by Emily Ban
On October 9th, a small but mighty group of dance educators gathered at Luna for the Practitioner Exchange on “Policing and Releasing the Student Body.” Facilitating virtually from my home in Brooklyn, we started with me sharing what I mean when I talk about “policing the body.” While I currently teach dance at a decidedly humanist public school, I spent the past two years developing a creative dance program at a “no excuses” charter elementary school in Minneapolis, where it felt that the school’s top prioritized values were teacher control and student compliance. Because these values were paired with highly rigid ideas about what engagement looks like, students were constantly reminded that tall, straight backs, pinkies glued to desks, and feet flat on floor were prerequisites for learning. My students, about 98% of whom were students of color and 93% of whom received free/reduced price lunch, practiced a four-step process for standing up from their seats over and over until the entire class executed the sequence is militaristic unison. My kindergarteners might practice walking silently in the hall with their arms glued tightly to their sides three times before getting it perfectly and finally heading to recess. I shared these glimpses into my old school as an example of the ways we police certain students’ bodies in the name of safety, high expectations, and efficiency.
I shared the questions this experience raised in me: Whose bodies do we police in these ways in schools? What implicit lessons are we teaching students about their abilities, their agency, their value and their worth? Lastly, I shared a glimpse into the challenges of attempting to carve out a time and space that operated differently within my school – a space where students could choose how to move and create beautiful things with their bodies, all while making decisions themselves about how to stay safe.
From there, each participant shared their own complex, insightful experiences with control and compliance, agency and creative freedom. One participant shared the idea that dance education ideally exists within “a container that makes it safe to take risks.” Several participants agreed, though added on that so often it is challenging to hold that kind of container sacred within a school or institution where risk-taking is not antithetical to the overwhelming culture of compliance and control. Our conversation largely questioned how we as dance educators navigate the opposing forces of freedom and control, agency and structure.
One particularly interesting thread of conversation examined the concept of “freezing” within the creative dance context. We listed reasons why finding stillness and quiet might be integral to dance curriculum (stillness is a key facet of time, rhythm, phrase-making, etc.) and helpful for managing the flow of a lesson (a pause to provide the next prompt, to push ideas further, to remind about using our eyes to find empty space, etc.). However, we also surfaced concerns about the power dynamics of demanding that students freeze on cue and the potentially problematic associations with police officers yelling “freeze.” We questioned, “who has the right to say ‘freeze?’” As often happens in these conversations, one question led to another, and by the end of our time together we landed on a few that are still echoing for me: What does it mean to try and release or free someone else’s body? Is that different from granting permission to access one’s own freedom? Who are the gatekeepers of freedom?”
Emily Ban is a NYC-based dance educator and Luna SI alum who has previously developed a creative dance program within a “no excuses” charter school, taught ESL in France, and managed community education programs at a dance non-profit. She holds a BA in Dance and French from Carleton College and an Ed.M. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.