Ideas in Motion: Exploring the Intersection of Poetry and Dance

Just in time for National Poetry Month, the team at Dancing with Class had the opportunity to explore the connections between poetry-writing and dance with guest artist Marlin M. Jenkins,  an accomplished poet, educator and dancer. Our teachers plan to incorporate some of what we learned from Marlin in our upcoming residency programs by helping students find their own voice as they move through a creative process of expressing themselves through movement and words.

Let’s Get “I can’t write a poem” Out of the Way

Expressive arts therapy is a type of mental health therapy that uses visual art, dance/movement, music, drama, and writing to express yourself and work on issues.  Expressive therapists emphasize that you don’t need artistic skill to interact with the arts. In other words, if you can write and talk, then you can make creative writing or poetry.  If you can move, then you can dance. The combination of expression through our body with expression through our words can result in great therapeutic benefits regardless of your skill level in either form of expression.

Benefits of Writing Poetry and Combining it with Movement

  1. Increases communication skills: writing our thoughts and feelings helps us advocate or share with others what our needs are as well as aid in the process of building connection with others.
  2. Flexes our creativity and imagination:  sometimes poetry is about practicing how to state something indirectly or in different ways than expected.
  3. Adding variety to already existing coping skills:  coping skills or mechanism are simply things we do to help us calm down, get through a difficult situation, or something we do to tolerate difficult feelings.  Coping skills can be talking to a loved one, coloring, exercising, breathing exercises etc.  It is important to have more than one coping skill that works and to have a variety of coping skills. Not every coping skills is going to be appropriate for every setting or difficult feeling.
  4. Increases our awareness of our mind-body connections:  Everybody has mind-body connections, but some  may not be aware of it.  Our thoughts and emotions are connected to our bodies.  This means what we think and feel can affect our physical body.  One example of this, is when we have tight shoulder muscles and the masseuse asks us if we have been stressed lately.  The opposite can be true.  What we do with our physical body can actually affect our thoughts and emotions.  One example of this is when people have to do breathing exercises to calm themselves down.  The very process of moving to poetry can actually helps us increase this awareness and help us understand our thoughts and emotions.
  5. Increases empathy: learning about different perspectives increases our empathy or ability to understand or share feelings of others.  Art forms like poetry and dance does just that.  Art forms can evoke the emotions, and emotions often times are the key to building that understanding.
  6. Encourages the use of critical thinking: movement is just another language humans engage in (actually engage in more than our verbal languages).  Listening to how things feel in our body and being able to make corresponding movements to words or themes is a great skill to build.  This is actually using critical thinking!  We can use critical thinking by reading creative writing and learning how to relate the topics mentioned to our own experiences and to the world around us.
  7. Encourages self-expression and identity development: poetry and creative writing allows us to talk about who we are and how we see the world.

Ways to Warm Up the Writer in You

  1. Get rid of your notion of what a poem “should” look like. Yes, some poems can rhyme, but others rely on metaphors, imagery, a starter phrase that repeats itself throughout the poem (repetition), and some may not rely on a structure (free verse).  Other poems may not even look like a poem.  Some may look like stories, song lyrics, and letters.
  2. Free write about anything a little each day. Writing is just a muscle that we have to exercise.
  3. Be mindful!  Mindfulness is all about being in the here and now by observing and using our 5 senses.  When writing is becoming more familiar then start challenging yourself to be descriptive in your writing.
  4. Prompt to help: write non-stop for 3 minutes.  It can be about anything or random thoughts that come to your mind, but don’t let the writing utensil stop moving.  If this becomes easy then increase it by a minute.

Connect Writing with Moving

  1. Listen to your body:  our bodies reacts to everything.  As mentioned above, we can feel this with body tension but also when our heart rate increases, our breath changes, and when we have a strange urge to move our bodies in a certain way (it’s actually not strange at all).  To build this awareness we have to first slow down and pay attention.
  2. Notice how you feel (in your body and emotions) when you read specific pieces of poetry.
  3. Find a safe and comfortable spot for yourself, search for a poem that is read aloud on YouTube, and feel what it is like to let your body react and move to it.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be dance-like.  It can be a jump, a stomp, or a body stretch.

Here is one example of how students from Morton’s Dance Center danced to a spoken word poem



Marlin M. Jenkins

Dancing Poetry

Poetry Foundation


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