Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie

three facets of silence in dance education
Karen Duplisea

When I am ready to start class, like the silent recognition between conductor and orchestra the moment before the concert begins, I walk up to the front of the room and stand, quietly facing the dancers. As the students see me do this, they quickly rise and find a space to inhabit in the room; all bags, extraneous clothing, and accoutrements put to the side. There are a few moments of settling, a collective “pregnant pause” of silence and calm during which I take the time to meet their gaze. Then, we begin.

In an ideal world, this would be understood as the approach to a class. Alas, it is not, so my first task with incoming university dance students is to introduce them to this moment of silence. Coming out of high school and dance school curriculum, this practice is foreign to most. It takes a few classes until it is instilled, but it is well worth the time, as it brings the students consciously and collectively to the “threshold to train”:

. . . the beauty of silence. As with the rotation of a diamond, the more we rotate silence, the more we realize the many ways it can bring new light into our lives.

– Eugene F. Hemrick

Silence is a powerful device in the arts. The threshold of silence I utilize in both technique and improvisation class signals our point of departure or line of demarcation. Dance training takes place outside the realm of normal everyday experience and, in order to do this, we need to leave behind our everyday behaviours, the regular stuff of life, cross over the threshold into the liminal in-between realm of perception and experience. This initial silence grants us a moment in time, in the body, to acknowledge the ritual of class and to acknowledge our respect for the art form.

In the second half of class, when students are applying my technique and performance instructions into longer movement phrases across the floor, I ask the accompanist to cut out of the music for a number of bars as a means of forcing the students to think about how to use the silence. The silence may encourage the dancer to reinforce the rhythm, sharpen the focus, and consider the amount of force driving the movement in order to maintain the strength of the intention and sustain the momentum.

Silence is suddenly magnified through movement

Contrary to its common definition, silence in dance does not mean “to curtail the expression of,” but rather is used to enhance movement or emphasize expression. It also allows for some space or freedom to improvise as each dancer interprets and performs the silence. Those few bars of silence have the potential to stand out in relief through the dancers’ manipulation of time, physical space, energy, and intention. Because dance is so strongly perceived as a form of communication, the silences we experience aurally also have the capacity to punctuate and illuminate communication in movement.

In the last few years, I have incorporated a third facet of silence by way of a formalized closure to my Modern Dance technique class. Similar to the révérence used at the end of a ballet class, I have instructed my accompanists to fade out the music shortly before the end of a ritual movement phrase that serves both to cool down the dancers and acknowledge all who are present. In addition to providing the threshold back into normal time and space for the dancers, the sustained stillness enhances the respect for the live music, for the musician’s artistry. This final stillness is alive with the tension accumulated over the course of the last 90 minutes, and is resolved moments later with applause, which officially closes the class.

In Western culture, where ritual has been diminished, these dance class rituals of silence strengthen the significance of ritual so that it may come to have meaning not only within the context of my class, but in the larger context of recognizing other portals in our daily lives. Silence in dance class becomes a pivotal moment in the dancer’s day: in a dancer’s life.


Work Cited:

 Hemrick, Eugene F. (1999). The promise of virtue. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press.