Conformity scene from Dead Poets Society

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Dance+: Dead Poets Society

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A lesson for teachers: Dead Poets Society
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Stella Mastorosteriou
Show, don’t tell! A teacher’s lesson on conformity from an embodied perspective

In an unusual lesson given to his literature class, John Keating (Robin Williams) appears to teach no less than an improvisation class. He uses walking as a metaphor for conformity: when in a group we tend to synchronise our pace. He asks three students to just stroll around the yard and unmistakably, they soon march in unison.

‘We all have a great need for acceptance,’ he explains. And then, much like any improv class, he opens up the space for research and experimentation, inviting the young men to find their own walk, to shed the self-criticism and swim against the stream. ‘You don’t have to perform – make it for yourself,’ Keating prompts. The boys go about, hopping and striding, stumbling and lingering.


John Keating (Robin Williams) encourages his class to march to their own tune

Is their movement special or admirable? Not really. But it is an embodied introduction to a theoretical concept which, Keating hopes, will speak to them more profoundly than simply conversing about it, as they live it in their flesh and bones. His students are not just thinking about how to be themselves, they are actively experiencing their own way of moving. Even the skeptical student who chooses to not walk is making his own choice against conformity; and that is in, Keating’s book, a success.

Dead Poets Society, released in 1989, may be seen as sentimental, but it is still a source of inspiration to countless students, creatives and romantics. There is an undeniable appeal in Keating’s passionate lectures. He loves his job at this expensive private boys’ school in Vermont. He cares about his students, though his methods are unconventional and attract the disapproval of the school authorities. He wants to engage the boys in the learning process, to commit to their dreams and live extraordinary lives. He sees poetry as a necessity for these lives. He is the teacher we would have loved to have as high school students; the teacher we want our educators to be.

Even as movie viewers, we are absorbed by his lectures. Watching the boys discover new ways of walking, don’t you wonder what your own individual walk might look or feel like? Their movement – kind of clumsy, kind of joyous, kind of comical, with the humour of teen awkwardness – lets them express exactly what they are: adolescents, unsure about the future, curious to explore the unknown.

Keating’s methods are of particularly interest to dancers and dance teachers because of his focus on embodied learning. His methods, unorthodox for a literature class of the 1950s, are relevant in a dance/movement context of any decade. Every exercise or metaphor Keating proposes is translated into an embodied experience. From ripping pages out of poetry books to standing on desks in order to change one’s point of view of the world, embodiment is the key to free thinking and claiming one’s own voice.

To paraphrase one of his catchy quotes: ‘No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.’ They are even more powerful when they can be taken, embodied and lived. 


Rise up: ‘O Captain! My Captain’ scene from Dead Poets Society
Theme: Dance+
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