The Cognitive and Intellectual Aspects of Dance (and math)

Dance Magazine recently published an interesting article titled: Don’t get It Twisted: Dance Is An Intellectual Pursuit and parts of the article really resonated with my approach to combining math and dance. Below are some excerpts from that article interspersed with related #movingmath posts from this blog (bolding mine).

People have a tendency to think of dance as purely physical and not intellectual. But when we separate movement from intellect, we are limit what dance can do for the world. It’s not hard to see that dance is thought of as less than other so-called “intellectual pursuits.” How many dancers have been told they should pursue something “more serious”? How many college dance departments don’t receive funding on par with theater or music departments, much less science departments? Perhaps that’s because dance only leaves behind traces. The words and decisions that go into making dances have a hard time being accounted for, and choreographic notes and videos cannot fully capture a dance work.

Dance depends on the presence of the body. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to explain to non-dancers how corporal movement is a means of thinking and engaging with complex ideas. That’s why it’s so important that dancers can talk or write about their work, translating the corporal knowledge into language.

When we acknowledge that our bodies think, move, translate, react—often in conjunction with linguistic thought or prior to itwe can use dance as a tool. 

Related: When the Movement IS the Reasoning Tool | What does it look and sound like when kids use their whole bodies during a math lesson? What happens prior to, during, and after the activity? Luckily Deb Torrance and Lana Pavolova have provided us with some stellar documentation so we can get a closer look at what happens when we give kids a mathematical challenge to explore with their whole bodies.

Linguistic Intelligence Has Its Place in Dance, Too
That’s not to say that language isn’t part of dance. Choreographers craft dancers’ intentions and movements with words, images and metaphors. Even in improvisation, a director dictates a score, and dancers translate the imagery into corporal form. When choreographers layer dance and words, it engages the audience in new ways. As Bill T. Jones explains, “You see one thing and you hear another thing, and then the audience puts together what they mean.”

Related: Learning Math by Ear: The Role of Language in a #movingmath classroom  | “Comprehension of a word’s meaning involves not only the ‘classic’ language brain centres but also the cortical regions responsible for the control of body muscles, such as hand movements.” To me this study explains part of why a “moving math” approach that includes a focus on math language used in context can open up new pathways for our learners.”

Dance Can Help Us Better Understand Our World
Many choreographers use dance to shed light on today’s most pressing topics. Some use dance in conjunction with social activism, like Ananya Dance Theatre’s Ananya Chatterjea, who recently created Shyamali as a tribute to women across the world who have stood up against oppression. Others explore the nuances of science: Michelle Dorrance’s Myelination, for example, translates the biological process of a myelin sheath forming around a nerve into tap dance. Not to mention artists who use their dance practice as research, focusing on the process of dance making to explore a question or subject…

Related: Leaving Room for Question Asking | “It’s these questions, arising in the moments when they’re needed, born of collaboration, that help learners notice structure and pattern and purpose in what they’re doing. From there we can move to the more formal learning. But… I think kids in general are most motivated when they are provided agency by the adults in their lives. Their work may not be technically perfect, but they are in the best part of learning (to me, anyhow): inside the flow of an investigation filled with their wonderings.”

Dancers Connect Multiple Parts of Ourselves
Dance intertwines the cerebral, physical and emotional; science tries to unravel the connections between these. Dance uses these inherent connections to delve deeper into our humanity, and create new ways of reflecting on the world. In that way, dance is a crucial tool in intellectual pursuits.

Related: Learning Without a Body |”The body is not simply a vehicle toward realizing the perceived pinnacle of abstracted knowledge housed in the mind.  The body is where learning originates. Living in a body is also the way children learn personal agency as they make decisions about how their bodies will move and act and how that power can influence and shape their world. And, in the process, learning that there are obvious consequences and responses in relation to their actions. This is literally and viscerally democracy in action.”

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,  on Twitter,  Instagram, or Facebook.

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