Dance teaching and learning as embodied multimodal practice

A study of communication and interaction in dance teaching and learning

By: Annika Notér Hooshidar
Position: Senior lecturer contemporary dance, DOCH, School of Dance and Circus, Stockholm, Sweden

Summary of a licentiate thesis in pedagogy. In this study my interest is to examine and highlight students’ and teachers’ interaction and communication in detail with a focus on how different semiotic resources are being used and how that affects the design of the dance class. This involves questions of power and agency.
People have danced always and for different reasons. According to the anthropologist Hanna (1979) dance can be described as follows:

Thus, dance is defined as human behavior composed, from the dancer’s perspective, of purposeful, intentionally rhythmical, and culturally patterned sequences of nonverbal body movement which are not ordinary motor activities, the motion having inherent and aesthetic value. (Hanna, 1979.s 48)

The report can be downloaded here


Dance is a many faceted expression. Dance is regarded as art, as esthetic expression; dance can be political, social, ritual and therapeutic. Dance can serve as a way to find an identity, to explore different expressions and attitudes through movement.
We learn to dance either in formal settings like dance schools or in more informal settings were the participants learn from each other. On an overall level learning in dance can be described as social action that is affected by different agreements, whether it takes place within social institutions or in more spontaneous contexts.
My focus of interest in this study is to examine and analyze dance teaching and learning in dance college education and more specifically the daily dance practice – the dance class. Dance college education also contains classes in choreography, improvisation, didactics, dance theory and others. The object of study is dance classes in jazz dance, contemporary dance and ballet. These genres are, in various degrees, bearers of a tradition of dance teaching that can be called a “demonstration-reproduction” model. The teacher demonstrates movements that the students repeat, a seemingly simple act of reproduction. But my experience is that it is more complex than that, to be able to develop the ability to dance, the movements must have meaning to the dancer. In the act of reproducing, something changes, the movements are being interpreted in relation to the dance student’s interest and ability.
In a dance class students and teachers communicate in various ways, with different means of expression. With dance movements, gestures, posture, touch, gaze, hearing, speech, voice and the use of proximity. These different means of expression can be seen as signs that carry meaning, signs that draw attention to what is important in the communication between students and teachers. This means that different semiotic resources are being used. Van Leeuwen defines semiotic resources as follows:

“as the actions and artefacts we use to communicate, whether they are produced physiologically – with our vocal apparatus; with the muscles we use to create facial expressions an gestures, etc. – or by means of technologies- with pen, ink and paper; with computer hardware and software; with fabrics, scissors and sewing machines, etc.” (Van Leeuwen, 2005).

In this study the focus is on communication in interaction between teachers and students, on what is being expressed with different semiotic resources.

Previous research

The different studies presented in the research overview can be said to form a background to my investigation, pointing to the importance of the body, of social and cultural dimensions in dance teaching and learning. In this summary I briefly present some of them.
Much dance research has a phenomenological point of departure and more specifically the theories of Merleau-Ponty. Two studies that investigate teachers’ experiences and actions as a lived body while teaching are Östern (2013) and Veira (2007). They have, through teachers’ own stories, found that there is a constant exchange and dialogue between their bodily experiences, inner dialog and teaching choices. Their practical–pedagogical knowledge is perceived as embodied. Many other dance researchers have taken an interest in trying to define bodily knowledge and what meaning it has for us. For example, Hämäläinen (2007), Antilla (2007), Parviainen ((2002), and Ferm & Alerby (2006).
Researchers that have focused on questions of taking into consideration social, ethical, political and cultural factors in dance teaching, are among others Stinson (2011) and Dyer (2010). Stinson addresses what she calls the “hidden curriculum” meaning that students are learning values and social norms even if it’s not explicitly described in curricula or even that it’s deliberately intended from the teachers. Dyer means that dance teaching is characterized by the knowledge and values that the teacher herself has and that it leads to a kind of normalizing behavior in the students. Harbonnier-Topin and Barbier (2012) have in a field research observed and described the complexity and variation in dance classes that rests on the model of “demonstration-reproduction”. They use findings from neuro science that deals with imitation processes, and activity analysis to describe the activities that could be observed during the dance classes. Their results show that the teacher has a dominant role in terms of deciding the content, how activities are structured and by controlling the student’s activities.
Two other studies, although not in the field of dance, are Sandberg Jurström (2009) and Rostvall & West (2001). They both have an interest in communication and interaction. Sandberg Jurström investigates the interaction and communication between choirmasters and the choir, with an interest in how semiotic resources are used and what functions they seem to have. She defines different action repertoires that the choirmasters use and describes how they alternate between them. Rostvall & West has studied interaction and learning in optional music education to investigate how music teaching and learning can be understood from an institutional perspective. They found that the way the instruction is organized leaves little space for teachers and pupils to discuss and reflect over the learning process.
My study can contribute to expand knowledge about dance teaching and learning by focusing on what individuals express in communication and interaction. How embodied knowledge, the social and cultural manifests itself in the way semiotic resources are being utilized.

Aim and research questions.

The overall aim of this study is to increase knowledge about how communication and interaction between students and teachers is manifested in dance teaching and learning. A special focus is on the students’ agency and how that can be assumed to affect their conditions for learning. My starting point is the following research questions:

  1. What semiotic resources do teachers use in communication with students to direct their attention toward certain aspects in the dance?
  2. How do students respond to the teacher’s offers of meaning potential?
  3. What agency do the students seem to have?

Theoretical points

To be able to study and understand the complexity of communication and interaction in dance class, I use a social semiotic multimodal perspective, (Kress, 2010, Van Leeuwen, 2005). Within the perspective all semiotic resources like gesture, body movements, sound, image, speech and others are seen as equally important in meaning making processes, the context determines the significance. The perspective focuses on individuals as sign makers, we communicate through the making and use of different signs. These form sign systems (modes) that represents semiotic resources which are socially and culturally shaped and situated in a specific context. They are not fixed; instead they emerge in interaction within social groups that need joint agreements and joint representations. Van Leeuween (2005) points to the fact that these joint agreements are shaped by individuals and can be changed by individuals. This requires power, formal or informal. Concerning dance teaching and learning, questions on who has the power to develop and change, both the way teaching is being executed and the esthetic of the dance genre itself, can be put forward.
Signs are being made through different expressions; with speech, gestures, sound, gaze, body movements among others. These are different time- and space-based forms. Speech extends in time through sequences of words, an image takes shape in space, a gesture or a dance movement reaches both in time and space. Together these different signs form semiotic ensembles where several semiotic resources interplay in the meaning making process. In every given situation certain semiotic resources are available. This affects both teachers and student’s possibilities of expression (Rostvall & Selander, 2008, 2010). For my study the interest lies in how semiotic resources are being used and by whom.
In the meaning making process all involved individuals are seen as active sign-makers, doing what Kress (2010) calls semiotic work. Communication happens when an individual respond to a prompt. A prompt can be said to be a sign that catches the attention of an individual who frames and perceives this sign as message directed to her. This message is interpreted and takes the shape of an inner sign that can transform to an outer sign, a new representation. The interpreter of the original sign answers with a new communicative action. In this process meaning will be transformed. The interpretation becomes a blend of the original sign and the resources for meaning making that the interpreter has, to interpret the message. The sequence of prompt- framing- interpretation is an ongoing process that involves all participants in a social and communicative situation. We can direct our attention to and respond to several prompts simultaneously, the communication is multimodal since we respond to and communicate with several semiotic resources. In my study I examine what seems to work as a prompt for the students, how they respond to them and through which representations this is being made visible.
Other concepts that are being used are transformation and transduction. Transformation refers to if a representation is made in the same mode as the original message, for example if a dance student responds to a physical demonstration of movements with movements. Transduction refers to if the response is given in another mode, for example if the dance student responds to a verbal instruction with dance movements. Also, the concepts of design, rhetoric and production are used. Design describes how a certain situation is being shaped, what resources that are offered; rhetoric refers to the choices participants make in communication, which semiotic resources they use to bring forth their messages and production refers to what is being created in the situation.
To be able to frame and analyze communication and interaction between students and teachers on a detailed level, I use a methodological framework developed by Norris (2004, 2011), Multimodal Interaction Analysis. Norris uses the terms higher- level actions and lower- level actions. A higher-level action has a clear beginning and a clear ending and consists of a chain of lower-level actions. As an example, we can take a dinner conversation; all the small gestures, words and utterances can be seen as lower-level actions that together create the conditions for the conversation. In dance we can think of a feedback moment as a higher-level action. I use multimodal interaction analysis to see how and by whom higher-level actions are being initiated.

Method and approach

My data consists of video recordings and observation notes. The observation notes serve as a reminder of my first impression, the emphasis of the analysis is on the video recordings. I have videotaped three dance classes, one in jazz dance, one in contemporary dance and one in ballet. From the material I have chosen six short sequences for analysis. The complexity of the material and the focus on multimodal ways of communication made it impossible to analyze the whole dance classes, moreover it was not necessary. The selection of the six sequences is based on finding situations where communication and interaction is evident. They all consist of situations where the teacher gives feedback to one or more students. The use of video recordings has enabled me to go back to the material repeatedly to register several layers in the multimodal communication.
The transcription of the material has been a first analytical step. I have used a program called Elan which has enabled me to note different events that are ongoing parallel in time. In the process of transcribing I have identified semiotic resources that are being used and how they interplay. In the second analytical step I have used Norris (2011) multimodal interaction analysis to frame situations and to study them in detail. Finally, in the last step, the concepts design, rhetoric and production has been used to give an overall picture of how the dance class is being shaped.


The result from the analyzed sequences shows quite a consistent picture. In all examples it is evident that the teacher is responsible for the overall design of the situation. The main resources for learning are the movement material that the teacher presents, the way she presents it and the aspects she focuses in the feedback. This represents the students’ study material and is what they have to relate to. Other resources for the students are the music, the design of the space and the artefacts that might be there; a mirror, bars to hold on to. It is mostly the teacher who chooses how time is disposed, and who she gives feedback to. She initiates and ends the higher-level actions that are identified. Only in a few occasions is there a student that claims time by asking for feedback. That a teacher has a dominant role might not be surprising since the object of investigation has been the traditional teaching model of “demonstration-reproduction”, more of an interest is to highlight how communication and interaction is manifested.
What the results show is that all three teachers seem more active than the students in the communicative situations, especially with verbal utterances. Mostly the students respond to the teacher by watching, listening and showing with movements how they understand her instructions. What is distinctive in the teachers’ communication is their ability to combine semiotic resources in ensembles that communicate synchronous messages. The body movements, the gestures, the posture and use of proximity, the verbal utterances or sounds, the touch – they all interplay. Not in any case can I detect a semiotic expression that stands in conflict with what is intended. It is also clear that this way of combining semiotic resources are the rhetoric choices the teachers mostly make. Here all semiotic resources stand as equally important, they complement one another. Only in a few cases does the verbal instruction seem dominant. Common for the three teachers is that they use their voices to enhance their messages. They sing, the make different rhythm patterns, they whisper, they breathe loudly. There are few words and if there are they don’t seem important – it is instead the musicality and quality of the voice that appears to bear meaning. The teachers do this in somewhat different ways but it is clear that the use of voice plays an important role in the communication with the students.
Further the results show that students differ in how they respond to the teachers’ instructions when not being directly addressed. In some cases, they are more active in practicing themselves than in others. Here it seems as if the maturities of the students play a role but also if there is a mirror in the studio or not. When there is no mirror in the dance studio the students are less active, maybe because they lack the possibility to use the mirror as a control instrument.
The students’ agency and possibility to explore movements on their own seem quite limited. The time for individual instructions are usually short or given during dancing. The clarity with which the teachers convey their intensions gives the students clear and precise information on how the movement should be executed. This clarity can be problematized since it might limit the students’ agency to find out for themselves. However, the result also shows that the students make rhetoric choices in their learning processes. It is shown by the way they choose to attend to what the teacher communicates. Some are listening and watching, some are practicing while the teacher is giving instructions, some afterwards.

Discussion and final reflection

Dance can be seen as a multimodal embodied practice. The result has shown the importance of the body in communication and interaction between students and teachers in dance teaching and learning. Not only because dancing is an activity that consumes the whole body while dancing, but also due to the way communication and interaction involve and combine different embodied semiotic resources. Signs are being made, interpreted and remade/redesigned with, through and in the body. The way the teachers’ use their voices in combination with body movements and gestures in instructions and feedback, makes these resources appear hierarchically more important than the verbal language. The students’ choices in responding are mostly by showing how they understand. The fact that they don’t claim time by asking questions can be understood in two ways. One can argue that it is coherent with a basic assumption within the social semiotic perspective; that is that people make meaning by choosing what semiotic resources they use. One can also argue that there is a tradition within dance teaching that the students don’t talk; it might not be a natural semiotic resource for them.
The students’ agency seems limited in terms of how they can affect and influence the design of the dance class. It is clear that the teacher has a dominant role here. The study material consists mostly of movements that the teacher has created in relation to a genre’s esthetics, the teacher chooses what aspects to focus on and how time is disposed. This means that the knowledge that is produced to a great extent is dependent on the teacher’s choices, her esthetic values and her own knowledge. From a didactic point of view this needs to be addressed in dance education in terms of how dance classes are designed, it concerns questions of esthetics, values and power. This also raises questions on the influence the teachers’ also have in developing dance genres esthetic expression. The teachers are part of a larger arena in dance where choreographers, dancers, students all are active and interplay in developing dance as an art form.


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