Volume IV - 1997

Steps to Dance in the Adult EFL Classroom
by David M. Bell

         David M. Bell has taught ESL/EFL in the United States, Italy and Great Britain. He is currently Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business Administration in Japan. In addition to exploring the pedagogical uses of dance and the wider applications of kinesthetic learning, his main research interests are pragmatics and teacher education.
         One day, Amaterasu, the goddess of light, retired to a cave in anger, thus plunging the world into darkness. In order to lure her out, another goddess mounted an overturned tub, bared her body and danced vigorously while the other gods sang and beat time. Intrigued by the laughter and shouting, Amaterasu came out and joined them, thus ending her self-imposed exile and bringing light back to the world. The gods, having discovered the pleasure of performing and watching dance, passed their accomplishment on to man. (Japanese Myth )

         Can such a power have a similar enlightening effect in the language classroom? Although this gift from the gods is pervasive in everyday life, we tend to think that it has little pedagogical significance. But the imaginative use of dance can provide solutions for seemingly intractable pedagogical problems and provide new dimensions for language learning both in and out of the classroom. The ideas discussed below had their origins in a Japanese EFL context; hence the appropriateness and the inspiration of the legend of Amaterasu and the discovery of the power of dance.

The Wall of Silence

         Most new EFL teachers in the Japanese classroom are greeted by the "the wall of silence," a reluctance to speak conditioned by educational and cultural norms against immodesty of the tongue (Clancy, 1987; Wierzbicka, 1994). Prohibitions against verbal immodesty are captured in the Japanese proverb "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Naturally, for the teacher schooled in the communicative approach, student reluctance to speak is a major challenge. One way of confronting this challenge is to meet the students half-way, what Anderson (1992) calls "blending." Blending requires the teacher to discover the circumstances in which students are comfortable talking and then begin to turn those circumstances into communicative language practice. So, for example, knowing that students will happily read scripted dialogues to each other allows the use of various drama techniques which exploit mood and gesture, etc. My own particular approach to reconciling a communicative approach with the students' reluctance to communicate begins by exploiting their liking for choral drills.

Choral Drills and the Communicative Approach

         It is somewhat paradoxical that the individually silent student can be so forthcoming when asked to participate in a choral drill. Yet, in the choral drill, it is the silent who may be considered "the nail that sticks up." But drilling and the communicative approach are not easy bedfellows. Of course, choral drilling still remains a technique in the communicative classroom, but one that is used sparingly to give students functional control of a new language item. The communicative approach could never countenance the prominence of the drill in the Audio Lingual Method, where it was considered the key technique for instilling good language habits. And even though attempts have been made to develop communicative drills, these have tended to be more semi-controlled pair-work activities rather than choral. (Walz, 1989).

         However, a place can be found for choral drilling in the communicative approach if we begin to take a broader of view of the nature of communication and the uses to which language can be put. Several writers have described language in terms of functions, of which communication is just one. For Jakobson (1987), the poetic function of language is distinguished by the way in which words are selected and combined according to different axes, what he called the "projection principle." So in the slogan, "I like Ike," like has been selected from the vertical or paradigmatic axis by virtue of its ability to combine with I and Ike to form a phonetic patterning on the syntagmatic or horizontal axis. Clearly, as this example suggests any utterance may be characterized by more than one function. The communicative function of the slogan is to express approval of President Eisenhower, while the poetic function serves to make that slogan memorable.

         First language acquisition is, of course, replete with examples of the poetic function in the form of rhymes, songs and chants. And this delight in the poetic function carries over to our adult lives as we spontaneously sing a few lines of a song, mimic an advertising jingle, or break out into a sports chant. And, of course, we litter our everyday conversations with puns, exaggerated intonations and funny voices, etc. The success of Carolyn Graham's (1978) infectious jazz chants is essentially due to their appeal to our poetic and rhythmic sensibilities.

Dance is Communication

         But jazz chants can also be said to be communicative in ways not immediately understood by the notion of communication. Watching a Graham demonstration is watching performance art and any teacher who similarly performs in the classroom a song, a drawing, a story, or a mime, etc., will be aware of the heightened level of engagement on the part of the student. Is this communication? Well, it certainly feels like it, especially if we can get our students to actively participate in the performance. If you have ever been to a dance class, you will know that learning a dance can be an exhausting process of watching a demonstration, listening to instructions, trying it out yourself, getting feedback, reflecting on the experience, seeking clarification and then demonstrating that you have understood and so on. As Widdowson (1984) and other writers have argued, the aim of the communicative process is to negotiate meaning by working towards a satisfactory convergence of worlds among interlocutors so that understanding can be achieved. And of course understanding can be demonstrated by actions as well as words.

The Importance of Body Movement in the Language Classroom

         But research in cognitive style and non-verbal communication points to more substantive reasons why dance should be part of a language class. Gardner (1993) makes two suggestions. First, that we are possessed of multiple intelligences--verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematic, visual/spatial, body/kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (metacognitive), many of which are overlooked by traditional educational practice. He also suggests that these intelligences may constitute preferred personalized learning styles. Asher's Total Physical Response, is one attempt to exploit the powerful connections in memory created by combining language and actions (Asher, 1977). Furthermore, an increasing number of studies underline the importance of the body and movement in language. For example, Kendon (1980) has documented the synchronization of gesture and speech, Bolinger (1986) has highlighted the connection between body movement and intonation, and Acton ( 1984) has argued that breakthroughs in teaching pronunciation can be made through teaching the accompanying gesture/body movement. (See Pennycook [1985] and Kellerman [1992] for a review of the research on kinesics, and other paralinguistic features, and its application to second language teaching.) Acton (1994) concludes that "various seemingly language 'problems' may be better addressed if we train the body first, or at least simultaneously with mind and voice" (50).

Seven Reasons to Dance

1. Dance in the language classroom provides engaging ways in which students can gain functional control of language by emphasizing phonological chunks, sentence stress and intonation, conversational rhythm, gesture and body movement, and other paralinguistic features.

2. Dance and gesture can combine to provide powerful kinesthetic connections for vocabulary development.

3. Dance can be used as a force to unify the community of the classroom, to enact and visualize language learning objectives, and by so doing lower affective factors in the classroom.

4. Dance has a power to transform our notions of classroom space. When you begin to make use of the open spaces of the classroom, you discover both that there is a lot of unused working space in a classroom and that large classes are much less formidable and remote than they appear when arranged in rows behind desks.

5. Dance helps expose language learners to the culture which underlies the target language. The dances I have used in class draw on a wide range of rhythmic sources: children's skipping or jump rope songs and rhymes, hand- clapping, sports chants, cheer-leading, together with blues, jazz, gospel, rock and roll, rap, etc.

6. Dance may allow students to get in touch with those rhythmic resources which played a part in the acquisition of their first language and make these available for the kinesthetic learning of their second language.

7. Dance liberates language learners from the silence and stillness which pervades many language classrooms, thereby helping to prepare the body (and the mind) for the more cognitive demands of language learning.

The Dances

         Here are just a few dances which will serve as examples of what can be done when drills are choreographed with dance steps.

1. Can you/Could you? Did you/Don't you?

         Dance often functions as a means of supplication to the gods and as a means of motivation and visualization. Hunting dances and war dances enact beforehand the results the dancers wish to achieve. The New Zealand All Blacks rugby team begin each game with a Maori war dance and chant, which are intended to bolster morale and strike fear into their opponents. Why not begin the lesson with a dance that helps students visualize their goals of fluency and unites them as a community of language learners? At the same time students can gain functional control of the auxiliary plus subject combination in question forms in English.

         Introduce each item separately. With your left fist clenched, punch the air and shout [kínya]. Repeat with the right fist punching the air. Now raise both fists and repeat three times: [kínya], [kínya], [kínya]. The clenched fist punching the air gives the chant the feel of a "primitive" battle cry and emphasizes the modal/auxiliary plus subject construction as a phonological chunk. At first, students will not be aware that the sound they are yelling is "can you" but they will eventually cotton on. Then introduce the other forms in exactly the same way. Now get the students up in two lines facing each other. One line goes forward two steps, shouting [kínya] with the left fist clenched on the fist step and [kínya] with the right fist clenched on the second step, and then moves forward more quickly three steps with both fists raised shouting: [kínya], [kínya], [kínya]. The other line then moves forward shouting [dídya] in exactly the same way. Then the first line goes backward with [kúdya] and then the second line goes back with [dúnca]. Of course, there are many floor patterns that can be used here. You could also try two concentric circles. The inner circle goes clockwise with [kínya], [kínya] (two steps), then three steps: [kínya], [kínya], [kínya]. Similarly, the outer circle goes anti-clockwise with [kúdya]. Early ballet produced geometrical floor patterns that had highly symbolic meanings--three concentric circles symbolized perfect truth and two equilateral triangles within a circle stood for supreme power.

2. Don't you like my jacket? I got it cheap at Macy's.

         The earliest forms of dancing may have been simple expressions of pleasure. Children will often dance with delight before they know how to express their feelings in words. Similarly, allowing second language learners to express themselves through their bodies may help lower affective factors in the classroom. This dance originated by taking an exuberant Latin type beat, a conga to be exact, and fitting words to it. Here hand-clapping, hip movement and foot- stamping drive what is essentially a substitution drill. The square floor pattern adds a further layer of group cohesion. Use this dance after introducing clothes vocabulary. You need to use clothes with two syllables to begin with: "jacket," "trousers," "sweater," etc. Each syllable is given equal stress so that students can clap or stamp their feet to the beats conga-style. Use the name of a department store appropriate to the country you are teaching in. But make sure it also is two syllables. In Japan, I use the store "Uni," which is intended to be ironic because its clothes are cheap and functional and it is certainly not a store you would want to brag about. Practice the drill first with students in their seats. They can clap or stamp their feet on both syllables of the last word of each line: jacket [Jae_kIt], Macy's [me_sIz]. Continue as for a substitution drill. You can use other two syllable words: "sweater" and "trousers," but then you'll have to use single syllable words which need to be turned into two. Practice this with the class first; for example, shoes [ u-uz] shirt [ a-art], etc.

         It is time to get the students up. You can start off by getting them to do it without movement across the floor by stamping their feet on the two beats of "jacket" and "Macy's." Then put them in a circle_the best place to form a circle is usually around the walls of the classroom . They move forward two beats/steps and then stamp, clap or, better still, wiggle their hips on the two beat clothes words and store name. Now choose about five of your better students and arrange them and yourself into either two rows of three or three rows of two. Put yourself in the first row right position. You are going to move in a square formation and end up in the same position you started at. So, "Don't you like my jacket?" corresponds to one side of the box. "Jacket" marks the corner. Clap, stamp or wiggle on "jacket" and then turn ninety degrees and continue with the next side of the box which is "I got it cheap at Macy's." Clap, stamp or wiggle on "Macy's" and then turn and continue with "Don't you like my trousers?," which marks the third side of the box. Turn after "trousers" and do the last side of the box with "I got them cheap at Macy's." You can continue making more boxes with other substitutions. Space permitting, you could build up this formation drill to the class as a whole. It's quite a thrill to get a formation team of students to chant and dance in unison and finish together where they started.

3. Excuse me.
Can you tell me where the bank is?
Excuse me.
Turn left.
Turn right.

         Not only single utterances but whole conversational exchanges may serve as material for dance drills. Here dance may serve to illuminate the rhythmic coordination between auditory and visual expression. In normal conversation, "Excuse me" is uttered with a forward movement of the body and it may also be true that the direction to "Turn left_Turn right" is accompanied by head movement and imperceptible eye movements in the respective directions. The exaggerated movements of dance can help highlight these kinesic features, especially if we accept the claim that Western dance mirrors Western non-verbal communication. Western dance techniques are based mainly on footwork and floor patterns whereas Eastern forms rely more on delicate movements of the upper part of the body, especially the hands, neck and head. Therefore, dance drills may be especially useful for language learners from "low" kinesic cultures, the silent and still Japanese student, for example.

         This dance drill would ideally accompany a dialogue-build on directions. In this sense, the dance drill is a schematic form of a fuller, more natural conversation. Practice the first two lines with students in their seats. Drill the two syllable reduced form of excuse me [skyuz mi]. Make it equal stress and pause between each utterance. "Can you tell me where the bank is?" also has equal stress on the last two syllables which also have the most prominent sentence stress. Start with "Can you" [kInya] and drill it as a phonological chunk as in dance drill 1 and then build up to the full phrase. Get students to clap or snap their fingers on the final two beats of "bank is."

         Now get students up in a circle. First practice "Excuse me" [skyuz MI] (two beats). This is done as kind of shuffle with the weight moving from the left foot to the right foot on each syllable. Now practice "Can you tell me where the bank is?" (four beats). In contrast, this phrase has much more forward movement finishing with foot-stamping/hand-clapping on the last two beats "bank is." Now combine "Excuse me" and "Can you tell me where the bank is?". Do each line four times. So the first line is a slow shuffling beat, while the second is more of a strut. The last line is also quite boisterous. Have students raise their arms above their heads, turning them to the left and the right as they chant "Turn left_Turn right" (two beats). Now you are ready to put the whole thing together. Remember to repeat each phase four times. The whole thing now becomes an endless loop.

4. Salt, vinegar, mustard, pepper

         This is a traditional British skipping or jump rope chant. American readers might be more familiar with 369, The goose drank wine, The monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line, The line broke, The monkey got choked, And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat. (The rhyme appeared in Shirley Ellis's hit song of the sixties "The Name Game.") The rhythm of the chant allows the jumper(s) to synchronize the turning of the rope and jumping, almost without thinking. Work songs and army drill chants have a similar effect of synchronizing repetitive body movement. Ask your students to give you a jump rope song in their own language. The very universality of these songs underlines the importance of repetition, rhythm, movement and play in first language acquisition.

         Here, the dance routine is used as a vocabulary learning exercise in which students are invited to choose their own movement to accompany a particular lexical item. Start by getting students to chant "salt, vinegar, mustard, pepper." Note the extra stress on "pepper" to denote the end of the meter. Get students to accentuate the beat by clapping or by snapping their fingers. Now add a movement to each word. You can predetermine the movement or invite students to suggest an appropriate movement or gesture. I like to choose four students to come out front, let them choose a movement in turn and gradually build up the routine. You can then invite the rest of the class up so that there is a group doing the same movement for salt, another for vinegar and so on. The next stage is to divide the class into groups of four and give them new sets of vocabulary items; for example, "knife, pistol, sword, rifle" or "policeman, thief, judge, lawyer," etc. Each group works out a routine by themselves and then demonstrates to the class as a whole. Each group should repeat their chant at least four times to allow the rhythm of the chant to synchronize the movements.

A Wealth of Creativity and Imagination

         What these student-choreographed routines reveal is a surprising wealth of creativity and imagination, a resource which, for the most part, is untouched in the language classroom. So, for example, one group turned "policeman, thief, judge, lawyer," into a mimed narrative of arrest, sentencing and appeal. Another group made their movements resemble the shape of the fruit in "orange, apple, cherry, banana." Indeed, most groups showed an awareness of how their individual movement complemented the other movements in the group. For the most part, students conceived of their group as a line with movements which flowed from one student to the next and with clearly defined beginning and ending movements to the routine. Some students, however, formed circles and created a kinetic sculpture effect through their movements. Interestingly, students often made their movement correspond to the phonological contours of their word. Most movements reflected the stress pattern of the word. One student who was doing "thief" made a long arc-like movement of her arms starting low and finishing high corresponding to the acoustic shape of the vowel sound [i]. The variety and the range of movements displayed suggests the kinds of resources available to students when they are given the opportunity to draw on their kinesthetic intelligence as part of a multiple intelligence strategy of language learning.


         In modern Japan, the legend of Amaterasu lives on in the form of karaoke. Many of my students spend their evenings singing and dancing in karaoke bars. First, they practice the songs of their favorite singers at home, learning the words and working out movements and dance steps, and then they are ready for the karaoke bar. But there are probably even more students_and teachers too_who are also karaokers in the privacy of their bedrooms and bathrooms. What I have tried to do in this paper, is to tap into some of this energy, this universal delight in playing with words and movement, and use it for language learning. The real measure of the success of dance in the classroom is whether students will take away from the lesson a beat, a chant and a step, and in their own space and time, break out spontaneously into these routines.


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