A Curriculum for Self-Discovery, Empathy, and Creative Leadership
by Arianne MacBean, MFA Dance Program, Oakwood School, North Hollywood, CA
Creative leadership in education can mean many things.
Min Basadur (2004) explained that “[creative] leadership
has less to do with matching the ‘right’ traits or behaviors
to the ‘right’ situation and more to do with how
leaders involve others in thinking together in innovative
ways” (103). Effective creative leaders are able to assist individuals in honoring and then integrating their differing
problem-solving styles so that they are continuously seeking,
clarifying, solving, and enacting solutions in fresh and pioneering ways (Basadur 2004). Creative leadership also relies
on authenticity, an embodied sense of self, both in the leader
and in those seeking to be led (Ladkin and Taylor 2009).
Essentially, creative leadership requires the ability to value
diverse perspectives and ways of thinking as well as a keen
sense of self-awareness to find and implement innovative
solutions to problems.
These components of creative leadership are naturally
addressed in dance curricula that provide opportunities for
discovery, thinking cooperatively, constructing novel elucidations, and authentic embodiment of the self. This article discusses an approach to developing creative leadership in
P–12 students by utilizing deductive and inductive reasoning
in relationship to diversity within embodied learning experiences.
Through participating in these experiences, students
learn to respect diverse perspectives, use different ways to
solve problems, and develop empathy.
Often when we hear the word diversity, we relate it to
types or groups of people rather than to individuals. It is easy
to connect diversity with the core identifiers, which include
age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic
status (Independent School Diversity Network n.d.),
but these core identifiers often isolate and separate us from
each other. When we unpack the notion of diversity within
a community, what we pull out is the need to safely include
varying perspectives (Miller 2012). In this way, diversity is not an external entity or a label—it is a way of being. It is as if instead of focusing on one shape or color in a kaleidoscope, we embrace the whole prism, and we honor how each piece contributes to a complicated and beautiful whole.
When diversity moves away from labels and becomes a way of acknowledging and accepting multiple points of view, our collective diversity is a profound human connector.
We discover and appreciate diversity among us if we are able to discover and appreciate diversity within ourselves.
Creative leadership relies on flexible, attuned responses to
moment-to-moment problems. Therefore, redefining diversity
to focus on diverse perspectives lays the groundwork
for developing creative leadership. Armed with each individual’s experiences, students and teachers can collectively lead each other toward empathy. With a progressive dance curriculum that remains relevant to our diverse student population, dance educators can determine themes that are important to students and draw connections to the wider world. The movement of students’ bodies leads them toward understanding course content, each other, and expanded perspectives. Students engage their imagination to self-guide their community toward new definitions of what their world is and can be.
If we consider diversity as a collection of perspectives within a community, we must also imagine there are multiple perspectives within the individual. Each of us has many facets to our identity. One, or even two, core identifiers do not define us. In fact, a whole new list of identifiers becomes required when we redefine diversity. This list can be created from the ground up by the students themselves. It might include some traditional terms, but it might also feature more abstract or nondiscursive concepts.
In fact, the class could even create new words that they feel
describe themselves better—especially after movement explorations.
Another way to encourage an acceptance of diverse perspectives in the classroom is to acknowledge our own complex identities as teachers and to share them with our students. When we acknowledge and share the complexity of who we are with our students, we make it easier for them to accept their whole selves as well. We begin to appreciate our own responsibility in creating a safe zone for diverse perspectives because we have to do it for our own multiple selves. In this way, dance educators can teach creative leadership by example. Diversity work and creative leadership are about creating a safe, inclusive environment where everyone—teachers, too—have the freedom to be complex and in progress.
Diversity can be a way of being, and knowledge can act that way as well. Embodied knowledge is when the knowing subject is the body itself, not the mind (Wilson 2002). It is not about memorizing facts, making connections, or applying information to build something new.
It is when we discover something new through a kinesthetic
“A-ha!” moment. Highlighting the development of embodied
knowledge through dance can help students achieve
greater authenticity, a deeper understanding of a topic, and
It is difficult to deny the power of embodied knowledge.
There is a story that perfectly illustrates how this kind of
kinesthetic understanding is a powerful tool in the classroom.
It was seventh grade and I was studying American
History. My teacher, Mrs. Gordon, asked us to open our
textbooks, and she began to read about the invention of the
cotton gin. As she read, the words became a web of lines
in front of me. As she continued, she wrote key words on
the board about the political, social, economic, and environmental significance of this monumental shift in U.S.
industry. But the experience in the room was one of disconnect.
Sensing this unease, Mrs. Gordon turned around to
face us. She smiled and said softly but firmly, “Please stand
up. Now, I would like you to bend your knees and reach
toward the ground as if you were trying to pick cotton from a
low bush.”We followed her directions, crouching toward the
linoleum floor. “Now, I want you to freeze in this position
and hold it for two minutes.”
While we were reminded to stay frozen in this position
standing crouched by our desks, Mrs. Gordon painted the
scene for us.
Imagine that it is 102 degrees. Imagine that the cotton has made
your hands raw from the sticky embedded seeds. You are not
allowed to speak. You are not allowed to get up. You are not
allowed to speak or even look around. Hold your position,
When the two minutes were over, she said, “You may stand.
Now. Imagine you had to do that for ten hours a day for
no money, so that slave owners could keep feeding that cotton
gin.” The entire class stood amazed. We looked around
the room at each other. We rubbed our backs. We had just
gained knowledge in our bodies, a kinesthetic empathy that was more profound than words on a page or blackboard. Not
until we made the physical connection did we fully understand
the weight (literally and figuratively) of this moment
To categorize movement in an English class, or in Mrs.
Gordon’s case, a social studies class, it can be helpful to
employ designations used in science: deductive and inductive.
These different approaches to reasoning provide maps
where the whole brain is active in making choices. This is
particularly important when considering creative leadership.
There is more than one way to get from point A to point B.
Deductive and inductive exercises provide multiple ways to
arrive at a destination—or even ways to arrive at being in the
moment of learning itself.
Deductive reasoning begins with a general statement and
looks at the options to reach a specific inference (Live
Science n.d.). Therefore, deductive movement explorations
are small, one-off exercises that can be inserted within
a larger curricular goal. These exercises can take only a
few minutes, and they offer the class an opportunity to
make an important embodied connection to or empathy
for what they are studying. Inductive reasoning directly
contrasts deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning makes
sweeping statements from precise observations (Live Science
n.d.). Here we use strategic step-by-step exercises that lead
us toward broad observations about our world. Therefore,
inductive movement explorations differ from deductive
explorations in that they begin with deeply personal writing
and movement to lead us into broader understandings.
The ultimate goal for both deductive and inductive reasoning
exercises is to use the kinesthetic experience as a way
to build a bridge from the self to the community using the
course content as a through-line.
The cotton-picking movement exercise I did in seventh
grade is a great example of a deductive movement exploration.
Mrs. Gordon’s general aim was to teach U.S. history
and, specifically, the invention of the cotton gin. She started
with a larger goal and used the movement exploration as a
means to reach a specific kinesthetic connection that supported
this goal. Mrs. Gordon’s model can be used in many
applications and areas of study. Certainly, the act of “taking
on the posture” of characters or figures that students
are studying can be very illuminating. Imagine applying this
strategy while studying a particular historical figure or the
main character in a novel. Ask students to create a bodily
posture that embodies that person. Then ask them to think
about how that character or figure might walk, take a stance,
or make a gesture. This kind of exercise physically connects
students to the person they are studying, and encourages
kinesthetic empathy. A short discussion about the physical
characteristics that are known and described in any research
the students are doing can also fuel this exercise. For example,
when learning about Mahatma Gandhi, students might
mention he was often barefoot and incorporate that into
their movement study. What are other physical things we
know about characters and historical figures that can help us
understand them better?
When teaching systems of power of any kind (federalism,
colonization, the system of checks and balances, shifting
balances of power within the civil rights movement, the
structures inherent in United Nations, and even biology),
there is a simple weight-sharing exercise that can be taught
as a deductive movement exploration.
• Have two students clasp hands and lean away from each
other, sending their weight back.
• Have one student let go and see what happens: The other
student falls. If one element is not equally participating,
the whole cannot exist.
• Have the students return to the weight-sharing pose and
ask them to try to lower to the ground, stand up, travel or
shift back and forth, all the while maintaining the equal
balance between the two bodies.
• Ask them if they can find a way to shift the balance of
power between them so that one student tries to sit while
the other stands and vice versa.
• Ask them to use other body parts to make the connection:
their backs, their heads—still giving and receiving the
weight of the partner so that if one were to walk away, the
other would not be able to complete the task.
• Have them create a symmetrical and an asymmetrical
pose with each person sharing equal weight, and therefore
responsibility, for the success of the image. Discuss how
these constructions apply to various course studies.
With this exercise, students have an opportunity to make a
physical connection to what they are learning, to embody
their knowledge, and to see how their own experience of
“who they are” can shift.
If we return to the notion that diversity is the creation
of a safe environment inclusive of many perspectives, we
can begin to imagine how the actions of two students who
are exploring giving and receiving each others’ weight can
be a catalyst for shared empathy. To have to feel and adjust
to another person’s body weight is a powerful and delicate
maneuvering. We begin to ask our students to dive into
knowing each other kinesthetically and they lead themselves
toward understanding each other socially and culturally.
In doing this work students direct themselves to create a safe
container for their own diversity and lean into the simultaneous
risk and joy of trust. The class witnesses the difficulty or
ease with which students counterbalance each other. We ask
together: Why is it hard to balance my partner? How can we
make it easier? This is creative leadership in action—valuing
and using the authentic experiences in the room to make
Inductive exercises, which move from the personal to
general observations, reason in the opposite direction of
deductive exercises. For these I have borrowed from Scripting
the Body, a student-centered curriculum that correlates writing
and movement exercises that highlight the numerous
dimensions of our identities (MacBean 2001). In it we
address the social constructions that label us regardless of how we define ourselves. We explore how our identity influences
our thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and relationships, and
in doing so, discover connections among us all. In Scripting
the Body, the students are the innovators; the work they
generate through the structure of the exercises becomes
the content we study; and from there, the teacher draws
connections to areas of study.
The following is a short list of inductive movement
explorations from Scripting the Body that support diversity
through self-study. Here we move from the personal into the
communal, from specific experiences toward broad observations.
The exercises provide another method to arrive at a
shifted understanding of diversity within an embodied learning
experience—essential components of creative leadership.
Each exercise has a writing and choreographic component
that relate to each other. The writing component is done
first, followed by the movement component. Some writing
exercises I have created, and others I have borrowed from
teachers who inspired me. All of these are geared toward
illuminating the multiple facets of our selves to draw connections
to each other. Some highlight differences among
individuals; some support finding unity within a group; and
all of the exercises exist to expose the individual’s perspective
to ensure that every person in the room feels seen, heard,
and valued. Here, diversity becomes the tool to shift perspectives,
move each other, and craft fertile ground for evolving
- When You Look at Me. On one side of your paper, write
the heading, “When you look at me, you see . . . .” On the
other side of the page write, “When you look at me, you
don’t see . . . .” Fill the pages with a free write based on
these headings. Circle five words or phrases that stand out
to you for whatever reason. Create a movement for each
word or phrase, and then link them together with transitions.
Have someone read your circled words or phrases
before, during, or after you perform your dance. See how
the spoken text illuminates the movement and vice versa.
Group option: Divide the class into groups of four or
more. Have students teach each other their movement
phrases and create minidances that include solos, duets,
and full-group unison. Have each group decide when and
where they speak text from their writing, the headings, or
both: “When you look at me, you see . . . ” or “When you
look at me, you don’t see . . . .” Discuss what you see and
how this exercise exposes assumptions about who we are
based on what we look like.
- Change. Hold up a clean, flat piece of paper in front
of the class. Crumple it up and put it on a chair in the
middle of the room. Ask students to tell the story of the
paper in writing, and then write about a time in life when
they experienced change, transformation, or a moment of
realization. Individually or in groups, develop movement,
taking inspiration from personal writing, the story about
the paper, or both. Perform these movement phrases
and discuss what commonalities arise when we perform
change. Ask, “Is there a formula for change?” Discuss a
possible formula: Conflict leads to rupture, which leads
to denial, internalization, repair, forward movement, and
so on. Go back to the dances and have students restructure
their pieces using a formula that you have discovered
as a class. Take note of choice of ending. Is there resolution,
or not? Discuss the choices as a means to understand
the different and similar ways we experience change in our
- Beautiful Ugly. Write the most beautiful sentence you
can image. Rewrite it to make it even more beautiful.
Again. And again. And again, until it’s the most beautiful
sentence it can be. Read out loud, all together, all
at once. Memorize your beautiful sentence. Walk around
the room speaking your beautiful sentence over and
over again with everyone speaking at once. Freeze. Walk
around the room speaking your beautiful sentence softly
over and over. Freeze. Walk around the room. One student
says his or her sentence aloud. Walk again. Freeze.
Another student says his or her sentence aloud. Walk
again. Keep doing this until everyone has had a chance
to say his or her sentence out loud. Freeze a final time.
Ask everyone to once again speak his or her sentence out
loud over and over, gradually getting quieter and quieter.
Return to your writing. Write down the most beautiful
sentence that is in your head in that moment. Compare
this to the original sentence. Create one gesture for the
original sentence and one for the last sentence. Then, create
two gestures that work as an antithesis to the first two.
In other words, create a second set of gestures that will be
the opposite of “the most beautiful gestures in the whole
world.” Have students decide what combination of repetition they want to perform their four gestures. Repeat
the first beautiful gesture 20 times then perform the other
three at the very end, or alternate every other gesture
and repeat the whole mix of four, four times. There are a
number of combinations to use, but all gestures must be
integrated and repetition must be incorporated. Discuss
what an ugly dance, or a beautiful dance, looks like. Ask,
“What does it mean to have a common aesthetic? Can we
all agree something is beautiful, or that one thing is more
beautiful than another thing? If not, why?” Discuss why
certain gestures are seen as beautiful or ugly.
- Lost & Found. List five objects you have lost. Choose one
and list the details of the lost object. Be specific, be thorough,
and describe as much as you can about this object,
not just how it looks, but also its importance in your life.
For each descriptive word written, create a movement and
then string them together with transitions. Do not share
with each other what the objects are. After performing,
see if the students can guess the objects. On another day,
have the students bring in an object and have them perform
with it in the space, or have it brought to them
by another student at some point during or at the end
of the dance. Discuss the importance of artifacts in our
lives. Discuss how small things can have great meaning and how things can symbolize more than what they what they are.
- Dance Me. Do a free write with the heading, “My dance is
. . . .” Write about what your ultimate solo dance would
look like, and how it would feel to perform. Circle two
words or phrases that stand out to you for any reason.
With a dark marker, write each one of those words or
phrases on a single sheet of paper, then safety pin one
sheet to your chest and one to your back. Students move
through the dance space improvising off of the words
and phrases that they come into contact with. Students
will dance someone else’s word or phrases facing each
other and behind each other. Have half the class watching
and the other half perform. Discuss how it feels
to have someone “dance you” in front of you where
you can, in turn, “dance him or her.” Discuss what it
feels like to have someone “dance you” when you can’t
see him or her. Discuss what you see as you watch the
improvisations unfold. How much control do we have
when people interpret our words or movements? How
much control do we have over how people interpret who
In conclusion, creative leadership is reliant on visionary
and nuanced approaches to problem solving. Redefining
diversity as a collection of perspectives is the first step
toward real equity and inclusion. Movement experiences
tied to course content can provide opportunities for authentic embodied knowledge and the whole brain to actively engage in learning. Diversity work, and the movement explorations that help tease out the kaleidoscope of multiple perspectives, is always in progress. There is no final destination here. With this work, teachers, too, must lean into discomfort. Not only do we need to share the complexity of
who we are with our students, but depending on our own
comfort level with dance, we need to expand our ideas of
what dance is and can be. The point is to dive into the important work of allowing students the awe of self-discovery in their own terms—with their own words and their own bodies.
In this way, we as teachers facilitate our students’ creative
leadership development and give them the chance to dance
The author would like to acknowledge the phenomenal work of
Linda Rose-Winters, Director of Diversity Programs at Oakwood
School. Her tireless dedication to promoting equity and inclusion
inspired much of the research in this article. Also, the author would like to thank Dr. Richard Brunner, Director of Choral Activities at Oakwood School, for his editing expertise. The author’s colleague, Nathan Clum, who teaches English and creative writing at Oakwood School inNorthHollywood, wrote the writing component of Exercises 2 through 4.
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Ladkin, D., and S. S. Taylor. 2009. Enacting the “true self”: Towards a theory of embodied authentic leadership. The Leadership Quarterly 21:64–74.
Live Science. n.d. Deductive reasoning vs. inductive reasoning. http://www.livescience.com/21569-deduction-vs-induction.html (accessed February 19, 2014).
MacBean, A. 2001. Scripting the body: The simultaneous study of writing
and movement. Journal of Dance Education 1(2):48–54.
Miller, M. D. 2012. Building and sustaining a diverse, inclusive and equitable community. http://blogs.parktudor.org/exploringeducation/2012/08/diversity-school-community-nais/ (accessed February 19, 2014).
Wilson, M. 2002. Theoretical and review articles: Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 9(4):625–36.
the Key to Connection is implemeneted in the framework of Erasmus+: Youth in Action programme – key action 2, Strategic Partnership for exchange experiences