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Learning French While Dancing? Students Make the Leap With Panache

It's 9 a.m., and two Bennington College students, Sasha Cuccinciello and Margaret Eisenberg, begin walking across a room, their arms carving imaginary waves, heads bobbing. Suddenly they flop to the floor, "swimming" (crawling) on their bellies.

As they go, the two chant: "J'aime les fleurs qui nagent avec les poissons," or in English: "I like flowers swimming with fish."

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If this all sounds a bit unusual, it is.

Even out here on higher education's high frontier, the notion of simultaneous dance and French instruction for students with disparate backgrounds is an audacious leap into the blue - one of the most radical experiments in cross-disciplinary teaching in the United States.

But its creators also say it represents hope for the millions who trudge through standard language training struggling to conjugate and memorize verbs - and who, in the end, can barely speak a few sentences.

It is also a new frontier for cross-disciplinary instruction in college, which came into its own in the mid-1980s and exists in some form at hundreds of schools nationwide. It's not unusual today for a computer-engineering class, say, to involve professors from both electrical engineering and computer science.

Yet Bennington is one of only a few colleges with a reputation for pushing the envelope to blend disciplines. And even here it is unusual to cross the yawning chasm between the humanities (French) and the fine arts (dance), as this class seeks to do.

The official course title is: "Moving From Words, Speaking Through Movements - and Learning French." But the students just call it "Dancing in French," an elliptical phrase that defies easy classification as either a dance or a language class.

Both Ms. Cuccinciello and Ms. Eisenberg are theater majors who had taken dance before, but who knew little French prior to this nothing-but-French-spoken-here dance class. The class also includes those who speak French, but have had no dance training.

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At their early morning session, teacher Agns Benoit rallies her charges. "All right, let's break up into groups and dance the sentences we've been thinking about," she says in her native French.

Making language fun

The course does not attempt to turn novices into instant masters of either dance or French. Instead, it's about making learning a language fun and intellectually appealing to the students, says Isabelle Kaplan, director of Bennington's Regional Center for Languages and Cultures and co-developer of the experimental class.

"It's learning through listening, based on the simple way a child learns through motor activity and making connections," she says.

She would like students to enjoy the class so much that they are powerfully motivated to "take responsibility" for learning the language and thereby become more engaged and active in regular language course work.

But there's also another tricky hypothesis being tested in this class - the notion of memorizing language by attaching it to physical action.

"This class isn't so much to develop fluency," Ms. Kaplan adds, "it is to begin to help the student develop a new way to learn that's different from the rational way in regular class."

Young children use movement as one of several cognitive tools to help them decode and memorize language, she says. Kaplan hopes that attaching language to physical experience will help pass a new language from short-term to long-term memory of students.

"This course is about a deeper kind of learning," she says. "It's almost like a survival class. The students are constantly figuring things out and learning to use the language spontaneously."

Susan Sgorbati, a member of Bennington's dance faculty, co-developed the "Dancing in French" class with Kaplan. If dance helps students learn language, she reasoned, then it might also be used as a tool for helping teaching subjects across an array of disciplines.

It was over lunch one day that she and Kaplan began spontaneously talking about a cross-disciplinary French and dance class.

"We started asking each other: 'What would that mean? What would that be like," she says. "I began to wonder about using dance to teach other subjects. What about physics?"

Ms. Sgorbati and Kaplan persuaded Ms. Benoit, a graduate student in improvisational dance, to teach the class.

"The whole idea reminded me of when I went away to a boarding school in England," Benoit says. "I was learning English and math at the same time. So when they asked me I was really excited."

So are the students, who have been writing in class diaries the vocabulary words and sentences they learn. Benoit corrects the spelling and returns the diaries, which contain hundreds of words now "internalized" by the students.

Student Cuccinciello says that for her the class is about "putting the images of the words to movement. You may not even speak as you dance, but as Agns speaks, we internalize it."

Cori Olinghouse, another student, offers: "To me, this class is really about moving the words around in space."

Science is next

Right now, Sgorbati says she is pushing the envelope even further. She has persuaded a Bennington physics professor to meet once a week for a one-on-one dance/physics class in which she is learning about quantum theory and he is learning improvisational movement.

"At first he was skeptical," she says. "But I have him moving and he has me learning physics concepts. I asked him one day how you would explain grace through physics. He said, 'Now that's an interesting thought.' "

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