Guest Blog: Nature-based Dance Curriculum
by Eden Flynn
I recently co-facilitated/participated in a Luna Dance Practitioner Exchange with a small group of dance educators on a topic near and dear to my heart: Nature-based Dance Curriculum.
Just before the meeting I was reflecting on how this topic emerged. During the year-end meeting for the 2016 Luna Dance Summer Institute alumni, we were sharing our “take-aways” from the teaching year, and I shared how my focus on nature-based curricula developed over the course of the year.
The early part of my teaching year was inspired by what I had learned over the summer and I spent most of my classes broadly honing my own translation of the Luna style/approach to teaching the elements of dance. However, during the winter, the three schools where I worked were closed for over a month due to the Thomas fire that began in Ojai and continued throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties for several months after. When the schools re-opened and I went back to teaching my classes, without even realizing it, I began to focus much more on nature-based themes and the students seemed to engage with a renewed sense of enthusiasm.
In retrospect, I don’t know if what I perceived as the students’ renewed enthusiasm was just due to being back in their hometown and returning to the rhythm and routine of their post-fire lives; or if their enthusiasm was actually inspired by the nature-based themes of our dance-making. Possibly both. Either way, it inspired me to want to go deeper into exploring our interconnectedness with nature through the medium of dance.
I primarily teach creative dance with TKs, Kindergarteners, and first graders. I’ve noticed that they tend to instinctively be attuned to nature. What I mean by nature could include something as small as a patch of grass growing out of a crack in the sidewalk, a bird chirping by the window, or a cool breeze blowing the leaves. In my experience, young learners seem to notice these details more readily, as well as the bigger more prominent parts of nature—mountains, trees, cloud formations, thunder storms, etc..
After the fire, my students’ reflections on nature during our dance classes seemed to be even more astute and enthusiastic. Whether or not we explicitly talked about it, all of our lives had been uprooted due to the forces of nature. Some of their friends had lost their homes permanently and had not yet returned to school because they were still displaced. Many who had returned had to stay indoors for weeks due to the dangerous air quality. So in my mind, there was a heightened sense of awareness of how powerful nature is and how much we tend to take for granted the simple things, like being able to go outside to play, to touch the leaves and see the trees, to breath the air, splash in the puddles, see the stars in the sky at night. At the same time, as the earth began to recover from the fire, we were watching nature renew and re-emerge in a way that we hadn’t seen before.
It has been about one year since the Thomas fire. California has experienced several more subsequent wildfires, and sadly, during the time of our Practitioner Exchange, there were two more fires raging again in Ventura County and further South, as well as the devastating Paraside fire. I mention this because, with the increasing intensity and number of fires, the conversation about climate change and global warming felt essential. The health of our planet, the health of our students health, as well as our own health, was a large part of the conversation around “nature-based curriculum in dance education”.
With many of our students experiencing the effects first hand—their schools closing, terrible air quality, having to evacuate, and in many cases losing their homes, we talked about how we might use dance education as a way to process some of this. We discussed how, as educators, it is our responsibility to create spaces of learning for students to share, discuss, problematize, and contextualize what’s happening in their worlds. These conversations might be different for students in urban settings than students in rural settings, and differences depending on access to nature and socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet, we pointed to the shared experience of being part of nature regardless of much of how little or how much of it that surrounds us.
I realize nature is only one topic among so many others that might be on our students minds at any given moment. But for me personally, it feels pressing for children and educators to be collaboratively thinking through some of the concerns facing our planet, hopefully in ways that are empowering and creative.
One of the many wonderful things about having dance as a medium to address such issues is that it allows us to literally “move” energy, express our feelings, fears and ideas in creative and constructive ways. Intellectualizing and thinking through issues is of course essential, but if we don’t move our bodies in the process, we run the risk of getting weighed down by it all. Also, as I alluded to earlier, there’s something very inspiring about watching nature re-new herself. When we observe all the changes that occur in nature, there are so many life-lessons to draw from for developing nature-based curriculum.
Questions that came up during the Practitioner Exchange included: How do we use dance to remind ourselves and our students to stay attuned to the nature that is around us (the sky, the sun, the rain, the birds, the leaves), and to the ways that we are part of nature? How do we do this in urban areas with limited access to nature? How can this awareness of our connection with nature could be supported by dance with the older students? We discussed some of the logistical barriers to dancing outdoors with our students given that most of the time we are in classroom settings.
A shared interest among those of us in the group, was how to connect nature-based dance education with environmental justice and social action. We shared ideas about potential collaborations with other teachers in the natural and biological sciences and other subject areas, as well as with community organizations, and even, very ambitiously, other youth groups who might concerned about and experiencing the affects of climate change in their geographical locations.
Ultimately, what stands out the most in my mind, is how dance education can both cultivate a sense of awe, wonder and joy around our interconnectedness with nature, as well as catalyze action around our legitimate concerns and need to collaboratively problem-solve around the issues currently facing our planet.
Eden Flynn has been teaching creative dance with children and various other forms of dance with adults for many years. She created a movement arts program called Heartbeats Dance which combines creative dance, yoga and mindfulness in the classroom. She primarily teaches ECE, Kindergarten, and First grades in Ojai California public schools, as well as mixed ages in enrichment programs. She is an Alumna of the Luna Dance SI program, 2016.