Kinesthetic Learning

A question that presents itself when we think about cultural differences in movement style and bodily experience is how these are transmitted from generation to generation. By imitation alone? Bateson and Mead have described a process that they called kinesthetic learning. They wrote:

  An individual's character structure, his attitudes toward himself and his interpretations of experience are conditioned not only by what he learns, but also by the methods of his learning. If he is brought up in habits of rote learning, his character will be profoundly different from what would result from habits of learning by insight.

Among the Balinese, learning is very rarely dependent upon verbal teaching. Instead, the methods of learning are visual and kinaesthetic. The pupil either watches some other individual perform the act or he is made to perform the act by the teacher who holds his limbs and moves them correctly. During this process the pupil is entirely limp and appears to exhibit no resistant muscular tensions. A Balinese hand, if you hold it and manipulate the fingers, is perfectly limp like the hand of a monkey or of a corpse.

Before the Balinese child can walk, he will be taught simple hand dance gestures, first by manual manipulation, and later he will learn to follow visual cues, as the parent hums the familiar music and gestures before the baby's eyes with his own hand. This situation, the child dancing in the sustaining arm of the parent and that arm vibrating rhythmically to the music, becomes the prototype of Balinese learning in which as he grows older he will learn with his eyes and with his muscles. But the learning with the eyes is never separated from a sort of physical identification with the model. The baby girl climbs down off her mother's hip to lift a bit of an offering to her head, when her mother or elder sister does the same.

Learning to walk, learning the first appropriate gestures of playing musical instruments, learning to eat, and to dance are all accomplished with the teacher behind the pupil, conveying directly by pressure, and almost always with a minimum of words, the gesture to be performed. Under such a system of learning, one can only learn if one is completely relaxed and if will and consciousness as we understand those terms are almost in abeyance (Bateson & Mead, 1942: 84).

Kinesthetic learning in Bajoeng Gedé (photographs by Gregory Bateson)

The American composer Colin McPhee who, along with his wife Jane Belo and the German painter Walter Spies, introduced Bateson and Mead to Balinese culture, has described kinesthetic learning in the process of dance instruction.

  Before the first lesson is given, a week or more may be spent in daily massage and exercise to "soften" the body. Only when the teacher has decided the child is sufficiently limp and passive does the real work actually begin. There is no preliminary verbal explanation. It is taken for granted the pupil already has some idea of the dance—he has seen it performed so many times! Instead, the teacher walks behind him and, lightly holding his wrists in either band, draws out his arms in the opening pose. Humming the music of the dance, he propels the small body forward, inclining it this way or that like a puppet. For days the teacher continues to lead his charge as though be were playing a fish, but the time finally comes when, with a sudden release of the hands, he launches the dancer off into space. Now at last criticism can begin, and gesture and posture be rectified through patient correction. Over and over the teacher steps out to lower an arm, straighten a shoulder, bend a hand at a sharper angle or mold the body into a more sculptural unity.

From the beginning, the dancer learns movement and music together. These are inseparable, the expression of a single impulse. The dancer is the music made visible; he bears the same relation to the melody as the words to a song. At the first lessons, the melody for the dance the pupil is learning is hummed in his ear by the teacher, while the important gong and drum accents are verbally expressed as his body is suddenly jerked into different poses. But after a few days two or three musicians of the gamelan are called in (McPhee, 1970 (1954): 308-10).

Of course, in Bali as everywhere else children also learn by imitation: by practicing and rehearsing, often in a playful manner, the embodied performances of the adult.

Boys imitating the hand movements of a baris dancer during the temple fest in Bajoeng Gedé.