Art and community: Creating knowledge through service in dance

Ross, J. (2000). Art and community: Creating knowledge through service in dance. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April, New Orleans, LA.1

Abstract:

Sixty at-risk and incarcerated adolescents participated in jazz and hip-hop dance classes for ten weeks. College students with dance experience engaged in participant/observation research. They observed, danced with, and interviewed the teens. The principal researcher gathered data weekly from three sources produced by student researchers: reflection journals, in-class discussions, and written syntheses building toward students’ final portrait. Based on these data, the researcher presents hypotheses about why dance may be a medium particularly well suited to fostering positive self-perception and social development for disenfranchised adolescents. She also suggests that the congruence of dance, service (providing data to prison administration about the dance program’s effectiveness), and research (which placed college dance students in a social/therapeutic context and required reflection about impact and uses of the discipline) is an effective tool for advancing college students’ understanding about how dance can be used and how the reflection necessary to the research method used fosters learning.

Key Findings:

The study produced hypotheses about why dance may be a medium particularly suited to fostering positive self-perception and social development for disenfranchised adolescents. Hypotheses include the influence of teachers and teaching styles generally employed in dance; the synergy of certain dance forms (jazz, hip-hop) with culturally valued leisure activities; the release of physical and psychological stress in which “expression, not conquest” is the activity’s goal (in contrast to team sports); the focus of instruction on practicing non-linguistic bodily expression, which is a primary vehicle through which maladaptive social behaviors are conveyed; and the need and opportunity in dance to express individuality within a group, which provides practice with issues central to developing positive social identity and adaptability.

The research suggests that the congruence of dance, service (providing data to prison administration about the dance program’s effectiveness), and research (which placed college dance students in a social/therapeutic context and required reflection about impact and uses of the discipline) is an effective tool for advancing college students’ understanding about how dance can be used and how reflection necessary in the method of portraiture fosters learning.

Significance of the Findings:

The study focuses on non-traditional outcomes of dance instruction. It posits artists as social activists and positions dance as a tool for social interventions, in this case, for at-risk and incarcerated adolescents. Its two-level structure models a way that college teachers might expand their students’ views of the purposes of their disciplines to include potential social impact. By using self-reflective observations, journaling, rich discussion, interviews, and a consensus-building approach to drawing conclusions, the author fosters understanding of both the value of and the constraints on dance-informed learning. The study is a model for dance education researchers. Field observation requires a selection of stances, which, if their techniques embrace elements from the value system of the event or culture being studied, can truly portray the breadth and details of the event.

Methodology:

Sixty 13- to 17- year-old at-risk and incarcerated adolescents participated in 45-minute jazz and hip-hop dance classes twice weekly for 10 weeks. Eleven college students, all with dance experience but only one dance major, engaged in participant/observation research. They observed, danced, and interviewed the teens and produced a “collective meta-portrait” (one student’s contributed portrait is an appendix). The principal researcher gathered data weekly from three sources produced by student researchers: reflection journals, in-class discussions, and written syntheses building toward students’ final portrait.

Limitations of the Research:

The principal researcher summarized and gave examples from these data sources but did not produce a portrait of the college students. Thus the relationship between the data and conclusions are not unequivocally clear.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How can the findings in dance be extended to research in other disciplines (writing, music, visual arts, media arts)?

1The text of this summary is adapted from the Arts Education Partnership’s 2002 research compendium: Deasy, R. J. (Ed.). (2002). Critical links: Learning in the arts and student academic and social development. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.