The single experience that every one of us as a human being shares is that of moving through this world as a mind and spirit existing within a body. Our bodies and those of our students differ in any variety of ways, change over time, and can become our greatest assets as we jump into the world of theatre: A gesture or walk can unlock new facets of character exploration, a good shakeout can allay nerves and refocus, and the physical level at which we place ourselves in relation to others in the space speaks volumes to our relationships. But our bodies can also become our biggest stumbling blocks and biggest sources of discomfort. This is why, for me, bringing movement into the TYA space is more than just a tool for theatre. It’s an imperative part of building student confidence and empathy.
Empathy? You might be saying. That doesn’t make much sense. Consider this example:
We’ve all been there, whether as a student or leader. It’s the first day of class, the group is standing in a circle, and we’re going to introduce ourselves to one another. How? “Say your name, loud and proud, and do a movement along with it. Anything you want to and we’ll repeat it right back!”
A sense of vulnerability and self-doubt immediately sneaks in:
- I have to share my voice? (“I don’t want to be the only person in the room talking.” “What if they can’t understand what I’m saying?” “Now everyone will hear my lisp!”)
- I have to share my movement? (“I’m not a dancer.” “I have no idea what to do.” “I hate the way my body looks today.” “If I reach up too tall, my shirt might reveal my stomach and…”)
- AND you all repeat it back to me? (“What if I look dumb?” “What if they mock me?)
As introductions begin moving around the circle, these fears can increase even more (“She stole my movement!” “I’ll never come up with something that cool.” “Mine’s too goofy compared to everyone else’s.” “NOW WHAT? IT’S ALMOST MY TURN!”) Then the circle goes quiet, and everyone is looking at you. Your mind has gone blank. You squeak out your name and lift your shoulders in a shrug to indicate you have no idea what to do…
And the entire group immediately repeats it back to you. Your feelings, fears, and insecurities are shared by the group, and the essence of you — just as you are feeling and existing in that exact moment — is reflected back without judgement before it’s right on to the next person.
I remember the first time I led a group through this exact scenario — to me, mirroring any movement, whether or not it was as big or bold as I was hoping for, seemed an obvious response on the first day of class. But I wasn’t expecting the powerful impact it could have. The nervous student’s face lit up, and she was one of the most active participants throughout the rest of the classes, making bold, risky choices physically and otherwise that seemed to inspire the rest of the group. In my several years of teaching since then, I’ve not only regularly used this activity as an introduction on the first day of class, but also as a ritual aspect of daily class, regardless of the age group. There are always layers to add and play with (levels, emotion in voice, adding facial expression …) but, for me, the most important aspect of this activity is the affirmation. We see you. We see your movement. We mirror you, and therefore, we empathize with you. Empathy, after all, is defined as ” the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” and when I move my body like yours I can, just for the briefest of moments, physically feel what you feel.