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Collaborative Inquiry in a Socially Shared Contextual Frame, Striving Toward Sensible Knowledge Creation on Dance Education

by Teija Löytönen - 2016

Background/Context: The tradition of dance art in Finland is characterized by values such as individuality and uniqueness, and the professional practice is structured by competition and different kinds of hierarchies, which may also add color to the culture of dance teaching. One of the most noticeable elements within the dance education community is isolation, the feeling of loneliness in one’s own work. The 3-year research project that this article is based on tackled the communal element of isolation by introducing collaborative inquiry to a group of dance educators as a way of identifying and transforming the culture of dance teaching.

Purpose of the Study: To better understand how to support and facilitate collaborative inquiry in diverse contextual frames, this study focuses on the social construction of knowledge among dance professionals. This research project examines the critical incidents that occurred during the collaborative knowledge generation process and, by doing so, sheds light on a more general phenomenon of facilitating the creation of new knowledge in professional contexts characterized by epistemic diversity or specificity.

Research Design: The participants in the research project included 15 dance teachers and 3 dance school principals from three different dance schools in southern Finland. They formed five working peer groups to explore their professional practice in dance education. An ethnographic case study design was used to examine the knowledge creation process from its inception in March 2008 through April 2010, two years of the overall 3-year research project. The author served as a facilitator for the participants and the working peer groups as well as a researcher in the collaborative inquiry process.

Data Collection and Analysis: During the collaborative process, the author attended several meetings of the working peer groups, observed dance classes and student performances, interviewed the participants individually and in groups, corresponded with them through e-mails, and discussed different themes in the joint seminars. This article draws on the field-based ethnographic data assembled during the collaboration, especially diary notes, photographs, and video and audio recordings.

Conclusions: Based on the ethnographic data, the author draws several conclusions with implications for facilitating collaborative inquiry. First, it is argued that experiential bodily knowledge is the foundation for a profound and accurate understanding of the specific activity of dance education: Creating a precise focal knowledge in dance education requires not only lived participation in these activities but also an embodied mode of reflection. Second, and from a more general viewpoint, it is argued that there are diverse (other) ways that practitioners know within their respective professional fields and contextual frames, and that such knowing is revealed through specific modes of performance, action, and reflection. And thus, third, cultural sensitivity and responsiveness could be seen as fundamental to the democratic knowledge generation process in terms of both encouraging sensible participation and striving to avoid a hierarchical and elitist approach to the research enterprise.

The literature on collaborative inquiry is emerging in different fields of research, especially in the fields of adult education and teachers’ professional development (Bray, Lee, Smith, & Yorks, 2000; Crockett, 2002; Erickson, Brandes, Mitchell, & Mitchell, 2005; Holmlund Nelson, Slavit, Perkins, & Hathorn, 2008; Jenlink & Kinnucan-Welsch, 2001; Kasl & Yorks, 2002; Snow-Gerono, 2005; Wood, 2007; Yorks, 2005). The studies show that an increasing number of professional developers are structuring experiences around collaboration and inquiry, thus striving to move from a one-time workshop approach toward more embedded, long-term, and reflective processes in professional and community development. Also, within the arts, both research and professional practices have undergone changes that reflect increased cooperative and collective participatory efforts (Dyer & Löytönen, 2011; Miell & Littleton, 2004; Preston-Dunlop & Sanchez-Colberg, 2002; Rouhiainen, 2008; Wasser & Bresler, 1996).

The central notion in collaborative inquiry is democracy: encouraging participation and striving to avoid a hierarchical or elitist approach to professional practice, developmental efforts, or knowledge creation. Thus, this form of practitioner-based inquiry is strongly influenced by the values of a participatory world view articulated by, for example, John Heron and Peter Reason (Heron, 1996; Heron & Reason, 2008; Reason, 1994, 1998; see also Yorks, 2005). However, even though the notion of the social construction of knowledge has been taken seriously as a part of the processes of collaborative inquiry, the implications for acknowledging different ways and modes of generating and communicating meaning have been limited.  

Although interesting and insightful articles on collaborative inquiry have been published, little has been said about the subtleties of collective and collaborative knowledge generation within different contextual frames, which has also been noted by Bray et al. (2000, p. 137). The focus of the research presented in this article is on facilitating the social construction of knowledge within the collaborative inquiry process into the culture of dance teaching; other viewpoints on our collaborative process have been addressed elsewhere (Dyer & Löytönen, 2011). By using the field of dance education in Finland as an example and by describing the critical incidents that occurred during the collaborative inquiry process among the participating dance professionals, this article sheds light on a more general phenomenon of facilitating the creation of new knowledge in professional contexts characterized by epistemic diversity or specificity (see also Yorks, 2005, p. 1218). In so doing, the article provides some insights into how collaborative inquiry could offer a more practitioner-based and context-sensitive social space to enhance sensible (and sensuous) meaning making and knowledge creation.

Following a summary of arguments regarding the background, motivations, and theoretical frameworks for a collaborative inquiry into the culture of dance teaching, the first part of this article frames collaborative inquiry within the fields of qualitative research, especially participatory action research. It also offers an application of this form of inquiry in the socially shared contextual frame of dance education in Finland. The second part of this article describes the methodological approach of the study, namely at-home ethnography. Following the main emphasis of this article, a focus on the emerging epistemological issues within the collaborative inquiry process, the article concludes by reflecting on the roles and challenges for facilitators and scholars engaged in these kinds of collaborative inquiry and qualitative research processes.


The motivations for the research project, called Moving Mosaic—Collaborative Inquiry as a Way of Identifying and Transforming the Culture of Dance Teaching,1 were both social and personal. My observations of the major changes in the sociocultural circumstances of dance education in Finland, in addition to my earlier studies on dance education institutions, spurred my interest in facilitating collaborative inquiry among the dance professionals involved in this study.

A major change in art education in Finland occurred in 1992, when the new Act on Basic Art Education was passed. It obliges municipalities to provide art education for children in accordance with national curricula. Thus, basic education in the arts is goal oriented, progressing from one level to the next, and it teaches children skills in self-expression and the capabilities needed for a vocational, polytechnic, and university education in their chosen art form. Even though participation in basic art education is voluntary, the Act brought a significant improvement in possibilities to study diverse art forms. It is noticeable that the compulsory comprehensive school from Grades 1 to 9 offers art education only in music, visual art, and craft. Thus, the Act brought a considerable change to dance education, which previously had largely been based on studio work in private dance schools. Along with the new legislation, dance schools must now:

Observe the national curriculum principles in accordance with the general as well as extensive syllabus for dance art.

Prepare dance school-specific curricula.

Provide dance education and assess the students according to the new values and principles.

Evaluate the dance school’s dance education and the school’s overall activities and effectiveness.

The legislation also requires that dance teachers possess an applicable higher education degree. Previously, the teaching profession in dance was mainly based on a dance teacher’s personal training experience and her or his career on stage.

Besides the mentioned new requirements, the amount of dance education offered has also increased significantly. During the past 15 years, between 1994 and 2008, the number of dance students has more than doubled, from slightly over 15,000 to more than 30,000. The same increase has occurred when looking at the dance classes offered: Teaching hours have nearly doubled. In both cases, the increase has been more rapid since 2002. (Koramo, 2008; Porna, 1998, 2000, 2002). The year is noticeable because it was the first year that the dance schools offering basic art education in dance began to receive direct state subsidies. This strengthened their financial position significantly.2  Beside the amount of dance education now being offered, it is also much more diverse with respect to the dance classes being offered as well as the students attending the dance classes. Whereas in 1994, the most common dance classes were ballet, contemporary dance, jazz dance, and children’s dance, in 2008, the dance classes on offer also included contemporary dance for boys, acrobatics, break dance, hip hop, show, show jazz, street dance, and dance aerobics. Also, elements from other art forms, such as theatre and visual arts, are now included in the curricula. The dance schools also broadly offer dance classes for kindergartens, primary schools, and local high schools, some of which have special programs for dance studies. In addition to the mentioned groups, dance is also part of national and local programs for different special groups and communities. The local dance schools often organize dance education as a part of these special programs.3

The Act on Basic Art Education has meant a considerable change in the culture of dance teaching with its new, national requirements for the dance curricula as well as for the dance teachers’ educational background. Also, the increasing number of classes and broadening spectrum of dance education has challenged the cultural conventions of teaching dance art. Questions such as what is dance art, for whom is it taught, and for what purpose are now being addressed. As I found in my earlier study on the everyday life of dance institutions, some dance teachers have even experienced the new challenges as a threat to their identity, whereas for others, the changes have represented a professional opportunity for growth (Löytönen, 2004). Indeed, both the dance schools and the dance teachers have quite often been left without any adequate support during this extensive reformation process. One of the interviewed dance teachers (Löytönen, 2004, p. 230; see also Löytönen, 2008, p. 24) described her experiences in the following way:

. . . that we could discuss, thresh out and analyze. Teachers could come to my classes, too, make notes and ask questions about things that my teaching calls forth. Opinions. I long to not be so lonely. Anyway, we all share the same students at one point or another. It is very practical cooperation. That is what I long for. I wish we could help one another during the whole year and not only critique each other during assessments.

This short extract also brings forth a noticeable element in the culture of dance teaching, namely isolation. This is due partly to the fact that dance classes usually take place in the afternoons, evenings, and weekends, in several different locations, and they are taught by part-time teachers, thus making it difficult to meet and share experiences or to co-operate. But the tradition of dance art is also characterized by values such as individuality and uniqueness, and the professional practice is structured by competition and hierarchies of different kinds, which may also add color to the culture of dance teaching (Löytönen, 2004; Wulff, 1998).4

The reorganization and changes within the culture of dance teaching are visible, but it is much less clear what it means to be a dance teacher within this new culture. How do dance teachers respond to the new, multiple, and even unpredictable requirements? How do dance teachers adapt to the challenge of change in their professional practice? What are the dance teachers’ own desires for change, or indeed, do they even want to change at all? How do members of the community of dance teachers support one another in making sense of dance education and of being a dance teacher?


With the previously described changes and challenges in mind, I wanted to tackle the cultural element of isolation in dance education. I invited dance teachers and dance school principals from three different dance schools to collaboratively explore the culture(s) of dance teaching in Finland. The theoretical framework that guided this research was twofold. The first assumption was based on a vision of culture as a matter of meaning making and communication (Fornäs, 1995; Hargreaves, 1994). Johan Fornäs noted that culture comprises meaning-making practices and expressive forms; intersubjective understandings are then constituted based on these forms and practices. Hence, culture is not about all social life or only about the art world, works of art, and their traditional institutional settings. Instead, culture is that which is communicated and shared between people through symbolic forms (Fornäs, 1995, p. 137). Within this tradition, the sense-making mechanisms are thus of particular interest and include the standards and rules for perceiving, interpreting, believing, and acting that are typically used in a given setting, such as within organizations (Sackmann, 1991, p. 33), or in our case, the dance education community in Finland. Thus, the culture of dance teaching is like a continuous communicative practice among dance professionals in their given settings. It consists of polyphonic symbolic “voices,” both approving and contesting voices, through which the dance professionals strive to make sense of the world around them, others, and their place within this world. Fornäs continued, “We do not passively submit to pre-existing frames, rules and codes, but reshape and recreate ourselves, each other, our worlds and our symbolic forms in an at least potentially open, active and creative process” (Fornäs, 1995, p. 1). Through these diverse communicative encounters, I understand the culture of dance teaching to be in the midst of transforming itself into new (emerging) patterns and meanings. Culture, thus, is not a static structure but an ever-changing process.

The second aspect of the theoretical framework considered the importance of jointly exploring the culture of dance teaching. If culture is inherently social and socially constructed, and if we want to understand it, let alone transform it, I believe it is of the utmost importance to create opportunities for dance practitioners to jointly make meaning of their professional practices and cultural settings. Hence, an understanding of culture requires a collective and collaborative inquiry into the underlying (sedimented) meanings and habits of meaning making: a process of making the constitutive forces of culture and its discourses visible and thus (possibly) revisable (Davies et al., 2004). At the core of this collaborative meaning-making process are the personal experiences of the dance professionals as well as their reflections on those experiences. It is a way of knowing and theorizing about their lives and work as well as of enabling them to share and learn from each other’s experiences (Bray et al., 2000; Kasl & Yorks, 2002; Yorks, 2005). And so, when designing our collaborative research project, an important starting point for me was to establish a close connection between research and practice, and consequently to advance the construction and use of (research) knowledge within the everyday practices of dance education. By such close-to-practice inquiry, I wanted to encourage the participants to find and point out various personal as well as professional, social, and (even) political questions and challenges that are relevant in their own work and possibly within the dance education community as a whole.

Based on the background and theoretical framework presented earlier in the article, the Moving Mosaic research project had several objectives: first, to pursue practical collaboration and support among the dance professionals, and second, to bring forth some core but unarticulated undercurrents within the present-day culture of dance teaching. In that respect, the overall aim of the study was to enhance self-understanding and to provide some means for reflexivity within the complex and rapidly changing circumstances of dance education in Finland.


As noted earlier, collaboration is a topic of growing interest and scholarly activity in different fields of research. In addition to adult education, teachers’ professional development and community development collaboration has inspired scholars in the fields of feminist research (Lather, 2001; Lather & Smithies, 1997; Mauthner, Birch, Jessop, & Miller, 2002) as well as qualitative and action research (Gershon, 2009; McIntyre, 2008; Reason & Bradbury, 2008). Within these different contexts, the orientation of collaborative research has been referred to as practitioner research or practitioner-based collaborative action inquiry, participatory action research, and collaborative inquiry. Even though the goals and purposes of the different collaborative research orientations are diverse, and the models and forms of conducting participatory research are numerous, the central notion of all collaborative research is to encourage participation from those who are being studied. In these kinds of collective inquiry processes, participants are agents of meaning making rather than objects of research. Therefore, the values in collaborative research celebrate participation and democracy and strive to avoid manipulative, hierarchical, and elitist approaches to the research enterprise.

Though the different research orientations share the mentioned values, collaborative inquiry, which is the orientation of this research project, differs from other participatory research practices in some respects. As Bray et al. have noted (2000, p. 38), what is most significant is the distinction between researching a system, which may involve gathering data on others as well as collaborative learning, and the direct experience of participating in the inquiry process. Thus, collaborative inquiry is not (only) a method of research for knowledge creation; it is inherently a form of adult learning through experience, a way of participating in personal and collective reflection and meaning making. Another key distinction is that collaborative inquiry focuses on understanding and constructing meaning based on experience rather than on solving or changing individual, collective, and/or social issues, which is often the focus of different modes of action research (Bray et al., 2000, p. 47;  McIntyre, 2008). These distinctions are subtle, yet I have found them to be significant principles within our collaborative inquiry project into the culture of dance teaching.

Epistemologically, collaborative inquiry is rooted in the tradition of social constructionism, given that the social construction of meaning is important in terms of understanding how human beings negotiate meanings and build knowledge through socially shared efforts. Another central element that collaborative inquiry relies on is the notion of learning from experience through repeated cycles of reflection and action (Bray et. al., 2000; Holmlund Nelson et. al., 2008; Kasl & Yorks, 2002; Yorks, 2005). The focus, then, is on the practitioner’s own practice, and the inquiry process is directed toward finding a new understanding and building the capacity of practitioners for performance and/or improving the cultural setting of their particular practice. Lyle Yorks (2005, p. 1219) explained the goals that collaborative inquiry can best serve in the following way: “When realizing its most ambitious goals, practitioner research is transformative and emancipatory through practitioners’ reformulating reified structures of meaning and reconstructing dominant narratives that have shaped their practice” (p. 1219).


Collaborative inquiry has been described as an open process with no dogmatic methods or mechanistic ways of conducting an inquiry. Instead, ways of working are invented as the inquiry proceeds. It is a process that welcomes twisting evolutions, overlapping approaches, and perpetual transformation (see also Dyer & Löytönen, 2011). Collaborative inquiry may therefore take many forms. As Kenneth Gergen (1999) stated, “There are no rules because each form will depend on the conjoint aims and hopes of the participants” (p. 98). Despite it being an open-ended process, some principles served as important guidelines in our research project on the dance education community in Finland. These included understanding participants as coresearchers, focusing on collective reflection on experience, and the importance of making meaning for the public arena. All these inquiry principles are embedded in the ongoing professional activity of each participating dance teacher and dance school principal in their respective dance schools (see also Bray et al., 2000; Erickson et al., 2005; Weinbaum et al., 2004; Yorks, 2005). Our collaborative inquiry into the culture of dance teaching was, as a result, informed by the view that it is important to embed reflection in an ongoing practice, making it likely that what is reflected on and learned will influence and support practice in a meaningful way.

Another guiding idea in our collaborative inquiry was the metaphor of a moving mosaic. In this kind of collaboration, which has been described by Andy Hargreaves (1994), teachers belong to different informal groups that form dynamic collegial networks, where the sharing of experiences and ideas, and questioning of beliefs and perspectives, can enhance self-understanding and thus professional development. Through this informal and open format, I wanted to give space and authority to the dance teachers themselves in designing the nature of the collaboration. An important principle for me was to try to avoid a form of collaboration that Hargreaves described as “contrived collegiality” (p. 191). It is the kind of collegiality in which collaboration becomes a commitment not to developing and realizing purposes and finding ways to work on one’s own, but to merely implementing ideas devised by others, which is often the case in short-term or one-time developmental workshops. Therefore, the idea was not to impose any demands “from the outside” but instead to foster the dance teachers’ autonomy, collegiality, and efficacy in exploring their everyday lives (see also Holmlund Nelson et al., 2008; Wood, 2007).

Based on the preceding notions, our collaborative inquiry into the culture of dance teaching can be described as a process by which colleagues gathered in collegial peer groups to pursue, over time, the issues that they identified as interesting or important in relation to their professional practice. This means that the participants were allowed the time and space to collaboratively explore aspects of their professional practice. Time and space here refers both to material location (working together at the school sites) and to a special kind of activity dedicated to reflecting on and exploring their professional practice of dance teaching. Therefore, the idea within our inquiry was not to foster any changes through specific interventions and predictable outcomes. Instead, the aim was to establish a generative social space to facilitate dialogue among the participants for meaning making and to find mutual support and productive challenges (see also Yorks, 2005, p. 1219). This type of approach promotes new understandings of oneself, others, and one’s own professional practice, which can consequentially lead to changes in one’s practices.


In this collaborative inquiry into the culture of dance teaching in Finland, the knowledge creation process was multifaceted and evolved in cycles. First, the participating dance professionals explored the issues they found interesting or important in relation to their professional practice. It could be understood as a process of inquiry and an application of small-scale theorizing (or articulation) about specific experiences or concerns they identified with respect to their particular situations (Dyer & Löytönen, 2011). Second, I, as the initiator and researcher in this project created (academic) knowledge on what and how the participating dance professionals make meaning in relation to their dance teaching profession. My approach was an ethnographic case study design supported by discourse analysis. These cycles, however, were not separate; rather, they evolved through interwoven and open processes throughout the collaborative inquiry project. The processes of generating (new) knowledge on the culture of dance teaching in Finland, then, supported one another.   

This article is based on a 3-year collaboration with the dance professionals. During this time, I had the opportunity to take part in several meetings and discussions with the participants and the working peer groups, to observe dance classes and student performances, to interview the participants individually and in groups, to correspond with them through e-mails, and to discuss different themes in our joint seminars. This article draws from some of these field-based ethnographic data that I assembled during our collaboration. Thus, this article is an ethnographic account of my encounters and, more specifically, of my embodied ethical encounters with ways of knowing among the dance professionals. Ethnography here is understood as

a process of creating and representing knowledge (about society, culture and individuals) that is based on ethnographers’ own experiences. It does not claim to produce an objective or truthful account of reality, but should aim to offer versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as loyal as possible to the context, negotiations and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was produced. (Pink, 2009, p. 8; see also Pink, 2007, p. 22)

The ethnographic approach in this study can be specified as at-home ethnography (Alvesson, 2009, 2003; Davida, 2011, p. 2; Wulff, 1998, p. 5; see also Halstead, Hirsch, & Okely, 2008) in the sense that I describe a cultural setting to which I belong not as a practitioner but as a dance scholar.5 As Mats Alvesson has noted (2009, p. 160), at-home ethnography draws attention to one’s own cultural context, to what goes on around oneself, rather than putting oneself and one’s experiences in the center. Here, at-home ethnography differs from other ethnographical approaches in which the deeply personal experiences of the researcher are in focus, such as autoethnography (e.g., see Holman Jones, Adams, & Ellis, 2013). At-home ethnography, then, is “a study and a text in which the researcher-author describes a cultural setting to which s/he has a ‘natural access’ and in which s/he is an active participant, more or less on equal terms with other participants” (Alvesson, 2009, p. 159). In our collaborative inquiry process into the culture of dance teaching, I am not an “equal” participant in the sense that I am not a dance teacher making meaning of my experiences in teaching dance. However, I am an “equal” participant in the process of creating knowledge about the culture of dance teaching. Hence, my role, in addition to that of facilitator, is as a kind of “observing participant” (Alvesson, 2009, p. 159), and the observations concern the question of what goes on during the meaning-making and knowledge creation process.   

At-home ethnography can be approached in several empirical ways. One approach follows a more traditional way of doing ethnographic fieldwork, which consists of a planned and systematic kind of data collection in which the research interest is decided on in advance, at least to some extent. The data are then collected in relation to the research interest and consists of diverse material, such as field notes on observations, interview statements, audio and visual material, and other documentary resources (e.g., see O’Reilly, 2005). According to Alvesson (2009), a less structured at-home ethnography uses an emergent-spontaneous study that begins when something revealing or interesting happens, or “pops up” (p. 164). With such an approach, the researcher explores something unexpected or something familiar in a new light. “The idea is that a consistent, long-term scan of what one is experiencing produces a more extended set of incidents or an especially rich and interesting event calling for analysis,” said Alvesson (p. 165).

In our collaborative inquiry process into the culture of dance teaching in Finland, I gathered a broad range of data on the knowledge creation process. That is, I did not decide in advance what to focus on. Instead, the data-gathering process constantly evolved and consisted of audio recordings (peer group meetings), video recordings (joint seminars), photographs as aides-memoires, my diary notes on the process, and interview memos. The audio recordings from the peer group meetings, which consisted of approximately 30 hours of discussion, were later transcribed both by the project researcher6 involved in the process and by myself. We transcribed the audio-recordings from each peer group meeting that either of us had attended and focused on w h a t the dance teachers had talked about during the meetings. To obtain a holistic understanding of the current pedagogical concerns within the culture of dance teaching in Finland, I analyzed the transcribed texts thematically and grouped them into categories in relation to h o w the dance teachers were making meaning of teaching dance. Hence, my analysis was a kind of discursive meta-analysis of our inquiry process within and across the different peer groups.7 This analysis was discussed in our joint seminars as a means of reviewing the analysis and interpretations and engaging the participants in the evolving meaning-making process and (academic) knowledge creation process for dance teaching in Finland. Consequently, the meaning-making process was constantly and appropriately pivoted so that the participants could exchange points of view and acknowledge their diverse experiences, perspectives, and ideas.

In this article, however, I explore something that p o p p e d  u p unexpectedly within our collaborative inquiry process, something quite familiar yet seen in a new light. Thus, some specific incidents (acts, actors, events, and situations) that made me realize the sensitive nature of the meaning-making process are brought into focus (Alvesson, 2009, p. 165). My ethnographic description strives to concentrate on the richness of a few interesting (revealing) situations in order to create an account that leads to a more theoretical discussion of how to facilitate the meaning-making process in a professional context, one that is characterized by epistemic diversity or specificity. As Alvesson pointed out, “The trick is more a matter of accomplishing a description and insightful, theoretically relevant ideas and comments out of the material” (p. 162). At-home ethnography in this study, then, constitutes a theoretical development that is well grounded in experiences and observations within our collaborative inquiry process.

To create a rich picture or thick description, at-home ethnography emphasizes the careful documentation and interpretation of the social events that the researcher witnessed firsthand. Hence, the use of multiple methods is sometimes referred to as triangulation and sometimes as mixed methods (Alvesson, 2009, p. 158; see also Denzin, 1994). In this study on facilitating collaborative inquiry within the culture of dance teaching, the incidents that popped up led me to go through the gathered material and to gather new material to create an account, interpretation, and analysis of the events that had occurred. The account and analysis are based on my (participant) observations during the process, which were documented in the thematically transcribed audio recordings (peer group meetings), video recordings (joint seminars), photographs, and diary notes. The photographs or video clips cannot be reproduced directly, but selected (still) images have been used as the basis for the line drawings (Figures 1–5). The drawings deliberately highlight certain information to draw attention to particular aspects of rather revealing incidents. They are not direct representations of reality, but results of analytic and interpretative processes that aligned with my methodological approach. As Nick Hopwood has noted (2013), these kinds of line drawings provide useful reference points to ground abstract or general arguments in particular temporal and spatial configurations of bodies and things.

Following the principles of at-home ethnography, I do not hide my personal (participant) experiences and concerns during the meaning-making process. Instead, I strive to understandably interpret my encounters with ways of knowing during our collaborative inquiry into the culture of dance teaching. Inspired by our collaborative process in and into dance education, as well as by some newly (re)discovered poststructural writers (Lather, 2001; Lather & Smithies, 1997; Spry, 2011; Wyatt, Gale, Gannon, & Davies, 2011; see also Guttorm et al., 2012), my search for understanding is demonstrated by the use of parentheses and maybe some o t h e r  m o d e s of (experimental) writing that emphasize a more tentative, open, and partial interpretation, drawing attention to matters of uncertainty and flux (Alvesson, 2009, p. 159). Thus, I have tried to find movement in my writing to draw attention to the fact that there is never a single story and that no story stands still.


Collaborative inquiry is shaped by a number of factors, including the relationship a researcher has to the community and sociocultural circumstances. The researcher’s negotiated entry into an existing community, or her negotiated creation of a new community of inquiry, begins with her awareness of issues and circumstances and is tied to potential participants or stake-holding groups. Bray et al. (2000, p. 51) noted that the impetus for initiating a collaborative inquiry process often comes from disquieted feelings or a sense of dissatisfaction rooted in one’s own experience as a practitioner or as a scholar. This was also the case with me. My former research on everyday life in dance institutions brought to the fore the cultural element of isolation, which I wanted to tackle through collaborative inquiry. Thus, as Bray et al. suggested, the key question when inviting others to participate in a process of collaborative inquiry concerns the issue of whether or not the topic of inquiry resonates with the experiences of the involved parties and impels them to engage in a process of inquiry (p. 53), which undoubtedly requires commitment, time, and energy.

The research project started in March 2008, when 15 dance teachers and 3 dance school principals from three different dance schools in southern Finland gathered to form a collaborative group to inquire into the culture of dance teaching. Each dance school had, more or less, an equal representation in the collaborative process: school one had 5, school two had 6, and school three had 7 participants. The participants worked full-time as dance teachers or principals in their respective dance schools and represented the full-time faculty as a whole. In addition, the dance schools employed approximately 35 part-time dance teachers, six persons in administrative staff, and several other project employees at the start of the project.  

The three dance schools that I invited to take part in the collaborative research process are located in three cities in southern Finland. The schools were chosen based on the following criteria:

They all are granted state subsidies.

The schools have similar dance education curricula.

The schools are approximately the same size; enrollments range from 750 to slightly over 1,000 students.  

They are located close enough that the dance teachers are able to collaborate.

In addition to these criteria, the fact that I had had previous contact with these dance schools over the course of several years as a process consultant8 was a reason for choosing them. Some of these consultation processes concerned overall evaluation and planning of the dance schools’ activities or reflections on everyday issues within the dance schools. Others concerned problematic situations in the studios with dance students or with cooperation between members of the community. I believe my background with the participants over the course of several years put me in a special position in this project: I was not a total stranger but not an insider either. Instead, I was in a kind of neutral (scholarly) position with no specific ties or agendas with respect to the different dance genres the dance teachers represented,9 or with respect to the three different dance schools. At the same time, the participants were familiar with me and my ways of working and, in fact, this might have won me the trust of the dance professionals taking part in the project.

Before launching our collaborative inquiry project, I had been working with the principals of the three participating dance schools for more than a year to plan the project. The schools have different profiles in terms of their dance teaching, and thus, the principals perceived the potential for a new kind of collaboration between the schools and thought they would gain some insight into different aspects of dance teaching through sharing their experiences and (best) practices. Before starting the project, the dance teachers, who represented different areas of expertise and genres in dance art, expressed an overall interest in sharing their knowledge about dance teaching as well as in comparing their different ways of managing everyday phenomena as a part of dance education. Both the dance teachers and principals were also interested in taking part in the type of research project that brought to the foreground teacher collaboration, which is a grossly underresearched area within dance education.

During the initial meetings, an overall outline of the project was discussed. More specific aims and ways of working were talked about in our first joint seminar (March 2008), when all 15 dance teachers and 3 principals gathered together with me to plan the inquiry process.


The notion of coinquiry was the defining principle in our collaborative process. It means that each participant was a coinquirer, shaping the issues that her or his group wanted to pursue, designing the inquiry process, participating in exploring the inquiry issues, and making and communicating meaning in the public arena (Bray et al., 2000, p. 7; Yorks, 2005). In our first joint seminar, the dance teachers considered how their work is being presented, usually through student performances in national and international festivals and at conferences. Now they wanted something else. One of the dance teachers expressed it in the following way: “That this could be a forum where we do not have to present the success of our work or our best side. Instead, this could be a forum to bring forth the wholeness of being a dance teacher” (March 11, 2008).

The more specific objectives for the “Moving Mosaic” project included the following: “to get new ideas by comparing teaching practices,” “to identify weaknesses as well as personal strengths through collaborating with others,” “to recognize the characteristics of one’s own dance students,” and “to attain strength and even a flow to teaching dance.” These objectives could be summed up by citing one of the participating dance teachers, who expressed how she hoped the collaborative process would enable her to “see herself better through others” (March 11, 2008).

At the end of the same seminar, the participants formed five inquiry groups, which were constructed based on the needs and wishes of the participants themselves. The inter-institutional groups consisted of three to four participants with similar teaching subjects (dance genres) and/or responsibilities in their dance schools (e.g., vice principals). The principals formed one of the groups. The groups were self-organizing, arranging to meet based on their perceived mutual needs and aims (see also Bray et al., 2000, p. 53). So, this collaborative inquiry within the peer groups was mainly facilitated by the participants themselves and evolved throughout the research project. My position among the participants was clearly that of a researcher. However, along the lines of collaborative inquiry, I wanted to emphasize my position as a coinquirer, a coresearcher. In practice, this meant joining the activities of the inquiry groups and discussing different issues with the participants. But because I do not have experience as a dance teacher or a dance performer, nor as a dance school principal, my participation was not about sharing (my) experiences but more about listening, discussing, commenting on, and questioning different phenomena related to dance education from the point of view of a dance scholar (and a former enthusiastic trainee in dance). Thus, my position turned out to be that of a facilitator for the working peer groups and for the whole inquiry process.

On many occasions during our process, I struggled with my position as a coinquirer. Sometimes I felt like a “true” collaborator when discussing or digging up the undercurrents of dance education in Finland. At other times, I felt that we were only turning over different issues for far too long. During those particular moments, I wanted to direct the inquiry process toward what I thought might be good for the peer groups, for example, by structuring the inquiry process through clear(er) goals, ways of working, or even “rules.” I wrote in my diary, “This open process is really hard for me. What will happen in the peer groups? What if nothing happens? Will they benefit from our collaboration?” (May 5, 2008). On the one hand, I was afraid the process might become too incoherent and abstract. Yet on the other hand, I was afraid my facilitation and presence might diminish the engagement and efficacy of the participants. I was also deliberating about whether or not I was too hasty and thus not honoring the diverse aims and ways of working of the different peer groups: It takes time to be transformed from a group of colleagues sharing experiences into a learning community exploring professional practices. Managing and maintaining the line between an open and a more structured inquiry process was demanding and required me to strive toward sensitivity and flexibility when facilitating the processes of the peer groups and when structuring the overall inquiry project.

During their collaboration over the course of 2 years (March 2008–March 2010), the groups met several times to share teaching experiences and their stories on being and becoming dance teachers, observed each other’s classes and student performances, improvised coteaching projects, developed teaching materials, and deliberated on different topical aspects of their professional practice. The groups invented their inquiry issues as members got to know each other and explored the possibility of working together. During their meetings, the themes of the discussions shifted, and the inquiry issues were modified as members gained insight into their experiences and developed an understanding or an ability to articulate what they were interested in exploring. The inquiry issues included the themes describe in Table 1.

Table 1. The Themes and Underlying Issues That Emerged From the Collaborative Inquiry Groups

Theme of a collaborative inquiry group

Underlying issues and questions

Ideals and values in dance teaching.

This group discussed the question of who defines the ideals and values in dance teaching and on what grounds. They pondered how to define good dance teaching. One of the outcomes was that the diversity within dance teaching sets different criteria for good teaching and thus different requirements for dance teachers (e.g., in teaching children’s dance).      

The educative dimension in dance teaching.

This group opened up the notion of a holistic and student-centered approach in teaching dance.

They focused on the specificities of teaching dance for teenagers, which, according to their experiences, requires acknowledging, for example, students’ sensibilities and their delicate changes in appearances. They also shared notions on collegial collaboration and well-being at work and elaborated embodied modes to explore their inquiry themes.

The experienced juxtaposition between classical ballet and other dance genres.

This group discussed the tradition of dance teaching in relation to classical ballet and other dance forms. They wondered whether the experienced juxtaposition between classical ballet and other dance forms is, in fact, a fact of fiction. In conclusion, they found it important that dance teachers realize their own attitudes toward diverse dance genres and thus not pass them to students.

The peak experiences and nadirs in the everyday life of dance teachers.

This group identified their personal motivations and worries in relation to teaching dance. The dance teachers explored, for example, the relevance of the dance students, the work community, the economic circumstances, and their own continuous creativity in their well-being at work.   

The expectations of the principals.

The principals discussed issues in relation to the management and leadership of a dance school. They wanted to map the issues that their staff members found important in their work. One of the issues they highlighted was the principal’s role in the “communication network” of a dance school: being on the threshold, both part and apart.  

During the process, I found that the process of inventing, shaping, and reshaping the inquiry issues evolved quite naturally but also needed some support and encouragement from me and the project researcher in our collaborative project. For example, the ballet teachers’ group wanted to explore the experienced juxtaposition between the values of ballet and the values of other dance forms, such as contemporary dance, in dance education. They were very excited about the theme, but at the same time, they felt insecure about how to broaden their topic from mere assumptions and rumors to more articulated viewpoints. In one of their peer group meetings, we discussed possibilities for illuminating their chosen theme, not only through their own experiences but also through other resources such as journal articles and public discussions on the Internet. This helped the teachers plan their exploration of the theme, wherein the final version involved drawing meaning from data collected from questionnaires filled out by the teachers’ dance students. It was indeed interesting to note how some of the peer groups were quite independent and wanted to work by themselves, whereas others might have benefitted (even) from some more support and facilitation in their inquiry process. My purpose in the facilitation process was not to present my viewpoints and understandings in order to direct the participants’ thinking, but rather to further their interests—for example, by encouraging them to collectively reflect on their diverse experiences or by offering them interpretations of and theoretical notions on the inquiry issues.

Following the idea of making meaning for the public arena, the Moving Mosaic research project was framed by joint seminars in which all the participants met and discussed the topical issues emerging from the research project. During a total of four joint seminars, the inquiry groups described their activities and observations (or perceptions) of their professional practices as well as their collegial collaborations. So, the seminars served as forums for discussing the different viewpoints around dance education practice jointly and openly. At the beginning of our collaboration, we agreed that each peer group would have (more or less) an equal and self-designed opportunity to present and discuss their inquiry issues during each joint seminar. During the seminars, I sometimes experienced tensions between the different peer groups formed by the dance teachers and also between these groups and the principals, but rarely between individual participants. These tensions occurred when discussing delicate issues, for example, the experienced value of the different dance forms in dance education, the foundational nature of the dance schools, and the expectations of the different actors. Our seminars, however, were not the place for resolving the conflicting views, but rather for recognizing and exploring them from multiple perspectives. Thus, I was very sensitive to the marginalized voices when facilitating the forums, and I encouraged the diverse views to surface, for example, by presenting a different viewpoint myself or by asking somebody to express his or her view. I felt it was very important to focus on the idea that experiences are partial at the same time that they are valid.  

In addition to our joint seminars, the participants also wanted to organize open seminars for other dance educators in Finland. They actually were quite concerned about those members of their communities who could not be a part of this collaborative inquiry project. Thus, they felt it was of the utmost importance to share their experiences with the other members of the dance education community in public seminars. These seminars, which took place in May 2009 and April 2010, were based on workshops organized by the five inquiry groups around the inquiry themes described earlier. Along with the dance teachers, I also presented my observations and descriptions of the cultural elements of dance teaching in each of these seminars. My presentations were based on my ethnographic field notes as well as on the transcriptions from the inquiry group meetings in which I had taken part.10  However, I did not investigate the different themes that the peer groups explored. Instead, I focused on the w a y s in which the peer groups made meaning of their professional practice. Hence, as noted earlier, my presentations were a kind of discursive meta-analysis of our inquiry process within and across the different peer groups.


Interestingly, what came to the forefront for me in one of our joint seminars was an ethical question about collaborative knowledge generation, that is, about how to be more sensitive to the context in which collaborative inquiry takes place. The primary issue was figuring out how I as a facilitator and researcher could support and promote reflective practices to help the participants gain insights into their (specific) inquiry themes and their professional practice within d a n c e education.

At the very beginning of our project, a very interesting (and disturbing) question was raised by one of the dance teachers who had grown up in the culture of dance in Finland: “How do fish talk about water?” (January 21, 2008). She found it difficult to grasp the issues for mutual reflection and meaning making because she had been immersed within the culture as a ballet and contemporary dancer and teacher for so long; her mother, brother, and other relatives were also professionals in the dance field. Another contemporary dance teacher from a different dance school and region explicitly expressed her wish to have some examples or even tools for how to collectively reflect on dance teaching.

I found the questions interesting and understandable, and yet problematic, because one of the guiding principles in our collaborative inquiry was its informal and open format. Thus, as described earlier, I wanted to give authority to the dance teachers themselves in designing their collaboration as well as their reflective modes of attending to their professional practice. Rather than rely on my own or someone else’s ideas, my aim was to honor the dance teachers’ freedom in working with each other.

Despite the mentioned principles, I also wanted to respond to the questions raised by the dance teachers. So I introduced some ideas about how to give attention to the everyday issues within dance teaching. I offered the participants four possible “tools” inspired by my educational studies and professional practice within teacher education faculties in Finland. The four tools were based on theories of adult learning and professional development: (a1) keeping a learning journal for documenting events and observations in one’s own dance teaching and during collaboration with others, (b2) utilizing a method to identify shared beliefs during joint discussions, (c3) posing questions as a way of discussing different aspects of dance teaching, and (d4) engaging in peer observation (in dance classes) and review practices. (e.g., see Brookfield, 2000; Mezirow, 1990, 1991, 1998, 2000).

These tools, however, were not used very much by the teachers during our collaborative process, except for the learning journals that many of the participants actively used in their daily practices and drew from as they reflected on and pondered issues during our group gatherings. When I asked the participants in one peer group meeting (March 2, 2009) to consider troublesome issues that had arisen during our collaboration, I discovered that there was only one issue that concerned these tools of reflection. When the dance teachers described their experiences, I came to understand that these kinds of tools, as the s o l e mode of reflection, were not sensitive (enough) to the context and focus of this inquiry, namely dance and dance teaching, nor to the emerging and sensuous (aesthetic) nature of art making (e.g., see Eisner 2004). Instead of creating their own ideas on what and how to reflect on in dance teaching, I believe, the predefined and linguistic tools (with standard themes and procedures) still made them feel like they had to fit into a kind of (too) g e n e r a l discourse of both teaching and reflection.11

The question of reflection also came to the fore during our third joint seminar in November 2008, when we met at one of the dance schools. We started at 10 a.m. and spent the whole day together until 4 p.m. The 18 participants entered the school one by one through the rainy November weather in southern Finland.

The seminar followed a procedure that had evolved during our two previous cooperative seminars. We started by sharing how each one of us felt about coming together. We s a t around a long meeting room table and heard how taking part in the seminar had caused some distress because of the many unfinished tasks at work. At the same time, some felt that the seminar offered a deviation or departure from their day-to-day routines, making it possible to discuss dance education on another level.

Figure 1. Sitting around a long table (10 a.m.)


Figure 2. Sitting around a long table (10 a.m.)


Following the orientation, the participants worked in their peer groups to summarize their collaboration during the first half-year period of time. They s a t next to each other in diverse spaces and decided what they wanted to share with the other participants. Thereafter, we gathered around a long table (again) to s i t and listen to notions about dance education in Finland: the contradictions in teacher education; the specificities of teaching and studying different dance genres; the current teaching practices; values in dance education; job descriptions, roles, and responsibilities; students and their knowledge, skills, and motivation in dance; creativity in dance and everyday life; dance teachers’ well-being at work; and so forth.

After having lunch in a nearby restaurant, we continued by once again sitting around the long table and talking about certain observations and theoretical viewpoints that I wanted to share with the participants in relation to the (former) themes the peer groups had been pondering during their collaboration. These included, among other things, the ideas of tradition and change in the practices of teaching and learning dance, as well as in being and becoming a dance teacher.

Figure 3. Still sitting around a long table (12:30 p.m.)


Toward the end of the long and intensive seminar, we reflected on what we had talked about and learned that day while still sitting around the long table in the meeting room. The participants brought to the foreground the fact that the seminar had offered them space for a lively exchange of thoughts as well as some new methods of working. Despite the number of hours we had spent around the table, some of the participants still felt that it had been too short, as if we had been running from one theme to the next. A reflective comment by one of the dance teachers, however, focused in particular not on the themes of the discussions but on the ways in which we worked together during the day. She questioned whether “we could perhaps sometimes move away from this table—I don’t know what and how—but could we process some of these things in another way, in the studio, in a creative way? So maybe in our next joint seminar we could do something like that” (November 11, 2008). Another teacher immediately continued by noting that in so doing, “the other side of a human being could come to the fore. In a way, it is about whether what one hears is also bodily understood.” It was as if they were saying, m o v e m e n t is how we make sense of the world, that is, m o v e m e n t leads to understanding.12 I believe they were searching for more physical and embodied foundations for exploring and expressing their experiences in teaching dance.

When I later pondered the dance teachers’ questions and requests, I understood that their comments point to the possibility that particular modes of reflection and meaning making might evolve from embodied dance practices. I also realized that during the peer group meetings, the dance teachers quite often stood up and started to move rather expressively with their bodies as they grappled with finding expressions or language for their thoughts and felt understandings. They easily, and perhaps even unconsciously, demonstrated practices from their dance classes—for example, the movements of their dance students when doing dance exercises or rehearsing for a dance performance, the postures and positions of their students in relation to other dance students or in relation to themselves as dance teachers. For instance, for one of the peer group meetings (October 14, 2008), three dance teachers and I met at one of the schools. The group had met before and now continued sharing their experiences from dance and dance teaching. The discussion evolved naturally from their diverse roles and responsibilities as dance teachers at their respective dance schools to encountering students in challenging situations. By talking about a dance student for whom, the teacher thought, dance was a way to relax and escape a difficult life situation, the discussion shifted toward the meaning or significance that dance can have for both dance students and teachers. They pondered dance as a way of expressing oneself, of being a creative act, and about the fascination of the dance a r t. One of the teachers then stood up and started to exemplify this fascination by moving and demonstrating how a dance student in one of her classes had been playing with a particular dance, expressing her ideas and feelings behind the movements and all the while enjoying it. By (re)presenting the movements of the dance student, the dance teacher also illuminated the significance of the dance art for her by saying that “the experience of dancing is much more than plain movements or physical skills—it is about art, expression and creativity.”  


The dance teacher and her peer group later elaborated on their idea of reflecting in the studio as a part of our collaborative inquiry into the culture of dance teaching in Finland. During our next joint seminar (May 26, 2009), we made use of this embodied mode of reflection as the teachers presented and invited others to join the exploration of their peer group’s inquiry issue (i.e., the educative dimension in dance teaching) in an embodied manner.

The peer group divided the seminar participants into smaller groups and invited them, one by one, to go outdoors, and on the sunny lawn with birds singing in the trees, they presented a dance improvisation of their hectic everyday lives in their dance schools and in their diverse roles as dance teachers, publicists, colleagues, costumers, and more. By rushing around the lawn, by turning their backs on each other, by brushing their colleagues off, and by not listening to each other, the dance teachers were left alone to deal with the questions and insecurities they seemed to have with respect to their dance teaching and administrative tasks. Through the dance teachers’ embodied encounters, or rather, their embodied rejections, I could empathetically understand how the everyday life in dance schools is so busy that there is scarcely any time to share and discuss issues, scarcely any time to help each other, scarcely any time to stop and think.

Figure 4. Reflection through embodied dance practices—improvisation on the hectic everyday life in dance institutions


They (then) invited us to join together in sharing what enhances our well-being at work despite all the hustle and bustle. We did so by taking turns rolling a big die. When each one of us got the die, we had a chance to share our view on the issue. The moment felt delicate as we tried to find ways to express our notions of well-being at work and to connect with the others at that particular moment. But a chain of thoughts evolved, such as “recognition or appreciation by colleagues,” “when work is not overloading us too much,” “balance between private life and work life,” “finding out something new with the students,” “being involved with many kinds of activities,” and, and, and. . . . By throwing the die, we each got a moment of recognition and even a glimpse into our values in work and life.

Figure 5. Reflection through embodied dance practices—rolling the die to explore the notions of well-being at work


The embodied reflection continued via a joint improvisation on the challenges in teaching teenagers, a common denominator of this particular peer group. All of us took part in the improvisational dance class, in which one of the peer group members acted as a dance teacher while we, the participants, were either keen dance students or students who resisted everything the dance teacher was attempting to do. The “rebels” in this case were the other members of the organizing peer group. During a 5-minute improvisational class, I could feel the powerlessness of the dance teacher when she was trying to proceed with the dance class even as the “rebels” were determined to disturb everything. Yet, I also understood all the possible means she had at her disposal to deal with the resistance. She, for example, tried to give space to diverse ways of acting in the dance class, to let the group of dance students decide how to proceed, and to motivate the keen students to continue with their interests. There was no beginning or end to the improvisational dance class until it was time to stop. The peer group did not resolve the challenging teaching situation. Instead, they offered a way to b o d i l y experience the dance class from the inside, from the diverse viewpoints of the students in the class as well as from the dance teachers’ perspective. When we later (just after the embodied reflection) discussed our experiences with the improvisational dance class, I noted how it brought about strong emotions in relation to both the dance students and the dance teacher—anger, pity, compassion—all of which offered an empathetic understanding of the multifaceted and complex situation. The improvisation also awakened experiences in and ideas of how to handle different kinds of challenging situations when teaching dance, which the dance teachers shared spontaneously. The participating dance teachers thus not only explored and experienced the particular case but also offered approaches for action.         


Within the last few decades, reflection has come to be seen as an essential element in the development of expertise; scholars consider it a prerequisite of quality teaching and have argued that it is at the core of adult learning, transformation, autonomy, and empowerment (e.g., see Brookfield, 1995, 2000; Kolb, 1984; Mezirow, 1991, 1998, 2000; Schön, 1983, 1987). Also, scholars focusing on collaborative inquiry now consider reflection an important part of learning from experience. While the promises attached to the concept within different contexts are multifaceted and profound, the concept itself seems to have been trimmed down somewhat in practical use, as Kaisu Mälkki (2011, 2012) has interestingly pointed out. The different levels and modes of reflection suggested by, for example, Jack Mezirow often emphasize only the cognitive and rational dimensions of reflection at the expense of the emotional and social aspects (Mälkki, 2012, p. 46). According to Elizabeth Kinsella (2007), this kind of reflection relies on propositional, conceptual, and linguistic ways of knowing, the epistemology of “knowing-that,” in Gilbert Ryle’s (1949) terminology. Nonetheless, the dance teachers’ explorations of different modes of reflection revealed the importance of recognizing multiple ways and forms of knowing. Their movements or embodied modes of reflection were ways through which they could bodily explore different aspects of dance teaching as well as of being and becoming a dance teacher. They could be understood as a kind of knowing that arises through bodily experience and is revealed in and through the body in action (Kinsella, 2007, p. 396).

In trying to understand the embodied mode of reflection, I found the analysis by phenomenologist Jaana Parviainen (2002, 2006; see also Rouhiainen, 2008) most helpful. She has written extensively about bodily knowledge, especially as a part of dance art. Following Michel Polanyi (1967), she understands bodily knowledge to be a form of tacit knowledge, but in a way that is sensitive to the intertwining of both tacit and focal knowledge. Understanding tacit knowledge starts from the assumption that “we can know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 1967, p. 4).  So, most of this knowledge cannot be put into words. Focal knowledge, on the other hand, is explicit, and a person is able to talk about what he or she knows. Parviainen, however, is of the opinion that focal knowledge and tacit knowledge are two dimensions of the same knowledge. The latter refers to comprehension achieved by indwelling, that is, by participating and residing in different activities. Appreciating the tacit dimension that is revealed through behavior (in and through the body in action) means being attuned to an embodied and kinesthetic understanding of different activities, such as dance and dance teaching. This kind of embodied attunement, or kinesthetic awareness, concerns one’s own bodily and mobile experiences, the intrinsic sense of the whereabouts of body parts and overall posture. However, bodily knowledge involves not only the sense of the body, or a mere body-based technique, and the production of a skill, which are important elements, especially in dance and dance education. What Parviainen (2006, p. 76) suggested is that bodily knowledge forms the basis upon which all knowledge is grounded: bodily (kinesthetic) knowledge not only concerns one’s own bodily, intrinsic experiences but also allows for an epistemic access to the world more generally. In fact, Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (1999) used the concept of “thinking in movement” (p. 483), by which she meant to show that thinking in movement is our primary way of making sense of the world. She referred to several studies and wrote that “movement is the foundation of our epistemological construction of the world; even while some objects are static—like walls or pieces of furniture—there is movement in relation to them. What is crucial, then, is making sense of what is invariant amidst change” (Sheets-Johnstone, p. 498). She went on to describe how infants as young as 2–4 months of age are thinking in movement: “to anticipate is first of all to think ahead, as in expecting something to happen; to expect the reappearance of an object that has been moving along a certain path and disappears at a certain point on that path is to think dynamically, that is, to think in movement” (p. 498, italics in original). Our understanding of the things surrounding us concerns not only the attempt to conceptually cover them up but also to reveal them via the moving, s e n s u o u s body. For example, by moving around a tree, I am able to discover it from diverse angles. I can even touch it and sense the bark. Bodily and kinesthetic knowledge involves interaction with the world, and our moving body allows us to grasp it.    

With respect to dance and dance education, the sensitivity in and toward thinking in movement is heightened. When developing their abilities and bodily knowledge(s) through dance, dance teachers become subtly aware not only of their moving bodies and the possibilities for movement but also of exploring the world in and through movement, that is, kinesthetically. This kinesthetic awareness and bodily knowledge is apprehended and applied through situated practical activities, that is, through the historically, culturally, socially, spatially, temporally, and kinesthetically defined practices and environments of dance and dance education. Bodily knowledge, then, is always related to the local and particularized practices and situations through which dance teachers have constructed and gained their sensuous experiences and felt understandings. While participating and residing within the practical activities of dance and dance education, dance teachers gain experiential, bodily knowledge about the tactile-kinetic nature of the objects and environments surrounding them (Parviainen, 2002, pp. 12, 17–18; Parviainen, 2006, pp. 74, 76, 81–98; see also Ravn & Rouhiainen, 2010; Rouhiainen, 2008). I argue that this experiential bodily knowledge forms the foundation for a profound and accurate understanding of this specific activity: Retrieving precise focal (or conceptual) knowledge about dance and dance education requires not only lived participation in these activities (the everyday life in dance institutions) but also an embodied mode of reflection. Through spontaneously simulating and demonstrating incidents from their everyday life within their dance schools, the dance teachers kinesthetically explored their experiences in, for example, be(com)ing a dance teacher, their relations to their dance students and colleagues, their understandings of dance as a bodily practice and as an art form, their notions about the institutional contexts of dance teaching, and their well-being at work. The dance teachers’ embodied knowledge, gained from their experiences as dance teachers, was brought forth through moving, perceiving, sensing, observing, feeling, and thinking together. During the embodied mode of reflection, the knowing was revealed through their mo(ve)ment(s) and thus created an access point to the physical, social, and cultural environment of dance and dance education.

Drawing from the explorations by the dance teachers involved in this study, I have come to understand that the dance teachers’ engagement in embodied reflection was a kind of kinesthetic empathy toward one another. Kinesthetic empathy is a concept that many scholars have recently found useful in understanding the social interaction and communication that are a part of cultural practices, from art through entertainment and sport to physical therapies, as Dee Reynolds and Matthew Reason discussed in their edited volume (2012, p. 18). The concept has been approached from diverse disciplines ranging from art-based (aesthetic experience between performer and spectator) assessments to neurological (mirror neuron activity) assessments. Here, I rely (again) on Jaana Parviainen (2006, 2003), who based her definition of kinesthetic empathy on the philosopher Edith Stein’s (1917/1989) ideas, combined with an analysis of bodily knowledge. Parviainen understands kinesthetic empathy as a specific form (of the act) of knowing, one that always occurs in a reciprocal relationship. According to her, kinesthetic empathy has the capacity to make sense of other people’s experiential movements and to coordinate them with our own bodily movements. In a way, it enables us to experience each other’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences through simulation in reciprocal encounters. During their exploration of an embodied mode of reflection, the dance teachers’ engagement with kinesthetic empathy brought to light facets of dance teaching, or dance education more generally, that would have been otherwise difficult or even impossible to grasp: being attuned to an embodied understanding of the issues formed the basis for reflecting on and making meaning (f i g u r e out) of dance education. This kind of reflection and meaning making relies on both nonverbal and verbal levels of communication (see also Anttila & Löytönen, 2010).  


Collaborative inquiry has strong roots in the tradition of social constructionism (Gergen, 1999; Shotter, 2008), given that the social construction of knowledge is important for understanding how human beings negotiate and build knowledge through socially shared efforts. Even though within (the diverse practices of) collaborative inquiry, the social construction of knowledge has recently been taken quite seriously by scholars, the implications for acknowledging different ways of generating and communicating meaning have been, in my view, rather limited. Here, I am not referring to the “extended epistemology,” or four ways of knowing, developed by John Heron (1996) and applied as a part of collaborative inquiry by, for example, Elisabeth Kasl and Lyle Yorks (2002). By “extended epistemology,” Heron (p. 339) celebrated a holistic approach to knowledge (or knowledge creation and learning) that includes experiential, presentational, propositional, and practical modes of knowing. Experiential knowing is evident when we meet and feel the presence of something (like an entity, a person, place, or thing), whereas presentational knowing shapes our intuitive grasp of the significance of imaginary patterns (as expressed in graphic, plastic, moving, musical, and verbal art forms) and propositional knowing is expressed in intellectual statements (verbal and numeric) and the practical ways of knowing how to exercise a skill (see also Kasl & Yorks, 2002). Though I acknowledge the fact that the design elicits a broad and balanced engagement with all four ways of knowing within processes of collaborative inquiry, I want to focus on how to become more culturally sensitive to diverse ways of making and communicating meaning within specific, socially shared contextual frameworks. Within our contextual frame of dance education, the epistemological embeddedness concerned heightened bodily engagement, that is, the embodied mode of reflection when exploring the culture of dance teaching.

I suggest that the embodied mode of reflection and meaning making, explored in this study, allowed the participating dance educators to understand their inquiry issue(s) with greater depth of perception. By engaging themselves and inviting us, the other participants, in the embodied improvisation, we lingered (Bresler, 2008, 2014) together over the theme(s), letting them sink in and speak to us in a multimodal manner. This kind of lingering resists the quick recognition (or n a m i n g) of things and allows grasping an individual case, question, or concern in its diversity and richness. Too often we are hurried into (thin) descriptions, into something already known, without having the experiences and understandings unfold openly. Building on John Dewey’s (1934) notions of paying attention and recognition, Chris Higgins (2007), in fact, wrote, “In moments of recognition, our seeing stops short and we lose our chance to experience the uniqueness and complexity, the ‘thinginess’ and ‘thereness’ of the object. In seeing as, we fail to see more” (p. 390). The embodied mode of reflection is thus a cultivation of perception, which is something to take back to the everyday teaching practices. Paying attention to the body, bodily sensations and intrinsic experiences, bodily stances and relations with others (and the world at large) can not only enhance our understanding of a particular situation in a richer way but also offer more nuanced possibilities for action: a possibility to se(ns)e and do more.

My experiences as a facilitator of our collaborative inquiry process into the culture of dance teaching in Finland point to the danger of predetermining and scripting the processes of reflection, meaning making, and knowledge generation, regardless of the group or community where the collaboration takes place. The question of the embodied mode of reflection that popped up during our collaboration made me aware of the prior assumptions I had carried with me into the process, for example, the notion of reflection as (only) a cognitive or linguistic process. During the collaboration, I understood that the position and influence of the facilitator might in fact diminish a person’s motivation to participate in the process if the emphasis is no longer on caring for the emerging needs, interests, and approaches of the participants or the community.

Based on our collaborative inquiry into the culture of dance teaching, I argue that epistemological practices are contextually embedded ways of reflecting, knowing, and assigning meaning. And so, from a more general standpoint, I want to make it clear that for practitioners, there are diverse (other) ways of knowing within their respective professional fields and contextual frames and that such knowing is revealed through specific modes of performance and action. For example, in the field of architecture, the epistemological practices might include heightened visual or spatial modes of knowing (creating diagrams, drawings, pictures, models, and/or spaces), or, in the field of electrical engineering, they might include knowing through schemas, specific notations, charts, or figures. Professional knowledge(s) in diverse domains and disciplines, thus, include an embodied element, even if the body is not in the text under construction (as in dance): Professional discourses and knowledge(s) are materialized in actions and doings. Within collaborative inquiry processes, these (diverse) doings can be developed as “tools” to trigger reflection, to linger over topical inquiry questions in a tangible way, that is, not o n l y talking about them but also (re)presenting, embodying, or materializing the issues during the reflective present moment.

The exploration on embodied mode of reflection presented in this study is not aimed at critiquing or discarding the more “traditional” or linguistic modes of reflection. On the contrary, it is aimed at demonstrating the need for multiple toolkits of reflective inquiry that can be used as a resource, with each having different affordances and points of emergence. In our case, after discussing the inquiry themes for a whole day, the restless bodies of the dance educators called for embodying the themes through movement explorations. Hence, a kind of cultural attention, responsiveness, and sensitivity could be seen as fundamental to democratic knowledge generation within processes of collaborative inquiry: It is essential for encouraging sensible (and sensuous) participation and striving to avoid a hierarchical and elitist approach to the inquiry enterprise. Consequently, the greatest (ethical) challenge for scholars doing and facilitating collaborative inquiry is to explore and engage in the intersections of specific local (bodily, linguistic, and other) modes of knowing and gaining experience.

The intention of this article has been to draw attention to the subtleties of collaborative inquiry and the way knowledge is socially generated within different (institutional) contexts and settings. My interest in this topic was inspired by my own experiences as a qualitative dance scholar and facilitator in the collaborative inquiry process among a group of dance professionals. By following the lines of at-home ethnography, I have reflected on and (self-)critically investigated our inquiry process and offered viewpoints on how the perspectives gained from my experiences within the dance education community in Finland might challenge or present new ways of looking at how to facilitate processes of collaborative inquiry in diverse institutional contexts and settings. My account, interpretation, and analysis of the events that occurred were grounded in an in-depth participation in the collaborative inquiry process, which I indicated through descriptions and line drawings and which were often supported by quotes from the participants. The description touches on a mix of familiarity and surprise and ensures a certain element of variation and uniqueness for the multifaceted and complex process of facilitating collaborative inquiry when striving toward sensible knowledge generation.  


This research was supported by the Academy of Finland (Project No. 123822) and the Finnish Work Environment Fund (Project No. 108085). I am grateful for useful feedback from Professor Pirkko Markula and for insightful discussions with Professors Liora Bresler, Becky Dyer, and Naomi Jackson. I also thank all the participating dance professionals for their commitment and inspiring collaboration.  


1. This research project was funded by the Academy of Finland and the Finnish Work Environment Fund.

2. The selection process for becoming a directly state-subsidized dance school is based on the application made by the dance school and the school’s professional and financial prerequisite to organize the dance education appropriately. The authorization is given by the Ministry of Education and Culture. Other dance schools and institutions offering basic art education in dance can also receive a state subsidy, but it is optional. The financial basis for dance education consists of different financial recourses: tuition fees, financial support from the municipality and a direct or optional state subsidy, as well as other project-based funding.

3. The review is based on the annual reports of the three participating dance schools.

4. Though these kinds of values and professional practices have been challenged by more cooperative and participatory ways of working within the performing arts (e.g., see Preston-Dunlop & Sanchez-Colberg, 2002; Rouhiainen, 2008), they are still strongly rooted in the dance world, as can be seen in the competitions within dance, in the media and art criticism, and in the financial support for dance art.

5. I am neither a dancer nor a dance teacher, and thus, while the participants in this collaborative process are not my peers, I have been working in the art world of dance in Finland for my entire professional career. I was led to this field through enthusiastic training at different modern dance studios in Finland for more than 15 years. After obtaining a master’s degree in education and aesthetics, my first post was in dance curriculum development at Theatre Academy Helsinki. Having worked at the academy for about six years, my interest moved in the direction of exploring the working cultures at dance institutions. What puzzled me were my experiences inside these institutions, which seemed to include dynamics that were not easy to identify. I wanted to understand the often unspoken or tacit dimensions that determine the way of life within institutions. This led me to become trained as a process consultant and researcher within dance institutions. I completed my doctoral dissertation on the Everyday Life in Dance Institutions at the Theatre Academy Helsinki, Finland.

6. MA Isto Turpeinen acted as the project researcher between January 1, 2009, and August 31, 2010. He helped gather data during the peer group meetings as well as plan and organize the six joint seminars for the project. He was also responsible for videotaping the joint seminars.

7. Because the focus of this article is on specific incidents that occurred during our collaborative inquiry process, namely emerging epistemological issues, I will not elaborate on and present the discursive meta-analysis in this article.

8. Process consultation can be understood as a way of facilitating inquiry processes in order to understand the many different processes and phenomena employees encounter within their daily practices at different institutions and organizations (e.g., see Schein, 1988).

9. The backgrounds of the participants were diverse, representing different areas of expertise in dance: ballet, contemporary dance, children’s dance, and new dance forms, as well as choreography and improvisation. Some of them had an ongoing or former career on stage, and some were responsible for administrative assignments at their dance schools. Most of the participants had a master’s or bachelor’s degree in dance or dance education, but some had started teaching after a career on stage or after engaging in intensive dance training for several years. Many of them knew each other in advance through their manifold professional activities. During our process, all the participants worked full time as dance teachers or principals. Besides the project being part of their workload, they also received some funding from their dance schools to participate in the project, mainly transportation costs.

10. The field-based ethnographic data (diary notes, interview memos, video and audio recordings) are all in Finnish and were translated into English by myself.

11. There was, however, one teacher who used the tool as a method for identifying shared beliefs during joint discussions with her colleagues. She expressed that this tool had been quite helpful in bringing issues forward that she had previously been unaware of concerning the work of dance teachers.

12. This notion is in line with other dance teachers in another dance education community (see Dyer & Löytönen, 2011, p. 20).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 2, 2016, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18233, Date Accessed: 3/4/2021 4:07:20 AM

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About the Author
  • Teija Löytönen
    Aalto University
    E-mail Author
    TEIJA LÖYTÖNEN, PhD, currently works as an Academy Research Fellow at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture and as a Professor of Artistic Research at University of the Arts, Helsinki, Finland. Her particular research interests include higher arts education and collaborative inquiry in relation to professional development and knowledge creation. Her recent publications include: Mäkelä, M. & Löytönen, T. (2015) Enhancing material exploration in design education. In Zande, R. V., Bohemia, E. & Digranes, I. (eds.) Proceedings of the LearnxDesign 2015. The 3rd International Conference for Design Education Researchers. Vol. 1, 168–183; Löytönen, T., Koro-Ljungberg, M., Carlson, D., Orange, A. & Cruz, J. (2015) A Pink Writing Experiment. Reconceptualizing Educational Research Methodology, 6(1), 24–42; Löytönen, T., Anttila, E., Guttorm, H., Valkeemäki, A. 2014. Playing with Patterns. Fumbling towards collaborative and embodied writing. International review for Qualitative Research, 7(2), 236–257.
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