The language of dance

Learning to dance teaches fourth- and fifth-grade children how to learn other things, writes George Will, after a visit to a Los Angeles school.

(Teacher Ethel) Bojorquez, whose experience has immunized her against educational fads, admiringly watches her pupils perform under (dancer Carole) Valleskey’s exacting tutelage and exclaims, “They are learning about reading right now.”

They are, she marvels, learning about — experiencing, actually — “sequencing, patterns, inferences.” She explains: “You don’t only listen to language, you do it.”

. . . Bojorquez’s raven-haired students, their dark eyes riveted on Valleskey, mimic her motions. These beautiful children have a beautiful hunger for the satisfaction of structured, collaborative achievement.

That begins when Valleskey, a one-woman swarm, bounces into the room and immediately, without a word of command, reduces the turbulent students to silent, rapt attention. They concentrate to emulate Valleskey’s complex syncopation of claps, finger snaps and thigh-slaps by which she sets the tone of the coming hour: This will be fun because things will be done precisely right.

Will is right: Children crave excellence.

About Joanne


  1. Nantoling says:

    The dance program sounds fine, even worthy, but claiming that it helps students learn about reading? What nonsense. Reading helps students learn about reading, not experiencing sequencing, patterns, and/or inferences. (And what exacly does “inferences” mean in this context?)

    Perhaps Ms. Bojorquez isn’t quite as immune to educational fads as Mr. Will believes. Perhaps Mr. Will isn’t so immune to them either.

  2. I agree with the article, there is nothing like someone who knows their subject area, uses direct instruction, expects discipline and hard work from the students and transmits civilization down the generations.

    But, dance that teaches reading? Well, perhaps in some sort of gestalt fashion. However, I agree with Nantoling – reading teaches reading. Perhaps we can talk also about the Mozart effect for math too.

    We don’t need any sort of gestalt rationalization or justification to teach dance or music. The arts are extremely important all by themselves. We also don’t need any fuzzy use of dance or music to avoid the buckle-down hard work required to learn to read and do math.

  3. I too question the notion that dancing will help teach reading… I can understand it teaching coordination, self-control, and even achievement, but not reading…

    That being said, as long as these lessons are in addition to regular reading lessons, and not instead of, I’ve got no problem with it…

    This would also seem to counteract the argument that, due to the barrage of standardized tests, kids have no time to learn about anything but reading, math, and testing…

  4. Those things that make reading pleasurable are the same things that make music and yes, dance. Knowing how to construct literary forms, musical forms or dance forms often rely on exactly those ‘sequencing, patterns, inferences.’ Once one knows that there is an underlying structure that sets out to communicate a particualr idea it makes it much easier to read, to listen, to interpret, to write, to apply what one knows in one area to what can be learned in another. It’s a big leap in thinking to say that learning dance is learning reading because one has to fill in the paragraph between the beginning to the end: dance –reading. It is comprehension that the student gains. One can infer much from gesture and dance is all about gesture. Can one read about gesture. How does a writer describe gesture so that the reader can infer something about the character?
    In a culture where reading is essential, it does not preclude that the visual be relegated to the arts; where the arts are considered something unto themselves and largely irrelevant to the core of reading. writing, arithmetic. The arts have a reputation for being without discipline, without structure and without utility. It is just not true.

    So sadly, here we are. Pretty pictures for the sake themselves because we don’t know how to comprehend what we see and dancing is a pleasure only of the body. All forms of communication have a structure that must be learned in order to be understood.
    It doesn’t strike me as being completely separate from one another. Even if one would like to apply ‘some kind of gestalt theory’ here, it still doesn’t mean that the student will be able to read by learning dance and I don’t find that the Will’s article makes that assertion. It can, however, aid the student’s ability to learn to read by improving his comprehension through recognition of, sequencing, patterns and inferences.

  5. Nantoling says:

    Cesek, I don’t buy the assertion that dance can aid students’ ability to read. If recognizing sequences and patterns is all it takes to improve reading comprehension, you might as well sit students at the corner of a busy intersection, or teach them knitting. And how exactly are students supposed to experience an inference through dance? This is edu-speak; it can’t be put into plain English without exposing its lack of meaning.

    Dance may be important in and of itself, but it has exactly nothing to do with literacy.

  6. nantoling,

    Is there no aspect of story-telling in dance?
    One need not be so myopic about this.
    Recognizing sequences and patterns is hardly all it takes to understand anything. It’s more complex than that.
    Do you infer anything from gesture or is your world completely blind to anything but the written word?

    One can take the view that any field is important in and of itself which then precludes the irrelevance of other fields as I pointed out earlier. The supremacy of the written word does not need to exclude other forms of communication as being without utility to anything but itself.
    The develpment of language and literature is significant in the sense that it sought to translate into writing what was previously communicated via voice, dance and music. By suggesting that mere body movement has exactly nothing to do with literacy is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    I highly doubt that dance will teach a student how to recognize the letter A so it might be best not to draw any inferences that the article suggests any such thing. We all know reading is much more than learning how to recognize the letters.

    The obvious question might be something like ‘what do they actually mean when they say reading?’ I infer something along the lines of comprehension through recognition of partiuclar structures, but perhaps you might be inferring nuts and bolts like letters and words. Therein lies the difference of opinion. 🙂

  7. Another take on this might also be as the article says, ‘they are learning about reading’, but not how to read. They may just be translating what they read into some dance movements. That might just be an experience of inferences.

  8. Rather than focusing on a remarkable program, this discussion centers on one quote — open to widely varying interpretations and perhaps taken completely out of context!

    Even if you overlook the program’s notable emphasis on American culture (Ellington, Copland, Gershwin), its clear assumption that “self-esteem is the result of, not a precondition for, achievement,” and the discipline and structure it obviously demands — I suspect that the absentee rate is lower on the days Valleskey’s at the school. These kids come to school for Dance and are present for Reading, Math, etc.

  9. Insufficiently Sensitive says:

    Then all the reading teacher needs is some parallel form of bribe to make sure the kids ‘want’ to come to class. Candy, free T-shirts for better-than-C grades, whatever. And the kids will then be in school for dance lessons by the less charismatic, unexceptional dance teacher.

  10. Nantoling says:

    Cesek, by redefining reading as “comprehension through recognition of particular structures”, you have stripped the word of any meaning whatsoever. And until you can dance The Oxford Companion to American Military History in such a way that your viewers can universally understand it, I will continue to hold that mere body movement has nothing to do with literacy.

    Reading is the process of recognizing and understanding a written message. Myopia has nothing to do with this definition; it’s a question of accuracy.

    To those who hold that this discussion has become too narrow, you’re probably correct. The dance program sounds interesting, and I’m sure the students value it. But as long as there are those who are eager to dilute the very meaning of reading to the point where learning and accountability cease, it is important to defend it with promptitude and vigor.

  11. It seems to me that the question: does learning dance help in the learning of reading/ an *empirical* question. It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that the mind/brain has learning mechanisms which are sufficiently general that learning one of these skills helps in learning the other.

    I wonder if anyone has actually done any research on this topic?

  12. Whoever defines reading as the process of recognizing a written message, perhaps needs to broaden their definition. Perhaps a coded message instead of written. I am a music educator I teach students to read music every day. The ability to recognize patterns and codes (notes or letters in the literary field) are skills that can be applied to multiple disciplines. Decoding symbols and pattern recognition are skills which translate to math and science as well as reading, music and even dance.

    The program in this article seems to follow the educational pattern of experiencing, knowing, understanding, applying and creating. And to the person who considers it a bribe, I would rather my children were motivated by sometihng creative that cavity causing.

  13. greeneyeshade says:

    if david foster and others are looking for research on the relation between dance (and other body movements) and reading, they might try the orton-gillingham society, which has been dealing with dyslexia for decades. my younger daughter, age 12, is in an orton-gillingham program which puts a lot of stress on physical movement and she’s making real progress in reading for, well, the 1st time. and she’s not reporting aches, pains and fevers in the mornings, except when she’s actually sick. this seems to be just what people like her and her classmates need.

  14. Hm. I wonder how I learned to read without ever taking any dancing lessons?

  15. I’ve really got to wonder if a lot of the improvement is really just a “come along” effect of increasing the children’s interest level in school in general. Also, it has been shown that physical exercise improves learning by a) draining off excess energy and thus enabling students to concentrate more easily, and b) by improving overall general health, including increased blood flow to the brain.

    I’d be more inclined to see this as a peripheral benefit to physical activity of any kind. Especially since grade-school age children rarely have much rhythm and can’t control their bodies in a rhythmic manner without a great deal of practice. My evidence for this? I watch my daughter and her teammates put in 12 hours (my daughter at 8) up to 20 hours (the higher level 12 & 13-year olds) per WEEK in the gym working on competitive gymnastics, which includes a great deal of dance and ballet moves for the floor portion. Trust me, kids working at this high frequency STILL struggle to master rhythm and patterns. And many of the better gymnasts still struggle with reading. If you were going to see an effect, I would expect to see it here.

    I also mentioned this to the moms of several of the competitive gymnasts, who are also elementary school teachers. After they stopped laughing, the general consensus was “Well, that’s different. But not more bizarre than some of the stuff we’re being asked to do in the schools.” And the stories of weirdness began.

    No, the bit about patterns in dance promoting reading sounds good on the surface, but on critical examination I think it’s another load of educatese.

  16. There’s also the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ (named after the factory at which the study was conducted. They turned the lights up..production increased. They turned the lights way down..production increased again. They changed the lights back to where they were initially…yep, another increase. The conclusion: sometimes mere change is stimulative, independent of any inherent value of the changes made…

  17. I believe if I had taken dancing as a reading exercize my eductional level back then (50 years ago) would have been what the level of education is today. Now that is sad.