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Breaking Ground 91 Arts - Dance is a Universal Language

by Pam VanGilder
three very young girls in their dance attire. The girl in the middle is a young girl with Down syndrome.

“Movement is as natural to learning as breathing is to life.” - Mimi Chenfeld, Early Childhood Educator

"Movement, to be experienced, has to be ‘found’ in the body, not put on like a dress or a coat.” - Mary Starks Whitehouse

Children learn naturally through movement as they reach, touch and explore the spaces around them, from the smallest nook and cranny to the wide open expanse of space beckoning them to run, leap and twirl like a leaf on a windy day. In the Early Childhood Inclusion Classes at Ballet Memphis, children ages two and older, along with their parents and siblings, participate in dance experiences that build on children’s natural movement and encourage self-discovery, expression, understanding and friendship. Dance is a universal language, spoken by everyone regardless of ability or disability. All are welcome.

Beginning in a friendship circle, each person takes a turn tapping the rhythm of their name on the drum, and in response the group claps and repeats their name back to them. They love playing the drum as the name game is transformed into variations of fast and slow, loud and quiet, hard and soft playing of the drum, each child playing their preferred drum beat. Another transformation and now I, the teacher, am playing the drum and the children and their parents are dancing to the drum beat, running feet, slow feet, stopping, going, tip toeing, jumping, forward, backward, sideways and around and around until we all float down to the ground. It is total engagement and active learning as they listen, respond and spontaneously move in different spatial directions with variations of tempo and energy. 

Using nursery rhymes, chants and songs we now enter into the brain dance section of our class, which encourages the formation and strengthening of the developmental patterns that lay the foundation for all learning and movement skills. We breathe - filling our body with air and stretching out to our fingers and toes, and then letting the air out and pulling into a tight ball. We practice curving, stretching, bending and twisting our spine. We learn how to keep one part of our body still while moving another. We practice cross lateral movements and then we spin like a top waking up our vestibular system, then we slow down and find our balance. We are focused, watching, practicing, remembering patterns, learning, repeating, thinking, making body and brain connections through our kinesthetic sense, learning what it feels like to move like a cat, pounce like a tiger, jump like a kangaroo, actively connecting words to movement while developing vocabulary and language.

And now it is time for the scarves, and Vivaldi. Improvisational dances that take us soaring through the air as we run and leap, twist and turn, sustain our movement as the violin slows, only to begin our flight as the violin once again picks up the tempo.

As our class draws to a close we come back to our circle for the Namaste Song by Kira Wiley, The Light in Me Sees the Light in You. During this song we acknowledge each of our friends as we pass a handshake and a smile around the circle. After the class parents and children stay for awhile, share a snack; a time for parental encouragement and friendship. 

The seeds for developing self-awareness through our movement, forming neurological body/brain connections for learning and social and emotional health must begin in early childhood and extend throughout our lifetime. It helps us stay connected to ourselves and to others. As Martha Graham said, “Dance is the language of the Soul.”

Pam VanGilder, a dance educator for over 25 years, has designed and presented dance education training for classroom teachers through the Wolf Trap Early Learning through the Arts Program and the Memphis-based Lincoln Aesthetic Education Program. She was the movement and dance specialist at Madonna Learning Center, a school for children and young adults with disabilities for 12 years. She also served on the National Dance Education Committee for establishing dance education standards for early childhood as well as developing accommodations for students with disabilities for the Common Cores Standards with the Kennedy Center VSA Program. Pam is a 2013-2014 graduate of the Council’s Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute.