I own a dance studio where I teach a variety of genres of dance and I also teach English–specifically academic writing–at a community college. I see these not as different fields but rather as different manifestations of the same process. 

I teach academic writing, which many might view as the antithesis of creative writing and therefore question the role of the creative process. But the composition of a formal, academic research paper requires the same creative process as any other work. Therefore, I view my job as teaching a set of skills, one of which is to effectively follow the creative process by which the seed of an idea is transformed into something that can be experienced–something that can transform ourselves, others, and the world. 

In this sense, writing and dance and both performances, simply in different forms and contexts. But what they have in common is that the process of creation happens within and through interactions with our environments. Even if we are serving as our own audience, our thoughts, impulses, and desires become manifest through interactions that would never happen if we were only in dialogue with ourselves. Performance is a reaching outward and returning–an exchange of energy with the world around us. And it is through this interactional magic that we give ourselves and our audiences new experiences. 

One of the joys of teaching such “magical processes,” as i like to think of them, is the joy of watching my students both discover and create themselves through the act of performance. 

A few weeks, ago, I was working with seven-year-old Madison. I had spent the day working on an article for the Journal of Dance Education on performance and cognition–how students make sense of their environment through dance performance and, in particular, through the role of affect (i.e. the emotions that we experience). So these thoughts continued to be on my mind. 

“I like having an audience; it’s more fun!”
~ Madison, age 7

I asked Madison if she wanted to show her dance to her dad, who had come to pick her up at the end of her lesson. “Yes!” she said, “I love having an audience; it makes doing the dance more fun.” I stared at her for a moment struck by the elegant brilliance and simplicity with which she had articulated the core concept that I had been working on. Something happens–something that we FEEL–when we perform before an audience that makes it a powerfully creative and transformative experience: one that, for dancers like Madison, is “fun.” 

“I love having an audience; it makes doing the dance more fun.”

Madison, age 7

But not all students are like Madison. Many are terrified by the spotlight, paralyzed by the intimidating aspects of the performative encounter with an audience. Perhaps this is a manifestation of past trauma or perhaps it’s simply a lack of faith in one’s own abilities. We see this reticence and reluctance not just on the stage but on the page, for I have writing students who experience the dreaded “writer’s block” when they face the blank screen. Writer’s block is an example of the same performance anxiety that arises when faced with the enormous pressure to “express ourselves.” Reticent students usually have the same complaints: “I don’t know what to say; I don’t know what to do.” 

Enthusiastic students who don’t hesitate to get right to the task of creating through performing (like Madison) offer an interesting contrast. Such students do not necessarily “have” something within them that they have been desperate to share through some creative outlet but rather are simply anxious to take on the interactive experience of creating through performance. For them, the impulse to perform precedes the “having” of an expression to be communicated. 

Even though these enthusiastic, unhesitant students express their desire for the spotlight with sentiments such as  “I get to express myself through dance,” or “Writing is a way for me to express my feelings,” what is actually guiding them is an uninhibited desire for a creative and transformative experience that is joyful in and of itself. I refer to this desire as the performative impulse

Driven by the “doing” of performance rather than the “having” of something to perform, these students seem to have an understanding that creation happens in the doing. Furthermore, the enthusiasm with which these students take to the spotlight further illustrates another motivating factor: the autotelic, inherent reward in the creative and performative processes themselves–the thrilling enjoyment they experience by putting themselves on display. As Madison reminds us, “it’s more fun with an audience.” 

Self-expression may be a powerful motivation and certainly a source of the rewarding feelings that accompany the performative encounter, but it’s also a rather problematic concept. You see, the very notion of self-expression presupposes two fundamental realities: first, that there is an expression that exists “within” and that is somehow communicated or conveyed to the outside world through performance, and second, that there is, in fact, a stable “self” that is seeking to express. The idea of self-expression assumes that “something” exists internally and, through an “outlet,” can be released into the external world. 

Reticent students must be facing two distinct issues: they feel that the act of performance is only worthwhile if you already “have” something to be conveyed and they are also unconvinced of the joys possible through the performative experience. 

The fundamental error in the reticent or reluctant students’ thinking is that they need to “have” something or need to “be” something in order to start producing. What they don’t understand is that the “having” and the “being” of the creative process are mere illusions–misinterpretations of the primary action process, which is the “doing.” That’s the thing about ephemeral lived experiences such as dancing and writing: our creative work only exists in the doing, in the experiencing. You have to start in order to “have.” You have to be “doing” in order to go about the business of “being.” 

Based on this fundamental pedagogical principle, helpful advice to students includes, “Starting with nothing is the best place to start. Actually, starting with less than nothing is the best place to start; start with a problem, a question, or a frustration.” Students many times believe that the seed–the first step toward creating–is an answer but it’s often in the form of a question. 

We don’t dance and we don’t write to share what we already know or have, but to find it. 

The teaching of creative arts such as writing and dance requires us to demonstrate–through the experience of performing itself–to students the feeling of the creative and performative impulse as the first step toward an immensely rewarding process. It’s OK to start with nothing. It’s even better to start with less, to begin with a perceived lack. 

In essence, what we do as educators of performance is to help our students get from being their best when no one is watching to being their best when the world is watching. And of course, the key to that transformation is performative experience