Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Power of Limits 1: Thinking Inside the Box

I have spent most of my dance life performing and teaching on a 3'x3' square dance platform.  For perspective's sake I should say that most cloggers, step dancers or tap dancers do not regularly work in such a small space.  For me, working within the confines of my dance board was born out of necessity and eventually influenced the course of my creative life as both an artist and a teacher.

Stephen Nachmanovitch, in his book Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, includes a chapter titled 'The Power of Limits.'  This post is the first in a series of articles, inspired by his chapter, exploring how limits not only enhance creative problem solving but are actually a requirement of such a process.  Creativity, and all the intense and surprising things that word implies, requires of us resourcefulness, flexibility, ingenuity, and the necessity to think outside the box. 

Which, in my case, meant staying in the box!

The particulars of my situation dictated that I needed to have a portable dance space.  When I was touring and performing with my band Cucanandy, many of the venues we played were not dance friendly, meaning they hosted bands on tiny, often carpeted or tile-over-cement stages in clubs or small auditoriums.  As a dancer whose feet were the percussion section, my dancing contributed to the overall musical experience of our show and the sound of my feet needed to be consistent every time I performed.  It's practically impossible to sound good on cement, plus it's really bad for the body.  So, I bartered dance lessons with a specialty carpenter who created a beautiful wooden dance platform with the capability of producing high end, mid-range and bass tones.  The design of the platform was in itself limited to whether or not it would fit into the back of a Toyota Corolla Hatchback, which just happened to be 3'x3'.

I didn't start dancing until my mid-20's which is another limit I have had to work with in the course of my career.  The reason I tell you this is that, compared to a child's learning process which is quite holistic, an adult learner often approaches new learning self-consciously; self-conscious in ways that both help and hinder.  Having learned percussive dance at a somewhat late age, I remember very clearly not knowing how to dance. 

For this reason, I remember perfectly the day when I realized the creative potential of working within the limits of my dance platform.  I had only been dancing for about four years, two of those years with a professional percussive dance troupe,  and was still quite new to percussive dance. I was listening to a song the band was working on and had no steps in my current repertoire that would work.  I remember looking down at the platform and noticing the outer edges of my space which I normally avoided because I didn't want to fall off.  I remember thinking -- look at all the different directions I can go in.  This insight inspired and generated a whole new set of dance steps and, eventually, the final choreography for the piece.

There is more to the story but suffice it to say that moment eventually led me to creating Math in Your Feet, where students, with a basic vocabulary of percussive dance movements, do creative work within the limits of their own square dance spaces while making meaningful connections to mathematical topics.

See you again soon with another installment of The Power of Limits.  Be you artist, parent, teacher, or friend (or anyone else!) I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, so please consider leaving a comment. 


  1. Of course I'm thinking of the mathematical definition of a limit, which (so far) seems to have no relation to this more common definition of a limit.

    Love hearing more about how you came to this work.

  2. Sue,

    Great to hear from you! My approach to problem solving starts in my work as an artist, but in my work with kids in Math in Your Feet I try to make connections to the habits of mind necessary for math problem solving and, further, life long problem solving.

    I'm interested in hearing more about your perspective of limits and problem solving in a math context. I was actually just trying to figure out a way to get that kind of conversation going...thanks for starting it!

  3. This is great, Malke, I reblogged it here:

    Thank you so much for writing!

    - nic

  4. Thanks Nic! I finally found my way to your blog the other day. Not quite sure why it took me so long, but it's on my blogroll now. Keep up the good work!

  5. I don't know how to connect them (limits and problem-solving). There's a very particular definition of the word 'limit' that was developed over the course of a few hundred years, to make the work done in calculus rigorous. Calculus was being used to figure out some powerful ideas, and mathematicians wanted to be sure they completely understood why (and when) it worked.

  6. What you have said about your limits and development sounds right. The need to get out of the box is a discomfort being there and the inability, fear, or lack of curiosity to go deeper into it. The problem with thinking outside of the box is that one usually ends up in someone else's box. If we do not know the limits of where we are (come from) then we do not know where we are going. You have provided yourself what looks like a healthy balance for your 3X3 with your work with children and into math. I think what Sue said about math limits works for any discipline if you want to get the most out of it.


Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


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