by Victoria Door

First published in Global Perspectives in Dance Education, Congress on Research in Dance 2009 Conference Proceedings, De Montfort University, UK. Revised November, 2017.

(C)onsciousness of an integral whole in which an incident gets a new qualitative value – John Dewey (1958/2008:102 )

This paper puts forward the view that there is an element in the epistemology of reflective practice that is touched on by some writers but that could usefully bear much further exploration. This element is that of the embodiment of reflection, which, described by Kinsella ‘arises through the bodily, lived experience of the practitioner and reveals itself in action’ (2007:396).  I wish to open up an area of this embodiment of reflection, with its particular aspect of issues of dependence on ‘feeling’, as part of the wider notion of reflexive and critical pedagogy, in its aspect of self-awareness and individual change.

Much writing on reflection refers back to the work of John Dewey. It is easy, for example, to trace his influence in Donald Schön’s classic works on reflection (1983, 1987).  Schön’s doctoral thesis was on Deweys’ theory of enquiry. Similarly, Schön’s thinking on the value of practitioner knowledge in the resolution of real-world, real-time problems is much quoted in literature on reflection, reflexivity, and pedagogy (for example, see Atkinson and Claxton, 2003; Cunliffe, 2004; Kinsella, 2007; Rolfe, 1997; Wink, 2004). I am arguing that Schön and others build upon their own understanding of Dewey, but without the element of acknowledged, direct experience in F.M. Alexander’s work on optimal postural configuration, and that without understanding that direct experience, and essential element of reflection may be ignored.

Dewey appears to be one of the first writers to discuss the significance of reflection in pedagogy, for example in How We Think, originally published in 1909 (Dewey, 1933).  Dewey had direct association with Alexander’s work and his writings from the time of his work with Alexander are necessarily underpinned by a different kind of experience than they were before those lessons. Dewey took lessons with Alexander from 1915 and freely admits his debt to them for a transformative realisation of his ‘theories of mind-body, of the coordination of the active elements of the self and of the place of ideas in the inhibition and control of overt action’ (Dewey, in Schlipp, 1951:44-5).  The significance for the argument here is the reference to the means for a realisation of theory into practice, as such a transformation is the holy grail for many writers on reflection (Schön, 1983, 1987; Carr and Kemmis, 1986; Kinsella, 2007).

What then, did Dewey know? He knew from his lessons with Alexander that there is an optimal postural configuration. That is, there is a particular relationship of the parts of the body, and it is a dynamic relationship that responds to changes in bodily attitude to maintain the integrity of the whole. There is a particular postural configuration, or relationship of parts of the body, that will allow three things to happen:

  1. Movement, or simply upright posture, will be achieved in such a way that no damage will be done to the system.
  2. Flexibility of the body will be maximal, within the limitations of the anatomy, as long as no move is attempted the limits of that particular relationship of all structural and physiological elements.
  3. That flexibility will allow a maximal range of freedom of expression – that is, different qualities of movement will be possible as long as the student understands the task and maintains this particular configuration. This configuration is dynamic rather than static.

Of significance in dance pedagogy is that this optimal relationship can be interfered with by the user, creator and maintainer of the relationship (the dancer), resulting in less than optimum performance as defined by the three criteria above. If this optimum relationship is interfered with, it will tend to be interfered with on a constant basis. That means, for example, that if dance students do not have it, they will not have it all day, all night, in work and at rest, and they will be unaware in any direct way neither that they do not have it, nor that there is any such thing to be had. They will regard their particular dynamic postural configuration as the most natural thing in the world and the only possible way to be. It will ‘feel’ normal. They may, however, experience it in indirect ways, as a lack of flexibility, as an inability to carry out what is asked or what they have seen, or even experience it as discomfort or pain.

This normalisation of feeling, this lack of awareness of interference, has its foundations in the adaptive neurophysiology of the individual. What is learnt in this context becomes the norm very quickly. ‘It will be a feeling we are used to and what is constant we tend to ignore’ (Door, 2003:41). Interference with the optimal postural configuration is learnt and if it (the interference) is to be reorganised and changed, it will require a different kind of response to gravity. As such, it is an absolutely fundamental kind of change, exponentially different in nature from, say, to move an arm at a different speed, or with a different trajectory. Such choices as these, in contrast to the change in response to gravity, can be achieved without a fundamental change in the underlying configuration and may in fact, if done without awareness, cause damage to structure through the imposition of increased muscular contraction.

How does all this relate to reflective practice? It is helpful at this point to go back to Kinsella’s statement on reflection, which, she suggests ‘arises through the bodily, lived experience of the practitioner and reveals itself in action’ (2007:396).  Leaving aside the issue at this point as to whether reflection might be both a mental and a physical act, the question raised here is: if interference is learnt and it manifests bodily, how can thinking about it (or reflecting on it) change anything? Dewey knew from Alexander that if he could see, or in some sense know, what he was doing in terms of the learnt postural configuration he could take a decision not to do it in that way, and to think through another way to do it. He knew, as Alexander did (for example, see Alexander, 2002), that it is possible to direct the body consciously so that there is no learnt interference.

What has such conscious direction got to do with a teacher of dancers? To get to a provisional, tentative answer on that, or at least to raise some issues about it, let’s think about the dance student who has less than optimal postural configuration. That student may reflect very deeply on problems encountered in practice and performance, and may take the theoretical aspects that have been studied very seriously. She may work to integrate them into ‘real’ practice life, and yet, without knowledge of the underlying situation of configuration, she is unlikely (although it is not impossible that it should happen) to detect the problem directly. Reflective dialogue with a coach who is also unaware of the issue will also likely be unproductive (if the difficulty is in fact a result of the learnt configuration).

A Schönian theme is ‘education for artistry’ (1987: 303). ‘Artistry’ here means the kind of observable expertise operated by practitioners who are very good at what they do; in Schön’s words it is ‘(i)nherent in the practice we recognize as unusually competent … an exercise of intelligence, a kind of knowing’ (1987:13). For Schön, imitation of the ‘unusually competent’ is a key way forward for students. In this ‘exercise of intelligence’ we have the role of teacher as coach. That is, one who can show and work with students rather than simply one who can tell them. In this model of teaching, the coach may not even be expected to articulate means and rationale, but rather to provide an environment where students can find their own. The further step is where the coach has sufficient understanding of her own processes to allow a reflective dialogue with the student to enable them to find them for themselves, in themselves.

Returning now to Dewey’s contribution mentioned at the start of this paper, I suggest that there is a qualitative difference (Dewey’s ‘new qualitative value’, 1958:97)  in an act done mechanically in a learnt and less than conscious way, which includes interfered-with postural configuration, and one done where there is ‘consciousness of the integral whole (Dewey, 1958:97). This is because the dancer has become aware of his learnt configuration and is able to change it at the fundamental level of his response to gravity as a constant, and then to let go of the interference. For such a change to occur, conscious control over the system is required.

Should this awareness and control be explored by the reflective practitioner and coach? If the following is true, the answer must be yes. In performance, reflection informed by the mechanics of optimal postural configuration is transformative. So why is it not universally explored? I suggest that it is because finding out that you are configuring yourself in a less than optimal way is, by definition, experiential. It is an area of knowledge (my constant, habitual, normal-to-me postural relationship of all the parts of me) that can only be fully known by having experience of it. Postural configuration is more than simple habit of course, because it is part of a fundamental identity. It has very strong connections with the way the ‘I’ that I have constructed recognises itself. The not-so-simple habit is part of the practitioner’s ‘world-making’ (Goodman, 1978:6) and not to be given up easily. Awareness of, and control of postural configuration is knowledge that must be gained by the individual. It must become part of identity and not be imposed. It is an experiential form of knowing that, as stated above, if properly integrated into both performance and the teaching of performance, results in a different kind of qualitative value of both. It is this experiential form of knowing which underlies the Deweyan notion of reflection.

Kinsella, working in the area of health and rehabilitation, suggests that it is profoundly important for practitioners to understand the dimension of reflection that she calls ‘embodied’ (2007:395). She states that such an embodied approach has significance for application of reflective theory to the context of the educational practitioner. But her focus on the ‘embodied’ is on the tacit knowledge held by the experienced (the expert) which is not necessarily available for articulation, nor is articulation itself necessary. She calls on the work of Ryle (1949) and Polyani (1967) in support of implicit knowledge, which reveals itself only in action – action performed, of course, to the observer, by the body.

And yet, as Schön asks, what happens if something goes wrong with the performance? What if tacit knowledge, by definition hidden from conscious awareness, cannot supply the solution? It is at such a point, Schön suggests, that reflection can provide alternative. But Schön did not know, or take seriously, what Dewey knew: that learnt habits of postural configuration, laid down at a level not immediately accessible to conscious deliberation, cannot be overcome by wishing them to be so. Rather, they must be observed in action by the observer-performer; the choice must be made not to allow them to happen, and a new pattern of activity must be thought through.

Should we consider Alexander’s work? Yes, if we want to take seriously Kinsella’s ‘embodied reflection’ where mind and body are seen as ‘integrated’ and intertwined’ (2007:408) – and move forward to a more nuanced position, which is that an understanding of postural configuration can bring more meaning to such expressions of interconnectedness and ‘new qualitative value’ (Dewey, 1958:97) based on knowing rather than feeling. We think we know; even more perilously, we feel we know, but we base our feelings on a partial knowledge of something. Dewey knew through his experience with Alexander’s work, it was quite possible to make this something explicit to ourselves and to others.  Such acceptance and understanding of Alexander’s influence upon Dewey, and of the role of experience and knowing-in-activity, could add to the concept and practice of a critical and reflexive pedagogy that ‘reflects the complexities of the interactions between teaching and learning’ (Wink. 2004:26).


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