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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw

The Power of Play

May 2015. It is the end of second semester at in the Ailey/Fordham BFA program. My students are working on a final showing of composition studies. Working in small groups, they are engaged in their own rehearsal process. In this final stage of creation my input is not necessary. So I find myself gazing out of the 6th floor windows looking at the building across 10th Avenue.

I have become transfixed by the repeating behavior of several flocks of birds. They gather on the rooftop of one specific building on 10th Avenue. One by one or in small groups, they launch off the edge of the roof and plummet downward without flapping. I am quite sure I am witnessing some form of aviary competition: Each bird falls to within a few feet from the ground, waiting until the last possible moment to begin flapping its wings.

Different groupings of birds gather, engage in this aviary competition and then fly off. Flock after flock launch, plummet then flap. It is like watching a ritual, a competition or rite of passage. They seem to be competing for who can sustain the plummet the longest. Each grouping would average about five plummets before collectively calling a halt to the game and flying off.

Perhaps I was intellectually orchestrating this behavior, imaging its logical progression, totally anthropomorphizing this game. However animals are known to play. This from an article on crocodiles at play:

Crocodiles Play, Too, Study Says—Why Do Animals Have Fun? Carrie Arnold, for National Geographic)

The Definition of Play: Many animals have fun, whether it's otters romping in the river, cats chasing lasers, or canines "play fighting." Sometimes, though, it's hard to tell what's enjoyment or what's something else, like defending territory or finding food.

Enter Gordon Burghardt, a biologist also at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who developed a scientific definition for play. According to that parameter, play must be repeated, pleasurable behavior done for its own sake that's similar, but not identical to, other behaviors in which the animal regularly engages. It also must be seen when the animal is healthy and not under stress.

The article goes on to discuss the purpose of play:

One of the leading theories is that young animals play to prepare for adulthood. But this doesn't explain why many adult animals (including humans) continue to play, nor does evidence show that play actually makes animals better at their adult tasks.

Although some studies explore the possibility that play serves to improve survival skills, there is no conclusive evidence that this is what is actually taking place:

All of this isn't to say that play is useless. Recent work in African elephants reveals that play has overall benefits for their physical and mental well-being. (Related video: "Elephants Communicate While at Play.") Similar results were found in Belding's ground squirrels (Spermophilus beldingi), when researchers showed that play increased both health and motor skills. In other words, animals seem to play because it's enjoyable, even if it doesn't have any immediate or tangible benefits.

Is play purposeful or just enjoyable? Looking back at over twenty years of teaching dance composition, I have come to firmly believe that creative process is mostly about play. My students who truly enjoyed the tangle of creative process went on to successful careers as choreographers and performers. For them work and play were intertwined.

My work as a choreographer only began to mature when I learned how to play. Perhaps by then I had finally had put in my 10,000 hours of practicing basic choreographic skills. I was finally ready to trust what I knew and play.

Watching those plummeting birds, I was struck by the magnificent and ironic juxtaposition of dancers working hard at creative process inside a glass building while flocks of plummeting birds played wing flapping games. Surely Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours includes healthy doses of playtime.

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