The arts tend to be a venue for either setting controversy or exploring it. The former is done by the creation of provocative work, perhaps through provocative means, and intended to either make a statement or respond to one. The latter has been, historically, a process that has provided a safe haven for individuals identifying with controversy in a way that enables them to inform and establish their own identity. For our students, the arts have the power to, either gingerly or forcefully, do both.

Schools have systematically represented cultural norms. The formats of schools tend to reflect principles, beliefs, and traditions of the geographical group. Ideally, schools also provide a safe haven for individuals to inform and establish their identity in a time and place separate from their home lives. For our students, however, schools can become complicated webs of messages further complicated by the emotional response of their families  to what is being presented. The same can go for the emotional response of the teachers presenting the information and their acknowledgement, use, or refusal of hidden curriculum.

Controversy, to my mind, is an extension of fear and difference. It is also an issue of perception in dealing with world view and relating behaviors. Ultimately, it prompts difficult discussions about delicate matters because they are close to the heart. In this way, the arts can provide a powerful and neutral way to engage in dialogue and, hopefully, a safe place for students to develop their own opinions based on their identities and the influences that have helped shape them.

I am talking about comparing the subjective to the objective and providing a foundation for separating, yet still holding, facts and opinions. In this sense, the word objective is not relating to goal, directly, but about distance. Having the point of view that removes the self in a way to observe an idea, a way of life, or a work of art in a neutral and constructive way.

I immediately think of Bill T. Jones, a choreographer who I deeply respect and one that pushes boundaries- personally, professionally, individually, and socially. His work, Still/Here sparked outrage as Jones dared to present terminal disease as the topic of a main-stage production. The dance prompted critic Arlene Croce to write a scathing and controversial review for a dance she refused to see. A new term, “victim art”, was coined and the place for this dance in the history books was marked.

When I saw the PBS documentary based on this dance in college, it changed my life. I wept for my mother that had passed away of severe asthma and emphysema when I was 13 and I wondered how movement may have relieved some of her stress, physical and emotional, as she was coping with her illness. And although I wasn’t convinced I had the courage to dance for Bill T. Jones, I vowed to take steps toward that goal and at the very least, use dance as a vehicle for deeper expression and communication than I had previously done as a performer and a choreographer.

A way to start this balanced dialogue within a dance setting would be to invite the students to create a movement phrase based on selected criteria. Once the students have struggled in the crafting of the phrase, they often find themselves in love with their own ideas, movement, and performance- feeling passionate and protective of what they have done. If we immediately start to introduce broad editing concepts, feelings get in the way, our path to our best work is masked, and processes shut down. Yet, if we look at small, digestible pieces, by taking two or three steps and re-imagining them, things get easier. If we provide the structure for the critical conversation such as, “I noticed your use of level changes,” rather than “I didn’t like when you dropped to the floor”, information gets easier to take-in and to take- on. Students are then able to separate, yet still hold, their feelings about their work but make sophisticated adjustments because of what they see and feel physically rather than what they feel emotionally.

When I speak to students about this difference between subjective and objective, I pretend to pet a small bird in the cup of my hand. I explain that close up, this is my pet, and I describe how I feel about it based on what I do for it- feeding, watering, stroking, caring, loving. Then I hold my hand at a distance and explain that from further away I am able to better see and describe the animal before the pet– the color, the texture, the size, the age. I am able to describe it factually, while I hold in my mind my feelings about what makes it special.

This is the approach I feel teachers need to take with controversial topics and how we should guide our students through the processes of making up their own minds, influenced but independent of the adults in their lives.

Should these topics be taught? No. They should be navigated with honesty, balance, facts, and respect. They should serve as a gateway to more important learning and discussion- personal stance, tolerance, objectivity, and self-awareness.

2 thoughts on “Cycle 3: Near and Far

  1. Hello Heather,

    What a lovely, thoughtful piece of writing on what it is for something to be controversial and what it is for us as teachers to “navigate” these issues as you adeptly describe it in your closing. The arts have danced around me throughout my life even though I have never pursued the arts in a full time effort. I have always had an eye and an ear for all things artistic. How interesting to consider how controversy can so gently and powerfully move through the arts. As you say, “the arts have the power to, either gingerly or forcefully” set controversy or explore it.

    The “Still/Here” dance project is a powerful example of this. This is dance/theatre/art project with a distinct message. We have a choice. We can go see a Jones/Zane dance production or we can go see the Rockettes. Anyone choosing to see a Jones/Zane dance production is in for a turn of the soul and heart. I admire this kind of limitless art. Art has no bounds and should not be boxed in or held to set expectations. Likewise, our reaction in the audience or as a critic has no bounds. As you mention your heart breaking in response to “Still/Here”, so has mine on the receiving end of many performances. Controversy can break open our minds and hearts and allow something to happen which might otherwise not happen with a simple or common theme.

    I wish you had shared more about your thoughts on how all of this might intersect with mainstream education. You mention that schools are geographical by nature, colloquial we might say. I’ll bet you have definite thoughts on how controversial themes might be played out in public school curriculums. I love your analogy of the pet bird for how our natural feelings are different from clear facts. This could be utilized in a variety of contexts in teaching controversial topics. If religion is the pet bird, then how do I feel about it and what are my instinctual, natural thoughts and feelings about it. Then, in a separate exercise, what are the facts and knowledge base on world religions. How do my natural feelings and proclivities intersect and differ from the facts. If not religion, then homosexuality or political parties or creation and evolution, etc. Your approach is profound and far reaching: it could be used in so many different ways.

    I once took a modern dance class in which my assignment was to choreograph a short block of dance, maybe 24 or 32 beats, based only on one word. I’ll always remember it; I was to choreograph “Avocado”. I struggled and struggled and in the end came up with something I loved. We put all of the pieces together into one montage. I can imagine doing this with emotive words such as “Shame”, “Joy”, “Frustration”, “Alone”, etc. to make a statement on a controversial topic. Perhaps we could expand this model to other courses. In an English class, it could be poems. In a science class, it could be research. It could be just about anything from dance and photography to articles and short stories.

    The key in all of this is not to shy away from controversial subjects in any of our classrooms and to be thoughtful in how we engage our students.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Suzanne Kiess

  2. Hi Heather,

    Thank you so much for your post and the dialogue it generated. It was a truly beautiful post that raises a lot of interesting thoughts for me (and you obviously have outside readers, as you got a “like” from someone else!).

    Your post reminds me of something important: the point of teaching a controversial topic is not to create more division and hatred, but to heal and bring peace.

    If we start with that in mind–that we can’t seek winners and losers–I think a lot changes.

    Your lovely image of the pet bird really helped in thinking this through for me.

    The point can’t be, for me, to separate out “objective” and “subjective” stances. As I remind my research students, some of the best research is an objective rendering of subjectivity–subjective feelings, moods and thoughts.

    I know my own growth as a human is forwarded when I can identify how I am feeling, but step back from it too, so as to learn. Why does this issue or this person make me feel this way? How can I transform the way I am viewing this person or this issue to make myself more empathetic, more caring, more thoughtful?

    Dance–art–is a certainly a great space to explore this. But as Suzanne noted, we can imagine this as a general method in any course, with any content. The goal is to grow as a human, to understand ourselves and our fellow human beings better. I like to think of teaching as an art. Seeing the connections between dance specifically and teaching more generally is quite helpful for me.

    Thank you again for a beautiful post!


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