The Value of Dance in the Lives of Children: An Interview with Kharen Westbye

 “Let us first teach little children to breathe, to vibrate, to feel, and to become one with the general harmony and movement of nature. Let us first produce a beautiful human being, a dancing child.”  ~Isadora Duncan

KharenFor over 10 years, Kharen has owned and operatedArts Movement Inc. where she travels to a variety of elementary schools and retirement/long term care facilities leading dance workshops for students of all ages and abilities. Kharen has over 20 years of dance experience and graduated from the renowned Musical Theatre Performance Program at Sheridan College. There she studied a wide assortment of dance disciplines, vocal music as well as acting and has danced professionally in a variety of musical theatre productions across Canada and on cruise ships.   Kharen hopes to be a positive influence in the lives of children and seniors through her love for dance and music!

When did you realize that dance and creative movement were important to you? As a child, I was very lucky to have a mother who recognized the need to harness my excessive energy! Dance is something that I have always done and I didn’t realize how important it was to me until I was a young adult. I stopped dancing for a while when I graduated from high school. Not because I wanted to, but because the opportunity didn’t present itself as easily. I was expected to “grow up and get a job” so dance took a backseat. After working many horrible jobs, I went back to school to study musical theatre and dance. Dancing and singing is when I felt happiest and knew I couldn’t do anything else!

Did you have a dance teacher who inspired you? Did they influence your dance pursuits in any way? Every teacher is unique and I have learned many things from all of them. Each teacher has taught me how to be a better dancer, choreographer and teacher both directly and indirectly.

What is your favourite dance style, and why? This is a difficult question to answer. I love all forms of dance, how do I narrow it down?? Tap and salsa are my favourites to do. Tap is amazingly intricate. It’s about being strong, yet relaxed simultaneously and it’s all about rhythm. All dance ties in well with music lessons regarding time signatures, down beats and counts, however tap does this best. Salsa music is contagious and I love partner dancing! The aspect of leading and following both demand great skill. It is a very playful dance and is a great way to socialize and burn many calories!

How do children benefit from dance instruction, physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively?

Improved Physical Health: Dancing is a highly physical activity, and kids who take dance lessons regularly should expect to see a significant improvement in their overall physical health. Regular dance practice can increase your child’s flexibility, range of motion, physical strength, stamina, improvements in balance, spatial awareness, and enhanced cognitive functioning. The repetitive movements involved in dance can improve muscle tone, correct poor posture, increase balance and coordination and improve overall cardiovascular health. Dancing is an aerobic form of exercise. For children who are overweight, it can potentially help them to lose weight and improve their eating habits.

 Social and Emotional Benefits: In addition to being a physical activity, dancing is also a highly social activity. Dance lessons can help children improve their social and communication skills, learn how to work as part of a team, develop a greater sense of trust and cooperation and make new friends. If your child is shy, enrolling her/him in dance can encourage her/him to reach out to other children and help to reduce anxiety about new people or places. Dance can also help to alleviate fears related to performing in front of an audience. As children adjust to the movements and postures required in dance, they begin to get a better sense of their bodies. As they become more comfortable in their own skin, their confidence and self-esteem also improve. According to EduDance, dance lessons can encourage children to foster a more positive attitude and explore their own self-expression. This can be particularly beneficial for children with physical or cognitive challenges or those who are attempting to deal with significant emotional problems. Dance can be a life-line to students who feel indifferent or even alienated from sports. Becoming a skilled dancer requires practice, discipline and focus, skills that can be useful in other areas of your child’s life.

Cognitive Benefits: The social and open-ended assignments in choreography may provide opportunities for cognitive development because it is collaborative. Dance choreography demands much creativity, decision making and problem solving. Children will become aware that there are a variety of ways to approach a creative problem and that the real world often does not have black and white solutions.

What are your concerns, if any, about the changing role of dance instruction available to children in the education system? As I do not work in the educational system full time, I have a limited view regarding dance instruction available to students. From what I have seen, it changes from school to school. I am hired by schools who recognise dance to be important, which makes me both grateful and excited for the future of dance. DPA (Daily Physical Activity) is a wonderful idea and provides opportunity to dance every day! That being said I also notice that dance still seems to be viewed as unimportant and is often undervalued. Especially in a world where sports is everything. Dance offers all of the same benefits yet it does not receive the same attention and respect.

For educators who lack a background in dance, what resources might they use to help them to integrate dance and creative movement into the classroom curriculum? Dance games using music are the best solution for educators who lack a dance background. Outside of what the TDSB and the Ontario Government already provide, there are many resources online:

  1. http://www.momjunction.com/articles/dance-games-and-activities-forkids_00399936/#DancePartyGames1
  2. https://muve.org/
  3.  Just Dance is a great resource. You’ll need the game console to track scores and rankings but it is not necessary. Go to youtube.com and have the students follow along. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rs9HC3slop4
  4.  Here are some of my personal favourite dance games:

a. Freeze Dance – Play music and students dance however they want. Stop the music and everyone freezes. The last person to freeze must do a solo dance. Like 5 seconds of kicks. The music continues and repeat.

b. Follow the Leader – Students form a circle. Choose a leader. That person dances one or two dance moves of their choice and everyone copies them. Then the person beside the leader is next and leads one or two different dance moves of their choice and everyone copies. Everyone in the circle gets a turn to lead and every turn is about 15 – 30 seconds.

c. Choreographer – (This one is for grade 3 and up.) Put students into groups of about 4. Each student creates 8 counts of choreography using 1 – 3 moves. The students will create a dance using the choreography created by each person in the group. (For example: A group of 4 people will have a dance that is 32 beats long).

Are there particular challenges you face when teaching dance moves to children? What are some of your coping strategies? Kids LOVE to dance and so do I, so there aren’t too many challenges. Being heard over the excitement is usually the biggest challenge I face with the younger ones, but it’s not really problem because I love that they are excited! The older kids, (grade 7 and 8) are a bit trickier. My secret is to use relevant music. No Alley Cat or Macarena! Using music that they enjoy makes a huge difference.

What is the most important idea you hope will stay with the children you teach, once their dance lessons have concluded? Whether you’re a professional dancer or have two left feet, everyone enjoys dancing. In my opinion, people who say they don’t enjoy dancing really just don’t enjoy people watching them dance. My bet is that privately, everyone busts a move to their favourite song! To summarize… In addition to the many health benefits listed above, dancing is something we can all do and connects children, parents, grandparents and great grandparents together. I want children and adults alike to feel comfortable dancing without judgement towards themselves or others. Dance is a language we all speak and connects families, friends and complete strangers regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality or religion throughout the generations. Dance is love and community - is there anything more powerful on earth?

Kharen Westbye, Founder of  Arts Movement Inc.

kharen@artsmovement.ca

www.artsmovement.ca

References

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-guest-room/201111/is-dance-the-next-wave-in-cognitive-neuroscience

http://www.livestrong.com/article/214791-the-benefits-of-dance-for-kids/

http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/dancing-and-brain

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