A new project in Berlin is aiming to get dance on the school curriculum. Will taking the emphasis off traditional subjects in favor of more holistic education improve children's learning abilities?
Shaking a leg beats sitting in class
10-year-old Nick is a star of the soccer pitch and can throw a killer karate kick. But ask him if he'd like to join a dance class and he looks horrified. "Yuck, no way!" he exclaimed. What about if dance were made a compulsory part of his school syllabus? "I wouldn't come to school," he said firmly. "You're not getting me to dance."
But if anyone can, it's Livia Patrizi (photo). An Italian-born dancer and choreographer who's worked with Pina Bausch and the Cullberg Ballet, she teamed up with British choreographer Royston Maldoom to persuade Berlin's Senate for Education to help fund a project to establish dance as part of the standard school curriculum. And Nick better watch out.
"When you go to a school and offer a dance class, the problem tends to be that only girls come," Patrizi said. "But you actually need to reach the ones who need it more, but who don't realize they do. In grade one you can still find boys who are interested, but by grade three it's over. But actually, when they understand what it's all about, the boys are the most imaginative and they're the ones who most need a physical outlet."
So thanks to Patrizi and Maldoom, at the start of the next school year in August, children from grade one to grade six at 12 Berlin schools will be getting down and hoofing it for 90 minutes once a week, overseen by two dance professionals per class. If the scheme proves successful -- a similar project has been up and running in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia for the past two years -- dance could become as much a part of school life as math and spelling.
Dance the great healer?
It's not hard to see why the Berlin Senate for Education responded to the project with such enthusiasm. In Germany, as in the rest of the western world, child obesity is on the rise. With the lure of television and computer games, the fact that working parents are too busy to take their children out to the playground, and a school system fixated on academic performance, the nation's children are an increasingly sluggish bunch.
Germany's disappointing showing in the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and IGLU (International Primary School Reading Survey) tables certainly confirms the suspicion that children are under-performing.
One way or another, the school system appears to be in urgent need of a shake-up. With its emphasis on a more holistic approach to education, Patrizi's project taps into a certain zeitgeist -- one reflected by the success of what was perhaps one of the most memorable documentaries of 2004.
In "Rhythm Is It!" Royston Maldoom (photo) joined forces with British conductor Sir Simon Rattle from the Berlin Philharmonic to get some 250 schoolchildren of disparate ages, ethnicities and backgrounds -- with no experience either of classical music or modern dance -- on stage for a performance of Stravinsky's ""Rite of Spring."
An inspirational exploration of how young people can be transformed by the opportunity to step outside the box of conventional education, it taught audiences that music and dance have the potential to change young lives -- in more ways than one.
"Don't think you're just dancing!" bellowed Maldoom at one point. And as the film shows, the children and teenagers who stayed with the project until its finale, learnt far more than just a few dance steps.
"Movement comes naturally to children," said Patrizi. "It's just not regarded by society as important, the way cognitive learning is. Parents don't pay it enough attention either, even though a child's movement says a lot about the way a child feels, in a way they can't yet express in words."
"Not to be esoteric," she said, "but dance gives you a greater sense of being at one with yourself." She's confident it's also an answer to poor concentration -- the bane of today's teachers. "If kids like what they're doing," she stressed, "then they're perfectly good at concentrating. You just have to break through their lack of interest," she said.
"The whole thing about dance is that it should be fun. But it can't be fun all the time. In every learning process there is a part that's boring and that's hard for kids to understand, but when they understand what it's all about and why they're doing it, they manage to get beyond that. Discipline is necessary because it serves a specific purpose -- which otherwise isn't always obvious in school."
But can dance really be as effective as she says? "There's a tendency to want to boost school ratings by introducing all sorts of random new subjects," said Eva Arnold, an education expert from Hamburg University. "But it always comes down to one question: what gets replaced?"
"Moreover," she added, "there's never been a comprehensive scientific study showing that improved fitness really does improve academic performance."
But Birgit Wittermann, a primary school teacher in Berlin, said she'd welcome any opportunity to get kids on their feet, and that dance in particular has a number of advantages. "Sport can be very prescribed," she said. "Some kids can be a bit intimidated by gym equipment and not everyone can be good at athletics." But with creative dance, she pointed out, you can't go wrong.
She's also aware that kids with learning difficulties are those who would benefit most from the chance to shake a leg. "Children who struggle academically are often the most creative," she pointed out. Given that Germany's worrying PISA results were largely attributed to the huge disparity in student standards, a class that can narrow performance gaps seems like a promising option.
Patrizi agreed. "It gives kids a chance to be validated," she said. "Especially kids who aren't very good at school can get a chance to be seen in a different light."
Even so, others feel that school funds could be spent more sensibly. "If the school is willing to fork out for new projects, I'd rather they bought some new computers or improved the quality of school dinners," argued Karin S., a mother of two. "If my children want to dance, they can take classes in their free time."
But Patrizi is quick to emphasize that introducing dance in schools is in fact a far more economical option that sending kids to private dance classes, not to mention the convenience factor. And anything that makes the school day longer is a boon to Germany's working parents. As Birgit Wittermann pointed out: "adding dance classes to the curriculum would tie in perfectly with the need for whole-day schooling."