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Sitting in the pocket of a rhythm

Sitting in the pocket of a rhythm

After I wrote this story, I felt like it was too personal. I wondered if, although supported my thinking, it might not be worth publishing. Then I had a moment of serendipity. Nassrin and I were talking about her first few weeks at our school, and she shared her reflection that when Caroline teaches, it’s like she knows the dance. She knows the next step. Her movement is so smooth. Sometimes, she said, I feel unsure about what to say.

I’m grateful for Nassrin and her courage to pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it. Sometimes I feel unsure about what to say, too. Her observation inspired me to share this story.

Follow someone else’s route too often and soon you lose the ability to map out your own.

Sarah Lewis, The Rise

About 20 years ago, I was an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon Department of Dance. I taught several different idioms and abilities. Each term, I would get my teaching assignment and cross my fingers that I’d be working with beginners. At the time, I was most excited to teach beginning adults because they typically brought an openness and eagerness to the studio. At times, they might be frustrated when integrating all of the pieces of a movement phrase. With practice, they were often surprised by what they could do with their bodies. I loved the kinesthetic rush from moving beside them. 

Dance classes are usually about transmitting codified movement. There’s a typical structure where the movement phrases systematically accumulate to create a larger piece of choreography. The process can sometimes feel a little superficial, like trying on someone else’s clothes. In order to connect with their natural rhythm and movement, I would occasionally end tap classes by asking for volunteers to join a circle for improvisation or “trading eights.” This practice has its roots in jazz music, which inspired the rhythm tap genre. Sometimes, beginners would get nervous and think it was about skill. A larger movement vocabulary might support a broader range of possibilities, and more practice may contribute to being more nimble (percussively), but, ultimately, the critical ingredients of improv are being brave (having the courage to try something new or unknown) and being present (staying in the moment and ignoring the internal critic). Sitting in the pocket of a rhythm; paying attention with all of your senses. It isn’t about being polished or performing movement phrases that you’ve already mastered. That’s not nearly as interesting as about exploring the edges of what you don’t know, and being responsive to (kinesthetic and relational) feedback. At its essence, improvisation is about listening and finding connections. 

Recently, when a parent asked me how I ended up spending my days with three-, four- and five-year olds, I remembered how much I like to be near others who are experiencing something new. Many of the children in Cedar and Alder have not attended school before and I love watching them create their understanding of who they are within a community beyond their family for the very first time. A few of the teachers are new to our school this year too, and part of my role is mentoring and supporting them in our learning context. All of this newness and unknowness adds to the vibrancy of the beginning community.

Today, I was in Alder as Leslie was leading morning meeting when it took a twist. She bumped into an unscripted moment — which is to be expected, right? At the end of the good morning song, a child suggested we sing good morning to other things (like garbage trucks and kitty cats). I watched her ditch the choreography (sharing sneaks peeks, which we do every Monday morning) and lean into a moment of improvisation with the children. She said she heard an idea from a friend, to continue singing the good morning song, which bumped up against her idea, to share sneak peeks. She asked the children: When we have two options, how might we choose?

A few of their responses included:

Eliana: We could do one thing today and one thing tomorrow.

Hazel: We could snap the idea together and make a mega-sneak peek!

Becca: You could click the ideas together and put it in your heart.

I noticed how she picked up the children’s cues and responded to them, how she juggled the needs of the group while keeping the dialogue flowing, how she nudged their imaginations with questions, how she listened to their ideas and made split-second decisions on her next move. I saw her openness to listening and finding connections. She was improvising, yet she had a clear intention: To support the children’s growing sense of identity (as individuals) and belonging (their relationships to the group).

The children arrive at our school with a range of experiences playing with materials and other children. I noticed her watching for moments when the children were connecting and energizing it with her words and expressions, watching for moments when they misfired (as we all do) and suggesting a different approach. She was responding to their rhythm – what they were saying and doing – with curiosity and wonder. As she was listening and finding connections, some of her underlying assumptions were evident: A belief that children are hard-wired for connection; a belief that every action is an attempt to connect; a belief that everyone makes oopsies and no one wants to be defined by their mistakes; a belief that children are made to do hard things. 

This is an excerpt from Leslie’s written reflection that day:

There was an opportunity at morning meeting today that made me so curious. Luca mentioned he wanted to sing good morning to “stuff.” I mentioned that we might want to share sneak peeks. When I listened to the group, it was clear that some children wanted to sing good morning to their favorite things while others were eager to move forward with the plan of telling stories from our weekend.
At first I wondered, how we might proceed? It could feel a little easier (and it would go a little quicker) if I made the decision for them and said what we would do this time but I wondered, what are their ideas? How might we do the hard work of making a decision together when we have different ideas? Thankfully, the children were full of suggestions and their commitment to considering each others’ ideas demonstrated their value of community.
I’d love to hear from you:
How are you making sense of the dance of learning and teaching in your environments? 
How does the language of improvisation help you and your colleagues mentor one another?
October 12, 2017

One response to “Sitting in the pocket of a rhythm

  1. Thank you for sharing this moment. Sometimes, it feels difficult to discern what path to take when the children have so many ideas about where to go. Thankfully, they always seem to come up with new and interesting ways of solving problems and sharing each of their important ideas on their own. When I can look to the children for their thoughts on how to move forward, it’s a freedom from the pressure of feeling I must always provide the answer. More often than not, I’m as curious as they are, and I’m truly delighted when I get the opportunity to wonder with them and travel those paths together.

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