers use dialogue in different ways.

  2. Discuss your challenges in speaking and moving? 


  1. Generate two exercises: one that requires minimal verbal explanation and has a simple pattern that the students can learn and then dance, and one that requires no demonstration but that you can talk the students through. 

  2. Keep them simple and use them in  your classes this week. 

ashley thorndikeComment