Volume VI - 2001
Dance: An Inspiration for Language in the ESL Classroom
An Interview with Carolee Bongiorno
Carolee F. Bongiorno was born and raised in New York City. She received her B.A. in English from St. Francis College in Brooklyn and her M.S. in Education, with a concentration in Learning to Read through the Arts, from Fordham University. Ms. Bongiorno has been a teacher of Language Arts, Art, and English as a Second Language in the New York Public School System for 24 years. A certified Art Therapist, she has trained at The Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts and is currently preparing for certification as a Dance Therapist.
"We look at dance to impart the sensation of the living
in an affirmation of life, to energize the spectator into keener awareness
of the vigor, the mystery, the humor, the variety, and the wonder of
The quotations by Ms. Graham and Ms. Duncan were provided by Ms. Bongiorno
In this interview, "JILL" is The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning and Teaching represented by Clyde Coreil.
JILL: So you're one of those teachers who waste our kids' time with song and dance and call it teaching English as a second language. What happened to good old nouns and verbs?
CAROLEE: I used to concentrate only on grammar, and almost all of my students would fail the state-mandated test at the end of the term. Now I use dance as one of the means of instruction, and the rate of students passing has skyrocketed. Twenty out of twenty in one class. Twenty-five out of thirty in another.
JILL: That's a phenomenal success rate. What's your secret?
CAROLEE: There's no secret involved. Just a commitment on my part and by my students.
JILL: High motivation? Is that it?
CAROLEE: Motivation is a part of it. A lot of things are parts of it. And it's not only dance. Depending on the attitude of the particular school, I also use painting and music and the arts in general.
JILL: I'm not sure we have time to talk about all of those.. Can you tell me mainly about dance in particular this afternoon?
CAROLEE: Certainly. What do you want to know?
JILL: Let's start off by your telling me how dance is related to your teaching English. For example, when do the children learn to use words, to make sentences?
CAROLEE: When they need to talk about the dance or do a written review of a performance or a commentary on a method or exercise. We do a lot of speaking and writing in my class…but we also do a lot of looking and listening and thinking…Let me say a few things, and then you can ask me anything you want…
CAROLEE: Dance is a living language, capable of expressing an infinite number of thoughts, hopes and possibilities. That's a…"high abstraction," especially for recently arrived immigrants. Would you agree?
CAROLEE: It's abstract and it's high…and it's authentic, real. Those are real kids who show up in my ESL class. They've experienced a lot of difficulties. Many of them are right off the plane and are still having enormous problems with culture shock, strange food, a noisy city…My secret? Number One, I believe, is respect of the students and expressions of honest confidence that they can learn to do it. You talk directly to them and let them see a few of your rock-solid, high-principled convictions about dance and art. You let them see that you really believe that dance is wonderful. You respect them, and at one point ask them to join in the dance. They do and they become excited. They want and need to share what they and their classmates have done. To speak and to write English become a central part of that communication. There are a great many variations, but essentially, that's it. It's simple and it's very complicated: simple to understand the basic idea; complicated to share deeply held beliefs.
JILL: Let's back up a bit. How did you get started? Were you walking along one day when a bolt of lightning hit, and it all came in a flash?
CAROLEE: I have a lot of background in dance and the arts. My master's degree is in the use of art in education. I've had some wonderful teachers for which I am very grateful. It all helps, but it's still quite possible to learn my approach with as little as one day of training. Self-confidence, belief in the power of art, commitment, respect of your students-that's all you need. Then you explore and allow them to explore.
JILL: Tell me more. Everybody Dances
CAROLEE: One of the reasons I began sharing dance activities with my students was to explore that uncharted interior territory where the spoken word is not easily found. It might sound ironic, but in my ESL classes, I use dance to transcend and break down barriers of language, which for my students are very real. Take 14-year-old Joel, for instance. He was shy and reluctant until I found out that he was a great Michael Jackson fan. Not only could he sing but the dance steps he had mastered were absolutely fabulous. Most of his classmates were from Asia and were spellbound by this young man. After his dance presentation, they all wrote rave reviews that meant a great deal to him. He has gone on to LaGuardia High, a performing-arts school, and from there he moved into a dance career. Not everyone is as good as he was, but everyone can learn about themselves through dance and the other arts. I made a discovery of my own. I discovered through my own exploration of dance that the markers I used as guideposts to reach beyond verbal communication were universal. We won't get into that, but believe me, it's an important part of my own commitment to the arts in education.
JILL: And that commitment includes language.
CAROLEE: Of course! My primary obligation to the students is to teach them English. But to reach this goal, I choose to go through dance and other forms of art. With dance, I want the students to move their bodies, minds and spirits, so they can dream and experience their potential in a way they were not yet capable of doing-given their shaky command of the English language. It will not, I tell them, be easy. Each of them has to find his or her own dance path-a way of dancing that is often unique and that comes from deep inside them. They have to step out of habitual roles and conventional scripts. Their reward will consist of release from the inertia of their sleeping abilities, to the joy of having the spirit of the moment.
JILL: That seems to have something to do with control…or am I missing the point?
CAROLEE: No. Control is very important. Dance brings the students together and gives them a center. It is a release and a means of having control. It connects the students to each other and the teacher to the student, since people of all ages enjoy dancing. When students' lives include dance-as well as art song, poetry and drama-they find a unity with those of other cultures. At the same time, students find their own rhythms, create the stories which they enact in dance, and act out their own visions. It is an open door to accepting themselves and awakening their confidence and spirit.
JILL: That seems a shade more interesting than nouns and verbs. But how do you know where to begin?
CAROLEE: The first task is to expose them to dance, to free the body, to experience the power of being. In my classes, I provide appropriate music for each rhythm and invite participants to explore their own expression. After modeling a free-form dance, I invite them to stand up and step forward, sometimes one-by-one, sometimes in a group. They begin to move and the air becomes electric, shattering their inertia. As their fear disappears, they forget that they can't dance. They and their dance become one. As inhibitions begin to fade, their spontaneous choreography astonishes me. It's fresh, bold and inventive. There is a freedom larger than the dance and one that directly extends to verbal and written communication [see Appendix]. Students discover their dance by doing it and then writing about it. There is no right way: only their way. All I hope to do is act as a catalyst. Our dance is about sharing feelings, memories and ideas. Value of Dance to ESL Students
JILL: And this helps them outside the classroom, in their homes, for instance?
CAROLEE: Oh absolutely! As I said, these students are dealing with many difficult problems. In addition to learning a new language, they are living in a new culture. They do not necessarily share the same language with their classmates and are often ridiculed by other students because they are different and because they don't have a thorough understanding of English. Additionally, these students are responsible for dealing with the day-to-day problems of life in America and often, with those of their parents who may not speak any English themselves.
JILL: It is these knitty-gritty problems I was referring to.
CAROLEE: Yes. In the face of these problems, it is very important that students express their thoughts and feelings, free from judgment, ridicule or failure. That is one valuable gift provided by dance. The normal shyness that would inhibit a student-boy or girl-from participating in a dance activity quickly fades in a nurturing environment of trust and acceptance where non-verbal communication is predominant. Dance fosters integrity and honesty with oneself and others. Students learn to trust their bodies and take pride in their accomplishments, to build the self- esteem and self-confidence that is necessary for developing an attitude of success in life. They can release feelings and pent-up emotions that may not have other outlets. They learn respect for innovation, brainstorming, and applications of new ideas.
JILL: Are the students sometimes resistant?
CAROLEE: Sometimes, not often. Older boys are sometimes reluctant. When they are, I encourage them to use music they like and are familiar with, like Rock and Rap. When they feel more comfortable, then I talk about ballet and other forms of dance.
JILL: An inevitable question: do you think this has something to do with the different sides of the brain?
CAROLEE: Dance exercises stimulate visual thinking and perception, which are considered right brain processes. These are often ignored in traditional modes of instruction. This is critical for students whose learning or cognitive style is characteristically nonverbal Regular practice in dance seems to encourage verbal (left brain) development through voluntary verbal sharing, fostering more proficient verbal expression. The self-reflective nature of dance provides students with excellent tools for exploring their own personal values, preferences, desires and talents. The process of dance is an excellent way to record creative ideas and student development through the use of videotape and film. Such recordings help students focus their writing activities because they enhance observation and self-expression. For example, students can actually watch a videotape of themselves in a complex dance movement and discuss how effective they think they were in expressing the feelings they felt during their dance. It's powerful electricity, and parents react positively toward their children's excitement and expanding facility with English, both spoken and written.
JILL: I'm beginning to see how rich your technique is. I almost wish I didn't speak English and could enroll in one of your classes. But then I'm an adult. Does this approach work with adults? How could you ever break down the reserve?
CAROLEE: It works with any age group. I think that what is most effective and important is for the teacher not to be hesitant or in any way to suggest that he or she is not 100% committed to the idea that reserve is simply very much out of place. They pick up on that. That's why sometimes I simply begin the class by modeling dances for them. Having some training in dance is helpful to the teacher, but it's not necessary. Just making simple movements proves to be almost irresistible to the students who begin to do what you're doing. Some movements are spontaneous, and others are taken from simple stories or fairy tales. Some students choose to write their own original fairy tales. Later we talk about what we have seen: the elements of dance and the symbolism that the dance communicates. We discuss how dance is a part of all their cultures and how both men and women regularly participate in them. I also show films of various modes of dance, from Modern to Classical Ballet. We begin to dance together in a circle or in other forms to get the students to relax, feel comfortable and to enjoy the process. I encourage individuals or groups to dance in any form they choose and to any music they wish to use. Students from various countries may do folk dances typical to their countries. Group Dance Planning
JILL: Is there any other way you begin class?
CAROLEE: After the very first or second class, we begin with quiet time. Students are asked to close their eyes and be silent. Having them shut out external distractions and go inside themselves-that and setting a tranquil atmosphere is very conducive to doing creative, introspective work. The procedure is never exactly the same. Sometimes, after we have been doing individual dancing for several meetings, we begin to plan group dances during a quiet gathering together in a circle. This gathering often occurs on a daily basis. If the students have been dancing at school or at home on their own, the teacher can provide time here for sharing anything they or the students like. They may share an actual physical exercise routine they have developed or their response to doing it. If there are any questions about anything discussed or about how to proceed, this is the time for the students to ask-while the group is still together and quiet. Students then choose groups with which to dance. These groups can be as small as two and as large as eight. Student groups move to a quiet corner of the room and begin to plan their dance. They talk about their ideas, the movements they plan to use. They will demonstrate for each other. They practice. I give writing assignments at this point to focus their thinking and to get an idea of the particular dance as they are planning it. I put out a variety of music for groups to choose to use in their dance creations. We read and discuss stories that they can act out in their dances. Costumes, scarves, face paint and other costume elements are put out for their use. Children love painting their faces for a ceremonial dance and a simple scarf can be a vehicle to a spontaneous dance. Also available are drums, bells and other musical devices. Each group assigns their dance a name so that other students can refer to it. Some students will actually compose the music and words of songs based on fairy tales or poems to which we can dance. Often these are Rap songs.
JILL: So the writing and speaking are done in the service of a greater good.
CAROLEE: That's one way to put it. During the dance development stage, sharing among students takes place regularly. Pairs of students are assigned to alternatively speak to their partners for several minutes and then to listen to their partners. Students will write regularly in their journals of their feelings about the dance process, fellow students and their personal thoughts. I check to make certain that journals are being maintained, but I only read them when a student feels comfortable about my doing so. Sometimes a student will want to share or clarify something with the teacher privately. This can be done during the partner-sharing time. Performances
JILL: Is there a "performance day" or something of the sort. I imagine there would be?
CAROLEE: Yes. After dances have been developed and practiced over several days, the groups return to the circle. Each group introduces its dance and then performs. Afterwards each dancer talks about how he/she felt doing the dance. Children become very excited after a dance performance and are very receptive to answering questions and communicating with their fellow students. The observers can now respond to the dance and ask questions of the dancers. At the end of each performance, the dancers are given a formal assignment-to write about their feelings in doing the dance and about their dance as a whole. The observers are asked to choose among the dances they've seen and to write a review. School-wide performances can be arranged if the students feel confident enough, and trips are often taken to see performances of modern dance companies such as Alvin Ailey or Paul Taylor. These trips will generate writing assignments and discussions in class.
JILL: The logistics of such trips must take a little planning.
CAROLEE: Yes indeed. All of these activities take planning, careful planning or they fall apart. Conclusion
JILL: I'm afraid we'll have to end this conversation. Can you sum up and add a word for other teachers who might themselves be a little shy but would like to give your approach a try?
CAROLEE: Teaching ESL through dance is both effective and rewarding. Many foreign students have thrived in the openness of the dance classroom. Because the students are dealing with themes they enjoy such as music, movement and makeup, they begin to verbalize more, while enjoying their creativity. Their spontaneity in the classroom reduces their inhibitions and allows them the opportunity to learn language as their own choice-not simply because it's part of the curriculum. Students will regularly come to me for the meanings of words in the middle of class when they can't get them from their fellow students. Even writing exercises are more agreeable when they relate to a student's own feelings and thoughts about a dance they've performed or watched. Including dance within the curriculum can be challenging, but I for one have found it to be well worth the effort. Any other teacher should be aware that it's possible to start very small-for example, the teacher can simply take one corner of a scarf and move and watch the graceful curves. And then ask for a volunteer to come up and take over. It can be as simple as that. The only other advice I would have is, one, never forget the great importance of communicating in English-or whatever language is being studied. And two, the teacher should never force the issue; that is, make students do something before they are ready. And you know when the moment has come because you can't keep them from doing it. Reaching that point is wonderful…for the teacher as well as the student.
"To dance is to live. What I want is a 'School of Life';
for man's greatest riches are in his soul, in his imagination."
Following are unedited excerpts from the writing of Ms. Bongiorno's students of English as a second language. They were either reflecting on how they felt about being a dancer or responding to a particular dance called "The Eternal Light."
I enjoyed watching the dance and listening to the music;
because when I saw Ms. Bongiorno dance to the music Eternal Light I then began
to think that there could be hope and peace in this world. I liked the way
the skaf was used to represent light, because a skaf is like a person with
love and joy. If that person spreads his love and joy to other people, it
will be like a chain reaction. When I saw the skaf with the rainbow colors,
my heart was fulled up with joy. When I listened to the music carefully, I
found out something very important. All the instruments that were used were
different from one another. But the harmony they created, was beautiful and
you wouldn't even know the difference. However, I think that if people would
stop looking at the differences and start looking at what's the same, this
earth would have been a better place.
Leila Manongi, 8th Grade,
2 Years in USA
First I felt very weird. I was surprised when my friend
handed me the scarf, because I didn't think that I would dance in front
of the whole class. It was easy to dance. I only had to move to the
music with the scarf. I never danced this way with this kind of music.
I think the scarf was beautiful.
David Kasik, 8th Grade,
18 months in USA
[This dance] has important meaning. When it is sunrise
the light begin spreading all over the place. When it is sundown the
light begin hiding, waiting for the next day to come. But we always
have to keep this light in our hearts, because light is an energy that
never dies. If that energy dies, without it, we will die too. I was
really surprised when Mrs. Bongiorno gave us a chance to dance. In first
thought, I was thinking what is she doing. In second, I figured out
that she want us to know how it feels to be a dancer. Now I think that
it's not easy to be a professional dancer, but everybody can dance the
way they can. When I was dancing I had feeling of a little freedom that
wanted me to be free from all my problems.
Sikorsyi Oleksii, 8th Grade,
9 Months in USA
I think a being a dancer is really good and refreshing,
like in Friday morning I was not feeling well and was not in a good
mood, I had plans that I'll go home after the lunch. Then later when
I came in the class I heard guys saying that Miss Bongiorno was going
a perform a dance and we also had to take part in it, and I was very
excited. So later when we started to dance with the harmony of the music
I really felt good and my mind was refreshed. So I think being a dancer
is really cool.
Tenizng Dhargyal, 8th Grade,
1 Year in USA
When Anh gave me the scarf to dance, I had all these plans
of what I'd do when I'm dancing. But when I stood in the center holding
the scarf, I suddenly got really scared. I forgot all my plans, and
I didn't know what to do with the magic scarf. So I just twisted around
and let the scarf fly in the air, hoping that it would look as if I
was spreading the light, which I meant to do in the first place. I tried
to make the scarf touch everyone in order to give them each part of
my light. Then I saw all the faces looking at me, and some were laughing.
I got so scared that I started laughing and couldn't stop. This happens
to me sometimes when I was presenting a project, but I didn't expect
it to happen when I danced (it never happened to me when I was acting).
Especially when the camera flashed and caught me by surprise, I couldn't
look anymore. I guess I didn't want to be in the center of attention
(except in the play because I love to act). I'm sorry that I do not
have the courage and talent that Ms. Bongiorno has. I prefer acting
and writing than dancing. But the dance was very wonderful though. I
love to watch it, not do it. I hope everyone forgives me for not doing
it as good as you expected.
Mai Hoang, 7th Grade,
2 Years in USA
Freedman, Russel. 1998. Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life. New York: Clarion Books.
Greskovic, R. 1998. Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet. New York: E.D.C. Publishing.
Levien, J. 1995. Duncan Dance: A Guide for Young People Ages Six to Sixteen. Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Books.
Minton, S.C. 1997. Choreography: A Basic Approach to Using Improvisation. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics Publishers.
Pinkney, A. 1993. Alvin Ailey. New York: Hyperion Publshing.
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