What TED taught me: An idea worth spreading

“Dance movement is powerful” the opening line of my recent TEDx talk; a throwing down of a metaphorical gauntlet to invite deep consideration over the next 18 minutes of my topic ‘The science of dance: Why movement works for learning’ (1).

I’m sure the vast majority of TED speakers face the same challenge, of summarizing their idea in the given time frame and wanting their audience to take away new insights in the most impactful way possible. In preparation of that objective I equipped myself with Chris Anderson’s book (2) and read it from cover to cover in order to pick up the do’s and don’ts, some useful tips and give myself some ‘soft creativity’ time. The main take away message from the book very much aligned with my thirty years experience as a professional choreographer - there is no one way to do it because a TED should be an authentic voice and ultimately personal. However, during this preparatory stage, something else struck me deeply that this piece of writing gives me opportunity to share with the dance and wider community. I began compiling a list of reference examples given within the book that all had something to do with dance and/or movement. What I discovered was a seemingly disproportionate amount of high profiled dance and movement related talks within the TED community, certainly ones that Chris Anderson himself thought foremost to include. Out of all the possible topics in the entire world, dance and movement feature significantly. I believe this simple acknowledgement highlights the importance of movement to all of us and the innate and unique power of dance. It is my intention this contemplation act as a springboard to start joining the dots between dancing about science and ‘sciencing’ about dance. 

It’s no surprise that Sir Ken Robinson’s ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ – officially the most watched TED ever is cited. The neglect of the body in the education system and direct references to dance feature in his TED presentation and his general opinions (3)(4). Sir Ken’s story about Gillian Lynne aligns so much with my own research findings (5) relating to ADHD that I included my own narrative relative to this topic in my talk. 

My TEDx was a Salon Event, where presentations are limited to four speakers and the atmosphere more intimate than a regular TED; a salon includes a Q&A session allowing for deeper engagement and topic discussion. One question I was asked: “Does fidgeting do the same as dancing?” In short, all movement can be helpful for channeling focus and attention but the nature of dance truly has the power to transform.

Dance is unique as it combines physical activity with engagement of the creative spirit, social, emotional and cultural expression. Despite this, it remains undervalued within the arts and education; less curriculum time is spent on dance than any other sport or art form in our schools. 

Ironically, while scientists are working through complex theories such as social and cognitive neuro-concepts using dancers as the experts in this domain (6), dancers themselves are finding the need to evidence that what they do makes a difference, simply to justify acquisition of funding and some remaining existence of dance in an education system focused on STEM and learning from “the neck up”(7)

All educators want their pupils to benefit from and retain what they teach. Movement and dance can assist all of us in becoming better learners. Ongoing research through my organization MovementWorks underpins that “An embodied approach to learning has an important part to play in our education system in helping all children to reach their full potential” (8)

Chris Anderson goes on to cite John Bohannon’s TED talk – ‘Dance vs Powerpoint: A modest proposal’ (9). It is stated that “Dance can really make science easier to understand.” John has gone on to run an annual contest called Dance your PhD (10)

This brings us to the overlap that encompasses Sadhana’s work; Subathra Subramaniam has a unique artistic voice in this field, fusing an ancient dance form with a contemporary approach, aimed at engaging the public in scientific topics. Her TEDx ‘Transcendence; turning people onto science through dance’ is beautifully described and demonstrated (11).  

I believe a movement and dance approach can make everything more accessible and engaging. “Learning by using the body, as well as the mind is extremely powerful”. I particularly like the series on ‘Dancing Statistics’ (12)

Unfortunately the statistics do not stack up in the opposite direction, as children and young people are dancing less and less and cannot rely on the provision of dance as part of general education (13).

Across disciplines and decades, the foundations of Sir Ken Robinson’s message have been acknowledged by a great many authoritative figures; a creative element is key to advancement.

John Dewey - Philosopher and Educationalist:
“Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination”.  
The Quest For Certainty, 1929.

Carl Sagan – Scientist:
“It is the tension between creativity and scepticism that has produced the stunning and unexpected findings of science”.
Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the romance of science, 1974.

Yet there remains a false dichotomy between science and the creative arts and until this is embraced it has the propensity to continue to affect our very being in every aspect of life: -

Albert Einstein – Genius: 
“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom”.  
Moral Decay, 1937.

This acknowledgement, however, requires us, the dance community, to open up to being bolder and braver with our collective voice, on platforms like TED and through engagement with new initiatives, such as Sadhana’s writing commissions, aimed at sharing our perspectives in order be supportive of work that reflects related aims. 

Amy Cuddy ‘s TED talk (14) again referenced by Anderson, highlights that movement is the most powerful form of non-verbal communication, layered with meaning that is inherently understood and transformative. Dance encompasses gesture; both Western and Eastern forms of classical dance have encodified it, Laban gave us the tools to analyse and interpret movement quality, Marion North and Preston-Dunlop developed and deepened our understanding of the relationship between movement and personality and social interaction. We, the dance world are the expert scientists in this field.

Even for big world issues such as education, global warming and prejudice, our bodies can literally change our minds.

Amy’s “no tech life hack” resonates with my work. As you will learn from watching my own talk, there is good reason why I’m not keen on over use of technology but committed and passionate about dance education being anchored in “concrete flesh and bone experiences” because that is what science informs us is the best way to learn.

Anderson’s reference to yet another dance led TED by LXD (15) reminds us that dance is perhaps the most fluidly evolving art form and genres progress more rapidly as a result of the instant global connections now made possible through the internet. 

“Dance movement IS powerful” and together we can be stronger advocates and have more influence through our collective and specialist knowledge of dance and science. This is what TED taught me – this is an idea worth spreading. Share the knowledge, reshape the future. 
And in case you were wondering… here’s some final TED throughts from a neuroscientist on ‘The real reason for brains’ (16).



(1) The science of dance: Why dance movement works for learning
(2) Anderson, C. (2016). TED Talks: The official guide to public speaking. Headline Publishers. 
(4) Dance: Just as important as mathematics www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04d4nvv 
(5) www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14647893.2016.1204282?journalCode=crid20 
(11) Transcendence; turning people onto science through dance
(16) www.youtube.com/watch?v=7s0CpRfyYp8