Susan's Blog

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Let’s Dance

My new dance teacher is also my old dance teacher; I took classes with her a few years ago and it was terrifying, because she is very exacting. Now I look forward to it with a nervous excitement. Nervous, because I know I am going to be tested and pushed. Excited because I know that this way I will learn and improve. I have come to love the teachers who drill this way, however, because every single part of your move must be accurate. There are so many variations of the moves: hip walk, hip side-step, hip lift, hip click, hip bump, hip drop, hip circle… the more your body understands the differences between these moves, the more subtle and rich is your dance.

Dance teachers talk about something called “muscle memory,” which is about understanding a move within your body. The way I learn, I first must see it in my mind, and then translate it to a move. But I find — and I’ve said this before — that sometimes I have actually learned the move first, before even knowing that I’ve done it. Usually when that is the case, however, my form is not that pretty. With muscle memory, first your body understands how to execute the move, and later, with technique, drilling, and breaking it down, your body simply does it, as one fluid move.

Nat-urally I find myself wondering how learning works for Nat, if it is the same for him. Some tasks, such as with making the pizza boxes at work, or learning some other rote routine, Nat’s school has relied on breaking it down and drilling, or breaking the task down and rewarding each part that Nat has learned. This is called Discrete Trial Training. DTT is a keystone of Applied Behavioral Analysis, a very popular educational strategy used for autistic students. DTT relies on starting with the smallest steps and building into a whole, to the point where someone can then generalize and smoothly integrate the task into other actions. DTT and ABA are popular largely for two reasons: it is a good way to teach step-by-step tasks; and it is a way of teaching that allows for accurate data-taking. The latter has given ABA a predominance in autism education because ABA practitioners can claim that they are the only method based on scientific method. But the thing is, the approach can only go so far.

In terms of learning the more sweeping, organic, intuitive skills, DTT falls very short. DTT can teach a child how to speak, in a very rudimentary way. and perhaps how to attend to a speaker, and how to comment (Nat has all of these skills), but DTT cannot impart the desire to speak, the fluidity and the spontaneity of conversation. The tiny leaps from: “the dog is barking,” to “I want a dog,” is actually an entire lifespan of a leap for Nat. Even “the dog is barking,” to “barking is loud,” implies the desire to say more about something, to express.

Some things — many of them large and wondrous — Nat has learned sort of in bursts and sweeps. When he learned to read, it was letters letters letters. Trace letters in the sand. Write letters. Hear letters. See them on the computer. See them with the word they mean. Read, dammit!! For years. But finally, when he was 8, and playing with Spell-A-Puzzle, a few days later he saw a whale on the wall of a restaurant, and shouted, “W-H-A-L-E spells ‘WHALE!'” And after that he could read. Or how about the time we drilled him for two years the exact steps and rewards for pooping in the potty; we even moved the damned potty under his bedroom window, which was his favorite spot to stand and poop in his pants. Nothing worked. Nothing, until the day we arrived at our Disneyland hotel and I showed him the bathroom and said, “Here is where you will make your bm, and when you do, you will get this Cadbury chocolate creme egg.” I showed him the toilet, and showed him the egg. Next thing I know, he went in and pooped in the toilet. Came out, got his egg. Never went back to the poop-window.

Why? Why did the toilet neuron fire at that moment? Was it all the drilling, and suddenly the connection after two long years? Or was it that he was ready to fly, so to speak?

Today my dance teacher emphasized all of the ways that you listen to the music and then you do what the music tells you. She pointed to her diagrams, the hip steps we had drilled in the first hour, and said something like this: “You can use any of these steps, forward and back, eight and eight, when the music sounds like this: “da-da-da…” [fill in strong Arabic melody that would make you want to clap and stomp and sile] The steps were in my mind, and pounding in my body, so I was good to go.

Then she said (paraphrasing): “But. You have to convey joy. That is what the audience has come to see.” No one can teach you joy. Just as no one can make you want to talk.

So all of the steps are there, in Nat’s brain. The moves are there in his muscle memory. He feels joy. Now I want him to just dance.

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