Shaping the Body, Molding the mind

I hate to admit it, but one of my favorite parts of teaching dance and movement is seeing the faces that little inflexible people make while stretching.

Whether it’s the eyes-squeezed-shut, teeth-clenched variety, or the -eyes-rolling-back-in-the-head kind of face, I love them all. I find them hilarious. Plus, I know that carefully stretching the muscles is really important for successful dance and actually good for the body. It looks really miserable and uncomfortable but I know that I’m doing them a favor. I know that repeatedly stretching even a tight muscle will eventually loosen it up.

Mariko and Bailey stretching- 2012 University of Iowa

Mariko and Bailey stretching- 2012 University of Iowa

The thing that I try to remember as a teacher is that I am not only shaping a hamstring, but interacting with a human being’s sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, and work ethic. It would be great if I could feed all students  a magic pill that would plop them right down into a perfect split but we all know that life, and dance, doesn’t work that way. Even the physically gifted have something to work on. I have one student that has EVERYTHING physically an aspiring dancer could want but she has a hard time learning combinations and is easily defeated. Some people are naturally blessed with drive and in other cases it can really help to have a teacher that will cultivate those mental and emotional qualities in a student.

The truth is that our most flexible body part is our brain- it is constantly being shaped by experience, both of a positive and negative sort, wittingly or unwittingly. Cultivating healthy social-emotional habits can promote positive brain changes and pathways in the minds of children. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson says,’

Behavioral interventions can produce more specific brain changes than ‘biological’ interventions like medication because behavior affects brain circuits in ways modern medicine does not, and produces adaptive emotional and cognitive functioning as a consequence.

(If you are a huge fan of Mr. Davidson, as I am, check out any of his books available through Barnes and Noble I strongly suggest ‘Consciousness and Self-regulation, which was a major step in my own path towards health. )

The teaching of behavior is what will inform us later in life how to regulate emotions, control our actions, to hit or not, to judge others for just or unjust reasons, to make room in our world for different people, to cooperate, mind our own business, or achieve a goal. I fa brain is constantly reminded, ‘try your best! you can do it! Your efforts are valid and appreciated!‘ it’s funny how that can translate into actual physical achievement, for children and twenty-seven-year-old ballerina writers….that’s me! (here’s your cue to say something encouraging!)

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(Dancers pictured: Michael Galloway, Professional dancer with Company C Contemporary Ballet/ and the lovely Sarah Farnsley, Professional Dancer with Esoteric Dance Project (hey, I know those directors!) and Elements Contemporary Ballet- both pictured stretching in St. Petersburg, Russia 2006)

My goal is to encourage my students to try their best, to be helpful, to be kind, to have fun. As a teacher of dance, I take into account my responsiblity of shaping the body and the brain. I know, am honored, and daunted by the fact that I teach  more than splits. As people, we are all constantly changing and reaffirming our brain circuits and behaviors based on our experiences as well as changing or reaffirming the behaviors of those with whom we come into contact.

We as people, are so malleable. Our beliefs, judgements, opinions can all change from a single encounter. Stretching a hamstring can take some time and effort but shaping the mind is instantaneous.

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