This summer I made a real journey. However, it was almost like a dream: the destination of this trip was Brazil, home country of Paulo Freire, whose writings have influenced my work greatly. Every three years, dance and the Child international, an organization for promoting children’s dance, holds its international conference on a different continent. I think it was close to a miracle that this time, right after finishing my dissertation, I was to travel to Brazil. Not only that I got to see the country from where such strong ideas on education originated from, but also, I was able to reunite with my colleagues in dance education. Many of them have also been inspired by Freire’s work and share with me a conviction that dance education needs to be examined from a broad and critical viewpoint. But most importantly, I got to meet almost a thousand dancing children from all over the world. They were of all sizes, many races, and both genders. Seeing so much difference in dancing styles and in bodies at once was overwhelming and exhilarating. No other experience, I think, could have been more convincing for me about the meaning of dance for children, and the importance of adults sharing ideas about children, dance and education. This journey illuminated to me the meaning of appreciating and understanding difference.
After a three week visit to Brazil I do not claim to understand the circumstances that triggered Freire to develop his educational thinking towards what we now call liberatory or critical pedagogy. All I can do is to imagine how poverty and injustice affect human beings. Some become hopeless, some become angry. Very rarely anger becomes a constructive force, instead of a destructive force. We all have witnessed the latter during last years in frightening proportions. Having experienced extreme hardships, Freire sustained hope and devoted his lifetime efforts and work towards a more just society and world. His pedagogical thinking and practice has given hope to many people who have lost meaning of their lives. Critical educators, inspired by Freire, speak for the significance of hope and imagination in transforming the world. Imagination is needed for seeing that things can be otherwise. Thus, not only reason, but also imagination needs nourishment. This is one of the central themes of my work.
Somewhat earlier than Freire another great thinker and educator, Martin Buber, was influential in Europe, raising concerns about human condition when most Europeans still believed in superiority of human beings and the limitless possibilities of prosperity that advancing science could bring about for them. Martin Buber developed his dialogical philosophy during the first part of the 20th century, dreaming about the possibility of dialogue between people from different religions and ethnic origins. Sadly, his vision did not come true. Many of us Finns know how difficult it is even to dialogue among people of same religion and race. Misunderstandings among persons from similar backgrounds are not rare. Thus, I think it is fair to say that difference surpasses race, gender and religion, and is a concern for everyone.
Martin Buber, like Paulo Freire, dreamed about a more just world, where different people could live together peacefully. Their writings form the theoretical core of my dissertation. Having now visited Brazil, where difference is an everyday reality and where social justice is still a distant goal, as in so many other places on the earth, I realize now that the core of education is promoting justice. I also realize that understanding and celebrating difference precedes and coexists with promoting justice. Theordore W. Adorno has expressed this desire perhaps most strongly by claiming that the most important task of education is to make sure that Auschwitz will not happen again. (Adorno 1966/1991, 230) This is not a modest task. Critical pedagogy, in its many shades, is a serious attempt to disclose and prevent injustice.
According to Freire, dialogue is essential in this endeavor. He, likewise Buber, claims that dialogue is more than a tool. As a sign of humanity, it is also the indispensable aim of education. I will shortly return to a more detailed discussion on my insights on dialogue and its relationship to dance.
The issues that I just raised may at first seem quite remote from the practice of dance education, especially in our country, where majority of dance students are white females with a middle class background. In our dance classes diversity is not an apparent issue, and dance teachers rarely encounter poor or underprivileged students. Dance is mostly taught in private dance studios or in institutions where dance as a profession is in focus, like here in the Theatre Academy. In these contexts, questions of world peace and social justice easily fade to the background, and the emphasis is on individual excellence in art and in skill.
I see no problem in emphasizing individual achievement in dance, and not even in the hard work, pain and objectification of the body that it necessarily involves. I just wonder, what would it mean for such dance education and training if awareness of the larger world could be joined with it? Would it mean less skillfull dancers? Would it mean worse art?
When dance education is brought to a school context, as I did in this present study, the focus shifts. Remoteness from the larger world, however, seems to prevail also in schools. There the everyday life seems to be focused on questions that relate to school as an enclosed, particular context. In the school where I carried out my two year long dance project the students come from quite diverse backgrounds. Social conditions of the children’s families certainly feed into the everyday school life, creating a possible opening towards the outer world. Still, in my view the curriculum and pedagogy in Finnish schools limits teachers’ ability to tackle personally meaningful questions in classrooms. As one teacher put it, there is no time to listen to children’s concerns about life in schools. Although this particular school is a step ahead in developing pedagogy for multicultural population than most schools in Finland, understanding and celebrating difference were painfully difficult to tackle even there. My dissertation is a testimony of these difficulties. For instance, the section on respect illuminates some of them.
In Finland, all levels and areas of education have faced the question of multiculturalism only recently, and it seems fair to me to say that we are still in the very beginning in understanding what multiculturalism and difference might mean for education.
Developing individual artistry in dance can hardly be the immediate focus in a school context, at least in the narrow sense. Something else needs to be accomplished first. In the beginning of this project I was not quite certain, what that something should or would be. I was uneasy about using dance as a tool for improving social skills, for instance, and was impatient to move towards creating spaces for artistic experiences. Soon I noticed, however, that social skills must precede any undertaking where people are creating something new together. As dull as it sounds, social skills became the focus of the project in its early stages. Play and friendship became significant themes in my study partly because of this emphasis.
In this school, as in many other schools that I have visited, handicaps in social skills are amazingly apparent. It seems to me that the whole idea of community, and of living together, has become muddled as more and more attention has been devoted to individual achievement both in knowledge and in skills. It seems to me that the humanistic foundation of Finnish education is shattering as the quest to be on top in global competition accelerates. In my study I witnessed the children, then 9–10 years old, desperately asking for more time for play and movement. I also learned a lot about the qualities of children’s peer culture, and that it has a logic of its own. I believe that awareness of these qualities and logic would greatly support teachers in their work with children, and help to understand how children are different than adults. Getting closer to children’s world helps teachers appreciate this difference.
I am convinced that social skills cannot be prescribed. Instead, I think that actual participation in physical, bodily active interaction that involves possibilities to make choices and imagine the consequences is crucial. Dance and drama are such activities – and exactly these are all but lacking from our schools.
The situation will not improve in the near future. The much debated new curriculum will allow even less time for art education than the current one, and will increase the time spent in learning academic skills. This is despite the fact that Finnish children are on the top of the world in their mathematics and reading skills. Paradoxically, according to an international study titled Unequal childhood published this summer, Finnish children are less happy than their Scandinavian peers and suffer from feelings of meaninglessness. A meager consolation is that these feelings are distributed equally among social classes.
Feelings of meaninglessness, hopelessness and alienation surfaced also among the children whom I worked with in this project. I tried to understand why these children seemed to be so detached and why it was so difficult to work together constructively. Buber’s philosophy has helped me to understand this problem. He explains how becoming a person happens through relating and associating; in contrast, becoming an ego happens through separation from others (1937/1970, 112). Thus, education that encourages individual achievement and independence from others may leave students without the feeling of belonging.
In the case of the class that I worked with, a performance project helped to create a sense of community. There are other studies that substantiate the power of performance projects in building communities. In the field of dance, Karen Bond has pointed this out, and in the field of theatre several recent studies done in this institution and other recent Finnish studies speak of the same issue. I truly hope that somewhere in the long corridors and offices that host Finnish school administrators, there is someone who hears this message and starts to think. Is it possible to find time and space for art in schools? And what happens if we don’t?
In the field of dance and art, we may feel somewhat sheltered from this phenomenon of social turmoil and global racing that exhausts even young people today. However, I think that all educators, even in art universities face this issue in a way or another. A dance class or program can hardly be a vacuum. Nowadays it is very difficult not to be aware of the larger world. The question is, for me at least, does learning art require that we turn our minds off these issues? Or can they blend into art, or become art? And, how does our awareness of the larger world inform our practice as teachers? Is it possible to learn “just” art?
Lately I have noticed more clearly how world events creep into my dance classes. They are apparent in my students’ expressive language, having blended and transformed in their creative, imaginative minds into meaningful signs. Becoming familiar with critical pedagogy and dialogical philosophy has most certainly increased my awareness of students’ present life world and the meaning of imagination in interpreting these worlds. Transforming these ideas into a practice in dance has been a huge learning process for me. Grasping the importance of students’ life situation and the present moment in teaching dance has liberated me from much of the burdens of how to teach, what to teach, and when to teach. I discuss these issues in the section on time and freedom of my study.
Indeed, one the most rewarding and intriguing tasks in this research project has been transforming the abstract and ideological ideas of dialogue into an embodied practice in the field of dance. In this process it has been extremely inspiring to see how dialogue, itself, is connected to nonverbal, bodily existence, and how many possibilities for dialogue dance as a substance carries. In its essence, dialogue is a prelinquistic, bodily and concrete happening that streams out from a body to another body. The themes of sensing and silence evolved out of discovering the bodily base of dialogue.
Buber (1947, 21–22) speaks of a basic movement of turning towards the other. The attitude and the basic movements include both an inner movement and bodily action, for example, the “very tension of the eyes’ muscles and the very action of the foot as it walks”, citing Buber (1947, 21). We communicate by our way of being and relating to others, how we focus towards others, how we lean towards others; how we are present in our bodies to others, and how communication streams from our bodies without reserve. Buber also says that, “for a conversation no sound is necessary, not even a gesture” (1947, 3), and that a shared silence can also be dialogue. (1947, 97). For him, “limits of the possibility of dialogue are the limits of awareness” (1947, 10). I think that dialogue is very much akin to dance.
Buber’s ideas bear a close resemblance to a more recent discourse that endorses concepts like body knowledge, embodied knowledge or tacit knowledge. It is exciting to notice how barriers between natural science, human science and philosophy are fading and how the quest for understanding human consciousness, and the role of the body in it, has created a space for dialogue among people from different areas, like phenomenology and neuroscience. Even in the field of contemporary biology, philosophy and even theology blend with hard science. As a result of this increased understanding, a growing number of scholars conceive the mind and the body as one.
In the practice of education, however, the mind/body split still seems to exist firmly. As I described earlier, in Finnish schools a movement towards even greater separation between the body and the mind is apparent. On the other hand, dance training that emphasizes bodily skills may create another kind of split, if the thoughts and feelings that reside and arise in the dancing body are silenced.
I wonder if a movement towards integrated knowledge could be possible. In this kind of knowing the body would be a valued source of knowledge. This means being attuned to own bodily sensations and feelings while perceiving the outer world and other people, and while consciously reflecting on and in the present moment and past experiences. In dance this might mean something like “thoughtful motion.” In academic work, we could perhaps introduce a term like “sensuous thinking.” This kind of thinking would bring movement, sensations and active exploration into classrooms. Thoughtful motion, on the other hand, would bring reflection and student voice into dance classes. This could be a way to welcome awareness of the larger world to the world of dance. This way dance and dialogue could unite and fulfill their inherent affinity.
I think that art pedagogy has its greatest power and meaning in its inherent possibility to combine different modes of knowing. I think that different modes of knowing are crucial in understanding difference and promoting justice, because these matters cannot be dealt with reason only. On the other hand, if art educators take these questions to their hearts, it may be that art itself will look different. Education always involves choices, it can never be neutral. The kind of dance that we value informs our educational practice, but it is also connected to the kind of world we want to live in. This connection is vital for conscious and ethical education.
This journey has highlighted for me the value of communities that accept and welcome difference. There are such communities, but I think that there is still much to do in creating spaces where different people could imagine and create something new together. I hope that my dance classes, my groups of students and working teams would be such communities, and I hope that my study will inspire and encourage others who long for these qualities in their life and work.
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