Motor Learning and Control for DanceDavid Mead

If you stop and think about it it’s obvious, but it’s worth saying nonetheless: complex dance skills are closely linked to everyday movement and do share basic motor control principles. It’s an important point made by Donna Krasnow and Virginia Wilmerding in the preface to their new book. As such, it’s hard to disagree with their view that, to enhance fully the development and training of dancers, an understanding of both is necessary. In Motor Learning and Control for Dance they seek to assist just that; to bridge the gap between the artistic nature of dance, and motor development, motor control and motor learning.

Although they come at the topic largely from the motor learning perspective, the authors largely succeed in their aims. Not only that but the book, produced seemingly with dance science undergraduates particularly in mind, is written in a way that should make the information therein accessible even to those with no previous knowledge of kinesiology or biomechanics; I suspect that includes most students. Although graduate students and teachers may well find themselves wanting more, fortunately there’s an extensive 20-page bibliography of sports and dance science literature that can take one deeper into each topic. I also appreciated the excellent 14-page glossary of key terms.

The index is comprehensive when it comes to motor terms, but don’t go looking there for places in the text that refer specifically to particular dance genres such as ballet, modern dance, or jazz; or specific dance skills such as pirouettes or jetés, because those dance terms
do not feature.

Following an introductory chapter that gives a few definitions, a woefully brief overview of the development of dance pedagogy that manages to squeeze the whole subject into just three paragraphs, and a somewhat longer look at somatic practices, the remainder of the book is organised into three sections: Motor Development, Motor Control and Motor Learning.

Each chapter is centred around theory, but while there’s always enough there to set out the basics, there’s never too much that it weighs you down. Even better is that examples relating to dance practice that are woven into the text make the content immediately relevant to dance studies students; and how nice to see those examples not only limited to the usual ballet and modern dance but extended to jazz, tap, flamenco and even South-east Asian dance. Towards the end of Chapter 3 (Development of Postural Control and Balance), for example, the development of control that comes with age is linked to the appropriate age for certain forms of technique learning (although the authors unfortunately prefer the term ‘training,’ which indicates at best an rather different approach to teaching, and possibly something different altogether). This leads them to suggest barre-work should start no earlier than 7 or 8-years old, which is later than most children would experience. Age is used as a criteria frequently, with little acknowledgement that children develop at different rates. Although 12-years is a commonly quoted age for starting pointework, for example, for some children that will be too early, while others could be strong enough and technically developed enough earlier.

Every chapter also has a useful brief summary of the main points at the end, although I wonder if bullet pointing them might have made them even more useful.

The four chapters on motor development cover birth to teenage years with separate chapters looking at posture control and balance, locomotor skills and ballistic movement. An important point made throughout is that the development of all three is progressive. With locomotor skills, for example, it is: walking, running, jumping, galloping, hopping, and skipping. For best results, say the authors, these skills must be incorporated into dance learning in the right order and at the right ages. Common sense really, but worth repeating.

The chapters on motor control (how the nervous system organizes and direct muscles so as to control and coordinate movement) extends to consider attention (essentially concentrated mental activity) and performance and the factors that affect focus. Surprisingly, the notes on anxiety are limited to little more than a brief description of symptoms with no real discussion of how to deal with it, despite it being a major factor inhibiting learning of some dancers at all ages.

The final section (and by far the largest of the three) considers theories and concepts methods of motor learning for dancers of all ages. The chapters here are probably the most immediately useful for dancers and teachers. A variety of teaching and learning strategies and the three main means of instruction (demonstration, verbal and feedback) are all considered.

A few myths are debunked along the way, not least that demonstration is always an effective way of teaching a skill. It can be since we are essentially all visual learners, and can be effective even on its own (especially for older dancers who already have other associated knowledge and who can interpret what they see), but the point is made that on its own it says nothing about initiation of movement or intent.

Key, as the authors emphasise, is that teachers must decide whether this or any other strategy is appropriate for the age and knowledge level of the learners. “It is imperative to understand what learners visually perceive,” or indeed otherwise understand, from any teaching. The reminder about the importance of feedback, and expressing how movement was done rather than what was done, is welcome. There is little said about the potential negative effect on motivation of feedback given in some ways, however.

Despite the occasional gaps, Motor Learning and Control for Dance brings into focus many important topics in the science of motor learning and relates them effectively to dance teaching and learning. It is a useful addition to the dance bookshelf and will be of value to students and teachers alike.

Motor Learning and Control for Dance
Authors: Donna H Krasnow & M Virginia Wilmerding
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Human Kinetics
ISBN-13: 978-1450457415
Cover price: £42.99, e-book £19.00 (UK); $59, e-book $32 (US)