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It’s Only Temporary: Guiding Students through an Evolving Dance with Identity

As dance educators, we have the responsibility to give focused attention and energy to our students and take steps with them toward a greater sense of personal identity, which often leads to enlightenment, self-transformation, and positive societal change. In the area of dance education, whether in the studio or academic environment, there are practical ways that we can begin to help students engage with all aspects of who they are and are becoming. By critically reflecting on our own understanding of self and resultant teaching practices, we can step into a much better position to offer a stabilizing hand to those students within our care.

In her audio presentation titled Learning and Becoming: The Construction of Identity in Urban Classrooms (2010), Cheryl Jones-Walker states, “Identity construction is an integral part of the learning process.” She asks how student and teacher identities are constructed and reconstructed and posits that the beliefs, goals, and relationships between teachers and students, the construction of their individual identities as situated in social, historical, and political contexts, play out in the ways in which these two groups participate in the learning process in the classroom. Jones-Walker is most interested in how teachers and students alike think about teaching and learning and make sense of their experiences in the classroom.

This last concept, making sense of classroom experiences, calls to me in a fresh way this week. With studio recitals wrapping up and summer now in full swing, I find myself reflecting on the 2017-2018 school year with a variety of mixed emotions. All in all, the conversations and moments of discovery shared with my students will remain with me far longer than memories of a particular combination or technical correction. Because, of course, some things are only temporary.

Interestingly enough, one such temporary entity is that of the self-concept itself. Who we are and believe ourselves to be is an ever-evolving idea shaped by an array of guiding factors including our classroom experiences. Not only does each person in the dance classroom contribute to the particular educational culture there. But, what happens in the dance classroom affects our sense of self and the ways in which we interact with the world. For example, the student who sets what seems like a near impossible goal for herself at the beginning of the season and then proceeds not only to meet but to surpass that goal, might develop a strong feeling of confidence toward her work and thus pursue more challenging technical and artistic feats in the future. Conversely, the student who just does not seem to “get it” and is always two steps behind the rest of the class in terms of learning might find herself in an environment in which she will not succeed, nor will she meet the requirements necessary to make progress, maybe for the very first time. In both instances, dialogue and reflective practices can be beneficial tools in this journey of self-discovery.

Dancers from L to R: Candace Jarvis, Haley Hopkins, Takeisha Washington, and Christopher Renfurm in The American Dream. PC: Eric Bandiero.

In her study, Jones-Walker defines discourse (“social language employed in the classroom that enacts certain identities and roles”) and mediation (“how the ideas and emotions inform our individual participation”) and asserts the belief that, “Our identities mediate our individual discourse.” In other words, the fact of who I am as a student and/or teacher has great influence on how I navigate the classroom space, teaching and learning. Because identity is a fluid, process-oriented state of being, each one of us has the power to affect and be affected by those within our academic circle of influence.

For this reason, understanding, maybe simply investigating, self proves to be of tremendous value and necessity to dance classes of all kinds. Critique matters and should come from and for students as much as from the instructor. In addition to the standard teacher evaluation survey students often fill out in haste at the middle or end of a semester, self-reflective exercises in movement, speaking, and writing provide fertile ground for revelation and insight.

Because this always-moving identity holds such an important place in human development, it is ideal to incorporate and verbalize the concept of identity construction in contemporary dance classrooms today. For this reason, I will discuss a few strategies to do just that. Note that many reflective writing exercises can be easily integrated into a short writing period at the beginning or end of a dance class or more creatively transferred into an improvisational or choreographic exercise.

Dancer Christopher Renfurm in The American Dream. PC: Eric Bandiero.

To begin, simply unpack the concept of identity as something constructed. This conversation alone can open students’ eyes to the freedom that abounds to alter, build, and creatively engage with the many aspects that make up their sense of self as they know it. This concepts relieves a huge burden to determine what kind of person or dancer one will be for the rest of their life… at the young age of fifteen. The nagging pressure to decide what one will do when she grows up seems less daunting when it is understood that she has not and will not “arrive” so to speak. Endless possibilities become welcome opportunities.

Next, awareness of self and of others can be developed within the dance classroom experience by way of simple studies of spatiality, personal or local space, group or global space, and the like. Partner exercises, peer engagement, and collaborative activities are also useful in this effort. Furthermore, the creation of a short identity story voiced aloud and/or told through movement is especially accessible for young students familiar with the act of storytelling with words or movement. Active listening should be encouraged from all participants involved.

Examining self-identity in the hope of understanding what it consists of, where it comes from, and who it is established by can be completely new for any student and sometimes rare to study within the dance classroom. All the more important to respond to the natural hierarchy that generally forms between dancers and artist-choreographer, taking advantage of identity studies in the context of the creative practice of dance provides a whole new artistic point of entry for people who may not feel comfortable or prepared to face themselves in another setting. If so, then, dance educators must emphasize the importance of self-actualization for themselves as much as for their students and incorporate new ways of turning a mirror toward the self in and through the dance experience.


Lauren Ashlee Small is a local teaching artist and dancer with the Marigny Opera Ballet

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I would love to hear from you! Connect with New Orleans Dance Network and tell us how you incorporate identity exploration studies within a dance education setting (K-12, studio, dance school, university, recreational dance program, etc).

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