Teaching Cultural Diversity through Dance

Article excerpt

What makes some people live in fear? Why is there so much hatred in the world? Why don't people with differing backgrounds get along? These questions may not be simple, but one age-old answer is that people don't trust that which is different from their own norms. They won't embrace what they don't understand, and their relationships with others are often based on differences instead of common threads.

How can we, as teachers and role models, approach this problem in the classroom in a non-threatening manner, while our students are still forming beliefs that will guide them through life? How can we supply workable solutions to what may be generations-old problems in human relations? How can we help our students enjoy learning about the traditions, beliefs, and taboos of cultures different from their own? An "ethnic dance project" and a "create-a-culture" project are two possible answers to these questions.

In this article, we will describe various dance-building activities that can help students of any age research their own or someone else's cultural heritage, or build an entirely new, albeit fictitious, culture based on facts delineated by the teacher. Children can celebrate diversity among people once they begin to understand the value of differences and commonalities. In an ethnic dance project, all of the dance moves are created through the students' research into specific cultures and into why and how various peoples dance. Similarly, in a create-a-culture project, the dance moves are based on the students' perceptions of the value of dance in general to a specific culture, one that they have created. A crucial first step in either of these projects is to ask students the following questions:

* What do we mean by the term "culture"? A brainstorming session might yield responses such as "the arts," "folk tales," "legends," "ethnic groupings," or "areas of the world."

* What are some of the components that help define a culture? Responses might include: "climate," "geography," "food" "customs," "religion, clothing," "environment," "music, or "native industry."

* Where does dance fit into a culture? Responses might include: "in rites of passage," "in religious ceremonies," "in artistic performances," "during joyous occasions," or "during social occasions."

Ethnic Dance Projects

The following is a scenario of how an ethnic dance project might work in the classroom. It can be a week-long project, an entire instructional unit, or a semester-long challenge. Ethnic dance projects can also involve collaboration between a dance facilitator (a dance instructor or a physical educator) and teachers of social studies, English, music, art, and so forth. Ideally, a project will be incorporated into the curriculum at all levels and modified to meet the educational needs and abilities of students in each grade level.

Students must first choose a country or ethnic region as their project area. In order to help them feel comfortable with the task, teachers should encourage students to choose their own ethnic heritage first. In conducting their research about the culture, students can:

* use traditional research techniques (e.g., read books and magazines in English or in the native language; view video material about the region);

* speak to family members about their cultural values and obtain anecdotes about living in the region;

* visit museums containing exhibits related to their culture;

* interview local experts on the subject to get in-depth background information.

All of these research skills will be of great use to the students throughout their educational careers. Furthermore, by researching their own heritage, students will become more comfortable relating their personal experiences to their classmates. In our experience, some children do not want to learn or talk about their family customs and traditions; this is particularly evident with second-generation immigrants, many of whom want to be "regular" American teenagers. …