A Cultural Perspective: Thoughts on Dance and Education in Singapore

In the summer of 2017 I travelled over 10,800km across the Indian Ocean from a sunny country called Singapore to embark on an exciting internship with MovementWorks. Over a 6 week period I was able to observe and shadow various sessions at different nurseries and schools led by experienced MovementWorks practitioners.

I’ve have loved every moment of learning how the Developmental Dance Movement® (DDM) programme benefits children of all ages and abilities. In addition I have learned about the special needs community and curriculum in the UK as compared to in Singapore. As a result I would like to discuss my perspective on dance’s role in our society as a Singaporean, as well as how I believe Developmental Dance Movement® would be immensely beneficial to Singapore and all other societies that face similar challenges.

Role of Dance in Singapore’s education system

Similar to the landscape in the United Kingdom (UK), dance in the Singapore education system is positioned as part of the physical education (PE) curriculum (i.e. dance-in-PE), or as an after-school activity; i.e. dance-as-co-curricular activity (CCA) (Chua, 2016). Children are only exposed to dance-in-PE lessons for 30-minute sessions a week (Chua, 2016). Dance-as-CCA takes up a larger proportion of time due to its importance in contributing to earning more CCA points for post-secondary school applications and winning the Singapore Youth Festival competitions for their school (Chua, 2016). Nevertheless, it is underlined with pragmatism and, at the end of the day, is still believed to be supplementary compared to normal school curriculum. Therefore, dance in Singapore is not considered to be significantly beneficial to a child’s development.

So the question now is: why is dance still so lacking in our education system and how can we solve this gaping need?

Dance in Education vs. Dance for Education

Dance has been integrated into our school system for 50 years. However, it is viewed neither as an official subject nor an avenue to develop and improve children’s educational learning. Instead, it is being sidelined as part of a healthy lifestyle ‘life skills’ (similar to PE) and an enrichment and/or recreational activity (Chua, 2016). Singapore has a very result-oriented, exam-focused education system, even at the kindergarten level (Zhang, 2016). As such, it is not surprising that nurseries and kindergartens that are regarded as ‘successful’ and ‘desirable’ by parents are ones that focus on academic preparation for primary school and strict behavioral control (Zhang, 2016). With the support of the pragmatism of parents, you can imagine how irrelevant and ‘useless’ dance lessons are perceived to be in schools and at home. I remember during my time in primary school, we would have mandatory dance lessons every week. While this may seem like an optimistic start, many of us actually did not see dance as an important class to attend, not to mention an extreme lack of enthusiasm due to the absence of any fun. Lessons mostly consisted of structured warm-ups, painful stretching and short choreographies that we had to memorize. They were structured similarly to training sessions for professional dancers, not something for 7-year-old children. Even with a dance background from the age of 3, I, along with many of my peers, disliked dance lessons.

Many educators do not understand the full extent of how dance can actually help with a more holistic development in children. This trend is common, not only the UK and Singapore, but also many other societies and I find it saddening considering the increasing amount of scientific literature showing that the tools of dance contribute to many aspects of a child’s development – verbal/linguistic, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal/social and intrapersonal (Golding et al, 2016). An earlier Singaporean study has revealed that a supportive and structured dance curriculum is capable of enhancing children’s creative thinking and problem solving skills, movement vocabulary, linguistic abilities, understanding of self and environment (Leong & Hunt, 2006). I think this is ironic considering how education in Singapore is so deeply rooted in pragmatism and efficiency – you would think they would try to employ a single activity for multiple purposes.

I believe that this is due to the lack of awareness and knowledge about the remarkable effects dance can have on all aspects of the physical, cognitive and social development of children. After witnessing the wonders of Developmental Dance Movement® through my 6 weeks of internship with MovementWorks, I fully intend to bring back my knowledge and experiences to the local scene in hopes of creating greater insight and advocacy. 

A Desire to Bring MovementWorks to Singapore

MovementWorks’ DDM programme stands out from others because the foundation is based on educational theory and psychological principles, as well as the benefits of artistic practice, enjoyment and general exercise. Also, the target age group early childhood years (ages 3-7) is the most crucial period for laying down a solid foundation in physical development, associated cognitive development and language learning. The 36-week programme is intentionally crafted to support the school curriculum, as well as fully adaptable to suit the abilities of each student. Every activity in the 45-minute class is highly layered with objectives to improve the physical, cognitive and social abilities of the children simultaneously. For example, children are asked initially to learn a dance alone and later progress to partnering up with a friend. This dance activity firstly allows the children to learn physically how to master fundamental movements while negotiating space as well as developing an enhanced awareness of the body. They also incorporate specific cross-body movement patterns in the form of the heel-and-toe actions, clapping and linking arms, encouraging the development of both right and left brain hemispheres and greater connection across the corpus callosum (otherwise known as the bridge between the two brains). Copying the practitioner and dancing with a partner requires the child to be socially engaged through eye contact and mirroring of another’s moves. In this single exercise, the child is able to improve in all three crucial aspects of their development. Similar to many skeptics out there, I initially thought such simple moves would come naturally and instinctively to most children. However, from my observation of different classes throughout my internship, the children do struggle significantly initially. Many of them find it difficult to perform some essential movement patterns as well as accurately mirror the instructor and their friends. Nevertheless, the learning abilities of these children should not be underestimated. I have personally witnessed many of them improving by leaps and bounds over just a few weeks. More impressive was how such breakthroughs were not merely the result of familiarity of the exercise! Even when the level of difficulty is scaffolded from solo dancing to partner dancing, their physical, cognitive and social improvements were still retained!

As an intern from Singapore, it is natural for me to draw comparisons from what I have seen in the UK versus back in my home country, and to develop a desire to bring this programme back to help my own people. I believe that the DDM programme has benefits that would be particularly pertinent to the current gaps in the Singapore education system. These gaps include 1) Lack of creativity and freedom of expression, 2) Overdependence on technology and lack of physical activity, and 3) Multiculturalism and immigration.

Lack of Creativity and Freedom of Expression

Compared to the UK, Asians tend to be less direct in expressing feelings and opinions. Moreover, an authoritarian, teacher-centered approach is common in the local education system in Singapore (Chua, 2016). Teachers tend to adopt a top-down “do as I say” mindset, along with a societal focus on efficiency and pragmatism (Chua, 2016). As such, many children, including myself, developed a resistance towards taking the less-trodden path. We tend to believe that there is always a single “correct” answer for every problem. In my experience, all of my classes fall silent when asked questions like “What do you think”? Many of us even take pride in being convergent instead of creative, cautious instead of explorative. But in this day and age, where entrepreneurship and critical thinking are prized, can we really afford to lose our abilities to think outside the box?

This is how I see DDM comes into play (pun not intended)! The programme allows children to indulge in elements of fantasy and curiosity in the form of play, but within a clear structure. They are allowed to make creative choices at every turn of the session, which is especially helpful for children who are more reserved or find difficulty with going wild with their imagination. For example they have freedom to showcase their individuality and personalities through a free-and-easy celebratory dance after finishing a structured movement game. Many of the children in my observed classes were initially hesitant to show off their unique personality in this way however, when the activities were complemented with verbal and physical positive reinforcements such as “Excellent!” or ‘high-fives’, the children slowly gain confidence in freely expressing themselves through dance and movement. They even start supporting and cheering each other on during the activities as the approach fosters an open and safe environment for them to be creative and make mistakes (although really, there is no right and wrong in the first place).

Overdependence on Technology & Lack of Physical Activity

Many of the Singaporean children today are born into a world of smartphones, iPads, TVs, X-Box and other technology. They are used to being thrown to virtual entertainment when their parents are too busy or distracted to spend quality time with them. Sometimes, even their parents are too preoccupied by their own devices. Gone are my childhood days of swings in the playground and bike races in the park. Unfortunately, these habits have bred a young generation who are impatient, attention-deficient and physically inactive.

So how does DDM fit into the picture? The most obvious and tangible result will be more opportunities for young children to move. While the children bend down, skip around and swing about during the DDM classes, not only do they work their muscles, they also improve their body awareness and coordination. Some of the children in my observed classes have trouble differentiating between their right and left sides. Others find it challenging to understand where the boundaries lie between their own bodies and their physical environment (for example, they cannot tell the difference between moving their limbs on the floor versus in the air when lying down). These skills can definitely be trained! I have witnessed children who initially were unable to perform a complex left to right movement sequence but when given the chance to practice, they quickly picked it up in a matter of weeks!

In addition, ironic as it sounds, while the programme focuses a lot on “doing”, it also teaches the children the fine art of ‘immobility’. Because of the lack of opportunities to expend their energy in their everyday lives, some of these children are constantly hyperactive and disruptive in the classroom. If they do not possess the learned skill to sit still, and concentrate how can they pay attention to what is being taught in a formal style class? You can only imagine how this will affect the children’s learning ability as they move up to higher-level grades. So the DDM session structure always ends with a ‘cool down’ where the children are given the opportunity to learn how to remain still and calm for an extended period. From a Psychology student perspective, this enhances children’s inhibitory control or self-regulation, which potentially facilitates better academic and social success as well.

Presence of Mixed Education System

At the current moment, Singapore prides itself in a rich multicultural and multiracial society, with a large pool of immigrants from all over the world. While English remains as the common first language in the country, children do learn multiple languages, including their mother tongue languages (i.e. Mandarin/Chinese, Malay or Tamil) in mainstream schools, as well as various native languages originating from their country of heritage. This results in many children, especially new immigrants, facing challenges when picking up fluent English in schools. However, the efficacy of DDM lies in the use of non-verbal approaches – dance and movement. Even without explicitly understanding the verbal instructions given, the children are still able to participate in the class by closely adhering to clear kinesthetic instruction and enhance their understanding through following the movements and mirroring the motions. The use of rhythm and rhyme also enhances the basic language skills of the children, by teaching them language in a fun and engaging way. Songs are especially curated to match the dance activities and use clear simple English with augmented support through signing that improves the children’s listening skills and draws meaningful associations to the movements and imageries. Therefore, DDM makes learning easier and more accessible to children from all walks of life, fitting for the diverse social fabric in Singapore.

The DDM instructors use a special method of supportive communication called Makaton. Makaton is a communication tool that uses movement gestures and visual symbols to enhance the development of spoken language. It is useful when children have no or limited speech abilities whether that be due to age appropriate development, multiple language processing or specific cognitive delay. In my observed classes, for example, some of the children had difficulty understanding simple instructions such as “sit down”. In this case the signing of “sit down” (1 palm placed one on top of the top side of the other hand with a downward action) is used to illustrate the intention. I noticed the children also enact the signing while they go to sit down which assists all with the association and the meaning. After a few weeks of using the signing for these basic instructions, I noticed that the children associated the signs with the spoken instructions and were able to understand better what to do. For the older classes who have a stronger grasp of language, Makaton was gradually reduced and spoken English was primarily used instead. Therefore, Makaton is used to support development of language relative to the situation and based on the language level and needs.

With English as the first language used in Singapore, Makaton can be easily implemented into our early childhood education system. However, as English is used more commonly as the language of instruction and communication, traditional or cultural languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil are facing “extinction”. If Mandarin, Malay and Tamil versions of Makaton could be developed locally, it would really help improve the attitudes and abilities of the children in their bilingualism development.

Limitations of introducing DDM to Singapore

There are definitely some differences between Singapore and UK that would potentially hinder the implementation of such a wonderful programme locally. One potential problem is that there is no public provision of preschool education. Many childcare settings and preschools in Singapore are run by private providers (including religious bodies and community organizations). Therefore, there is no standardized curriculum nationwide for early childhood education, and plans to implement the DDM programme in all preschools will be fairly challenging. Furthermore, preschool is also not mandatory, so not every Singaporean child will be blessed with this wonderful growth opportunity. Unlike that of the UK system, there is no free provision of preschool education at all and this might deter parents from sending their children to preschools if they cannot afford to do so. Many children from less fortunate families will probably not even have access to quality early education programmes! However, while it may take an extra effort to successfully implement DDM into our early childcare centers, I believe that it is still possible and worthwhile as the value of the programme far exceeds the cost.

In the next part, I will be sharing my experience of MovementWorks’ delivery of Autism Movement Therapy® (AMT) program.

MovementWorks with Special Needs

About Autism Movement Therapy (AMT)

MovementWorks has a qualified and experienced team of AMT practitioners. AMT is a structured music and dance program designed by Joanne Lara for the Autism Spectrum (ASD) community. The program is based on sensory integration techniques and Positive Behavior Support (PSB) strategies, to help individuals with ASD with their speech/language, social and academic development. MovementWorks’ Creative Director, Ali Golding, has collaborated with Joanne Lara extensively to bring AMT from Los Angeles to the UK special needs community. During my internship, I shadowed MovementWorks practitioners as they taught AMT classes in special schools and observed how the AMT method really benefitted the children in many ways. I also was given opportunity to obtain my AMT Level II certification during my term in London. These experiences have inspired me to one day introduce AMT to the Singaporean special needs setting, be it in schools or to the community.

AMT encompasses a prescribed number of movement sequences, which provide the students with structure and familiarity over the weeks. The method organizes the environment and activities to help the students understand what is expected of them and distinguish relevant information in order to improve baseline skills that they find most difficult. This helps to reduce their stress and anxiety, and they are more motivated to complete their routines from start to end. The specific movement sequences focus on cross-body coordination and musical structure that aims to strengthen the corpus callosum (i.e. the connections between the right and left brain). Did you know that Einstein’s brain was found to have a significantly thicker and more developed corpus callosum than the average human? AMT movement and music training works both hemispheres simultaneously, allowing students to make better connections with their environment and to think more efficiently. Of course, we can’t expect these changes to occur overnight; the progress takes time, sometimes months or even years, to be observable. However in the 5 weeks I was shadowing one of the ASD schools, I could already see some noticeable changes in the children’s abilities. One girl, who initially was unable to perform any peripheral movements, was able to skip in a circle with some guidance. Another boy, who at first was unresponsive to the verbal instructions, suddenly performed the activity perfectly by being able to pair sounds and movements together to create his own unique pattern which is of course the beginning blocks of speech and language communication. Everyone sitting in the circle was so delighted that they cheered with glee, and one of the teachers was so moved she started tearing up! Other improvements included physical and social progressions like learning to skip by lifting one’s legs off the ground and making prolonged eye contact (non-verbal communication) with a partner. I was not expecting to see any significant changes during my internship with MovementWorks as the practitioners cautioned me that it was indeed quite a short period of time. However, I must admit that I was incredibly blessed to have witnessed these little miracles personally, and am very impressed with the results achieved by AMT.

Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is an approach that underlies AMT, which helps the students to be motivated to perform well and diminishes more challenging behaviors. Responsive behavior in session is rewarded and disruptive behavior ignored or altered into a positive. Any response is generally acknowledged, and used often to show all the students how that can be progressed. Often when we try to elicit responses from the children in the context of a game, they can at first be either completely unresponsive or engage in their own repetitive behaviors such as ticks, snapping their fingers or hitting their head, disconnected from the actual activity. These kinds of behaviors associated with ASD serve a function and are often used to provide some sort of sensory stimulation or another way to cope with the overwhelming stimulation from the environment. However, we reinforce and validate this response, which can be the starting point to greater communication.

Bringing the MovementWorks approaches to Singapore

1 in 150 children in Singapore are diagnosed with ASD, a higher rate than global statistics of 1 in 160 children as revealed by the World Health Organization (WHO) (Goy & Tai, 2016). Such high rates are alarming, and there is an urgent need for plans to really support the needs of these individuals. As far as I know, there are few special needs schools that actually employ dance and movement in their curriculum. However, some do have programs that are very much aligned with the ideas behind AMT, and no doubt AMT will be a great addition to them!

The WeCAN Early Intervention Program (EIP) was developed for children with ASD between ages 18 months and 6 years, to help them gain functional and independent skills. They also employ PBS as a guiding principle and focus on the development of spontaneous communication and social skills. However, older children aged 7 and above are not provided any successful intervention programs. Not only does AMT addresses this gap but encompasses the additional elements of music, dance and fun, which are appealing to all children, no matter their level of need. This can be used in complementary ways with DDM. I remember walking into an ASD nursery classroom to see children randomly jumping up and down, climbing on furniture, running about and screaming on the floor. These may seem scary at first, but they are coping strategies used to deal with the sensory overload that they are hit with by everything around them. Now imagine asking these children to then sit down and concentrate on the teacher and the learning materials; it is near to an impossible task to even get them to stay in the same spot for more than a minute. Therefore, using DDM/AMT approach has a double impact by helping these students to build up their skills and resilience and knowledge while allowing them to engage in sensory coping mechanism through dance and movement! DDM and AMT provides a structure in the classroom that encourages a grounded calm of moving with purpose and control, movement-based activities aimed at strengthening the brain-body connection, techniques that enhance language acquisition and social communication skills, and allow for release of energy and self expression. DDM aimed at younger children encompasses more theatrical and overtly fun activities, but still within a set structure. In both methods the students try their hand at and have fun creating imaginative worlds, an area that individuals with ASD usually have difficulty with. Therefore, both AMT and DDM would be useful for ASD children in the Singaporean setting.

However, the great challenge is that Singaporean schools still aren’t too big on recognizing dance and movement as a form of education or therapy. And this might be an even bigger obstacle for special schools, which are facing even more budget restraints and pressures from parents than mainstream schools. Parents are even more anxious about their child’s progress in school, and whether they will be able to cope with the examination system. Dance might just be pushed aside once again as merely a leisure activity, and it is likely to be removed from the curriculum with the budget cuts. It seems that a change in mindset is due to try to bring AMT and DDM into the Singaporean education setting. Maybe with more scientific evidence from MovementWorks’ upcoming research project with Greenwich University, as well as blog posts such as this, we may be able to raise greater awareness with acknowledging that this approach with dance and movement does have very significant benefits to early and special education. So thank you for reading my blog, following my journey and showing support to MovementWorks. Hopefully, it is through the people like yourself, that we will garner the support to bring these amazing programs to every school in the world.

Please sign up to the newsletter and help spread the Movement Mission.

References

Chua, J. (2016). Dance education in Singapore: Policy, discourse, and practice. Arts Education

Policy Review, 1-19.

Golding, A., Boes, C., Nordin-Bates, S. (2016). Investigating learning through developmental dance movement as a kinesthetic tool in the Early Years Foundation Stage. Research in dance education, 17(3), 235-267

Goy, P., & Tai, J. (2016, December 24). 1 in 150 children in Singapore has autism. Retrieved

August 2017 from  http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/1-in-150-children-in-singapore-has-autism

Leong, L.K. & Hunt, P. (2006). Creative dance: Singapore children’s creative thinking and

problem‐solving responses. Research in dance education, 7(1), 35-65.

Zhang, K. C. (2016). Exploring Options in Early Childhood Care in Singapore: Programs and

Roles. Childhood Education, 92(5), 377-382.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.