The role of touch as a teaching and learning tool in dance

Touch has special qualities that can be very useful in teaching dance, namely, cutaneous sense and kinesthesis.

By David Outevsky,                           

 – ‘Touch is the chronological and psychological mother of the senses’ (Juhan, 2003 p. 29)

– ‘Dance is the mother of all arts’ (Sachs, 1963, inroduction)


Touch is a prominent element in teaching and learning of dance. From Balanchine slapping dancers on the shoulders to help them balance in their classical ballet pirouettes (Mazo, 1976, p.39) to Balinese dancing clowns in training being moved into shapes by their teacher (Gartner, 1993, p.227) touch and  ‘hands on feedback’ in dance plays a vital role in the teaching and learning process. Unfortunately it still lacks the scientific research backing and guidelines that other educational strategies in dance have received. Imagery in dance performance enhancement for instance, is explored by the Franklin method and the Skinner releasing technique (Franklin, 1996) among others, while there are no equivalents for the use of touch and hands on feedback in dance.

Touch has special qualities that can be very useful in teaching dance, namely, cutaneous sense and kinesthesis. (Loomis & Lederman J, 1984, p.1) These can greatly enhance the understanding of the movement for the student through hands on feedback by allowing

him to better sense his own body and the space around it. On the other hand it can be

distracting and even disturbing, as is the case with sexual or violent touch in any movement instruction (Barret 2003, p.103). This two sided nature of touch and the lack of clear guidelines for the use of hands on feedback in dance education warrant further research into this field.


Modes of touch

It is important to understand the different types of touch if we are to have a complete understanding of its effects on any teaching practice. Loomis and Lederman (1984, p.1)

in their paper expand on J.J. Gibson’s components of touch that comprise passive touch

and active touch where “passive touch(…)is perception based solely upon stimulation of the cutaneous sense of an immobile observer.” While “active touch on the other hand means purposive exploration of the stimulus field.”

Further they speak about the afferent kinesthesis available to the observer experiencing passive touch and the afferent and efferent kinesthesis available to the observer experiencing active touch. Basically the divisions so far are into active or passive touch that are further divided in their kinesthetic in/output with the active ‘toucher’ seemingly having an advantage of efferent kinesthetic perception. That can be misleading though, as studies from the same paper demonstrate that cutaneous sense is actually more attuned during passive touch when examining different textures. The passive ‘toucher’ than seems better at feeling his inner tactile sensations. Which is more important for dancers then, kinaesthetic or cutaneous perceptions? In dancing we mainly use active touch when teaching and the student can be a passive toucher if his/her body parts are manipulated or placed in positions or on surfaces. The teachers use efferent kinesthesis to touch and move the student and the student uses afferent kinesthesis while absorbing this sensory information to then use it efferently him/herself. These processes are all interrelated though, and by no means exclusive of each other much of the time. One can go back and forth continuously during a session, but these distinctions will clarify and inform some of the further discussions in this essay.

Leading and following

 One interesting point comes from phenomenological observations by David Katz as cited in Loomis and Lederman (1984, p.2), it states that “descriptions of perceptual experience are expressed largely in terms of tactile sensations when objects are impressed upon the skin of a passive observer; whereas, the descriptions are expressed in terms of objects

when the observer actively explores them.” This shows us there are different perceptions

on the parts of the active and passive observers in touch. This not only applies in a teacher student relationship as described above but also in a partnership where lead and follow elements are used. In forms of dance where partnering is used this can be of

crucial importance because often in teaching a couple the teacher will partner the student both as a leader and as follower. This raises further questions, such as does a teacher who spent most of his training as a leader have the capacity to give sensory information to the student from a follower position? Or vice versa for a teacher trained as a follower? Renta reports (as cited in Borland, 2009, p. 477) that in salsa for instance, among the most proficient studio-salsa dancers, men and women interchange the leader and follower roles. If this is a standardized practice it can probably give both a better understanding of each other’s roles for their subsequent teaching situations. In ballroom dancing on the other hand, when passing professional exams, teachers must learn the steps of both genders. These are good strategies but I don’t think they completely compensate for many years training in one role. There don’t seem to be immediate solutions to this issue unless students are taught both roles from the beginning, which to my knowledge so far has only been done consistently in the gay community. Perhaps we can learn something from their experiences?

Touch and gender differences

We must also take into consideration that there might be gender differences in the perceptions of touch, as Nguyen, Heslin, & Nguyen (1975, p.92) put it: “types of touch and body locations touched are associated with the same meanings by men and women, but feelings differ.” These researchers conducted a study where male and female unmarried undergraduates evaluated the meanings and the feelings associated with the different locations and modes of touch when it is performed by a close friend of the opposite sex. They found out that men relate the touch meaning – pleasantness, sexual

desire, warmth/love – while excluding friendship/fellowship from that group. Meanwhile for women the more touch was associated with sexual desire the less it was considered to mean – playfulness, warmth/love, friendship/fellowship, or pleasantness.(Nguyen, Heslin, & Nguyen, 1975) Despite the difference in the context of college students and dance students and teachers, considering the gender related perception differences in the experiment we must ask ourselves how differently touch might be interpreted by a male student versus a female student or how do male and female teachers differ in their use of touch in class? This is an area that hasn’t really been much studied in dance, as those studies that do speak of touch do not usually differentiate it between genders, possibly because of their prevalent contemporary dance context. It might be particularly interesting to study the effects of touch and hands on feedback for male versus female students in dance fields with clear gender divisions. Borland (2009, p.477) in her feminist study of the Salsa community in New Jersey for instance, states that the woman must “receive, respond to, and return the pressure of his touch” and suggests that “an increased focus on technique attenuates the strict reiteration of gender relations”.

Touch, lights, and partner dancing

In another experiment on college students, it was demonstrated that with lights off they were much more likely to touch each other and hug than with lights on. (Fields, 2001, p.61) By the same token when the lights are low in a dance club, people usually feel more at ease with moving and touching since they don’t feel so much ‘in the spotlight’. People are also more likely to accept an invitation to dance when they are touched during the process of the invitation (Gueguen, 2007, p.81). So low lighting seems to facilitate touch and touch seems to facilitate the initiation into dance, in social contexts at least. This could potentially be quite a useful finding for certain contexts of dance training. Similar methods are already used by some dance styles as a heritage from their social roots, and

help newcomers feel more at ease during early training. In partner dancing such as Salsa or Agentine tango for instance, students often participate in practice evenings where they need to initiate physical contact with one another in order to dance. (Borland, 2009, p.477) To facilitate this transition the teacher usually sets an example by inviting his students to dance and getting them used to inviting touch and dancing hold throughout the teaching process. Having experienced this type of touch and hands on feedback during group and private lessons students are then more comfortable with touch from other dance partners during the practice evenings. Interestingly during these events lights are usually dimmed, and students are encouraged to not be afraid of physical contact, in an appropriate and polite manner of course. Having participated in some of these events myself I found these factors to indeed be quite helpful and would encourage more research on this topic within different dance training situations (with stage lighting and supportive touch for example).

David Outevsky

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