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Behind the Curtain Blog

NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.


Mindfulness in Teaching Students with Disabilities

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Jenny Sehman, PhD, Director of Dance Education for National Dance Institute (NDI) at the Lighthouse Guild International, NYC. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

I suffered tremendous insecurity right before teaching my first dance class for students with wide-ranging physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges. The students quickly unburdened me of my self-doubt, however, as their instruction demanded focus, attention, and individualized responses to learning styles, leaving little room for wallowing in worry. They led me to realize new and exciting ways to conceptualize and communicate dance instruction. My teaching practice became driven by an incontrovertible belief in the rights and capacity of all people to engage in dance and dance learning. Eventually, I gained expertise and began to teach others the pedagogy of dance education for diverse learners. One of the greatest benefits of this work is the ongoing discoveries that can expand our abilities as artists and as educators. This blog is about what I learned from the near crisis of a teacher who overcame her fears by drawing upon her identity as a dancer. She taught me that mindfulness and self-awareness may be the greatest of all teaching strategies.

I had been delivering workshops on teaching dance to students with disabilities for a few years and always concluded days of intensive training with opportunities to practice new methods and approaches. The trainees were invited to draw upon previous experience while incorporating any combination of the many new teaching strategies that they learned throughout the workshop. They received instruction to work in groups, pairs, or by themselves to plan brief dance instruction for a group of adult students, who volunteered their time to participate in the session. The trainees were able to practice teaching strategies that were still new and unfamiliar. Historically, the trainees loved this part of the workshop and were eager to put what they learned into practice with the adult students.

At a recent workshop, I arrived at this part of the course, ready to enjoy the wide variety of dance disciplines the trainees represented and to see how each would attend to the diverse learning needs of the volunteer students. For two days, trainees had been observing, listening, reflecting, and practicing on each other, but they had yet to teach ‘real’ students. The entire group leapt into action, most in pairs or groups of three and four, all energetically preparing for the part of the class that they would teach. One of the trainees, whom I’ll call “Susan,” stood by herself. I left her alone, respectful of what might be her process of synthesizing new information and preparing a lesson. I knew her to be a beautiful dancer; a graceful, accomplished ballerina. She had been attentive and responsive, enthusiastically participating and working with other trainees throughout the course. Now, however, as the rest of the dancers busied themselves marking out multiple 8’s of choreography, dancing around the room, practicing, revising, elaborating and creating, Susan stood still. Her motionless body exuded grace, poise and impeccable physical control but the lines between her eyes shouted fear and confusion. I approached and asked what she was thinking. “I don’t know what to do,” Susan whispered, “I don’t know how I can possibly teach them. I don’t know what I have to offer.” I moved with her to a quieter side of the room. “What would you like to do?” I asked. It seemed, from the tension now present in her body, that what she wanted to do was run out of the room, but she stayed and answered: “I don’t know.” The time allotted for lesson preparation was ending soon. I wasn’t sure what to do either, but said the first thing that came to mind: “Teach what you know. What single step or movement defines your style of dance? What makes you feel beautiful? Do that. Just that.” She seemed relieved but doubtful as she looked around the room. “Ok,” Susan nodded. “I’ve got it.”

Our students arrived, adults of varying ages and different degrees of blindness from low to no vision. Most carried red-tipped canes that helped them navigate the dance room and two were accompanied by guide dogs. Some had danced before, when they were younger. Others had never entered a dance class. This was a lesson in partnership and two-way learning. The teacher trainees taught dance steps. The students, in turn, patiently taught them how to expand their practice, notice differences in learning styles and speeds, improve and expand verbal description of steps and movement, and include tactile modeling in their teaching approaches. All of the trainees offered complex choreographic sequences that could not be completed in the allotted time. Susan went fourth. “I am going to teach you a ballet balancé step,” she announced, and proceeded to verbally describe the step, watching carefully to make sure she was understood. After several minutes, a student raised her hand. “I have the sequence of steps,” she said, “but I just feel that something is missing. I know that there’s something that you are doing that I’m not doing.” Susan froze for just a moment, and then walked across the studio to stand, face to face, in front of this student. They took each other’s hands and Susan cued the music with a lift of her chin. The pas de deux began. Susan danced. Her partner rigidly followed the steps, out of sync with the rise and fall of the movement. The music softly played in three quarter time. Little by little, the partners began dancing together as wordlessly, the essence of the movement was translated from one body to the other. The audience of students and trainees seemed to hold their breath. We watched a lyrical, magical, balancé, performed over and over, and did not want the dance to stop. The music resolved. The room erupted in awed applause.

Recently, a young contemporary dancer who completed training with me in teaching dance to students with disabilities stopped by to observe my teaching of blind children and adolescents at the Lighthouse Guild International. I invited him to give them a warm-up, or, rather, surprised him by saying he would do the warm-up. “What should I do?” he was excited and eager but thrown off balance. I gave him the same instruction I had given Susan. “Teach them something you are good at. Teach them how to dance. Teach them movement that is the essence of what you do.” “Sean” gave them a glorious arm swing that could build into infinite expressions of movement. He started, however, full throttle, with both arms swinging in a figure eight, changes of weight and balance, bending and straightening of the knees, rotation of the torso, and having the head, shoulders and chest following the shape of the arm movement. The students patiently waited while he discovered how many elements needed to be verbally described or otherwise modeled. “Just start with the elements of this movement: a single arm swinging movement, or the change of weight from right to left,” I suggested. Sean re-grouped and began exploring the movement with his students, delighting, as Susan had, in individual moments of clarity and connection occurring throughout the room. Students explored different aspects of the movement, playing with various ways to move arms, bend knees, shift weight and otherwise experience this dance. Sean began to more mindfully attend to each aspect of the movement, rather than depend on the students to copy his body. He started to conceptualize and translate movement principles. His students offered interpretations based upon their understanding and embodiment of his instruction, inspiring new teaching directions and choreography.

Like most dance teachers and choreographers, I still get stuck and feel as though I don’t know what to do. I am grateful to my early dance teachers, who demanded excellence, precision, rigor, technique, flexibility and musicality. I have an abiding faith in their expertise now embodied in my own teaching practice. I am equally grateful to my current teachers: Students, dancers, artists and other beings who continue to show me worlds outside my known body and introduce me to an infinite universe of dance interpretation. When I don’t know what to do, there is always someone to guide me to the next step.

Jenny Seham, PhD, is a dancer, teaching artist, and clinical psychologist. She currently serves as the Director of Dance Education for National Dance Institute (NDI) at the Lighthouse Guild International in NYC. She recently founded and currently directs Arts-Based Interventions (ABI) and research initiatives for children and adolescents in psychiatric treatment at Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, NY.  Dr. Seham delivers lectures, webinars and professional development seminars for organizations throughout the USA and internationally including: DanceMotion, USA, The Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), NDI of New Mexico, ConArte, Mexico City, Mentor LA Partner Schools, Los Angeles, CA, The Jewish Museum, NY, NY, and the Conference on World Affairs, Boulder, CO. Her choreography has been performed at The White House, Washington, D.C., The United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, The Beverly Hilton, Los Angeles, CA, and the Paramount Theater at Madison Square Garden. Dr. Seham also served as one of 49 National Education Leaders whose efforts working with the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center helped establish the first annual International Conference on the Intersection of Arts Education and Special Education. She continues to provide consultation on national policy and best practices in arts education for all children.

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