Kids like to move. And anyone that’s really observed them in the rambunctious fun of play knows that’s also when they’re most receptive to new information. Dance is a particularly unique form of play, because, even though it’s one of the most natural things we can do with our bodies, it’s also considered a discipline, an art and an exercise. And it might be one of the most powerful, if unexplored, tools for learning that we have.
In fact, a research project by the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO) in 2013 concluded, “The evidence has been growing for the ways in which dance impacts learning, as a part of the arts, and as a separate and unique discipline. Much of the evidence is tantalizing and promising, and should be further developed. Indications exist that the instrumental use of dance is powerful and long-lasting, despite the fact that the mode used is nonverbal and is seen as an example of far transfer… It would appear that the evidence of the efficacy of embodied learning is significant and worthy of further investigation.”
Rebecca Davis understood all of this intuitively, even as a child. “I remember going into the [dance] studio and working on my physicality and execution of all these moves,” she says. “And then I remember going into class and being expected to sit down and be still so I could work on my brain. It always seemed counter-productive to me that both of these types of learning would be separate and done in isolation of each other. I always thought it should be combined in the same environment.”
This is part of the reason why Davis founded MindLeaps just after the turn of the decade. With programs in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Guinea, the non-profit “leverages dance to attract programs for street children and out-of- school youth to safe centers in post-conflict and developing countries,” and “uses a kinesthetic-based curriculum to improve the cognitive skills of youth to ensure they can go to school, enter the workplace and leap forward in life.”
In short, MindLeaps provides kids in need with their ticket to the future: education. But they know that traumatized children dealing with displacement from conflict, broken families and broken economies aren’t the best candidates for sitting down in a classroom and applying themselves scholastically. America has a more sedentary culture, but in these developing nations, movement is more a part of everyday life, so it’s only natural for dance to be a bridge to learning.
How MindLeaps Works
In Rwanda alone, there are 7,000 homeless children living in the capital city of Kigali. They are illiterate, struggling to eat and have a very limited future. When MindLeaps announces a dance program in the community, word quickly spreads on the streets for the opportunity to enjoy a fun dance class. But really, it’s a carefully crafted curriculum in disguise.
Learning and executing dance moves can be a thrill, sure, but it also has the added benefit of improving cognitive function and developing basic intelligences that have been stunted by their harsh environment. In no time, MindLeaps students are “caught up” with normal development standards and able to take on higher levels of learning, such as reading and vocational skills. The ultimate goal is to break these individual cycles of poverty so these kids can successfully integrate with the mainstream education system, and later, the workforce.
One of the most emblematic stories of how MindLeaps can transform lives is embodied by a boy named Patrick. No one knows why – maybe it was post-genocide trauma, maybe it was something else – but Patrick’s father decided to disown his family when the boy was only 11 years old. Around the same time, Patrick’s mother was diagnosed with HIV, and he was forced to take to the streets and beg and steal food in order to provide for his dying mother and younger siblings. Even the most well-raised child couldn’t last long in that kind of environment.
Fortunately, through word of mouth, he found his way to MindLeaps.
“The first day I taught him, he was just hitting me non-stop,” Davis says. “I think I ended up with a couple of bruises. All of the teachers struggled. We used to talk after class and say, ‘We hope he doesn’t come back tomorrow.’” Davis returned to the US, but when she came back to Rwanda for a followup visit, she was surprised to see Patrick was still in the program. And his behavior had markedly improved. He was actually interacting with the teachers and other students in a civil manner. On her next followup, she found Patrick even standing at the front of the class and showing the other kids how to execute certain moves. Davis couldn’t believe it. The teachers explained to her, “Now he has a place in the world. He thinks his place is leading the dance class.”
MindLeaps sponsored Patrick for boarding school and he immediately ended up in the top 20 percent of the class. Now, at fifteen, he’s trying to figure out how to sponsor his brothers and sisters for boarding school. “Even as teachers we had almost given up on him,” Davis says. “But that just shows how important it is to remember that every kid can change.”
Making the Leap
Davis grew up in Vancouver in a family that supported both the arts and scholastic pursuits. While her sister was academically-minded, Davis was at her best in the dance studio, learning moves and developing her mind-body connection. But that’s not to say she was bad at school by any means. She is a two-time Fulbright scholar and summa cum laude graduate of Temple University. And dance is what helped her get there.
“I don’t know exactly where it came from,” Davis explains, “But in some way, I was taught that if you see something you don’t like in the world, it’s your responsibility to go out and change it.” Feeling hemmed in by these curriculums that isolated her body from her mind, rather than resigning to the status quo, Davis took her education into her own hands as much as possible. She used her acuity in the dance studio to fuel her thirst for knowledge in the classroom, and a disciplined, academically studious rigour from the classroom to push her dance to greater and greater heights. She was classically trained in the Russian Vaganova method of ballet while studying in Russia, and received a degree in choreography from The Saint Petersburg Conservatory under the tutelage of Nikolai Boyarchikov.
The success-fueling mind-body connection Davis fostered in her own life inspired her to form the Rebecca Davis Dance Company and put her knowledge and insight to work with other people. She enjoyed a globe-trotting career as a choreographer, with work in Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda and Guinea. And it’s there she first became aware of how pervasive youth homelessness and poverty was in these societies. As she volunteered with some of the children in these communities, and saw how dance was able to engage them where words and teaching couldn’t, an idea began to form. And seeing a problem that so badly needed to be fixed in this world, Rebecca couldn’t help but transition her dance company into the MindLeaps non-profit just after the turn of the decade. She even pursued and earned a Masters in International Relations to prepare for her new leadership role.
“Most people talk about going after what you’re best at. But I always have the vision of what I want to do first, then I figure out what I need to learn in order to accomplish it,” she explains. “I guess that’s the opposite of what most people do.”
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda and Guinea alone, MindLeaps has broken the cycle of poverty for thousands of kids, and their programs in these countries grow every year. As awareness (and success) for MindLeaps grows, now, one of the most common questions Davis is asked is when a program like this will come to the US. What kind of impact could MindLeaps’ curriculum have on Western children? Much research still needs to be done on how much application a dance-heavy curriculum could have, including whether it’s most beneficial for kinetic learners, or the general population. But if the MindLeaps program can so radically change the lives of children in post-conflict countries, it’s bound to have something to offer everyone.