The class that dances together learns together


Schools don't dance. And what a loss! Dancing to music is one of humanity's oldest tools for cultivating trust, sharing culture, training the body, and achieving individual well-being. Dancing to music is a human biotechnology for group flourishing.

Yet contemporary schools don't make much use of it. Well, no wonder we find schools vexing! It's like we're trying to assemble an IKEA bookshelf, but have denied ourselves the use of Allen wrenches.

In our school, we'll bring back dancing. Yes, it will feel strange, sometimes — but oh, will it be worth it.

Dance early, dance often.

We'll start our kids dancing from a young age — and never stop! (Well, at least not through elementary school.)

I recall a bit of dancing when I was in kindergarten and first grade: a little song called "Sammy (I'm Glad I'm Me)." Our gym teacher put on an LP, and we zoomed around the gymnasium in a circle, pretending we were Sammy (who in turn pretended he was a bird, a fish, a bug, and so on).

It was pure bliss. I loved it — I think we all did. Kids crave movement and rhythm. And they crave the mixture of wildness and control that dancing to music affords. This was a wonderful part of schooling —

and then we dropped it. 

Gym class became about other things than dancing. And, by and by, our curriculum added on a music class, twice a week. There are things we all liked about that music class, but it was never as fun as wild kid dancing. We never danced again… until, inexplicably, fifth grade, when we were told to start square dancing.

I'm sure that, somewhere, there are kids who enjoy square dancing. But if any of them attended my school, they kept their mouths shut. Dancing felt weird to us, because we had put away dancing for too long. We had put away that sort of corporality, that comfort of making a fool of ourselves.

We had entered into that sad state of civilized adulthood, the state from which Seneca quipped:

No one dances sober, unless he is insane.

What a loss! Therefore, in our school, we'll want to start dancing early, and continue it (at least) until the end of grade school.

Start with abandon; grow into structure.

Dancing can be complicated. So you might think that teaching that teaching finely-tuned, precise dance steps (or hand motions, or body motions) to six- and seven-year-olds is a bad idea, the payoff not worth the effort. If you think that — you're right!

We won't emphasize precision at first. We'll emphasize fun. For little kids, some of the fun comes from imitating another's form — kids are designed to be wonderful imitators — but also from doing their own thing: their own prancing, kicking, spinning thing.

We'll give kids a sense of guided wild abandon. 

And as they get used to the music, they're bound to get bored with dancing the same ol' way. That's the perfect time for us to suggest more complex moves. If we approach precision slowly, we can get the best of spontaneity and of control.

The more diverse, the better!

I was walking through Seattle's University District a couple days ago, & passed a sidewalk sandwich board advertising African Dance Lessons. My immediate reaction was "ooh — exotic!"

Well, all right.

My reaction wasn't wrong, exactly — it just points out some limitations of mine. I'm a white North American middle classer, raised in the 'burbs and currently living in… another 'burb. Lots of music styles — lots of cultures — feel foreign and odd to me.

This is entirely natural; it's also a bit sad. I would rather agree with the Roman playwright Terence, who wrote:

I am human; therefore nothing human is alien to me.

I want my kids to have a fuller grasp of reality. One of the goals of our school is to bring as much of the grand experience of many human cultures into our lives. This is, in fact, part of what we mean when we say "school for humans."

So, we want to incorporate music as diverse as possible into our school day. We want to bring in classical and folk and Latin, reggae and opera and jazz, country and R&B and rock. And lots, lots more!

And, as we get more prescriptive with the actual dancing, we can bring in more diverse dance styles: circle and line and ballet, salsa and swing and waltz, flamenco and mambo and Bollywood. We can try out war dances. We can dance out stories. We can do so very much, because we can borrow from ten thousand years of human culture.

How exciting — our school can help bring kids into the madcap diversity of the twenty-first century!

What it could look like.

Once or twice in each school day, our teachers will put on some loud music, and everyone in our classes will break into dance. Yes, it will be a little like living inside a Broadway musical.

Beyond that, there'll be a lot of variety. The teacher may give some pointers, or not. The kids may dance in groups, or not. We may project video of professional (imitate-able) dancers, or not. We may sing along to the lyrics, or not.

But music will be thumping, people will be laughing, and at the end, we'll sit down, happy and refreshed.

Why are we doing this, again?

Four reasons, I think —

1. Trust.

Synchrony creates trust. Moving in time binds people together. It's odd how well this works, and odd how little our society makes use of it.

But trust is crucial for our school: unproductive classes are just collections of individuals; great classes are organisms. We need to perfect the art of helping people trust one another so they can work together, and help one another learn.

2. Experiencing human diversity.

Cultures express themselves through their music and dancing. To move your body to another culture's music is, even if in a very small way, to experience some of the culture. This is, again, a crucial piece of what we mean by "school for humans." And we'll be doing it in a number of ways — through stories, through food and drink. And we'll be doing it through song and dance, too!

3. Body-training.

Our school will train the brain — therefore, it has to train the body. And that's because (slow reveal!) the brain is part of the body.

I'll be writing more about our exercise curriculum in a future post. For now, I'll just say that daily dancing will be one (especially important) element of it.

4. Well-being.

Dancing — to state the obvious — makes people happy! (At least when it doesn't make them feel awkward and embarrassed — see the point about about dancing early and often.) Dancing may even be a potent treatment for depression.

This may go quite deep indeed. In her excellent Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective JoyBarbara Ehrenreich notes that the modern epidemic of depression — through which we are currently living — began in Europe just as as Europeans began to cease their millennia-old practices of ecstatic dancing. Depression became widespread in precisely those classes which began adopting a modern view of self as an autonomous, isolated, individual — first intellectuals, then aristocrats more broadly, and then Protestants in general.

That is, the epidemic of depression seems to have spread as people began experiencing themselves as isolated individuals, rather than as elements of a group.

This change happened in many ways — beliefs of salvation, single-person bedrooms, biographies, and even mirrors seem to have played a role. A crucial piece of it, however (maybe the crucial piece of Ehrenreich's argument), was the end of group dancing. Communal dancing may have been a cure for melancholy. Wild celebration may have cured depression.

And now our society thinks dancing weird. And there may be some bad effects of that.

This might be one small way for our school to help mend the world.

But even if Ehrenreich's diagnosis — and the recent research of dancing and depression — is off, dancing brings joy. And we want to bring more joy, not less, into our school.