I do a pretty funny impression (if I do say so myself) of a favored former professor of mine, in which I circle myself for a couple loops as if casually chasing my tail, finally locating my final destination and carefully placing myself accordingly: 1st position parallel. Essentially, it is the same position I was standing in before the skit begins, and yet, the arrival marks a change in mental place, as well as physical placement. Nearly every time I think of this woman, I hear her voice calling “Let’s start in 1st.” and envision her looking at her feet (as if her class ever started in any other way). I cannot help but smile.
In my philosophy of dance, I state that I teach dance from a liberal arts perspective. What this means to me, is that instead of expecting my students to come to dance with a sincere and devout interest, I take dance to where they are, first. I most often find myself, regardless of venue, working with dancers that may never be “real” dancers but for one reason or another have decided to give movement a chance. Whether as an elective, for the fulfillment of a graduation requirement, or simply recreational pleasure, most of my students have a reason other than burning desire when coming to me to learn about dance.
In practice, this generally means that instead of one thread of consciousness (dance for dance sake), I need to be aware of multiple threads (dance for multi- or inter- disciplinary sake). This does not, however, mean I need to be an expert in another field. It just means that I need to be able to explain dance in multiple ways, accomodating for varying learning behaviors (if you don’t know about genius Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, look into it!) and encourage students to be the “experts” in their fields (college students) or their other classes (K-12).
Once one learns to question information, investigation, and relating concepts, it is amazing how quickly one can apply these skills to other subjects, even those in which one is not an expert. It is precisely why I feel the arts and humanities are critical in the preparation of our youth for the future. Yes, science and math will be important, but without creativity and critical thinking, our students will not be able to sufficiently problem-solve in new and innovative ways.
Here is where I rethink the point of dance education in many contexts, particularly public education and propose that others do the same. Most people expect arts classes to inspire an appreciation for the arts. This is true, they do. But, it isn’t all they do. With intentional thought and responsible teaching, the arts introduce and expand vocabulary, introduce methods for creative analysis and problem-solving, allow for individual voice which leads to confidence building, and let’s not forget create opportunities for effective collaboration.
I think it is important for my students to understand the culture, history, and profession of dance from a realistic and artistically relevent perspective. Yet, I also realize that these kids need help in life, first. My intent is to teach practical skills through the medium of dance. I have distilled the discipline of dance down to its essential elements and present them for maximum affect.
Here are some samples:
When discussing core elements of dance technique, emphasize non-technical vocabulary that is relevent to the field (manipulation, articulation, oppositional force, gravity, lateral, distal,…), basic principles of physics, anatomy/kinesiology, the list goes on and on. These are more likely to appear on standardized tests than say, rond de jambe. And they provide a connection between the students’ interest and their core classes. Dance allows them to access the information in their core classes and put it to use in a unique way.
The best compliment I had last week occurred while inviting my advanced class to do some slides across the floor. I was explaining how to distribute their weight and where they needed to be placed in order to use momentum to their advantage. One student said, “what, is this, phyics?” Well, yes. Several light bulbs went off and we had a great conversation about shared principles. It wasn’t long and several students tuned out but real learning occurred for some. Authentic connections were made.
A similar approach can be explored in dance composition. I am not convinced we can “teach” choreography, but we can inspire creativity and offer tools for clarifying ideas and adding visual interest as well as offering perspective in interpretation of questions and answers posed in movement and followed in critique. Using tools such as embellishment, retrograde, reversal, inversion, and more allow students to gain insight into pattern development and how play with audience expectations, again for maximum affect.
Working in concepts rather than steps, also opens the door for learning that embraces emotional as well as intellectual response and therefore longevity within the lessons. Learning to analyze dance through a variety of lenses such as ethnicity, gender, ability/disability, and other cultural contexts provides a greater understanding of our own environments, biases, and relationships. Having a safe place to discuss some of these subjects is also crucial. Given that dance tends to be physical, and therefore personal, often this is an ideal setting for such dialogue. Once collaborative relationships have been forged, trust tends to follow, and again allows for more open conversation among students than may be possible in the classrooms of other disciplines. And for students that don’t consider dance to be their first language, this can be a direct path for deeper engagement when you return the focus to the studio and the physical act of dancing.
I came to dance first as a mover and later as a generalist. I tend to interpret the world through movement and in color/texture. I am a visual and kinesthetic learner, who in high school could manage in a traditional school setting but would have been so much more successful if I’d had opportunities to learn as I am inclined and not in how I was expected. I am fortunate to have learned how to learn later and have the natural curiousity to be a life long learner. That is what we dance educators should, in my humble opinion, be offering more universally. Again, dance for some is a way to live but for more can be another method for divising a living, even if it is outside the arts.