“What I’ve Learned (so far) About Teaching and Learning (Mathematics) in Dance Class”

“It’s hard to put your finger on the cause of a slow-burning problem. One day, you feel lucky to be paid to do something you love and the next, you’ve forgotten why you loved it in the first place. It can be even harder to put your finger on a solution. I turned to dance.”
–Ilona Vashchyshyn in her post “This one’s about dance (and burn out)”

Among many other things, Ilona is a secondary teacher in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and co-editor of the Saskatchewan Mathematics Teachers’ Society’s monthly periodical, The Variable. I have had the honor being interviewed by Ilona in which she heard all about my work. She posted a gorgeous, forthright story on her blog recently where I got to know more about her. In particular, I want to share her reflection on what she learned about teaching, learning, and mathematics during dance class (bolding mine)but I also encourage you to read her entire post.

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What I’ve learned (so far) about teaching and learning (mathematics) in dance class, by Ilona Vashchyshyn:

Don’t underestimate the importance of routine.

Almost without fail, dance instructors begin class with a warm-up routine that engage dancers’ bodies and minds in preparation for the work ahead. At HDC (Harbour Dance Centre), most instructors kept the warm-up routine more-or-less similar from one day to the next, although new movements might be added (and some left behind) as the class gained proficiency. E.g., in ballet, a barre exercise might be repeated but with new arm movements, or with a relevé balance to finish. Of course, warm-ups are particularly important in dance because they help to prevent injury, but I found that having a common thread from class to class was valuable in other ways: notably, it gave me repeated opportunities to learn and improve the movements / pathways / exercises which, in turn, gave me the opportunity to develop my confidence as a dancer. Seeing my improvement from day to day encouraged me to continue, and experiencing small successes at the start of class offset the occasional frustration of learning new movements and combinations later on in the lesson. Not to mention, slowing down to practice movements in isolation meant that I could perform them with more ease and fluidity when it came to using them in choreography or in improvisation.

Dance is not about [learning] the choreography.

Early in the week, one of my instructors at HDC cut the music just before we began our routine to say: “Stop. Why are you here? If music is playing in dance class, you dance.” And he insisted that we did, even if it felt awkward at first. Later, referring to a complicated move: “Listen, I’m not gonna teach you that shit. You can learn it on the internet. This is dance class.”

More than any dance instructor I’ve ever had, he emphasized that dance isn’t about the choreography. Choreography, which is a sequence of memorized movements, will be quickly forgotten. A more valuable outcome of dance class is increased confidence and joy in responding with movement to music. Of course, an additional benefit of dance lessons is picking up new steps or pathways, but the value of these is not that you can perform them in a specific sequence, but rather that you can go on to combine and remix them in endless ways, in addition to creating your own. In fact, most of the dance instructors regularly set aside time during class for improvisation – even in ballet, which is generally regarded as the most rigid of the dance styles.

The connection to math class, I think, almost goes without saying: formulas, procedures, algorithms are our version of choreography. Of course, it can be fun to learn and execute the moves. There’s a great sense of accomplishment in accurately performing a complicated routine. But the main outcome of math class shouldn’t be a memorized sequence of steps; more important, I think, is increased confidence and persistence when facing new problems (the analogue of improvisation, or developing your own routine), maybe with a few more tools to tackle them.

Note that I don’t feel that there is a clash between routine (c.f. above), choreography, and improvisation – all have their place and their value. All parts of the elephant, as they say. Lest I stretch the metaphor past its usefulness, I will stop here, but the idea of dancing as problem solving (and problem solving as dancing) is something I’d really like to keep exploring.

A teacher learns.

A dance studio can be a prime location to study how great teachers differentiate and adapt instruction to meet their students’ needs. Especially in adult beginner dance classes, students tend to be very diverse in their abilities and previous experiences. While some really are starting from scratch, many are dancers returning after a long break, and still others are trying a new style but have extensive experience in another. At HDC it was instructive to watch how teachers adapted their plans for the week as they learned more about their students, as well as how they provided options in the moment for dancers with different levels of experience (“for now, just focus on the feet,” or “try lifting your hands off the bar if you’d like a challenge”).

On the flip side, the experience of being a student again was also invaluable. As teachers, we know that the struggle of learning something for the first time can be quickly forgotten, replaced by the illusion that it was easy all along. Forgetting is all the more likely when you teach the same course semester after semester, year after year. And maybe the quickest way to dismantle this illusion is to put on a pair of ballet slippers and a leotard and step into a mirrored room full of strangers who all seem to know what they’re doing while you’re still struggling to remember the difference between a frappé and a fondu and to balance with both feet on the ground. Even with the most encouraging of teachers, I sometimes found myself afraid to ask for help, hiding in the back when I felt lost, and even fighting the urge to escape to the bathroom when I started to get overwhelmed. Pushing through the frustration of just not getting it and the fear that I just never will, especially when it feels like everyone else does, can take tremendous effort. And a teacher who – in addition to providing focused feedback – takes time to remind the class that it’s okay to feel lost sometimes, that being on the verge of this is too hard is just where you’re supposed to be, can make all the difference between choosing to stay home tomorrow and showing up to try again.

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Malke here again. More than anything I’d like to encourage you to think about whole- body #movingmath (whether dance or non-dance based) as a process of coming to understand not just the math but the process by which we come to know math, a topic that to many people, seems foreign and inaccessible.  Using the whole body in math class teaches us to persevere. Engaging our learners’ bodies in math class can help this process and as well as help build a community of learners. There are lots of resources on this blog for getting started. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have questions!


Malke Rosenfeld is a percussive dance teaching artist, Heinemann author, editor, math explorer, and presenter whose interests focus on the learning that happens at the intersection of math and the moving body. She delights in creating rich environments in which children and adults can explore, make, play, and talk math based on their own questions and inclinations.You can find out more about her work at malkerosenfeld.com,  on Twitter,  Instagram, or Facebook.

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