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Dyslexia and Dance

Keti turns

More Common Than You Think!

by Keti Sharif
posted June 27, 2009

Dyslexia and Dance

Do you love to dance – particularly bellydance – and learn new moves and choreographies, but find that you are:

  • Usually slower to “get it” than the rest of the class?
  • Often see the teacher turn right but end up turning left?
  • Do individual moves well but forget a new sequence of moves?
  • See a dance move or floor pattern and feel you understand it – until you demonstrate the move and find you have trouble following it?
  • Have problems with directional moves, turns and particularly feeling unsure about moves that require left or right motion?

You may have mild dyslexia. Dyslexia affects the area of the brain that deals with language, direction and ways of processing information. A huge 20% of the population has dyslexia, affecting the underlying skills not only needed for learning to read, write, and spell, but affects certain motor tasks – including learning to dance, turning and being able to follow and remember dance steps and sequences.

If you are a dance student or teacher, chances are that around 20% of the class could be dyslexic. As a dance teacher, it is quite important to be able to identify dyslexic tendencies in students, and understand how you can help them learn.

A Personal Approach

It is because of my own mild dyslexia – and identifying it in others as a school teacher – that I developed the A-Z Bellydance system; a simple way of learning, linking and memorizing dance moves, direction and particularly understanding the practical concept of smooth transitions. My biggest inspiration was studying with Mahmoud Reda – Egypt’s Pioneer of dance. An inspiring choreographer, Mahmoud’s consistently clear cut approach to footwork, transitions and direction, enhanced my skills and confidence to dance with an awareness of space and understanding of direction and structure. Initially it was challenging – I remember a private class with a right and left turn – the right was fine, but I kept muddling up the left! He said to me “Let’s start left first from now on so your body learns it – because your brain is making a habit of blocking it.” There was a method in his teaching that helped me understand the structural side of the dance, despite my “dance dyslexia”.  So I have applied many of these concepts to the A-Z system. But there are many ways of dealing with dancers with dyslexia.

Teaching Dance to Students with Dyslexia

Dyslexics are often very bright, sometimes involved in very technical or creative careers; however in dance class, they process information differently and often need more time to comprehend a movement, sequence or distinguishing left and right.  Dyslexia can make dance students suffer from stress and anxiety in a class situation where other students seem to find it easy to learn dance moves, sequences of steps and follow the teacher with ease. Dyslexics sometimes simply cannot process information and copy sequences exactly as taught – there are often problems that make the concepts of left and right difficult, which can lead to frustration or moving to the back of the class where they fumble through the moves without grasping them fully. In fact, a dyslexic dance student will often see the teacher turn right – and understand the turn is to the right – but the way the brain processes the movement (observed at speed) the resulting turn is “mirror image”, and the student will unintentionally turn left!

Dyslexia is not a learning disability but rather a different way of processing information, so it is important to be aware of this and look out for the signs that suggest a student may be dyslexic.

Many trained teachers know that there are three main ways to comprehensively teach a class of students – by using a mix of visual, audio and kinesthetic techniques. This is because some people learn best through visual imagery and pattern, others respond to sound and tone, while other students need to feel or experience in order to learn. However, with dyslexic students, it may be necessary for tutors to consider alternative ways of achieving student goals.

20 Tips for Teaching Students with Dyslexia

Some of the following strategies may be useful to bear in mind in order to generate a supportive, inclusive learning environment for all students:

  1. Develop an understanding of dyslexia and if observed, gently talk to your student about how difficulty in directional comprehension affects them personally and what they understand about their own preferred learning style.
  2. Ensure that all students have access to any information you provide by ensuring it is in a clear, accessible format, i.e.: concise written notes, music samples, pictures of shapes and pattern in dance, video or descriptive story.  Provide articles or notes which are succinct, clearly structured and well presented to minimize reading load.
  3. Maintain some basic core “drills” and sequences that remain constant in each class. It may be a warm up or several sequences that you use in each class. Incorporating this consistent discipline will be beneficial for dyslexic students and the entire class, as it builds confidence and structural skills especially with footwork and concepts of left and right.
  4. Try to develop an atmosphere of support amongst all students and explain that everyone processes information differently and some people need more time to comprehend moves. Encourage those who “get it” to help and show others who need extra support or time. This gives students who are familiar with the moves a chance to solidify their knowledge and assist others at the same time. Sometimes interaction between students in a pair or partner situation is less threatening than being singled out in class by the teacher.
  5. Take steps to build the confidence of students so that if any students do want to disclose their learning difficulties, directional challenges, or feel they are “slower” than others – so they can be sure they will be supported and understood.
  6. Identify new vocabulary as you teach, particularly dance terms and Arabic or Turkish (or other) terminologies. Get students to repeat back or encourage the use of these terminologies in class.
  7. Offer audio-visual sources on subject matter, e.g. show dance videos, instructional or performance based clips or dance documentaries and encourage discussions – these can help with structure as well as content.
  8. In class, use a white board to show directional change with arrows or clarify floor patterns. Keep it simple. Make sure your writing is large and clear and students can read it. Use your arm to direct the move just before it occurs.
  9. When teaching a routine sequence or choreography, first explain the basic framework of the moves. Overview main points at the beginning and give markers along the way to help students distinguish important changes. Show them the big picture before looking at the composite detail.
  10. Allow time for students to process information – break class topics into chunks with pauses for taking it in and time for questions. Break up learning tasks into small steps and allow time for reinforcement and over-learning of information.
  11. Build in lots of feedback to monitor students’ understanding and develop their learning skills.
  12. Consider using different colours like veils, scarves, etc to assist troupe formation where students need to work with partners, pairs, in circles or in lines – where clarity is needed.
  13. Correct moves by slowing down and stepping through the move with your back to the student, so they can follow your left and right moves easily. Avoid starting with mirror or circular formation when teaching linear moves, stay linear (in front of the class, with your back to them, but able to observe them in the mirror) for the fastest learning.
  14. When teaching, talk less and demonstrate or repeat movements and sequences more. Discussion and over analyses with the student is probably a waste of time if they are struggling with a move or direction.
  15. Avoid overloading information and over-correcting. Take no more than five types of error that occur repeatedly, and to show, with clear, simple examples, why the errors are wrong and what would be correct. Keep it as simple as possible!
  16. Balance set steps and sequences (or choreography) with taqsim or free, improvised dance. Most dyslexics excel at taqsim, so it’s good for their confidence.
  17. When choreographing or encouraging students to create their own choreographies, make sure they balance structure with free dance.
  18. When teaching left and right, make sure symmetry is implemented.
  19. Allow clearly defined periods of rhythmic exploration versus melodic interpretation in class.
  20. Offer occasional “extended classes” that explore the same subject matter of regular classes, for those who would like more detail and focus if they feel they are learning slowly.
    You’d be surprised at how many people will take up this offer!

Good luck – remember dyslexia often comes with extra creativity, so nurture these special students. In fact, as a teacher, once you learn to assist the challenges of dyslexia, you often develop a clearer style of teaching and become a stronger and more compassionate teacher.

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  1. Nepenthe

    Jun 28, 2009 - 10:06:12

    I’m somewhat dyslexic – definitely there is a “right/left” dyslexia thing going on with me my whole life.  The good news is that I think you can still learn choreography and train yourself – it may not come as easily to a dyslexic, but with practice and repetition, one gets better and better at picking up choreography.  It’s just a skill like any other.  I do prefer to watch the teacher when she is facing away, and I have trouble with DVDs that teach head-on yet say “right or left’ rather than allowing you to mirror. It was great to read an acknowledgment of these challenges.  In my early experiences with dance (grade school chorus lines), I think my inability to know when to go right or left definitely inhibited me from trying dance.  I’m so glad I eventually got up the nerve to try bellydance.

    Interesting that you said you got a lot out of working with Mahmoud Reda.  I know that he and Dr.Mo worked together for a long time – I got a lot from Dr. Mo’s explanations of how to understand choreography.

  2. Keti Sharif

    Jun 28, 2009 - 04:06:06

    Thanks for your comments Nepenthe, you’re right – dyslexics can still learn choreos, and learn exceptionally well – it just takes a bit more time. And a kind, patient teacher. But once learnt, because of their extra creative personalities, they usually dance choreographed pieces with a beautiful artistic feel! Yes, I agree much of the initial confidence for dyslexic learners comes from comprehending right v’s left and gaining confidence with footwork. That’s where the teaching styles of Mahmoud Reda and Dr Mo are brilliant. BTW Mahmoud Reda recently told me that there were times when he was learning Western dance steps, that he sometimes had to repeat a move 50 times before finally understanding it!  Good to know, eh?

  3. Sparrow

    Jul 25, 2009 - 02:07:27

    This is an interesting article… my sister is dyslexic (and a fantastic bellydancer). While she didn’t have the issues you mention, she did have another– she can’t play the zills. She just can’t get them. The more I talk to some other dances I know with the same problem, I think that might be connected to dyslexia as well.

  4. blu

    Mar 1, 2013 - 09:03:19

    i am dyslexic street dancer- teacher -choreogrpaher  i never struggle with symptoms of not rememnering  street dance moves with my crew because we used combination set moves n improvised moves .with not set order ..we choreographed together – joinin all  best moves together -through exploring how best intutitively fit together -gregory hines called this process -improvography- ref dvd tap -interview| in 80s i did went to classes at age 16yrs old for first – tap ballet n contemporary dance class  n that when i experience inability to learn long sequences – not matter what i did then – i couldnt remember sequences 
    i left my professional contemporary dance company because i wasn t enjoying dance experience i had to be rely on others t remember moves (horrible position to be in for dane leader0 -or had spend immense amount unsocial hours practisin to make sure remember my moves ( i was living 3 hrs sleep a nite to cope0 not an enjoyable experience
    The article above is brilliant the best i have seen | show empathy for learners in needs in many ways ….thanks….

  5. liz

    Oct 17, 2013 - 10:10:24

    this problem has blighted my entire life! Now 67 yrs and finding same problem in a tai chi class – i am very creative and loved creative movement at colllege in 6o’s but realised the problem then. it makes one feel an idiot in a group when everyone else grasps things so quickly.
    I live in Derby ( east midlands) really want to learn to dance and remeber sequences etc – tried seroc – hopeless!! is there anything in my area I could join perhaps with a dance teacher who understands this problem?!
    Many thanks
    Liz Bywater ( also have BA Hons in arts in healing and learning – includes dance expression and would love to work with women in same area.
    y ideas?

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