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Dance International
Written by: Mariki Viviers

Learning literally shapes our brains. Every time we learn something we change the structure of our brain, a little bit, one synapse at a time. The more you learn the richer your synapses. (Synapses describe neuron activity in the brain, neurons communicating with each other.)

Robert Sapolsky said: ’Learning strengthens pre-existing synapses’


How Learning begins.

Learning seriously starts the moment the newborn enters the world. Actually some learning had already taken place in the womb, as the baby already had an awareness of sounds, light movement and touch.

When the baby is born, sound, light, movement and touch begins to play an even more important role in the learning process. These external stimuli enter the brain through the senses (touch sight, taste, smell and hearing) are coded, decoded, processed and stored. The baby starts to add meaning to sounds and specifically to language sounds and to visual stimulation, and movement. A lot of learning takes place through movement, touch and even taste, as babies touch and taste different objects by placing it in the mouth.

Because so much learning happens through physical contact, one can speak of kinetic learning. Later on, as the child gets older, learning interactions will move from the kinetic/concrete (what I can hear, touch, see smell or taste) to the more abstract (what I can think, visualise, imagine or verbalise)

From initially just watching and touching objects to learn from it, the older child now moves to more active listening and verbalising and now learns in a more cognitive way. Information is now not merely stored, it is decoded, analysed and used in a more logical way.

How Learning takes place.

A child that learns something must be able to receive information through his senses, taste, smell, touch, sight or hearing. This information must be perceived correctly, comprehended, processed and memorised before it can be utilised. The more senses involved in the learning process, the better is the quality of the learning experience.

Certain skills need to be developed. These are called perceptual skills, like visual memory, verbal memory, auditory memory, motor memory, spatial awareness, laterality and others. The child needs to develop these skills before formal learning in a school situation can take place. These skills help the child to make sense of information he receives from his environment. The child with a poor visual memory for instance, will struggle to read or write down something his teacher wrote on the blackboard.

An individual usually has a preference for processing information with either the right side of the brain, or the left side.

The brain consists of two hemispheres, working as an integrated unit, though each of the halves is more dedicated to certain tasks. As Dr Melodie de Jager


says: ‘….. as in nature, when there are two or more, one will lead’…. Tony Buzan puts it like this:

‘Although each hemisphere is dominant in certain activities, they are both basically skilled in all areas, and mental skills identified by Roger Sperry are actually distributed throughout the cortex.’ Tony Buzan: The Mind Map Book.

People process information in different ways, and there is usually a definite preference for using one side of the brain more than the other, giving rise to the concept of a Right-brain person or a Left-brain person.
The left-brainer will preferably use logic and reason and scientific facts and has a preference to jobs in scientific areas while the right-brainer who uses intuition, creative ideas, emotion and imagination will become actors, artists and sculptors.
To be able to read, for instance, one needs to constantly access both sides of the brain. When a child is ‘stuck’ in one side, reading becomes difficult.

Our schools generally favour the left-brain oriented child; that is the child that can sit still and pay attention, the child that observes rules and for the left-brain child this is easy. The right-brain child on the other hand, often struggles in school. They are continuously on the move, exploring; for them it is difficult to sit still and pay attention in the same way as the left-brain oriented child. Their teachers often see them, as being obstructive, disruptive and undisciplined.

The left-brain oriented child’s bedroom is usually neat, everything in its place and organised. The right brain oriented child’s bedroom is often an organised mess; he/she knows exactly where everything is, but organising and tidying is not a priority.

Under stress the left-brain oriented child will work harder and harder, without necessarily getting results; he/she might become argumentative and try to reason things out. The right-brain oriented child that experiences stress, will rebel against rules, will get emotional and will slam doors.

In order to experience success through learning, though it is necessary to use a fully integrated brain as for example, the scientist without any imagination or intuition is limited in his career, as likewise the artist or actor that has no logic or discipline will not succeed in his chosen career.

On the same level, learning takes place in different other ways, related to the above right or left brain preferences. One child may learn through watching, giving preference to visual stimuli, another to verbal, and the other through movement, or kinetically. This means the visual child will sit still and watch, the verbal child will vocally repeat information and the kinetic child will act out the information with body movements.

Skills needed for learning.

A child needs many perceptual skills in order to make sense of his environment and to be able to interpret information, analyse and process it and then recall it later.
Some of these perceptual skills are visual memory, auditory memory, verbal memory, spatial awareness, laterality, midline crossing, depth perception, background/foreground perception, and coordination.

These perceptual areas are very important, as they are determining how a child perceives his environment. A child with perceptual problems will struggle to make sense of their environment, even though all the senses work perfectly. The have a problem with interpreting the information that they receive.
A child with coordination and foreground/background problems will be clumsy and frequently bump into objects like furniture and other people. They may also have a problem holding a pencil and struggle to write or draw.

Other perceptual areas where children often have problems with, are the areas of midline crossing and laterality.
The child with midline crossing problems and a poor concept of laterality will often use only one half of a page when drawing or writing. They will have problems in perceiving the differences between a p and q and between a b and d, and this will influence both their reading and writing. They struggle to make sense of the information, because they have trouble interpreting it correctly.

A child must have the need to learn, must be able to concentrate, pay attention and be able to remember what has been learned and then be able to apply it. Certain social skills are also needed; for instance a child must be able to listen and not interrupt when something is explained. A child whose emotional or other needs are not met may also struggle to learn. Mazlow mentions basic physiological, emotional and social needs that must be met before a person even starts thinking about cognitive needs.

How Ballet (Dance) can help a child to develop and master Learning Skills

The baby learns through movement. Physical movement wires the brain to simple tasks. As physical activity increases and becomes more complex, a baby learns faster and is able to process more information. For instance the act of crawling activates both sides of the brain simultaneously and improves bilateral integration.

All physical activities need to be learned and all require new neuron pathways in the brain. The more complex the activity, the more neuron pathways are formed. Compare for instance the simple physical movements needed in learning to ride the bicycle, to the complex movements required to be able do complicated turns and jumps in ballet.

Ballet is one of the most complex dance forms to learn; it brings together many different forms of learning and develops and enhances many necessary learning skills. It follows the principle of going from the kinetic to the cognitive, from the concrete to the abstract, which is related to how small children learn.

Ballet, other forms of dance and to a certain extent gymnastics bring another element to the learning skills, namely that of kinetic or motor memory. It is easy to run, catch a ball or ride a bike, because once learned, these movements become automatic. Ballet can never be automatic, as movements have to be learned and mastered and then memorised in a certain sequence.
Complex motor memory is the ability to remember intricate movements in a particular sequence and the ability to later reverse those movements.

The fact that books are written about the importance of dance and learning skills is illustrated by fact that there are many books written about this subject One of these is a book written by Madelyn Howard: ‘Improving Perceptual Skills through Dance’.

Ballet helps bilateral integration, both in the concept of having two similar but opposing sides (left and right) and the right and left-brain integration. One of the first steps a child learns when she goes to ballet is to skip, a skill that needs bilateral integration. This is mastered at about the age of 5.
Ballet stimulates all the perceptual skills, verbal/auditory memory, visual memory, motor memory, spatial awareness, depth perception and others.
It helps develop listening skills, not only to the teacher’s voice and information content but also to music and the different moods that music can portray.

It also helps with maths, because of the integral part that rhythm and music play in the ballet class. Music is structured into rhythmic patterns that help a child form a concept of numbers and time.

Ballet helps a child to focus and concentrate, improves both small and big motor coordination, like eye hand coordination, eye body coordination.

Ballet also provides a safe outlet for the imagination, the emotions, and the chance to act out stories and can especially appeal to the right-brain oriented child, and help her/him at the same time to more fully integrate both parts of the brain.

Ballet being the most complex dance form to learn, also leads to the learning of discipline and self-discipline and the mastering of emotional control.

But above all ballet should be fun. Fun should be part of the process of learning, especially for the very young where they still learn through play.

The ballet teacher can provide and ideal learning environment and can also satisfy the needs described by Mazlow, by taking into consideration her student’s physiological needs, by providing a safe environment, by acknowledging social and esteem needs, so that a dancer can be provided with a challenge and the opportunity to reach it, thereby increasing their since of self value.

- Mariki Viviers - March 2012 -


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