Turning Points: A Radical Approach to Fostering Movement in Children with Diverse Physical Abilities

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
McLaren, Coralee. “Turning Points: A Radical Approach to Fostering Movement in Children with Diverse Physical Abilities.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2021.

Coralee McLaren

I can’t think fast enough to catch the interval in the making. The interval is the production of movement before we know it as such [. . .] but I cannot name it or locate it exactly. I feel it only momentarily in the instant where I catch a glimpse of her eyes wide with wonder asking herself, how did I do that? (Manning, Relationscapes 18)


Fluctuating rhythms and the role of synchrony between people challenge traditional mind/body, able/disabled dualisms and subsequent ideas about how children move-and-learn together. Drawing on the writings of Deleuzian scholar Erin Manning,[1] I describe the transformational effects of encounter and the notion of incipience, or how the body might be felt as an ingathering, a welling or a virtual momentum taking form before the body actually moves. It is this movement interval that opens up experience to the unknowable, and challenges not-yet examined connections, assemblages and proliferations emanating from hierarchical roots of knowledge underscored in contemporary medical models of disability. Singularity, or the turning point or loci at which predictable movement behaviours break down are not easily addressed within scientific investigations. Artistic practices harness them implicitly. Straddling art-science boundaries insists that all stakeholders must stretch and shift conceptually in order to discover multiple meanings and disrupt ways of knowing, and engage in embodied, spatial, relational, and risky methodologies to unleash children’s untapped capacities in novel ways. This theoretically-driven work aims to reveal invisible facets of practice, mobilize language in movement-like ways, and support new strategies aimed at enhancing children’s learning and moving together at school.


My backgrounds in pediatric nursing, childhood disability research, and professional dance[2] have left me unsettled and curious about what my body knows. The tension that arises in suggesting that performancebased, embodied knowledge surpasses my understanding of movement from a health perspective has supported a decade’s worth of research aimed at unleashing new ways of knowing children with diverse socio-physical capacities. It is widely acknowledged that moving about freely is considered an important determinant of children’s health and well-being (WHO 2007). Less known are the novel ways in which movement can be freed to support these outcomes. Prompted by the writings of Deleuze and Guattari (1987), my aim is to address this tension by asking new questions, and by merging philosophical concepts with ecological theories, advances in neuroscience, and my knowledge/embodied experiences as a dancer to reconceptualize children’s movement and the spaces in which they move. Following Deleuze (1988), I do not rely on medical or educational discourses that define, reference, and categorize children according to their functional abilities or limitations. Instead, I set out to understand how children use their environments to move, explore, and discover what they can do. This shift in my thinking about how bodies should move to how they might move is supported by neuro-educational discourses that link active learning environments to children’s cognitive development.

Although I never asked Spinoza’s seminal question What can a body do? during my twenty-year dancing career, I essentially danced the question. In modern dance, movement experimentation is considered essential to the creative process. The movement choices I made (or was asked to make) were akin to asking my body what it could do. Some movements resulted in new physical insights; however, this bodily knowledge was contingent on the context, i.e., my own and other dancers’ movements, accompanying music, spatial dimensions, room temperature, angles and intensities of light, and unsprung and/or raked floors. Hence, new ways of knowing my body were impermanent because performance contexts always changed. As I gained experience, my unsettledness with not being able to predict performance outcomes evolved into curiosity about what my body might do in particular contexts. Somewhere between knowing and not knowing I began to rely on the lingerings of past physical experiments embedded in my body. I trusted these lingerings not because they guaranteed knowable outcomes but because they gave me courage to risk new ways of moving.

I did not take movement risks without reservations, however. The mind-body arguments that occurred prior to stepping on stage made it difficult to resist mentally reviewing the choreography. Although my pre-show preparations involved strategies that silenced my mind, my most distinctive performances happened when I was able to blur mind/body dichotomous thinking. In these performances, the music seemed to creep up from behind me, enter my body, and propel me on to the stage. Master choreographer William Forsythe[3] would describe this experience as idealized dancing: [. . .] just not knowing and letting the body dance you around (Forsythe qtd. by Manning, Relationscapes 21). Deleuze might describe such dances as lines of flight that leave the body inarticulably transformed (1987). Unpredictable encounters with other bodies, spaces, objects, and rhythms led to new ways of moving, interacting and responding on stage. Although it was not possible for me to recreate these experiences, they always intrigued me enough to search for similar sensations and/or movement surprises each time I performed.

The research examples described in this article mirror my performance memories. Each study presented new risks and unexpected turns, and I wrestled theoretically and methodologically with the common tendency to view children apart from their environments. Like music, some concepts and ideas crept up behind me and seemed to dance me around. At other times they fell silent or slipped away, but always something lingered. The realization and acknowledgement of the similarities between research and dancing/choreographic processes marked a turning point for me, prompting the development of a non-dualistic framework that supports different ways of observing and thinking about children’s movement and the spaces they move in. According to former Forsythe dancer Dana Caspersen, dancers and choreographers practice at being curious. They realize that freedom is not the absence of external pressure but rather the internal ability to remain fluid and engaged under demanding circumstances. She argues that it isn’t possible to know what a piece is in advance, or if the fragments that are encountered along the way are connected to each other, or to the piece itself. So dancers become accustomed to riding multiple, sometimes conflicting, energetic waves to find out where they might go (Caspersen 94).

Forsythe describes the choreographic process as elusive, agile, and maddeningly unmanageable (Forsythe 90). He believes that there is no choreographic instance that represents a universal or standard definition and contends that a single definition misunderstands the most crucial of choreography’s mechanisms: to resist and reform previous conceptions of what it is and to detach ourselves from positions of certainty. Arguably, similar mechanisms underpin the research process, i.e., the grappling, shifting and moving-with words and ideas in order to discover multiple meanings and disrupt ways of knowing. Following Forsythe, I question whether choreographic thought resides exclusively in the body and/or a dance-work, or whether its mechanisms and principles can be used to support research processes aimed at observing, articulating, and fostering children’s socio-physical and spatial relationships.

To this end and in what follows, I present findings from two focused ethnographies using a research-choreographic approach. I begin with a brief review of supporting literature, followed by the conceptual framework I used to analyze my observations of children’s movement interactions at school. Four different movement events are described using musical/choreographic terms to garner new insights about these important relationships. Detailed methodological description of these studies is beyond the scope of this article, however can be accessed (in part) via endnotes and more fully in works cited that focus specifically on the research process (McLaren and McKeever 2019; McLaren et al. 2021, forthcoming).

A Note on Terminology

I alternately refer to children with ‘dis/abilities’ or diverse ‘abilities’ within this article. These terms can be considered synonymous. I alternate their usage to signal what I see as a problematic separation of dis/abled children from others. I also alternate ‘children with disabilities’ and ‘dis/abled children’ to reflect debates which recognize that children do not (only) have disabilities but are disabled by the environment, and to attune to and respect person-first versus identity-first language preferences.

Children’s Movement and Learning

Neuro-behavioural research has shown that watching movement (i.e., seeing someone running or dancing) activates the corresponding motor program in the observer (Satori et al. 2011; Bucchioni et al. 2013; Zhao 2018) and is linked to children’s learning and social interactions with others (Acquadro et al. 2016; Endedijk et al. 2017; Reynolds et al. 2017). Investigators posit that this phenomenon, known as the mirror neuron system (MNS), is heavily involved in the human capacity to learn by imitation and is implicated in an array of socio-physical phenomena including empathy, pain perception, imitation, and action intention/understanding (Bucchioni et al. 2016; Dai et al. 2019; Reynolds et al. 2019). Specifically, it is argued that mechanisms underlying action observation are highly responsive to socio-physical dimensions of environments, suggesting that human observation/action matching systems facilitate thinking about, imitating and/or responding to movement in complementary ways. For example, Markova et al. identified children’s ability to tune in to features of rhythmic movement and adjust their motor responses to move in synchrony with others (2019). Others speculate that movement synchronization may facilitate higher-level functionality, where coordinated movements of multiple children (i.e., building a tower together) enhance learning and development (Wilson and Wilson 2007). Moving in synchronistic ways appears also to play an important role in many aspects of prosocial behavior (Cirelli et al. 2014), emotional bonding (Wiltermuth and Heath 2009; Wiltermuth 2012), and affiliation with others (Hove and Risen 2009). Collectively these findings support further research to explore children’s movement synchronies in everyday environments.

Movement-based, experiential learning strategies and related curricula are used in many Canadian classrooms, however admonitions about proper ways of moving persist. Children are consistently asked to temper their bodies’ proclivity to move by sitting still to promote learning. Such admonitions are justified by the erroneous belief that moving or restless bodies disrupt learning (Bresler 2004). This is particularly concerning for dis/abled children. It is widely acknowledged that physical disabilities are exacerbated by environmental and social factors (United Nations 2006; WHO 2007, 2001), yet little is known about how children with dis/abilities respond to and move with others in everyday environments. Gross and/or fine motor impairments restrict movement and elicit exclusionary attitudes and safety concerns, and physical barriers significantly impede explorations of these classroom spaces (Prellwitz and Tamm 2000; Holt 2004; Tieman et al. 2004; Wooley 2005). Hence, dis/abled children have considerably less mobility license (Kyttä 180) to investigate their environments than their nondisabled peers (Rigby and Gaik 2007; Logan et al. 2016; McWilliam et al. 2020) or to develop their intrinsic physical capacities. Innovative movement approaches are urgently needed to reconceptualize all children’s movement capacities and disrupt traditional ways of knowing that categorize them according to their abilities and/or the ways they learn.

Research has thus established that movement, and particularly moving-together, has social, physical, and cognitive implications that require further study; however, this line of research has important limitations. Most studies to date have been confined to controlled laboratory experiments that rely on traditional positivist science ontologies that perceive individuals as separate biological entities. It is imperative to draw on the embodied knowledge and critical insights of dance artists, educators, and designers to: 1) reconfigure entrenched art/science divisions; 2) develop innovative strategies for children with dis/abilities to promote their learning-through-movement-withothers in real world settings; and 3) unsteady hierarchies of knowledge underscored in contemporary medical models of disability.

Conceptual Approach

The following evolving framework anchors this work theoretically. Drawing on the writings of Deleuzian scholar Erin Manning (2009, 2016), I re-articulate the transformational effects of the movement interval, neural, and choreographic rhizomatic networks and the notion of singularity. The tendency to conceptualize the human body in Cartesian terms, i.e., positioning the mind as the locus of knowledge, underpins most Western educational and medical research despite its inconsistency with contemporary scientific epistemologies that conceive the mind as rooted in bodily action and interaction (Garbarini and Adenzato 2004; Enrici et al. 2019; Frewen et al. 2020; Maimon-Mor et al. 2020). Drawing on postmodern conceptual strategies, I address this problem by challenging common ways of knowing that fix human beings in terms of their identities, abilities, development, and ways of learning. The aim is to deconstruct scientific codes and habits by cueing children to move in ways that tap into new physical possibilities and their affinity to move-with others. This approach emphasizes the importance of moving beyond familiar ways of interacting with, doing, and thinking with other moving bodies. Deleuze’s foundational ontology is well suited for studying children with diverse dis/abilities and their spontaneous encounters because it is an open approach that does not rely on preconceived truths about how or why children move as they do, and challenges medical, educational, and social understandings that categorize, fix and/or limit bodies to traditional ways of knowing.

Rethinking bodily capacity in this way allows an unclasping to occur (Deleuze and Guattari 326), such that categories (or striations) such as physical ability can be disrupted. For example, when dis/abled children use their wheelchairs in novel ways, they can be said to be smoothing out or destroying categorical gridding that fixes them to specific ways of moving. Since the bodies of dis/abled children typically are cast as lacking and not usually imagined to be articulating a range of potentialities, it was important for me to re-imagine their corporeal capacities and demonstrate how they use their bodies to disrupt acts of reference through their practices, experimentations, and repetitions (Hickey-Moody 2006). It is important to note that my goal was not to discard the medical model of disability. My goal was to find ways to elicit data that would reveal how children disrupt this model themselves.


Manning’s philosophy of relational movement (2009) supports a re-articulation of the transformational effects of encounter and the notion of incipience. Incipience emphasizes the immanence of movement moving, or how movement can be felt before it displaces. She argues that movement is more than quantitative displacement of the body from one place to another. Incipiently, it can be felt as an in-gathering, a welling, or a virtual momentum taking form before the body actually moves (Relationscapes 6). When a child takes a step, it is how the step moves the child that is key to where he/she can go. Anything is possible in that moment. As the step actualizes it cannot diverge. The foot will land where it lands. Hence, incipiency or the movement interval opens up experience to the unknowable.

Sensing and ultimately cueing the interval is central to my theoretical and methodological approach to inspiring children to move in novel, non-habitual ways. The choreography of collective movement is equally important and made possible by the relation between intervals and the collective capacity to cue and align to them. According to Manning (2016), cueing is an important activity in the relational field. Supported by previous/current research, physical, spatial, relational, and musical cues move children before they consciously realize the need to make a minor shift, move in a certain manner or direction, or alter the quality of their movement. Hence it is counterintuitive to approach movement instruction from the perspective that a pre-choreographed task will elicit a desired movement outcome that can be repeated, defined and/or easily measured. Following Manning, my aim is to attune children to movement-moving and incipient shifts in rhythm, changes in direction, and other cues active in a relational field. Choreography and, by extension, rehabilitation strategies, are at their best when the purpose is not to align bodies or view them according to traditional, normative standards. Necessary are modes of moving that make felt the complex ecology of incipient movement, the more-than of form and the desire to move in ways yet unchartered.


A radical, rhizomatic approach to fostering movement must examine the origins of traditional proclivities, the-not-yet examined connections, assemblages, and proliferations emanating from hierarchical roots of knowledge underscored in contemporary medical models of health and disability (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). Rhizomes consist of multiple, nonhierarchical entry and exit points that connect in unordered, nonlinear ways. Rejecting a higher or transcendent authority (such as truth, reason, or logic), my aim is to problematize children’s movement encounters and promote the possibility that something new might occur (Doel and Clark 2004). Developing new sensitivities to children’s responses to movement-moving will enable us to generate movement data that is more-than a reproduction of the original form. Manning suggests that when people move in a certain way, it is much more likely that they will experiment with that way of moving, and move-with in ways which even yesterday they wouldn’t have imagined possible (2009). Hence, new ways of thinking do not emerge between knowing and not knowing. They emerge through the disruption of ordinary movements, habits, and notions.


The concept of singularity further extends joint art-science theory and methods. According to Deleuze (1988), singularities occur at the turning point or loci at which determinate or predictable movement behaviour breaks down and re-assembles in novel ways. This embraces two senses, i.e., the idea of being unique and the idea of being nondeterminable. Hence, singularities are not easily addressed within scientific investigations. Artistic practices harness them implicitly, calling for a refined attunement to moving bodies that focuses on their diverse properties and the processes within which they are generated. Hence, the combined understanding and sensitization to concepts such as the interval, rhizomatic networks, and singularities can be used to refine our senses when viewing/participating in children’s movement with others and physical events, and to follow how behaviour spontaneously reconfigures itself following such events.

Research-Choreographic Examples

Early PhD work[4] focused on children’s movement in an integrated kindergarten classroom and provided the foundation for developing this theoretical approach.[5] Children’s movement was conceptualized according to Deleuze’s premise that nothing can be known about bodies until we know what they can do (1987, 1988), and the classroom was conceptualized according to Gibson’s theory of affordances, which posits that people and environments are inextricably related (1979).[6] Findings suggested that assemblages of bodies, objects, and features[7] triggered dynamic movement, and illustrated how all children discovered, reconfigured, and creatively assembled environmental affordances to facilitate their movement. Prompted by Manning’s imperative to move-and-think-through data, I engaged in a process of writing-movement in order to rearticulate children’s interactions in the classroom in musical terms. Through reading, listening to, reflecting on, and feeling her words move on the page, I used her writings to un-mire affective tonalities in this space so that they could be seen, heard, felt, and re-imagined (2009). I did this by tapping into my own dancing-body, physical lingerings and choreographic imaginations. This enabled me to conjure up words, ideas, musical phrases, and rhythms to describe child-dancers’ movements, their assemblages, and movement events. In what follows are four examples of this writing accompanied by choreographic notes and diagrams.


Twenty child-dancers had gathered on the classroom/stage when the event emerged. I had been watching these four-, five-, and six-year-olds play an improvised game that they referred to as the Secret Club. Although the rules seemed fluid, I understood through my conversations with Club members that the game included child-dancers only, a newly configured physical barrier (a collection of chairs and objects upstage right), a modified feature (a castle-like subspace downstage right) and at least seven child-dancers to begin the game. It was intriguing to watch because dancers’ unanticipated encounters with each other and the newly configured space elicited new ways of responding and/or moving.

Although it was impossible to discern how or when the game began to change, interactions between child-dancers and the newly configured space gained momentum stage right. The change in speed was palpable to me. Unanticipated encounters seemed to elicit excitement in the dancers as they accelerated their movement forwards, backwards, sideways-and-around. I observed them mirroring each other and mimicking rhythms, i.e., running-and-gliding, jumping-and-galloping, suspending, falling, and rocking.[9] When I watched these dancers I saw only differential speeds, rhythms, momentums, and flows. Bodies collided and the pressure on stage right seemed to increase to a point when/where movement could not be contained (see Diagram 1). Dismantling the barrier, accelerated bodies followed lines of flight-seemingly-freed to travel, having pushed past this critical threshold. Bodies permeated all areas of the stage, i.e., jumping-and-climbing over-the-barrier, gliding-with-walkers-along-thepathway, spinning-with-wheelchairs, and hiding-behind-castle-walls. Movement flowed along the pathway and spilled-on-to stage left (see Diagram 2). The cascade of bodies and objects seemed to sweep-up other bodies-in-waiting, i.e., gathering, carrying, and releasing them to other areas/spaces. I followed these lines and watched them transform into jig-like-dances and other deterritorialized refrains.[10]

These were dancers in search of new territories, experiments, intersections, and terrains. Movement seemed to move them and incite movement in me and others who stood-sat-and-watched. I watched them forgo the choreography they knew and take up movements that resisted set rhythms and rules. Hence, I began seeing-moving-and-feeling-with these bodies, their speeds, and their rhythms. Encounters as openings let movement take-form, movement’s in-gathering-and-welling sustained the interval felt briefly before movement rocked-swirled and changed.

Classroom Diagram 1: Accelerated bodies contained
Classroom Diagram 2: Accelerated bodies released


In rhythmic counterpoint to these speeds, I observed a six-yearold girl and her walker travel cautiously from stage left to stage right in a sustained-and-smooth manner. The movement and sound that emanated from stage right seemed to pull-her-towards this side of the stage. The neurological condition affecting her posture and flexibility limited her ability to move and explore the space. During no other session did this child explore the full stage/classroom or its transformations. Habitually, she took few physical risks and showed little fluctuation in her movement. She usually moved-watched-and-played alone and along the space’s peripheries. Hence, it was unusual to see her approach and be-near such rousing activities. Her body-moving appeared heavy but-fragile, restricted yet still malleable. Observing her move was like listening to a long, sustained note extend through the space. She paused-and-then-moved, paused-and-then-moved. Always she seemed on the verge of moving. I felt her movement with-in these pauses.

With hesitation she slowly entered the play castle, kneeled down and peered-through the west facing window with her walker positioned safely behind her (see Sketch 1)[12]. The aperture seemed to afford her the perfect vantage point for watching, being-close-to and interacting with other dancers, and the wall appeared to shield her from movements that were welling up in-front-of-and-behind-her. She reminded me of a princess-waiting in the eye of a storm a low pressure area safe from the speeds that spiraled around her. This still image of her seemed to move (Manning, Relationscapes), having hazard[ed] an improvisation [and ventured] from home on the thread of a tune (Deleuze and Guattari 311). She had become part of the Secret Club. Dancers moved towards-her, stooped-low, leaned-forward and ran-around-her, beckoning her through movement to come-out-and-play. She remained in the storm’s eye and within my view. I saw a princess-girl-peeking and still-ing in there, at once singular where her movement broke down and seemed to reassemble in a new way.

Sketch 1: Princess-girl peeking through a low castle window (downstage right)

As quickly as the event had emerged it dissipated. Children dispersed and prepared to go outdoors to play; however, the princess stayed at the castle window until the storm had subsided. When she stood up she paused-and-then-moved; however, remnants of princess-ing seemed to linger in her body/self. She-walked-with-her-walker, passed over a threshold and moved tentatively towards a castle window-high-out-of-reach. I watched her spine change from a curve to a vertical line as she circled-around, rose-on-her-toes, lifted her chin, and tried to peek-through it (see Sketch 2). With her spine stretched from ceiling to floor and her body suspended along this newly formed line, I watched her float there until she let go. She paused and then moved, and then seemed to pause-and-reflect. She stepped through the castle doorway and stood quietly alone. As she still-ed and waited to be led off stage, her long-sustained note seemed to extend far past its measure.

Sketch 2. Princess-girl-peeking through a high castle window

Choreographic Notes[13]: Accelerando and Sostenuto

Consider how fields of free action set the stage for movement events.
Enable child- dancers to create their own movements-and-rhythms / follow lines of flights
Provide opportunities for dancers to integrate themselves / join other groups of dancers (e.g., trios, quartets) with varying physical characteristics and movement styles.
Fashion unforeseen alliances.
Design physically protected places or eyes in storm where dancers can position themselves to see, be close-to, move-with and expose themselves to different movements and intensities
Identify / design objects and features that facilitate / entice dancers to extend their movements past physical end points (e.g., reaching past fingertips, stretching the spine between ceiling and floor)
Design modifiable objects that dancers can manipulate themselves to shape/re-shape spaces and form their own assemblages.
Find opportunities for dancers to supersede habitual movement responses.
Ask dancers if they prefer to watch movement-moving or would like to join-in
Re-think endings of movement sections, i.e., re-work spacings-and- timings so that the same dancer does not always exit the stage last.
Assume all dancers are moving regardless of whether movement is visible or not


When the event emerged, I observed another child-dancer kneeling and playing alone centre stage right in close proximity to other dancers moving. He played-and-watched from this vantage point for several minutes before he took a circuitous route with-his-walker towards the newly configured barrier. He paused at the threshold and then used his walker-turned-snow-plough to crash into, dismantle, and push-past the barrier. As bodies rushed-and-spilled past him he followed them and seemed to pick up their speed. In a moment of apparent weightlessness, he pressed down on his walker, thrust his legs forward, harnessed his speed and glided-uninterrupted-along-the-pathway (see Sketch 3). His glissando-like movement made it impossible for me to differentiate his body-from-walker-from-pathway. Other dancers mirrored his rhythm and speed, running-sliding-and-skipping a short distance behind him. He repeated the glissando over and over again, shifting-tipping-and reshaping the glide-almost-urging his body-and-walker to stretch further, move faster each time. When his feet left the floor, I felt the interval sustain, the pathway-now-gliding looked like it was holding him there. He seemed to enjoy almost landing, not-yet. Time-space shifted. He felt the relation.

Sketch 3. Gliding-walker-pathway-boy

Manning describes dancing bodies as sensing bodies in movement capable of actively perceiving and moving worlds such that new kinds of experiential space-times are constituted. These worldings are pullings out of an experiential ground that shifts with each of the dancer’s movements. She explains:

As it enters into movement, the ground is reconstituted as novelty, intertwining with the capacities of what a gravitational body can do. The ground is one of movement’s enabling constraints: the dancer will always reach the ground again. Yet in the series dancer-movement-ground, it is how the ground plays into movement moving that is at stake…[t]he ground contributes to the dance as a form-finding element in the dancer’s shape-shifting process, operating not as a stable entity but as an active determinant in the process. The ground is a compositional aspect of the dancer’s movement, reconstituting the ways in which space-time potentializes the moving body and vice versa. The ground does not simply ground it dances. (Manning, Relationscapes 70)

This dancer disrupted fixed ways of knowing his body and disabled classifications by demonstrating and describing his body-moving not as lacking but re-imagined through its intensities, practices, experimentations, and repetitions. Although he appeared to primarily watch this and other movement events in most observation sessions, I sensed that his body was always on-the-cusp of moving preaccelerated[15], in-waiting, readying itself to join, move-with and/or recompose assemblages of bodies, objects and features moving. I perceived his glissando-like movements to be like musical accents that syncopated and textured the event rhythmically in ways that, in turn, incited and modified other bodies that followed or mimicked his accents. When his body-and-walker moved together and merged with other bodies, objects and features, openings seemed to appear allowing movement-in-waiting to pass through and displace. By transforming himself and intertwining his capacities with these affordances, he smoothed-out his movements, mimicked and triggered others, risked and experimented and reconstituted his body-as-capable-in-recombination. Manning might posit that he moved with the multiplicity of virtual bodies that recomposed along the plane of immanence of his sensing bodies in movement (Relationscapes 28). In doing so, he altered his time-space, suspending himself (and me) during his shape-shifting processes.

Modulations: The DancePlay Event

Findings from this early work raised new theoretical and methodological questions. Most movement-related research has been conducted with non-disabled school aged children in outdoor play environments, and has relied on standardized, quantitative methods to determine how much children move. Consequently, qualitative modes of inquiry offering new insights into how children move in relation to their environments are limited. Similarly, traditional theories of child development have been frequently used to group children in age-related categories which rarely are applicable to disabled children and cast impaired bodies as lacking rather than capable of a range of possibilities (Hickey-Moody 2006; Christensen and James 2008; Howard and Aas 2018). Although the social benefits of shared play and participating at school are well established, little is known about effects of children’s exposure to rhythms and intensities generated by multiple bodies moving, fleeing, mimicking, dancing, and/or playing together. Moving-together, children may be learning in ways not fully understood, and discovering physical and social capacities that heretofore have remained unknown.

Building on these findings, I conducted a second CIHRfunded study together with an interdisciplinary research team[16] to examine children’s physical, social, and neurological attunement or proclivity to move in related ways at school and in other play environments. This research employed novel blended research methodologies to reveal information not accessible via discrete methods. These included non-invasive EEG (electroencephalography) methods that captured electrical brain signals generated by children as they watched others move, and ethnographic techniques to capture children’s responses to spontaneous and/or scripted movement cues, elements of surprise and their interactions with social/physical features of a novel school space.[17] Pilot study results showed that children experience event-related desynchronizations (ERDs) when observing specific movements (i.e. jump, turn, and fall); however, these results could not be replicated in a complex, real-world environment. Spontaneous rather than scripted movement prompts facilitated children’s ability to attune to changes in rhythm, speed, and flow and invited them to move in synchronistic ways. Further research is needed to refine the measurement of children’s neuro-cognitive responses in real world environments to understand what children see and/or sense prior to actualizing movement physically. Based on previous findings, it is essential that this research develop in-tandem-with ongoing theoretical work to reconceptualize children’s embodied responses to movement-moving / movement-together. A third SSHRCfunded study[18] is underway that addresses both objectives. What follows is a final, research-choreographic (DancePlay) example to demonstrate this radical, hybrid approach to understanding, articulating, and fostering children’s movement in novel environments.

Fermata [19]

Eight children aged eleven-to-fourteen years old participated in eight weekly movement sessions designed to cue their movement-together. Children ranged in their ability to move freely/independently, and most used mobility/communication devices or relied on a personal care assistant to support their movements. It was difficult to discern how these children were affected during these sessions. Following Manning’s belief that the body moves not only in its displacement but also in its incipiency, I could not assume that child-dancers who primarily watched movement-moving were not affected or stimulated in some way. Many appeared paused or in-waiting for something to occur. Passing critical thresholds, some bodies spilled over and displaced in response to spontaneous, novel movement cues and/or the unpredictable, unanticipated movements of their classmates. Patterns emerged weekly that reinforced the importance of unstructured, impromptu movement cues often incited by these children themselves.

One body-in-waiting spilled-over in novel ways every week. Verbal and nonverbal cues compelled him to move and search out movement he could assemble-with. In particular, it was fluctuations in rhythm incited by live music and other bodies-moving that compelled him to move in novel ways. Rarely did he respond to structured, verbal cues. His movements were lyrical and coordinated, risky and smooth. Legato-boy[20] used all affordances available, including other bodies, chairs, and a novel, expansive space ideal for exploring movement. Each week he seemed to wait for dynamic and rhythmic changes in order to mingle-and-assemble-with other dancers and the groups they formed (see Sketch 4). Similar to a musical fugue and its characteristic refrain or theme,[21] his movements appeared like lines of flight[22] weaving between strata (spaces), reaching into the terrain of other voices (bodies), and tying bodies-spaces together. Moving from one voice to multiple voices, fugal-themes register as a kind of rupture or proliferation, a deterritorializing that Deleuze might describe as rhizomatic (1987).

Sketch 4. Legato-boy

This child’s ability to assemble-with spaces-and-bodies is supported by Manning’s contention that relational movement is always improvisational. His apparent physical curiosity and ability to discover intensive openings in which to move-with other dancers, objects, and features reshaped his movement. He became a body-in-the-making[23] or singular entity reconfigured through force taking form. According to Manning, novelty is produced by the body-becoming, is active through the plasticity of its rhythms, and emerges always in excess of its form. To posit rhythm extra or external to experience is to misunderstand how rhythms make up events. Rhythm she suggests gives affective tonality to experience, moves us before we know where we are going, and is dependent on the body’s intensive capacity (2009). She contends that there is no body itself because the body is always more than itself, always reaching towards that which it is not yet. The not-yet takes form through the intensities of preacceleration that compel recompositions at the level of both strata, the body, and the room (Relationscapes 15). Capable of recomposing his body to move-with other bodies, objects and features and modifying these assemblages to facilitate yet-to-be-seen movements and capacities, legato-boy challenged the notion of disabled bodies as being ‘less capable’ than non-disabled bodies. I observed a virtuosic body capable of integrating-with and reshaping the room in sophisticated, movement-refined ways.

Choreographic Notes: Glissando and Legato-boys; Bodies-in-waiting

Assume all dancers are moving regardless of whether movement is visible or not
Anticipate dancers’ creative capacities
Know that movement does not need to be thought in the first instance as a quantitative displacement
Consider how disruptions in time and space affect dancers’ movement experiences
Reflect on the notion of physical risk
Encourage dancers to experiment and use affordances in non-habitual ways
Configure / create space for children to mirror / mimic each other’s movement-and-rhythms.
Analyze dancers’ mobility devices to determine how they facilitate / inhibit movement and assemble-with spaces.
Ensure sight lines are clear and locate vantage points for dancers to see-watch-and-feel movement
Keep circulation pathways clear of extraneous objects to facilitate lines of flight / flow of movement

In / Conclusion

Many research initiatives have been undertaken over the past several decades to mitigate the art-science divide; however, this binary (and inherent scientific privileging) persists when the primary purpose of these partnerships is the artistic communication of scientific findings. Rarely do such partners set out to explore artistic-and-scientific unknowns together. This hybrid body of research aims to explore children’s synchronized movement interactions in realworld, inclusive childhood settings. Drawing on philosophical concepts/frameworks to re-conceptualize children’s movement relationships incites the development of new strategies that emphasize physical and social reciprocities between children. These strategies and/or interventions have implications for children’s psychosocial health and development and challenge traditional movement ideas in classrooms and other play/learn spaces.

Because growing neurological evidence suggests that tempering movement at school and elsewhere may jeopardize children’s ability to learn and develop, emerging research in this vein informs education and healthcare in rethinking the ways disabled and non-disabled children alike are prohibited to move, and about the effects of strategies and interventions that inhibit or enhance new ways of moving. This research also lays the groundwork for future research that grapples with similar questions and methodological issues. Finally, findings will contribute to knowledge about environments that enhance or inhibit children’s movement capacities. This may have design implications not only for school/play environments, but for clinical, therapeutic, and hospital environments where children are assessed and/or treated. Ultimately, the knowledge gained could help optimize: 1) the development of children’s physical, social, and cognitive capacities; 2) novel rehabilitation strategies; 3) environments that are redolent in movement opportunities; 4) interdisciplinary curricula that support art-science methodologies and learning; and 5) educational and social interventions that foster creativity, movement-together and social inclusion in all spaces.


Deleuze contends that only on uncertain ground does it become possible to rethink that which we no longer understand, situations we no longer know how to react to, in spaces we no longer know how to describe Standing on uncertain ground to engage in inquiries that are both, and neither, art and science, resists the tendency to categorize bodies in terms of their abilities and challenges hierarchies of knowledge that limit embodied ways of knowing. There is no methodological road map for integrating artists and scientists towards a common goal. This requires a deeper questioning and a new paradigmatic framework to examine the epistemological roots of both, and a willingness to unlearn methods, strategies, and language that merely reproduce the original form. Developing new frameworks demands methodological experimentation to advance theoretical innovation and its applications. Science and art cannot be integrated within an absolutist perspective. Their integration requires a preoccupation with process and new space for creation. Given that this integration is still poorly understood, it is certain that we are working towards, rather than from, a place of understanding.

Works Cited

Acquadro, Michael A., Marco Congedo, and Dirk De Riddeer. Music Performance as an Experimental Approach to Hyperscanning Studies. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 10, 2016, pp. 242.

Bresler, Liora, ed. Knowing Bodies, Moving Minds: Towards Embodied Teaching and Learning. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004.

Bucchioni, Giulia, et al. Corticospinal Excitability During the Observation of Social Behaviour. Brain and Cognition, vol. 81, 2013, pp. 176-182.

. Empathy or Ownership? Evidence from Corticospinal Excitability Modulation During Pain Observation.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, vol. 28.11, 2016, pp. 1760-1771.

Casperson, Dana. Decreation: Fragmentation and Continuity. William Forsythe and the Practice of Choreography, edited by Steven Spier, Routledge, 2011, pp. 93-100.

Christensen, P., & Miguel R. Mikkelsen. “Jumping Off and Being Careful: Children’s Strategies of Risk Management in Everyday Life.” Sociology of Health and Illness, vol. 30, no. 1, 2008, pp. 112-130

Cirelli, Laura K., Kathleen Einarson, and Laurel Trainor. Interpersonal Synchrony Increases Prosocial Behavior in Infants. Developmental Science, 2014, pp. 1-9.

Dai, Junqiang, Chaolin Li, and Hongchang Zhai. Development of the Functional Connectivity of the Frontoparietal Mirror Neuron Network in Preschool Children: An Investigation Under Resting State.” Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, vol. 70, 2019, pp. 214-220.

Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza, Practical Philosophy. City Lights Books, 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles, Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Doel, M., & Clarke, D. Gilles Deleuze. Key Thinkers on Space and Place, edited by P.

Hubbard and R. Kitchin, Los Angeles Sage, pp. 141-147.

Endedijk, Hinke M., et al. Neural Mirroring and Social Interaction: Motor System Involvement During Action Observation Relates to Early Peer Cooperation. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, vol. 24, 2017, pp. 33-41.

Enrici, Ivan, Bruno G. Bara, and Mauro Adenzato. Theory of Mind, Pragmatics and the Brain: Converging Evidence for the Role of Intention Processing as a Core Feature of Human Communication.” Pragmatics & Cognition, vol. 26, no.1, 2019, pp. 5-38.

Forsythe, William. Choreographic Objects. In William Forsythe and the Practice of Choreography, edited by Steven Spier, Routledge, 2011, pp. 90-92.

Frewen, Paul, et al. Neuroimaging the Consciousness of Self: Review, and Conceptual-Methodological Framework.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. vol. 112, 2020, pp. 164-212.

Garbarini, Francesca, and Mauro Adenzato. At the Root of Embodied Cognition: Cognitive Science Meets Neurophysiology.” Brain and Cognition, vol. 56, no. 1, 2004, pp. 100-106.

Gibson, James. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Hickey-Moody, A. Folding the Flesh into Thought. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, vol. 11, no. 1, 2006, pp. 189-197.

Holt, Louise. Childhood Disability and Ability: (Dis)ableist Geographies of Mainstream Primary Schools. Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 3, 2004.

Hove, Michael, and Jane Risen. “It’s All in the Timing: Interpersonal Synchrony Increases Affiliation.” Social Cognition, vol. 27, pp. 949-961.

Howard, Dana, and Sean Aas. On Valuing Impairment.” Philosophical Studies, vol. 175, no. 5, 2018, pp. 1113-1133.

Kyttä, Marketta. The Extent of Childrens Independent Mobility and the Number of Actualized Affordances as Criteria for Child-Friendly Environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 24, no. 2, 2004, pp. 179-198.

Logan, Samuel W., et al. Why we Move: Social Mobility Behaviors of Non-disabled and Disabled Children Across Childcare Contexts.” Frontiers in Public Health, vol. 4, 2016, p. 204.

Maimon-Mor, Roni O., et al. Motor Control Drives Visual Bodily Judgements.” Cognition, vol. 196, 2020, pp. 104120-104120.

Manning, Erin. Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. MIT Press, 2009.

. The Minor Gesture. Duke University Press, North Carolina, 2016.

Markova, Gabriela, Trinh Nguyen, and Stefanie Hoehl. Neurobehavioral Interpersonal

Synchrony in Early Development: The Role of Interactional Rhythms. Frontiers   in Psychology, vol. 10, no. 2078, 2019.

McLaren, Coralee, and Patricia McKeever. Revealing Children’s Movement Encounters in an Integrated Kindergarten Classroom. Performance Matters: Special Issue on Dance Studies in Canada, vol. 5, no. 1, 2019, pp. 60-80.

McWilliam, R. A., Catalina Patricia Morales-Murillo, and Cami M. Stevenson. Assessment of Early Childhood School and Classroom Environments. Psychoeducational Assessment of Preschool Children, 5th edition, edited by Vincent C. Alfonso, Bruce A. Bracken, and Richard J. Nagle. New York, 2020, pp. 129-159.

Prellwitz, Maria, and Maare Tamm. How Children with Restricted Mobility Perceive Their School Environment. Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy, vol. 7, no. 4, 2000, p. 165.

Reynolds, Jess, et al. Mirror Neuron System Activation in Children with Developmental Coordination Disorder: A Replication Functional MRI study. Research in Developmental Disabilities, vol. 84, 2017, 16-27.

. Mirror Neuron System Activation in Children with Developmental Coordination Disorder: A Replication Functional MRI Study. Research in Developmental Disabilities, vol. 84, 2019, pp. 16-27.

Rigby, Patricia, and Sandy Gaik. Stability of Playfulness Across Environmental Settings: A Pilot Study. Physical and Occupational Therapy in Pediatric, vol. 27, no. 1, 2007, pp. 27-43.

Sartori, Luisa, et al. Corticospinal Excitability is Specifically Modulated by the Social Dimension of Observed Actions. Experimental Brain Research, vol. 211, no. 3, 2011, pp. 557-568.

Tieman, Beth L., et al. Gross Motor Capability and Performance of Mobility in Children with Cerebral Palsy: A Comparison Across Home, School, and Outdoors / Community Settings. Physical Therapy, vol. 84, no. 5, 2004, pp. 419-429.

United Nations. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. United Nations, 2006.

Wilson, David, and Edward Wilson. Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology. The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 82, no. 4, 2007, pp. 327348.

Wiltermuth, Scott S. Synchronous Activity Boosts Compliance with Requests to Aggress. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 48, no. 1, 2012, pp. 453-456.

Wiltermuth, Scott S. and Chip Heath. Synchrony and Cooperation. Psychological Science,

vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 1-5.

Wooley, Helen. Inclusion of Disabled Children in Primary School Playgrounds. Sheffield, UK: University of Sheffield. 2005.

World Health Organization. International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF), 2001.

. The Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion. 1st International Conference on Health Promotion, World Health Organization, Ottawa, Canada, 2007.

Zhao, Liang, and Liang Zhao. When Imitation Meets Context: The Case of Initiative Complementary Action. Current Psychology, vol. 37, no. 4, 2018, pp. 942-948.


  1. Erin Manning is a Canadian philosopher and founder of the Sense Lab, an interdisciplinary research laboratory and international network focused on intersections between philosophy and the body in motion. Notable works include Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy (2009), and The Minor Gesture (2016).

  2. Coralee McLaren is an Assistant Professor at the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing at Ryerson University and Adjunct Scientist at Bloorview Research Institute. Her research draws on her former career with the Toronto Dance Theatre and teaching experience at the associated School, York, and Ryerson University Dance departments.

  3. William Forsythe is a choreographer acknowledged for reorienting the practice of ballet from its identification with classical repertoire to a dynamic twenty-first century art form. His interest in the fundamental principles of organization has led him to produce a wide range of projects including installations, films, and web-based knowledge creation.

  4. McLaren’s PhD committee included: Patricia McKeever (Nursing, University of Toronto); Tom Chau (Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto); Geoffrey Edwards (Geomatic Sciences, Laval University); Susan Ruddick (Geography, University of Toronto); and Karl Zabjek (Physical Therapy, University of Toronto).

  5. Carrying out ethnographic research in school settings raises ethical and feasibility issues related to gaining and maintaining informed consent from the children and adults who inhabit the space. For these reasons, this focused ethnography was comprised of shorter field visits, intensive, multimethod data collection and analysis techniques, a predetermined focus, and prior knowledge of the classroom. After receiving ethics approval from the hospital, university, and school research ethics boards, all twenty children enrolled in the integrated kindergarten program were invited to participate and were cast as dancers. Ten weekly structured observation sessions were conducted in situ, followed by short interviews with each child-dancer.

  6. American psychologist James Gibson was influential in changing the way we consider visual perception. According to his theory (1979), affordances (or clues) in the environment (that indicate possibilities for action) are perceived in a direct, immediate way with no sensory processing.

  7. According to Deleuze (1988), an assemblage is a collection of heterogeneous elements brought together in particular relations and can bring about any number of effects, i.e., aesthetic, machinic, productive, destructive, consumptive etc.

  8. accelerando, music. adv. & adj. gradually accelerating or quickening in time.

  9. The use of hyphens between words stems from Erin Manning’s concern with the malleability of concepts that move, the expressivity of thoughts as they become feelings/actions, and the ontogenetic potential of ideas as they become articulations. She argues that to come to language is to feel the form-taking of concepts (2009).

  10. In part, Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of deterritorialization (1987) is the process of undoing or taking control away from places that have already been established.

  11. sostenuto, music. adj.,n, sustained or prolonged in the time value.

  12. Through an iterative process with artist Jana Osterman, sketches derived from video data evolved to portray: 1) accuracy over interpretation; 2) a sense of dynamic movement; and 3) conceptual continuity, i.e., images that emphasized the interrelatedness of bodies and the environment.

  13. Choreographic notes were developed as a set of recommendations for interdisciplinary stakeholders invested in children’s health, learning, and well-being (i.e., educators, artists, clinicians, architects, designers, etc.)

  14. glissando, music. adj.,n. performed with a gliding effect by sliding one or more fingers rapidly over the keys of a piano or strings of a harp.

  15. Manning’s notion of preacceleration (2009) refers to the virtual force of movement’s taking form. It is the feeling of movement’s in-gathering, a welling that propels the directionality of how movement moves. In dance, this is felt as the virtual momentum of a movement’s taking form before we actually move.

  16. Research team members: Coralee McLaren (Nursing, Ryerson University); Barbara Gibson (Physical Therapy, University of Toronto); Geoffrey Edwards (Geomatic Sciences, Laval University); Tom Chau (Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto); Cheryl Missiuna (Occupational Therapy, McMaster University); and Sheila Bennett (Education, Brock University).

  17. Following a rigorous ethics review process conducted across Torontobased hospital, university, and school research ethics boards, the study was conducted in two phases using a hybrid, art-science approach. In Phase One, four child-dancers with diverse abilities (ages fiveten years) participated in the development of a dance-play event comprising novel stimuli aimed at enhancing synchronous movements. Observational and neurological data were collected during eight weekly, consecutive sessions. In Phase Two, findings from Phase 1 were used to refine the dance-play event and elicit synchronous movement in eight children (ages elevenfourteen years) with a range of movement and cognitive dis/abilities at school. Spontaneous rather than scripted movement prompts facilitated children’s ability to attune to changes in rhythm, speed, and flow.

  18. Research team members: Coralee McLaren (Nursing, Ryerson University); Geoffrey Edwards (Geomatic Sciences, Laval University); and Donna Koller (Early Childhood Studies, Ryerson University).

  19. fermata, music. n, the sustaining of a note, chord, or rest for a duration longer than the indicated time value.

  20. legato, music. adv. adj., in a smooth, even style without any noticeable break between the notes.

  21. A fugue is a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts.

  22. According to Deleuze and Guattari (1987), a line of flight is a path of mutation precipitated through the actualization of connections among bodies that were previously only implicit, and releases new powers in the capacities of those bodies to act and respond.

  23. The phrase “body-in-the-making” stems from Erin Manning’s proposition (2009) that thought is not solely of the mind, but in motion towards the body-becoming.

  24. coda, music. n., the concluding passage of a movement or composition that is distinct from the main structure.