educating dancers

A site dedicated to dance education and related topics.


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Around and Around We Go…..

This weekend I had the privilege of performing with DITA (Dance in the Annex) in RAD Fest (Regional Alternative Dance Festival) hosted by Wellspring/Cori Terry in Kalamazoo, MI. It was wonderful to rehearse with this group of dancers over the last few weeks and wonderful to be onstage again. It was wonderful to take class with a terrific guide, Leslie Dworkin, and to see so many familiar and loved faces from my personal history in dance- from my undergraduate professors, former colleagues, former students, and long-time friends. What a treat. I feel so very fortunate.

It is funny, to me, how things continue to cycle through including relationships and exchanges. I marvel at how easy it can be to fall into conversation with some, as if the last time we saw each other was 15+ days ago and not 15+ years.

On my drive home, I pondered how much of my life is in accord with my goals from 15+ years ago and how much is different. I pondered the areas of my work and abilities that were dormant so long ago but have come forth to be strengths and distinctions.  I pondered how some of my life might come as a surprise to those that knew me long ago and then again, maybe not.

And I am curious about the growth of others…..  Often, when I see people from my past I tend to feel as though for them, nothing has changed. Maybe it hasn’t but that seems hard to believe. Job titles or dance affiliations may not have changed but what about their ideas, philosophies, practices, interactions. I wonder what we’d think of each other if we had time to reconnect as deeply as we once were. I am sure we’d still have affection but I wonder how the appreciation might be different now- not necessarily more positive or negative- simply different.

I find myself using these cycles as an opportunity to measure my growth; the increase in my perspective and decrease in ego. I watch strangers backstage, imagining what their lives may be like and wonder where that night’s performance stands on the map of their dance life. Where have they been? Where are they going? I realize “ego” seems to be exactly what separates the younger dancers from the, ahem, more mature.

I was also aware of the stories carried in the bodies I saw moving in class. Again, where have they been? Where are they going? How many children have been born, traumas and exhilarating experiences embodied, directions and levels changed? Movement is different in bodies that have truly lived.

So back to the cycles that keep us connected, moving, and measuring…..

…….where we will stop, nobody knows.

May we never stop.

 


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Current Trend: 5 Favorites

So my husband, Scott D. Southard, does this thing on his blog where he features 5 things he is into right now. I thought I’d steal the idea. Here goes:

Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance by Janice Ross

On my birthday, I read this interview at Stance On Dance and it inspired me to pick up Ross’ book (again). Halprin’s philosophy of dance education, dance-making, and life in general hits close to home these days and is helping me articulate some of my own thoughts and feelings in these categories. The body-mind connection has been a point of direct interest within the last few months for me, as has the utility of dance for self-acknowledgement, self-assessment, self-reflection, and self-expression. This has lead me to weighing dance education and dance performance in a variety of ways. As I have been examining my own personal strengths in these categories, as well as my experiences in professional-track dance and liberal arts environments, this reading has been quite a welcomed source of connection to like-minded artists and educational guides.

Journaling

For my birthday, I received a new journal (always a great gift) and I have been putting it to good use as I sift and sort through the thoughts and feelings notes above. This newest book is the official Dr. Who licensed TARDIS journal inspired by the one owned by River Song in the series. Love.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company DVD recording of the final performance at the Armory.

Another b-day gift, this has been playing in my mind over the last week as I have been thinking about “tea-cup breaking” (to reference the opening anecdote in Ross’ book about Halprin) examples of dance-making by interesting dance-makers.

John Dewey, Educational Philosopher and hero.

I am so “Dewey-ian” in my approach to teaching in that I view every learner’s education to be individual. He just keeps cropping up in my life in various contexts. I have been inspired by him for some time but have been enjoying revisiting his influence on the development of dance education through pioneers such as Margaret H’Doubler, who shifted the role of dance in academic curriculum.

MAEIA, DITA, and other neat acronym-ed dance projects.

My work with the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment project amps up again tomorrow and it appears I will be performing with DITA within the next few months. Details to follow as they become available…..


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Dance: To Whom Does It Belong?

Over the last few months, I have been re-examining my philosophy of dance and dance education. A few experiences have brought my attention to how the general public accesses dance and stakes claims to it outside of the discipline of dance- freely, confidently, rightfully.

As an undergrad, I felt it belonged to the most committed; those that made the most sacrifices in order to be in class and in rehearsal.

As a professional dancer, I felt it belonged to audiences by way of the trained dancer.

As a grad student, I felt it belonged to the dance-makers.

As an educator, early in my career, I felt I was offering dance students the gift of dance.

Now, I offer the gift of language but dance, and movement, belongs to everyone.

In the past, I took it upon myself to bring dance to other disciplines, wanting to expose connections and inspire new thinking for those working in dance, the other area, and everything in between. Now, I am stumbling into people that are non-dancers and yet using dance for their own purpose- in collaboration with dancers but largely independent of the field of dance. I find it to be a relief as well as an inspiration. Dance is alive and thriving even though I spend a fair amount of time waiting for its place to be diminished such as program cuts, minimizing, and etc.

My life in dance hasn’t been concrete. I started with a serious plan, a plot- even. Yet life has had a way of shifting my paths right in front of me, brought me to landmarks and guides that were unexpected but completely worth the detour, and changed my outlook completely.

I find myself asking, who am I best prepared to serve? Dancers with plans and plots? Dancers disguised as movers- with great attention to the function and purpose of dance in a myriad of contexts but without the contact hours or intent of dancing with technique as dancers perceive it? All of the above?

Anyway, this is what I am pondering these days. Hope fall is treating you well.


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Losing Center

Three weeks into the semester, I have determined I am doing too much. Something has to give. But how, when I am fascinated by so much, excited about new ideas and opportunities.

There are a few qualities in common among the things I want to be doing:

  • spending time with children as we discuss what they are thinking, learning, playing, and imagining.
  • listening to my husband talk with great brilliance about Shakespeare’s plays or new books he is reviewing and sharing jokes about anything and everything
  • discussing creative processes and organization of habits with sophisticated students ready for deep reaching dialogue
  • offering insight to younger students with great potential and the smarts to stop engaging in drama long enough to listen and explore themselves through the lens of dance
  • problem-solving interesting puzzles relating to parenting, art, teaching….people
  • continuing the self-care I harvested over the summer through Bikram Yoga and other means

The common denominator: Thinking and moving in honesty

There are a few qualities in common among the things I don’t want to be doing:

  • others’ lack of acknowledgement of great change being necessary and the courage to make it
  • the cleaning up of others’ messes before I can begin my own work
  • having the variables of my environment be imposed upon me rather than a natural response to the needs of the work
  • trying to figure out how I can appear on paper as dynamic as I am in the classroom
  • worrying about decisions I want to make or anticipate making. As Brené Brown puts it in her brilliant TED talk about the Gifts of Imperfection, “making the uncertain certain”.

The common denominator: Feeling I am being asked not to think but to sell and/or do and following through

I am finding that in response to a specific vulnerability, I am trying to do more in order to be more and appear more worthy in specific segments of my life in which I want to invite change.

 

I am finding it goes forcefully against all the progress I made over the last year in terms of opening my mind and practices in teaching, in art-making, and in my self-care.

Today, I take pause to rethink how I am trying to stockpile experience under the guise of marketability and robbing myself of quality experience and most importantly, the time to make connections.


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When the Body Answers Back

We know our stories are trapped in our bodies. We know we use our bodies to express personal perspectives within our stories. But what about when the body needs to do the speaking?

When I was living in NYC, one of my favorite classes was that of Alexandra Beller. She started each class with us laying on our backs, talking us through our bodies, giving us permission to let go of whatever we had been trudging through prior to class and to simply be before she invited us to move.

It never failed, each and every time I would get a lump in my throat, tears would stream from my eyes, and it seemed to come from nowhere. As I described in my post about David Howard’s class, here I was accepted as a person and then supported as a dancer. It was empowering, complex, surprising, and thought-provoking. Over ten years later, I am still thinking about it.

Over the years, I have had students go through similar experiences in my own class. This summer, I have finally had that feeling again in my practice of Bikram yoga.

Interestingly, this topic keeps coming up as I communicate with people from all over the dance map.

It makes me think the conversation needs to be opened.

In grad school, one area of my research was how organized movement curricula can help alleviate symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This, for me, was a brief and shallow advance into the world of research but the topic keeps cropping up in everything else I research and in all facets of my teaching- embodied learning for at-risk students, learning styles and methods for delivering information in a dance classroom, and more.

Without going into too much personal detail, I have experienced many traumas (death of a parent, being in NYC on 9/11, several robberies,….) and I have been conscious of how my body has felt and how my dancing has been impacted as a result of events. Things have helped and hindered along the way but nothing has had the profound effect for me as I have encountered this summer.

Through movement and possibly related to certain environmental conditions, I have felt the ‘baggage’ I have been carrying for years shift and eventually be left behind. Not all of it, but a substantial amount.

I have acknowledged the unevenness of sides of my body- in feeling like I am laying on an incline while in reality laying on flat ground, in sensing complete relaxation on the left side of my body while the right side is tense literally from the top of my head to the toes, even in wanting to cry but only on the right side of my face.

My head has flooded with thoughts that I have not allowed myself to entertain and in the next posture those thoughts flooded out.

I have felt the front of my body roar like a lion and I have cried, and cried, and cried- not in sadness but in release.

My body, mind, and spirit feel stronger than…..well, maybe ever.

In the reading I have done in recent weeks, I am suspecting that this breakthrough is, naturally, because I am ready. However, the environmental conditions of the yoga experience might also be important in my case. Namely, the heat.

Bikram as I understand, is the original hot yoga and all of this- the heat, the focus on my own practice and not that of my students, and the dedicated time to myself-  has returned me to when I was dancing intensely, in hot studios, sweating immensely, and so on. For me, living in NYC and dancing my way through the summer, all of this is relevant to conditions not directly relating to trauma but surrounding the trauma. It has taken me back to the time and not the event. And dance, the technical practice and focus on my progress and process, has been consistent in the time of all other traumas.

None of this has been easy, but it has been necessary. Due to the conversations I have had with others over the last few weeks, I feel prompted to share this in the spirit of “you are not alone”.

My experiences have been dependent upon my interactions with Alexandra Beller, Trent McEntire, and the instructors of Bikram Yoga Capital Area, as well as everyone else that has shaped my life’s path in movement and stillness.

For all those that have had similar experiences or may in the future- keep moving. May you find your own guides, maybe even in the most unexpected of people or situations. At any rate, I hope you find your release.


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David Howard

When I was living in NYC, David Howard’s ballet class saved my soul. In a city where most dance classes felt like an audition, taught by people who didn’t really understand how to warm up a body or just really loved deep plié in second position, with the body folded over- David Howard’s ballet class kept me grounded.  Well, David Howard’s, Alexandra Beller’s, and a few others.

These were the classes that reminded me of who I was, why I love dance, and that I didn’t have to buy into the hype that can come with trying to “make it” as a dancer.

I was not a rich dancer (oxymoron, I know) and had to be decisive with my time and my money- whose class I could take, why, and how it fit into my life. It was challenging. I was often torn between those with working choreographers who often cast their next show from their classes and so the mentality was that you had to be a regular, and those that fed me in movement and artistry where I wanted to be a regular.

Most of the time, I didn’t have enough money to be a regular but I had even less interest in the former. Yet, I felt pressured. I wanted a job but I hated thinking that I could out teach them, hated watching the dancers in class with a myriad of technical issues not even being acknowledged but being led on, and hated deep plié in second position with the body folded over.

I discovered, however, that David Howard was teaching a mid-day class at Broadway Dance Center. I had been introduced to him as an undergrad and knew this would be well worth my money and my time. It was a basic level class, maybe intermediate or something, that I at first felt ashamed to take given that I had come to believe I was an advanced dancer, needing an advanced class and needing to compete with other advanced dancers (not so much in ballet, for my modern/jazz body and movement ethic, but still the mentality persisted). Then I took the class.

It was filled with “advanced” dancers not necessarily in terms of their technical ability but their commitment, their age (in dance years), and the eloquence in their bodies. Many, I think, had been amateurs that had been dancing for years and acquired beauty in the process. Others were former professional dancers, looking for a place to maintain their craft for themselves. I was the youngest, at 23 or 24. I loved it.

I ended up rearranging my work schedule, splitting my shift in retail merchandising, so that I could take this class. It couldn’t happen all the time, but I kept up with his guest teaching schedule as best I could and would make the arrangements when he was in town. It complicated my life but it was worth it. Necessary, even.

I observed how David Howard spoke to these dancers. How he challenged their bodies but nurtured them, too. How spirits lifted, legs lifted, and it was all done safely in spirit as well as physicality. Soon, I didn’t feel like an outsider observing through motion but an insider, accepted by the group. I felt them take care of me. It was a community and it was powerful.

As a dance educator, I have been reflecting on how this experience has shaped much of my current philosophy and practice. I learned a lot in NYC, often by watching hours and hours of classes at BDC, Steps, and DanceSpace (now DNA) from doorways and through windows, when I couldn’t afford to take class. It was a profound education.

I may not be a ballerina but I am so proud of how David Howard has inspired and informed my work- building a community, taking care of people, and finding joy in movement.  I will always be thankful.

 


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Mind the Gap(s)

Over the last few years I have realized that my role in dance is that of a mediator. This summer, however, I am realizing just how many realms in which this is true. In this, though, I am also more aware of my own biases and working on letting some of those go.

Here is a sample:

Academic – Studio Dance There seems to be a natural rift between those that have trained within the concert dance philosophy and those those training in the studio dance philosophy. Even as I type that I realize another- those that have trained and those currently training and perhaps that is part of the friction in academic and studio dance relationships. The process of evolution is different within those two worlds.

As I see it right now, dance academics have evolved away from their commercial or recreational dance roots and have forgotten how -or forgotten their interest- in connecting with the tan-tight, sequined, or booty shorted youth newly entering their space. Likewise, the evolution of the studio dancer seems to depend on the athleticism and current movement trends. It is an evolution of the body that sometimes excludes the mind and spirit other than adrenaline and satisfaction that comes with performance and all that comes with that- positive and negative.

I think some of the hesitation of getting theoretical with teen dancers has been an issue of wanting to engage through entertainment (keeping up with the Joneses) and not expecting them to be capable of thinking through big ideas.

It isn’t true.Even early elementary kids are capable if their educational guide is patient and most importantly, willing.

I think our best strategy would be to stop setting expectations and simply start from wherever we are- as people, dancers, citizens, thinkers, doers, beings.

Recently, I had the realization that most of what we view as being in poor taste is really just an inheritance of limited information. Take studio dance fashion, for instance, and the comparison to what is worn in an academic dance setting. Both are wearing “booty” shorts these days but because one might have some sequined detailing or tan tights underneath, the “evolved” feel the discomfort of the depth of conversations that have NOT been had with that student and the tendency is to joke. I am so guilty.

In reality, though, the wardrobe is just an extension of the intention of training and a reflection of the evolution to be expected. In my day, it was French-cut leotards. With a belt run under the leg holes in back and on the outside in front. Classy. But I was serious. I was committed. I evolved into a deep thinking dancer concerned about Dance as an art form, a way of being and knowing, a method to finding embodied learning and able to talk shop with the best of them.

Some of the other gaps:

Dance as Entertainment – Dance as an Intellectual Pursuit This one is particularly painful for me, I admit. I have been surprised at how often in recent years, I have had to defend why I teach dance the way I do. I have been met with great supporters but also a segment of families/students that don’t know why I “refuse” to use pop music, moves found in music videos, and so on.

Artists – Educators In some ways, this is the inspiration for my blog. This site started as a means to communicate with fellow “underdogs” and share my real world experiences as new graduates (or old) entered their own journeys. I was continually frustrated with artists not explaining their struggles experienced when they first started their professional paths.

Think about it- most biographies go from the family, upbringing, and early training of an artist- touch on their artistically formative years (beyond training)- and suddenly jump in to the history of their tours or projects. Little discussion is offered about the obstacles of becoming dance-makers and thinkers. We jump to when they were recognized as brilliant. Or so it seems to me. And the same seemed to happen when I was able to ask artists about this.

So, my mission became to chronicle one dancer’s journey- tangential and all- within and around the field of dance. Along the way, this has turned into a site that explores teaching experiences more than life experiences. Though, like everything else, those two things can’t be separated. I just choose to talk less about my children than my classroom- maintaining somewhat of a gap based on comfort level and respect for my home. ;)

There are more gaps than this but I will stop here for today.

Moral of the story: We are all just doing the best we can with what we have. My job is to meet people where they are and hope they have an interest in moving further along their path. If not, maybe we can have a good time moving.

Which gaps are you mindful of these days?

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