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Iskra Sukarova

Observational report for the first year as part of the BA programme in the Laban Centre London.

Sukarova, Iskra: "Observational report for the first year as part of the BA program in the Laban Centre London", 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.

1. Introduction

This discussion is based on the results of an observation process focussing on a beginners classical ballet class, taking into consideration that the learners had previously been exposed to Pilates-based body conditioning as part of the Laban Centre London Bachelor of Arts (BA) first year programme. The research for this Observational Report was undertaken in February 2002 based on observation of one classical ballet class a week over a period of three weeks. According to the BA (Hons) Dance Theatre Course Handbook, the structure and design for year one is oriented towards students gaining a basic undertaking of dance technique - contemporary dance and classical ballet, enabling the dancers to understand and develop performance skills for their future careers as dancers and choreographers. One of the aims of the BA programme is to encourage students to reflect on their own practice through using analytical perspectives as a framework. In this report, the discussion is based partly on considering the importance of implementing Pilates as a practice-based conditioning technique. It will be argued that this approach in dance teaching provides dance students in the first year with a knowledge of a different kind, helping them to develop a better understanding of the use of the body for classical ballet technique for the duration of their studies.

The Observational Report will examine the different teaching methods applied in order to facilitate learning in dance in the first year BA programme, focussing on two teaching styles which were observed throughout the teaching process in classical ballet: the Command Style and the Guided Discovery style (Mosston and Ashoworth, 1986). The communication methods in dance teaching will be seen through the use of sensory imagery as one of the ways of learning in dance, enabling the development of kinesthetic and tactile imagery awareness. The question of how Pilates can support teaching and learning in classical ballet will be part of the discussion, considering especially the function of transfer of learning and the importance it has in dance learning for a beginners programme in classical ballet. The way that Pilates-based body conditioning affects learning, especially in classical ballet is analysed here through the use of memory frameworks such as short-term sensory store, short-term and long-term memory, examined through human information processing.

2. Discussion

According to Mosston and Ashworth (1986, p. 14), the description of an episode in the Command Style reflects the relation between the dance student and the teacher, where all the decisions are made by the teacher, whereas the learner has to obey and respond to the teacher's instructions. In particular their claim is that the rhythmical support influences the command signal in some disciplines more than others, particularly where there is musical accompaniment. Examples of this relationship can be seen in ballet classes. The music that is used to accompany classical ballet classes essentially regulates the movements, giving the ballet class its rhythmical structure. When the Command Style is used, it is important that the teacher knows the correct application and the possible relations between the command signals and the response initiated from the learners.

The teacher in the class observed certainly used the command style when introducing new movement material to the students. The learners in the class were required to execute the movement as it was demonstrated by the teacher. Taking account of the fact that the learners were beginners, with little or no previous classical training, they responded to this teaching method by copying the movements as nearly as possible as they were shown to them. The Command Style was implemented in order to demonstrate new movement combinations, but also to repeat some of the previously taught dance material. Towards the end of the barre work, the teacher asked the students questions in order to help them correct the errors in the movements executed. The questions required students to analyse the movements, by which means they were able to detect the movement errors.

According to Mosston and Ashworth (1986, p. 174), use of the Guided Discovery Style develops: "a delicate interplay of cognitive and emotional dimensions between the teacher and student, both bound intimately and intricately to the subject matter". The Guided Discovery Style must be adopted in the impact phase: the teacher should be able to ask the right questions, involving the student in the tension of finding the correct answer for that particular question. In the instances observed the teacher's use of both the Command and Guided Discovery Styles, which enabled the students to participate the whole time because they were used in such a way as to enhance dynamic pace of the lesson. The students' ability to self-detect movement errors improved over time, enabling them to develop proprioceptive understanding of the material learnt.

Learning through sensory information is one of the most creative ways of teaching. The use of imagery develops the student's imagination and inner kinesthetic feeling. Franklin (1996) claims that an image does not have to be as we often tend to think, just visual, but an image might be composed of a variety of senses; by using more than one sense the image is enriched, meaning that it can be transferred more effectively. Kinesthetic imagery involves the physical feel of a movement, imagining the feeling of the body before the movement is executed. The teacher's method in the observed class consisted of kinesthetic and tactile imagery which was applied in order to develop the students' sensory awareness. For example the students were often asked to check their balance and the connection of their body parts. They were also asked to imagine their bodies in the right position, after which they then performed the movement imagining how the movement should be executed in its correct form. The fact that dance is an art form using the body, suggests that learning through imagery is important for dancers because it gives them more precise information about their bodies (p. 49-50).

Franklin claims that tactile imagery is very closely related to kinesthetic imagery. According to Franklin (1996) tactile and kinesthetic imagery are also known under the combined heading "tactile-kinesthetic". For example, the teacher in the classical ballet class gave kinesthetic imagery information to some of the learners, touching certain parts of their bodies in order to indicate the movement error. By touching the places where there was a movement error, the teacher helped the dancers in adjusting their bodies to the right position, which helped them to perform the movement correctly. According to Franklin the learner remembers how the teacher makes the physical adjustment, recalling the whole process by repeating everything in their "minds eye". In particular, the teacher adjusted the students' alignment, paying attention to the position of their pelvis. This suggests that the teacher was focussing on correcting the body alignment, which is crucial in classical ballet. The teacher applied kinesthetic and tactile sensory imagery, thus developing intrinsic body awareness in the dancers' bodies. As Franklin (1996) states, there is direct and indirect imagery.

According to this, direct imagery is a non-verbal representation of the actual movement, such as when you show the students how to extend their arms into space, while indirect imagery could be when a metaphorical expression is used to exemplify movements. For example, indirect imagery can be seen in classical ballet when the dancers are told to imagine the space between the arms in the first position as a big balloon full of air. This enables the dancer to develop a correct feeling for the arm position. It might be argued, that the teacher used both direct and indirect imagery in the class. Within the context of the observation for this report the dancers' responses were much better when indirect imagery was applied, suggesting that they could associate the body movements with shapes and forms they had previously seen or experienced in the outer world (p. 50-51).

According to Gibson (1966, p. 111) the term kinesthesis literally denotes the pickup of movement. Gibson claims that the kinesthesis cuts across the functional perceptual systems, referring exclusively to body movements: there are many kinds of movement which need to be registered such as cutaneous kinesthesis, registering the movements of the skin relative to what it touches. The dancer might orient his/her body posture according to the surrounding space: "the body percept, or "body image", is a set of possible dispositions or poses - standing, or lying - relative to the substratum and to gravity" (1966, p. 113). The human body is affected in many ways concerning the environment. The dancer is exposed to gravity enabling him/her to stand or lie on the floor, and to experience both geometrical joint information and skin information at the same time. The bones and the extremities are linked to the environmental surfaces, which affects the dancers' body movements.

It might be argued, that the skin information is closely connected to the body and bone information through body alignment and gravity. As noted above, the teacher applied tactile imagery in the classical ballet class by touching the dancer's pelvis. The dancers corrected their body positions by perceiving the teacher's touch through skin information, after which they adjusted their body alignment using joint and bone information, relying on gravity. Gibson claims that both the skin and the bones, deliver simultaneous somatic information to the brain, which suggests that the dancers use the teacher's touch to adjust the position of the pelvis, depending on their own inner kinesthetic awareness as well.

Pilates-based body conditioning was part of the technical training to which the dance students were exposed in the first term as part of the first year BA programme. Hence, it would be reasonable to surmise that the students had developed some kind of body awareness before they began their classical technical training. To put it another way, the students had a difficult task because they had to transfer their technical skills from Pilates, applying them to learning in classical ballet technique. At this point, the importance of Pilates in dance to support training in classical ballet should be considered.

According to Robbins and Robbins (2000, p.4), Joseph Pilates worked on developing special exercises which achieved the balance between the human body and mind: he coupled gymnastics and martial arts exercises, analysing the effect they had on the posture of the human body. He identified principles of stretching and strengthening in the body, which could be applied to every body type through correct instructions and guidance. Pilates (2000, p. 9) states that in order to achieve complete control and bodily understanding, it is necessary to a look at contrology, which accomplishes proper coordination of the body, mind and spirit, claiming that contrology gains mastery over the mind, which then controls the body. He speaks about the importance of the results of the Pilates body conditioning methods: "based upon the science of 'contrology', there would result a rejuvenation of mind and body and living itself would again become an art as it was in the days of the ancient Grecians" (2000, p. 34). In the BA (Hons) Dance Theatre programme, the first term is to enable the dancers to come to know how to coordinate the body and mind as a whole. This is consistent with the provision of Pilates work in the curriculum.

It is proposed here, that dancers observed, learned the classical ballet movements quickly because they could draw on knowledge they had gained from the Pilates conditioning method: they were relying on their previously gained proprioceptive knowledge. Gray (1989, p. 74) claims that one of the factors, which affect learning, is the dancers' efficiency of skill transfer. According to this, a knowledge base of movement is desirable and essential for learning new dance skills. In this case, it can be argued that the dancers' previous body conditioning experiences helped them in learning new material - in this instance classical ballet movements - more efficiently. Gray (1989, p. 74) states that: "the concept of learning to learn, which is important in increasing the ability to master new and numerous dance skills, is seen as an ideal motivational aid to transference". Magill (2001, p. 205) states that the transfer of learning is essentially the influence of previous experiences on performing a skill in a new context or learning a completely new skill. It would appear that it was precisely this kind of transfer of learning that was happening in the students observed: they were transferring knowledge and understanding gained in Pilates to the context of classical ballet.

Magill states that the transfer of learning is divided in three categories: positive transfer, negative transfer and zero transfer. Positive transfer occurs when previous experience is used in order to perform and learn movements of a new skill. On the other hand, negative transfer occurs when previous experiences interfere with the learning of the new skill, while zero transfer is when no previous experiences have influenced the performance of new skills. Magill (2001, p. 208) argues that positive transfer can be achieved when there are similarities in the components of the two skills. It is proposed here, therefore, that positive transfer can occur between the Pilates body conditioning method and classical ballet if the component parts between these two skills show similarities in performance contexts. Thorndike (as cited in Magill, 2001, p. 208) proposes the 'identical elements theory', taking into consideration the general characteristics of a skill performance and its contexts. He argues that identical elements include mental processes, sharing the same brain cell activity as the physical action taking place. This theory might be used to analyse the similarities between the Pilates programme and the classical ballet programme seen through the importance of alignment which is one of the eight principles upon which the Pilates method is based. This theory will now be considered in relation to the learners observed.

The classical ballet teacher spent a long period in the class explaining the importance of alignment to the dancers. Much of what was said had previously been learned in Pilates. It would seem reasonable to propose that some of the students applied this knowledge, transferring the learned experiences, in classical ballet. According to Robinson and Thompson (1999, p. 17), the exercises based on Pilates method restore the balance of the body, stressing the importance of correct body alignment. The claim is that by keeping the right alignment, the structure of the muscles will be able to hold the joints in their correct position. In the observed class, the focus was oriented towards the importance of the alignment of the body. The teacher constantly required the dancers to check if their body parts were in the correct alignment. In this way, the dancers were being encouraged to augment their knowledge and understanding. The classical ballet teacher focused on the importance of the body alignment when the students performed preparations for pirouettes. The dancers practised their alignment by finding the balance of the body through finding stability-aplomb (Grieg 1994, p. 35). According to Grieg, the dancer's aplomb is initiated from the pelvis, which is in connection with the spine. The dancer's execution of a pirouette depends on the connection between the pelvis and the spine which are in relation. The pelvis is directly connected with the spine and the hip socket, affecting the function of the entire body. The aplomb is executed correctly if the whole body is aligned. Grieg (1994, p. 40-41) claims that the dancer should find a centred placement for the pelvis in order to achieve the desired position: "The line of gravity, seen from the side, passes through the centre of the hip joint and continues through the centre of the thigh into the knee". The pelvis might be visualised as a bowl, to help the dancers to use imagery as a tool for understanding the vertical connection of the pelvis to the other parts of the body.

Schmidt's information-processing model will be used to explain how the sensory input of information in the environment affects the system in the human body. According to Schmidt (1982, p. 89), an imagined black box demonstrates the individual. The information from the environment is stored in this black box, which is being processed in different ways, resulting in motor activity. The researchers are interested in finding out the relation between the information (or stimuli) and the output (response), which will enable them to explain the human motor activity functions. Schmidt claims that some scientists have identified three possible stages of information processing. He argues that this proposed scheme is too simple. On the other hand, human beings can be conceptualised in this way, because it will help the understanding of human motor behaviour. To define the stages of processing, Schmidt (1984, p. 93) proposes three possible stages. The stimulus identification stage is where the individual acknowledges and identifies the stimulus. The second stage is called response-selection stage which occurs when the stimulus has been properly identified by the individual who decides what kind of response to make. Finally, the response-programming stage defines the appropriate action executed from the individual after the selected response from the motor apparatus.

Applied to learning in classical ballet, we might suggest that dancers go through all these processing phases in the learning of new movement material. According to Schmidt (1984), the Reaction-Time (RT) analyses defines the events that occur in the motor activities concerning everyday life, while the RT approach deals with the events that happen as a result of the RT paradigm. In order to illustrate the function of the RT paradigm in everyday life an example of a car driver is offered by Schmidt: "Thus, the driver can be thought of as an information processing channel to which the information is continually presented, and out of which come responses". (p. 93-94). Schmidt claims that the stimulus identification stage is initiated from the environment by an external stimulus on the body, activating a certain code of neurological stimulus toward the brain. The stimulus is processed until it establishes a level of analysis which contacts memory. The stimulus is aroused, affecting the memory code resulting with associations, identified as proper or improper. In the observed ballet class, the teacher used tactile information to correct the students' movement performance. This might be considered as one kind of stimulus, which the dancers recognise. If the stimulus is clearly transmitted to the learner then the quality of the responses will be more effective. The dancers' capability to understand the stimuli and identify the correct response depends on the teacher's clarity in explaining the initiation of the movement. Schmidt claims that the stimulus clarity and the stimulus intensity can be measured though variables which depend on the nature of the stimulus.

According to Schmidt (1984, p.95), the second stage, known as the pattern recognition stage, usually extracts a pattern or a feature from the presented stimuli. For example, it might be argued that the dancers learned new classical movements by recognizing the movement performance pattern, based on their previous knowledge of Pilates. According to this, they associated the body patterns from the Pilates technique, relating it to classical ballet movement patterns. Schmidt claims that it is important to understand motor behaviour and the possibility to extract patterns of movement from the environment. The constant environmental changes influence and determine new movement response. The human body also provides pattern information by engaging the receptors throughout the body, enabling new movement pattern information to be formed.

The individual has probably analysed the sensory information at the end of the stimulus-identification stage, provided by the necessary environmental information. According to Schmidt (1984, p. 97), the individual identifies the sensory information, then decides what kind of response to make in the response-selection stage. Thus, the choice of the actions in this stage depends on a number of events determining the result of the response. One of the most important events in the stimulus-identification stage is the memory contact and the ability to learn through association. Schmidt claims that many researchers think that the adequate response is activated at the same time as it is initiated through the stimulus-identification stage. In the response selection stage the individual chooses an appropriate response according to the series of events. From this, it might be inferred that the dance students were able to select appropriate movement information from the Pilates technique they had already learnt in the first term and apply their learning in classical ballet. The students' response will depend on the individual students' capability to transfer the received Pilates knowledge to the new learning context of classical ballet.

Memory frameworks will now be used to offer an explanation for the way that the Pilates method facilitates learning classical ballet movements. Schmidt (1982, p. 114) states: "The framework for memory can be thought of as a series of hypothetical 'boxes' into which items are placed, with the information being transferred from box to box as a result of various kinds of information-processing operations that can be performed on them". These boxes are: short-term sensory store (STSS), short-term memory (STM), long-term memory (LTM). The information processing frameworks are used to retain certain items, while processing them in particular boxes. The short-term sensory store STSS is close to the environment and holds massive amounts of information.

The STSS accepts and loses new information very quickly, because it is connected with the environmental sensory inputs which are constantly changing. Schmidt claims that short term-memory is a storage system for information which comes from the STSS or long-term memory. The information is held in the STM for a short time because it is being processed. Schmidt (1982, p. 120) claims that the short-term memory is in relation to consciousness, which is connected with the things that come from the outside world. In other words, we are also aware of things that happened to us previously, which are part of the long-term memory. Short-term memory receives information from long-term memory and can be seen as a place where the information is stored for processing.

Schmidt (1982, p. 123) claims that the major difference between short-term memory and long-term memory is the amount of time that the information can be stored in these two memory frameworks. The memory boxes which are responsible for holding information transfer the information from short-term memory to long-term memory in order to protect it from being lost. The long-term memory is able to provide the basis for the capacity to repeat movements that have been previously practised. The development of the long-term memory in relation to movement is important for the motor learning and teaching process. Schmidt (1982, p. 123) claims that: "practice leads to the development of better and stronger long-term memory for movement and that these memories are often present after many years". One of the major distinctions between the long-term and short-term memory is the amount of information that can be held. According to Schmidt, the capacity of the long-term memory is limitless, which might mean that the capacity of the motor long-term memory can be also considered as very large, retaining and storing human movements. This suggests that the students in the observed class stored the information from Pilates in long-term memory, applying it in the ballet classes to improve their performance skills. Equally, it might be argued that the ballet technique was stored in the short-term memory because the students were only recently exposed to this dance form. Schmidt (1982, p. 124) claims that repetitions tend to increase the number of associations with already learned information, in that way enabling the recall of information, relaying on certain associations. According to this the coding of the information in long-term memory can be considered as more abstract then in short-term memory. The Pilates technique was part of the students programme in the first term, and this gave the dancers some time to process this material, storing the received information in their long-term memory. The dancers were able to transfer the knowledge from their Pilates classes to learning a new dance technique, that of classical ballet.

3. Conclusion

It was evident that the teacher was teaching according to certain concepts, and to different teaching strategies, encouraging the students to develop body awareness in their learning of new movement vocabulary. According to the Course Handbook (2001, p. 28), the students are encouraged to gain understanding of the principles affecting correct posture, strength, control and balance which influence the developments of their own bodies. The teaching styles and the use of imagery in the class motivated the students' learning in classical ballet, enabling them to relate their previous Pilates knowledge to this new learning context. It was evident that this approach to learning and teaching was the result of a carefully designed learning programme for the BA first year students of the Laban Centre London. In order to discuss the complex relation in dance teaching and learning, it has been necessary to address a number of issues which focus on different aspects in dance teaching and learning. The discussion in the report analyses the teaching styles which were applied by the dance teacher, especially on the use of sensory imagery which is considered to be one of the most important ways of learning in dance. One of the key elements discussed in the report focuses on the way Pilates-body conditioning methods might support teaching and learning in dance. The way that Pilates affects learning, especially in classical ballet, was analysed through human information processing and the function of memory frameworks. After making the Observation Report it might be concluded that the different issues discussed should be considered deeply, creating a more coherent structure within a wider conceptual frame.

4. Bibliography

Franklin, E. (1996): Dynamic alignment through imagery. Human Kinetics.

Gibson, J. J. (1966): The senses considered as perceptual systems. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press.

Gray, A.J. (1989): Dance instruction: Science applied to the art of movement. Champaign, Illinois, Human Kinetics Books.

Grieg, V. (1994): Inside ballet technique: Separating anatomical fact from fiction in the ballet class. Princeton Book Company.

Magill, R. A. (2001): Motor learning. Concepts and applications. LouisianaStateUniversity, Published by McGraw-Hill.

Mosston, M. & Ashworth. S. (1986): Teaching physical education. Merill Publishing Company.

Pilates, J. H. & Miller, W.J. (2000): A Pilates' primer: The Millennium Edition. Presentation Dynamics Inc.

Robinson, L. & Thomson, G. (1999): Pilates: The way forward. Pan Books.

Schmidt, R. A. (1982): Motor control and learning: A behavioural emphasis. Human Kinetics Publishers.

Iskra Sukarova

 

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