Learning about Native American Culture through DanceMonday, June 25, 2018

Recently, Patchogue-Medford Grade 4 students were studying Native Americans, particularly the Iroquois. Their teachers wanted the children to understand the significance of the Iroquois’s culture—their beliefs and social practices. They invited dance artist Kendra Mace Clark to work with students on a project that would explore the Iroquois and how their culture shaped their dance style.


At the residency’s first session, Ms. Mace Clark introduces the project. In the weeks ahead, the teaching artist and students would learn about different dance elements—such as shape, formation, patterns, and sculpture—by viewing videos and practicing the elements. They would also see a live dance performance of the “Martial Artists and Acrobats of Tianjin.” For a culminating activity, the students would apply what they’d learned— about the Iroquois culture, dance elements, and the Tianjin dance style—to create dances that reflected their own culture.

In the next session, Ms. Mace Clark (above) guided students in the creation of repeatable patterns generated by found movement. “‘Found movements’ are those found within a culture,” she explains. “Stomping, for instance, is a movement that everyone has access to.” Other found moments might be raising a hand, taking a seat. They might also include an emotional gesture or a sports gesture.


Student groups choreographed dance movements based upon their everyday routines in and out of school. They were inspired by the “Rabbit Dance,” an Iroquois dance. Scroll down for a video showing some of the project's activities. 

For the session on dance composition, the teaching artist presented found objects—umbrella, hanger, plastic cups—to inspire movement. “The children saw everyday objects used during the Tianjin performance,” notes the teaching artist. “The martial artists use objects to enhance their peformances.” Each session ended with the students writing entries in their dance journals.


In the later sessions, the students invented dances that reflected their own cultures. To help the students develop their dances, Ms. Mace Clark used the 5Ws:

  1. What is the dance called?
  2. Who will perform the dance?
  3. Why do you perform the dance?
  4. Where do you perform the dance and when?
  5. How do you prepare for the dance?

“The 5Ws help students understand the content of a dance,” stresses the dance artist. “The questions act as a tool for developing creative moment as well as a check list for the dance. It helps students create variation of choreographed movement. The process takes them there.” 


Using the 5Ws, Ms. Mace Clark reviewed the "Rabbit Dance," emphasizing the cultural aspects. The dance artist and students determined that Iroquois culture and dance are integrated. The dance steps are inspired by everyday motions and objects. The entire Iroquois community participates in the dance, which gives thanks for the rabbit, a source of food and clothing. The students also learned that this dance is performed outdoors, in a circular formation, at community events.

Ms. Mace Clark now segued into the final segment, which was the creation of an original dance. Students were broken into groups and given a worksheet. One group was designated recorder. Each group answered and recorded responses to the 5Ws.This group activity utilized all of the 4Cs—creativity, competence, confidence and collaboration

According to Ms. Mace Clark, the classroom teachers were “instrumental when it came to the collaboration. The children needed an adult to facilitate the collaboration. Teachers believed in that. They made sure everyone worked with a purpose.”


For the final session, students performed their dances for each other.

 Here's a videoclip showing some of the project's activities.


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