Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 4
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Swing Out, Studios, and Safety: Writing as Dance
B. Cole Bennett, Abilene Christian University
Bennett, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English and Writing Center Director
As many composition scholars have drawn analogies between the teaching of writing and other academic endeavors, I call attention to useful comparisons between writing and dance, specifically the ever-growing genre of swing dance. I argue that the teaching and tutoring of writing mirror dance instruction in social-epistemic ways that are optimized by managing vulnerability and ensuring conditions of safety.
In 2003, I became the faculty sponsor for a new student group at Abilene Christian University called the ACU Swing Cats, an ensemble formed to “promote and sustain interest in pre-1950 U.S. social swing dance culture.” Early on, working with college students both in the academic milieu, where I teach Composition and direct a writing center, and in the dance setting, I began to see intriguing connections between the teaching of writing and the teaching of dance, connections that seemed to me worth exploring due to the potential value of transferability. In the spirit of the articles written by Shamoon and Burns, who compare collaboration to the music master class, Christina Murphy, who parallels tutoring and psychoanalysis, and other scholars who have analogized rhetoric with travel (Clark) and even love (Corder), I wish to call attention to comparisons between writing and dance. While some resemblances may apply more aptly to the classroom and others to the tutoring consultation, a resonance with collaborative composition pedagogy—an inclusive term--is my ultimate purpose. After offering a number of similarities, I will conclude by arguing that the teaching and tutoring of writing mirror dance instruction in social-epistemic ways that are optimized by ensuring conditions of safety.
Some obvious parallels between the activities described above and writing instruction will likely occur to readers; the first pertains to exigency. People do not sign up for swing dance lessons because they want to learn steps; nor do they come because they want to understand the partner-rotation process, the historical origins of the Lindy Hop, or the best places to buy dance shoes. They come to successfully respond kinetically to big band music. And by “successfully,” I mean in ways that are joyous, pleasing to potential suitors, and acceptable at weddings--you might say, ways that are audience-appropriate. In other words, people learn to dance for the same reason they learn to write, which is to respond authentically to a part of the world around them. As a writing teacher, I try to give students real reasons to write: marketing materials for non-profit organizations, memoirs for senior citizens, or websites for mass consumption. Moreover, I train writing center tutors to connect their consultations to the world outside the classroom whenever possible to remind clients that we write for more than professors who give assignments. In both dance and writing, motivation matters.
Second, in the same way that most writing center clients and composition students tend to focus first on correct sentences, swing dance learners tend to continually gravitate toward lower-order concerns, always seeking to learn more of the grammar of steps at the expense of the overall rhetoric of the dance. Guiding their attention to higher-order items such as musicality, appropriate partner connection, and overall visual impact is difficult and must often be justified; frequent explanation of the teaching process—“what we’ve done and where we’re going”--becomes necessary. Eventually, novices come to understand that what they admire in experts is not merely the display of complex steps, but the full integration of all facets of swing dance in a way that builds experientially and phenomenologically through time. This important epiphany places a novice on the path to becoming an expert as he or she begins to turn toward a more holistic sense of learning goals. In the same way that writing instruction continually seeks to subjugate concerns of grammar and mechanics to overall rhetorical success of an essay, so does dance instruction privilege meaningful response to music over isolated steps. Successful teaching in both areas respects a hierarchy of concerns.
The ability to describe dance with rhetorical terms is a third readily apparent analogue to writing instruction. Swing dance can be said inhere invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. One must generate acceptable moves, arrange them appropriately, perform them within the parameters of a specific style, maintain a mental cache of memorized sequences, and attend to venues of delivery. The value of this analogue is to highlight the recursive nature of the teaching process of both activities. Just as compositionists show students how the elements of the writing process turn back to and influence each other, dance instructors must also move fluidly among each of these nodes, pointing out, for instance, how the creation of new steps (invention) can influence the final appearance of a phrasing (arrangement, style), or how the surface of a particular dance shoe (delivery) can permit or discourage certain moves.
There may be many other obvious connections between writing and swing dance, but I want to move on to what I think are more complex and especially useful analogues, each of which corresponds ultimately to the topic of safety. First, novices become experts only through prolonged practice and engagement with other experts. In a dance studio environment, veterans take the time to explicitly demonstrate appropriate moves, stylings, and footwork to learners, even stopping right in the middle of a song to do so. In writing center scholarship, this method corresponds to Judith Powers’ call for native-speaking writing center tutors to assume the role of “informants” as much as “collaborators” with ESL clients who are seeking to not only improve their sentences, but also to gain knowledge of their teacher’s world (370). In both situations, there are veterans with the ability to pass along knowledge esteemed by a culture to others trying to grasp it, and overt, directive, timely instruction is most effective for doing so. As the dance learner progresses, however, demonstrating the tenets of swing style, positioning, and a burgeoning vocabulary of steps, experts take on the different role of collaborator as new moves are created and executed in real time. In each context, a proficient instructor must always evaluate the teaching situation to determine the most efficacious use of strategy and must understand when to switch roles.
Important to this point of comparison are two sub-points: first, learners obtain higher levels of expertise by taking greater risks. Dance instruction poignantly highlights the human trait of vulnerability. In virtually every workshop I’ve ever taught or attended, a sizable percentage of beginners quit after one or two lessons. When I have interviewed these givers-up, the explanation sounds the same: “I was not getting it, and I didn’t like looking like a fool.” I don’t want to go too far into psychological explanations of ego because it’s not my area of expertise, but I do know from experience that accomplished swing dancers initially conceded a period of several months where they would likely appear awkward or clumsy, suffer injury and sore muscles, experience brief times of confusion and regression in their pursuit, and publicly endure, for a season, the status of non-expert. Many people who stopped taking lessons decided to not undergo these things because they were unwilling to make themselves vulnerable in such ways. Therefore, in the swing dance environment, instructors create mechanisms to allay this problem, from advertisements perpetually announcing “Beginners Welcome” to special tracks at workshops for newcomers, held in separate rooms to provide a sense of privacy. These strategies minimize perceptions of high-stakes social display until such time as the novice feels comfortable joining the social dance floor with partners of all skill levels.
Just like dancers who learn by taking risks, writers who venture into unknown rhetorical territory, such as grafting personal experience onto academic research, composing in new media, or experimenting with creative writing, advance their learning more than those who cling to safe harbors of knowledge. For example, both scholarship and lore throughout the writing center field remind us of the vulnerable position our clients assume as they place texts in front of us to read—tutor-training manuals are replete with advice to counteract this effect, not just to help us become nice people, but to facilitate better learning. A client does not respond to feedback if she is constantly anxious that we are judging her intelligence or character as we help her through the writing process. And, as many writing center directors likely do, I encourage my tutors to find ways to identify with their clients’ stated concerns, such as admitting difficulty writing introductions or always having to look up the rules for a semi-colon. In our marketing materials, we paint a picture of college writing as difficult for all students, and the Writing Center as a respite for all writers to find solace as they struggle with difficult tasks. In both a dance studio and in a writing center, then, the more we can mitigate the feeling of vulnerability in our learners, the more we can accomplish toward their becoming experts. In this way, I see both environments as spaces where risk is managed and rewarded, and where nurture and encouragement are used rhetorically in the teaching process.
The second subpoint to “exposure to expert” analogy is this: with a generous understanding of the word “discourse,” we can better characterize novices in both writing and dance as being outside a certain discourse community rather than being cognitively (or rhythmically) challenged. Students who take up swing dancing as another installment of their interest in ballet, salsa, modern dance, or some other type of similar activity find it much easier to master than those for whom swing is their first foray into the world of dance. Not only do the former already have schema for the language of terms, such as “triple step,” “syncopation,” and “counterbalance,” but also for the practices of counting beats, moving one’s body through space, memorizing step sequences, and grasping the concept of formal dance studio instruction. These schema place them in a different relative position with respect to dance from those without it, and effective instruction takes these differences into account. In writing theory, we separate cognitive deficiencies from language differences, understanding the potential consequences of reshaping students’ understanding of their identity as language learners or code meshers as we engage in composition teaching and tutoring. Likewise, in dance, we try to continually orient new learners to concepts of musicality and movement, trying always to connect learning to the social dance experience rather than to remedial step exercises in isolation.
This points to perhaps the most compelling comparison between writing and dance, one that affects how both are taught. Both types of expression create the world—both are socially epistemic. In an article entitled “Swing and the Lindy Hop: Dance, Venue, Media, and Tradition,” Howard Spring argues that the development of swing music can be directly attributed to the explosion in popularity of the Lindy Hop, an eight-count dance made popular by black Americans in 1920s and 30s Harlem. Spring explains that dancers who came to practice their moves during big band rehearsals entered into a “feedback loop” with the musicians, and jazz music migrated toward more danceable rhythms and riffs as the players sought to accommodate the wishes of the dancers on the floor. In similar fashion, the dancers would often memorize dramatic moments in specific songs to which they would plant moves emphasizing the music on the ballroom floor. Swing music and swing dance thus shared a symbiotic relationship in which they literally constructed and were constructed by each other.
Likewise, Mitchell, et al argue explicitly that choreography and writing both create meaning in the world, be they different types, and both should be seen as process-oriented and recursive. As the authors report on a course that involved both dance and writing, they argue that the students should import what they know about dance into their essay assignment:
When dance students leave their role as makers of dance, they need to step into a role as makers of essays. Both activities involve a making process; both also have outcomes that are in some sense a commitment, a statement of how things are. The performance of a piece in front of an audience is comparable to the presentation of an essay in its final form—both actions establish a kind of closure and create a certain fixity of meaning. (92)
These authors remind us that teaching and learning processes are always already affecting each other in a world we realize to be socially epistemic. An astute tutor who ushers a writer into a productive conversation about a paper is always preferable to a silent tutor who makes marks on the page. Learning may emerge in both situations, but the former method is more desirable because it respects a process by which both parties participate in the creation of meaning, and during which overt power structures are abated.
This point becomes especially apparent when juxtaposing tutoring practices and the concept of “lead-follow” technique in swing dancing. The latter culture prides itself on the fact that, with rare performance exceptions, swing dance is not choreographed; it’s a social dance equally suitable for friends or strangers. One person leads and the other follows, in real time, as the music unfolds, arranging steps and phrases as they go; the lead is always meant to be firm, deliberate, and clear, without being overbearing. The task of the follow is to receive the direction from the lead, adjust as necessary, and to move the phrasings along the beat of the music at the lead’s discretion. Importantly, however, the lead is directing only the general arc of each phrase; the follow, after moving in accordance to the parameters of that arc, can inject stylings, steps, and individual interpretations of the music as s/he sees fit. In fact, s/he can also engage in several forms of what’s known as “stealing the lead,” whereby the s/he briefly takes over the responsibilities of telegraphing the lead arc.
In similar fashion, the successful collaborative writing session (whether in the writing center or in a composition professor’s office) is designed for one person to lead the other through the process of creating meaning through provocative questioning, expert guidance, and careful intervention. However, the “follow” also takes an invested role in actively receiving, evaluating, and applying the lead’s advice, often asking different questions, changing thesis ideas or arrangements, or going a different direction with the paper altogether. In short, the writing novice has an equally important role in the learning process, just as the teacher or tutor does, as both are engaged in making meaning in the world through discourse. We can draw these latter threads together by arguing that respecting, fostering, preparing for, and even requiring a learners’ active participation in an expert-apprentice relationship protects her identity and constructs stronger parameters of safety.
I have outlined the comparisons above in order to accentuate the importance of safety as a necessary component of optimum writing instruction. Compositionists carve out class time for students to find their way through low-stakes process exercises, and writing centers invite clients to comfortable workspaces to talk through texts, all to create a place of safety—a harbor, a haven, or, I would offer, a spring-floored studio with mirrored walls and mounted stereo speakers. Just as the dance studio allows for missteps, awkward physical contact, misunderstandings of rhythm, and kinetic victories alike, so does safe, well wrought writing pedagogy allow for fits of starting and stopping, constant reframing, and bumpy risk-taking on the way to published drafts. The composition classroom, the writing center, and the dance studio all serve as spaces to invent, arrange, and revise, apart from the high-stakes space of publishing; all are sites where risk and vulnerability should be recognized and managed as novices move toward greater expertise; and processes in these arenas are social in nature, creating meaning rather than merely dressing knowledge already in existence. I believe we should continue to plumb the concept of our physical teaching and tutoring spaces as safe spaces to embrace risk, even social risk, where learners stand up to the vulnerabilities inherent in joining the fray.
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