"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." This quote, usually attributed to the comedian Steve Martin, wouldn't sit too well with Virginia Hartley. A dance teacher at Dubai English Speaking School, she is a firm believer in the principle that it's not only possible to dance about architecture, but also about geography, maths, science and English literature. For the past 16 years, she has been pushing to introduce this theory into local schools, to establish dance as an integrated, integral part of academic curricula. Text books may be a key part of the learning process, Hartley argues, but so too is a good wriggle.
On the surface, there's nothing unusual about what Hartley does. In schools across the UAE, you'll find kids practising pirouettes to the tinny strains of portable iPod players. For the most part, though, dance is seen either as an adjunct of PE or as a discipline in its own right. What makes her stand out is that she doesn't view dance as something students might do before or after a history lesson. Her mission is to make dance a part of that lesson.
"I'm not teaching kids to dance," she says. "What I want to do is to use dance to supplement what they learn in the classroom. You have to remember that children learn in different ways - orally, visually or kinesthetically. Dance is a good way to access kinesthetic learners, children who learn through doing." There are oblique precedents to her approach. The popularity of the so-called Brain Gym movement, whose underlying premise is that cortical function can be enhanced through the repetition of certain physical exercises, has snowballed in recent years. Then there's the stuff your grandmother might have told you: exercise makes you happier, healthier and more alert. What Hartley is proposing is something different, though, something broader and more ambitious.
Her idea, put simply, is that children tend to grasp basic principles more firmly when movement is involved. On a recent morning, she demonstrated this principle, leading children through a routine that saw them, in a series of exaggerated movements, making their way through a jungle - ducking beneath overhanging branches, stepping high to avoid crocodiles, wiping their sweaty brows, wading laboriously through sticky swamps. Hartley believes that this sort of play provides valuable reinforcement to the material these children may have learnt in class about the terrain, climate and wildlife associated with the jungle environment.
The children Hartley works with are generally aged between four and seven, though she doesn't rule out the possibility of working with older pupils. In fact, she believes her movement-based teaching methods to be well suited to students who have progressed from ABCs to more challenging and abstract concepts. "Think about it in terms of a word such as speed," she says, which is difficult for anyone to truly understand until they've experienced the sensation of going fast. She goes on to argue that even relatively complex scientific principles - such as mass and surface tension - can be explored through dance. "We'll talk about a balloon, look at it, describe it," she says of her students. "Then they'll do things like flop to the floor like a balloon without air, grow larger as I blow it up and then pop."
On a more tangible level, Hartley uses dance to explore things like cultural identity. "Dance is a superb way of looking at histories and traditions, because it's a common language," she says. She also uses movement to help children develop their linguistic abilities - by having them skitter like a spider, say, or slither like a snake. Mathematical concepts such as odd or even numbers, meanwhile, are addressed by having children arrange and rearrange themselves into groups. She has even taken a stab at dancing about architecture. "Yes," she says, "we've done houses."
Hartley, as might be expected, is a very popular figure with her students. As a rule, children tend to be happier trudging through pretend swamps than studying Amazonian rainfall charts. It has, however, been a little more difficult to win over some of her peers. "A lot of teachers are hesitant about dance," she explains. "They see it as frivolous." To a large degree, she has overcome such scepticism at her own school - she has, after all, been teaching there for 12 years now - but she is acutely aware that having her ideas accepted on a broader level will be difficult. "I'd like to see this adopted at schools across the UAE," she says. "But that's not likely to happen soon."
Part of the problem facing Hartley is the fact that her methods do not readily lend themselves to objective verification - even for her, this is more of an intuitive thing. Ruba Tabari, an educational psychologist at the Dubai Community Health Centre, says that the lack of scientific data precludes her from giving Hartley or her methods any kind of explicit endorsement. The best Tabari can offer, in fact, is this: "If it doesn't do any harm, why not try it?" An even trickier hurdle, however, is the sheer weight of conventional wisdom that has built up over hundreds of years and that tells us that education necessarily involves books and desks and blackboards.
Still, Hartley does have her sympathisers. Carmen Benton, a Dubai-based kindergarten teacher, argues that children, like all young animals, are hard-wired to learn about the world through play. "My pet peeve is the way schools force academic subjects on young children," she says. "You see kids sitting in these little boxes, in orderly rows like in Victorian times, their textbooks before them. I think the current approach is doing children a disservice."
While Benton allows that the efficacy of Hartley's methods might be hard to prove, she insists that anecdotal evidence is on her side. "People think that dance takes time away from important things such as reading and writing," she says. "But if you look at certain Scandinavian countries, where they put more emphasis on these kinds of physical pursuits, you'll see they get higher academic scores than countries that don't. In Finland, the kids are dancing and they're doing great."