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By Kathleen McGuire
Amy just changed her relationship status to “it’s complicated,” Kristin is tweeting updates from the sold-out Lady Gaga concert, and Brian just posted an oh-so-embarrassing video of Michelle singing karaoke on YouTube. The things a student can miss in an hour and a half!
Students’ fixation on their multi-media social worlds has become a source of frustration for teachers from middle schools to college campuses. But how has it affected the learning process in dance studios? Young adults have always been distractible, but the arrival of the age of social media may be one of the biggest cultural challenges the field of education—dance education included—has weathered.
Alexandra Wells, a full-time faculty member at the Juilliard School, teaches a colloquium to a group of students. Despite her warnings about putting phones away, she knows she’s still got competition. “They put it in their shoe or they hide it, thinking I don’t see that they keep glancing over to their shoe,” she laughs. “They can’t stay away from the phone,” she adds. “They’re not even waiting for a message, it’s like an automatic tick.”
The problem goes beyond the annoyance of constantly checking status updates. It seems that the instant gratification afforded by today’s digital devices may actually diminish a student’s ability to focus, as discussed in a recent New York Times article, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” According to researchers at the University of Massachusetts and Harvard Medical School, the Times reported, technological multitasking is training young, developing minds to constantly seek new stimuli, rather than focus on a single task.
“It’s serious, and we as faculty members talk about it all the time,” says Wells. “If you ask them to focus on one exercise, one correction, or one idea, a lot of them have a really hard time.”
For Colleen Blair, ballet director at NewDance in Rye Brook, NY, her middle school students are the worst phone-checking culprits. Frequently, students use trips to the bathroom or getting their pointe shoes as excuses to check their messages and status updates. “They just got their phones, and they’re so involved with what’s going on socially that it’s hard for them to break away,” Blair says. “You really need to set it up for them at the beginning that this is a time to dance.” She has found that keeping the momentum of the class going helps reduce the lure of outside distractions. “I teach them serious technique and they’re learning a lot, but I’m very aware that I have to keep class moving,” she says. “They want to feel that moment where they’re jumping, they’re turning, they’re actually moving.”
Wells has found that when there is danger—danger of being kicked out of the department, not getting cast, or getting a low grade—students suddenly sharpen their focus. “It really takes me saying ‘You will be graded on this—how you prepare—not just how many pirouettes
you can do.’ It changes the air in the room,” she says.
Another approach is to simply eliminate the problem from the studio. According to Janet Popeleski, principal of the student division at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, not only are cell phones banned from the studio, but students are not permitted to leave until class is over, except in the case of an emergency.
While some dance educators feel aggravated by the effects of social media, others see dance as a solution to the more profound issues of decreased attention span in the mainstream. “I actually see dance classes and any other body-based learning as an antidote to the distractibility created by social media,” says Anne L. Wennerstrand, a psychotherapist who works with dancers.
At the National Dance Institute, associate artistic director Tracy Straus feels they’ve found a winning formula for combating students’ waning attention spans. Working primarily with public school students in low-income communities, NDI’s entire mission sets forth dance as the solution. Their teachers use a variety of techniques to keep kids on their toes, including repeatedly changing the front of the room, attempting steps with their eyes closed, and having half of the class perform for the other half. “The pacing of the class is such that it keeps the kids engaged,” Straus says. “It’s an approach to teaching that keeps it alive and joyful.”
Popeleski has found that as much as social media can distract, technology in the wider sense can educate. “It brings the whole international community into your headphone or your iPod,” she says. “I think students are better informed because of it.” Blair agrees. She still recalls the impact that Gelsey Kirkland’s photo on the cover of Time magazine had on her when she was a child. Today’s students find such images on YouTube or in a photo sent to them via text. The format may have changed, but the inspiration is the same, and it’s available a thousand times over with the press of a button.
In addition, Popeleski utilizes technology to aid her as a teacher. “This is my life,” she says with a grin, holding up her iPad like Vanna White. On it she has multiple versions of countless ballets and variations that she can access in the studio instantaneously.
So wherein lies the compromise between a famously disciplined art form and an age in which technology is constantly vying for our attention? “We need to learn their language,” says Wells. “It’s this generation’s language and they’re really good at it and they’re going to make it into something. The curricula of dance schools were developed for kids a long time ago, and we need to keep up.”
Kathleen McGuire is a dance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA
Photo by Jacob Pritchard. Model: Aqura Lacey of Ailey/Fordham