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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.1 (2003) 54-63
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Movement Class as an Integrative Experience:
Academic, Cognitive, and Social Effects
I believe the benefits of this type of course reach beyond the obvious possibilities of professional and academic achievement. The degree of personal discovery, creativity, self-development and insight are immeasurable. I am particularly referring to my experience here at Harvard.
Claire Mallardi, from course syllabus
Performing arts courses at research institutions such as Harvard University are often seen as extracurricular with only tangential or imperceptible effect on students' academic interests. Yet, when I interviewed biology, math, or neuroscience concentrators who took Claire Mallardi's Movement for Actors and Directors course at Harvard in the spring of 2000, most of them told me that it was one of the most meaningful experiences in their academic development, and, according to one psychology concentrator, "the best psychology course" she ever took. In spite of boundaries separating the arts courses from hard and soft sciences, in students' experience the connections run deep. What were those connections that students made from their dance class experience to their academic and social development? And, what in the teaching and nature of the course supported this highly integrative experience that allowed students to reach beyond mastering an artistic medium and become better learners in general? These were the two major questions that guided this study.
Why am I interested in the integrative quality of arts education? I am highlighting the academic importance of performing arts programs to suggest to university administrators and instructors in other disciplines the "immeasurable" personal and academic value of such courses whose place is often seen as marginal. Perhaps also, pedagogy used for integration in this course into the academic fabric of the institution could provide models for other courses and curricula that are trying to be integrative or interdisciplinary in a more self-conscious way. And, there are more and more such [End Page 54] courses on every college campus these days. Moriel Blaisdell in Preparing Faculty for the New Conceptions of Scholarship for example, cites "integrative studies" programs among most important trends in higher education today with their goal "to synthesize, to look for new relationships between the parts and the whole, to relate the past and future to the present, and to ferret out patterns of meaning that cannot be seen through traditional disciplinary lenses." 1
One of the most daring experiments in universities now, and the one to which the integrative dance course could speak directly, is interdisciplinary teaching in neuroscience, for example. Neuroscience proceeds from the belief in the inherent unity of mind and body and attempts to discover the nature of the relationship between them. In a different way and with a different goal than arts courses, neurosciences also try to cross the boundary of subjective and objective experience, mind and body, physical technique and personal interpretation, which are at the heart of teaching and learning in the performing arts. While not being prescriptive, I would like to suggest that perhaps close attention to the pedagogy and integrative experiences of students in the performing arts courses could provide some insights for pioneering bridge-making in other academic areas as well.
I would like to propose that what lies at the core of integrative capacity of a performing arts course, like the one Claire Mallardi teaches at Harvard, is the inherent tendency of the arts to transcend the boundary of body with the mind, and to seek unity of self as both the subject and the object. In a dance, in the words of Margaret H'Doubler, the body is seen "as the outer aspect of personality, for it is the agent through which we receive impressions from the external world and by which we communicate our meaning." 2 This basic translation between body and mind, mental and physical, artistic and academic that went on in Mallardi's class, resulted in integrative and transformational experiences for her students. "I never until this class — comments one student — equated emotions with movement or...