The Power of Play

Posted on September 16, 2009 by

Persuading teens to join a dance class is only half the battle for K–12 teachers. Once students are on board, creating a safe environment for them to learn without having to worry about how they look or whether their peers will sneer is the next step.

For Diane Rawlinson, a dance teacher at Wheeling High School in Illinois, the key has been an improvisational practice—or what some might call a philosophy—called InterPlay. InterPlay combines improvisation, speaking, singing and storytelling in a dance environment that’s rooted in affirmation and community building, rather than critique and technical achievement. Dance educators like Rawlinson, one of the first to be certified in the technique, have made it the basis of their teaching. “My kids do InterPlay every semester to learn not only to respect each other, but also to see what everybody brings to the environment,” she says.

InterPlay is an ideal method for teaching teens because of its all-accepting atmosphere. There is no right or wrong in the practice. “People try new things; they’re less reticent,” says Phil Porter, who founded the practice along with Cynthia Winton-Henry in 1989. “Your ability to act is freed up. And just to be able to affirm teens is huge—there are few situations where we can wholeheartedly say ‘yes’ to someone.”

InterPlay exercises are designed to develop students’ ability to observe each other and work together in nonjudgmental ways. In an exercise called “noticing,” for example, each student improvises in the center of a circle for 10 seconds. The other students identify movement they see, without attaching value. This teaches them to watch and describe without critique. Another exercise called “walking, stopping, running” has them pair up to walk, step and run together, in sync, to build kinesthetic awareness. In “matching your partner,” dancers follow their partner using the same energy, not just the same movement. Another exercise called “hand to hand,” which can be an introduction to contact improvisation, has students touch one hand to their partner’s hand and begin with mutual pushing. “This shows that you’re dancing with someone who is strong, who is not a pushover,” explains Winton-Henry. “They’re getting bits of information about what’s permissible.”

Rawlinson remembers a semester when her InterPlay practices were truly tested. She was faced with a class that included five male students, all unique individuals, from different social circles in school. “Within three weeks, they were able to do contact improv together—high school boys from completely different backgrounds in a class of primarily girls. It wasn’t just the five guys being nonjudgmental—it was the entire class being nonjudgmental,” says Rawlinson.

Rawlinson has found InterPlay to be a useful precursor to teaching technique. She now begins each term with InterPlay so that when it’s time to tackle technique, students already feel comfortable. “They’re not worried if they do a leap and it’s not the most graceful thing in the world,” she says. “Because they know no one else is looking at them with judgment.”

Nothing could make InterPlay’s founders happier. “We were interested in broadening our understanding of what it means to move and how people move,” says Porter. He and Winton-Henry were professional dancers in the San Francisco Bay Area when they teamed up to create InterPlay, and today they also direct WING IT!, the InterPlay professional ensemble. “We wanted to focus on improvisation—movement, singing, speaking—all the things the body can do and how movement can affect people and personal development and the power of those forms to create community.”

And the community continues to grow. More and more teachers are attending the InterPlay Leader Training Program, and they leave as InterPlay leaders—essentially certified InterPlay instructors. The program—composed of multiday workshops, regular group meetings with other participants, reading and writing exercises and practice teaching sessions—introduces attendees to the core forms and philosophies of the practice, how to teach it, how to create InterPlay’s welcoming and affirming atmosphere, how to use InterPlay forms in different settings and how to self-evaluate as a teacher. It’s also possible to attend InterPlay classes without enrolling in the training program. Most sessions take place in the San Francisco Bay Area, InterPlay’s home base. But classes are also taught in other states and countries. (Visit www.interplay.org to find out if there are any in your area.)

Porter and Winton-Henry are thrilled that InterPlay is proving useful in so many places around the world, since bringing people together is one of their goals. At Wheeling High School, InterPlay has done more than turn reticent students into open-minded dancers. It’s broken through social barriers. In dance class, Wheeling students are asked to say “thank you” if they accidentally collide, because in InterPlay’s mistake-free ideology students should never apologize for human contact. At Wheeling, that attitude has transcended the walls of the studio, and dance students from different social groups who would never have interacted before now say “hi” to each other and “thank you” if they bump in the hallway. Think what that could mean on a global scale. DT

Kristin Lewis is a writer in New York City.

photo by Brent Rawlinson, courtesy of Diane Rawlinson

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