Concluding Post for TE 818: An Open Letter to My Students

Dear Students,
I come to you now as I have always done and hope I always will- from a point of honesty, with a desire to see you define success by your own measures, armed with the means to accomplish your goals, and with a hope that through the work we share we each continue to search for and find our truest selves.

The intentions I have held as we have danced have been consistent in aspirations yet varied in emphasis and methodology. My life circumstances and experiences have shaped my views, my beliefs, and my skills. As such, they also have a hand in shaping yours. We are entwined in an evolving dialogue that transcends speech and whose depth of meaning is not as ephemeral as a physical gesture may suggest.

 As a girl, I was raised in a traditional, conservative home with conventional ideas yet founded on a certain amount of risk. I am the American-born child of English immigrants. My father knew as a teen that he wanted to leave England (as comedian Eddie Izzard describes as “where the history comes from” for either Australia or the US. Fortunately for him, my mother was game and with two small children- my brother and sister, they came to the States, Michigan in fact, where the only people they knew were my mother’s brother and his family. A few years later, I (surprisingly) entered the picture.

I am a dancer. It was clear to my parents right from the beginning and fortunately for me, they embraced the arts (my mother was a painter) and not only supported my passion, they nurtured it. Unlike many people that happen upon an activity that grows into a passion- I have always identified myself first as a dancer. In fact it hasn’t just been how I identify myself, it is my identity- one that I recognized even as a very, very young child.

But another powerful aspect of my identity is that of a motherless daughter. My mother died (emphysema and severe asthma) as I entered my teens and in spite of having a remarkable father, her absence has unsurprisingly had a profound impact on my life. There is no silver lining in such a tragedy but I do choose to look at how I was, and continue to be, forced to see things openly. I don’t know that I wouldn’t have done this anyway, but I have forged relationships with strong women that both compliment and contrast my mother in a variety of ways. I consider them to be my “tribe” that have taken me in- perhaps in ways they may not have done if I had had a mother on which to rely. These relationships have fostered and informed other relationships and have carried me, to some extent, to where I am today- as a dancer, choreographer, educator, dance writer, wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister, and so on- in roles that blend to varying depths on varying days.

Although relevant, it may not be immediately obvious how my current relationship with my mother plays a part in my daily practice of these roles including that of a dance educator.

I have a deep and resounding respect for what has come before.

See, the thing about having a relationship with a person who has died is that while the living may not view the relationship as stunted, it is speculative at best. It is comforting to think that we knew the deceased so well we could predict their reactions, responses, and overall positions on any number of situations and in truth, we can’t.

We can’t actually predict with any great accuracy how their own experiences and views would have continued to evolve and therefore how they would interact with us in our current state. What’s more, we must depend on ourselves to determine the positions and responses upon which we measure success and shape our individual and collective futures.

One’s relationship to the traditions of dance or education aren’t dissimilar. Traditions are full of reactions, responses, and overall positions of dead people. Dead people created the heritage we carry on and invented- or at best interpreted- the history we regard. We need to maintain perspective and take the best of what history has to offer in order to inform current and future processes. I see that I now take the best of what I remember of my mother, apply it to my own life, and offer it to my children for their own purposes. In teaching, I do the same for my dancers.

Through-out college, I treated the traditions of dance training as sacred rituals and any deviation from the progression of things was simply an affront to all that loved dance most. Namely, me. My estimation of commitment and worthiness in claiming the title of “dancer”,  came with paying respects to the gatekeepers of dance, its histories and those that paved the way for us.

I have since altered my path regarding this but I still value all that I gained from those experiences. My mind was ignited and my body absorbed every ounce of information. I had the luxury of a rich wardrobe of movement styles to try on and tailor. But the best of all of this was the opportunity- as a learner- to be understood, valued, and no longer feel isolated by how I interpreted the world, as I had done in my own K-12 experiences. Here was a whole community of people like me (kinesthetic, visual, linguistic), and they were my connection to a bigger world which interfaced with the ‘real’ world but also enjoyed its own body of knowledge to be explored.

This is the type of experience that has shaped the community of my classroom- where there is a place for everyone and we strive to learn from each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and points of view.  Ironically, I find this to be in direct contrast to the traditions of dance education- how people are actually taught- where the individual’s needs are not necessarily addressed beyond the physical or technical. And I suppose this is where, at times within my teaching, I have been conflicted in how best to prepare students for the current state of dance or life much less the future on which I can only speculate. I want to support each student individually, and as nuanced as possible, yet at the end of the day- sometimes the work (the dancing) just needs to be done- done well- and done without comment. Within my own dance experiences- in technical training and as a professional performer- this is a very real part of life. Choreographers don’t always want interpretations or impressions, they want chasse, pas de bouree, pirouette.

Early in my teaching I devoutly maintained the educational and historical traditions with little thought to how or why these practices may support the actual needs of students beyond audition demands. Diversifying their movement experience was one thing, their actual learning experience was something else. For the environments in which I was teaching, this approach to training was what was desired and I was good at it. Being good at teaching came later; actually it is still coming. And now I am keen on guiding learning through movement that reflects the breadth of dance-making in an effort to nurture an enhanced sense of self.

In some ways, I have moved away training bodies to dance technically and artistically in order to use movement to train bodies to communicate clearly and move artfully. Now I find myself needing a new label- perhaps “arts inclusion” or “connected learning” in order to cultivate the movement that exists in all bodies in order to facilitate greater, and more meaningful life and learning experiences. 

I use dance to explore other topics but more importantly, I use dance to explore self-knowledge. As I have been working in a special education room and co-teaching with a brilliant educator, we have come to think that some of our students navigate their lives actively using their ways of knowing- one boy springs to mind immediately, as he is a mover first and foremost and relates to the world through this almost solely. Other students need us to help them develop a way of knowing. And we have decided that is our job. We simply do it through presenting a myriad of experiences, ways to connect learning across disciplines, and so on. In terms of the dancers I produce- I want them to forge new paths. The field of dance, as a performance form, desperately needs new pathways and points of view. It also needs audiences.

I now give myself permission to see things in new ways- cutting the apron strings while still holding on to all the pieces.

For a long time, in my personal life, I tried the “be” the daughter I thought my mother would have wanted and much of it was external and based on taste, not principle. I bought things that I thought she would have liked, indulged in things I know she enjoyed, in a sense- I attempted to take on some of her identity. It isn’t that I don’t do some of those things now, but I recognize that this approach to a relationship is limited and superficial. In many ways, it was a strategy to keep her spirit alive and honestly, it was kind of forced. And it still left me with deep questions that I really struggled with, such as what would she think of me now? She couldn’t have predicted what kind of experiences I would encounter so how can I assume to know what she would expect of me rather than accept of me. That was a freeing realization for me personally that also directly translates to my teaching.

I liken the superficial approach to keeping my mother’s spirit alive to the “giving” of a technique class rather than the “teaching” of all things dance, including technique. But now that I teach in the K-12 system, a job I never would have predicated for myself even- where the whole dance experience and all of my own personal experiences benefit the whole child- I think of the strengths and weaknesses of dance as a discipline and an art form. I carefully craft the experiences I offer students based on what a comprehensive dance education should include and how it contributes to a meaningful life, which may or may not include a future in dance.

Now I seek to reinvent- to cheat, borrow and steal from the masters to serve as gateways to my own ideas (or those of students). I am no longer pure about the purpose and function of dance. I no longer view  “dancers” as the most important product of my teaching. I find myself speculating about the future of my students just as I might speculate how the masters (or my mother) would respond to current life. I have decided my job, and my life, is to prepare as best I can for anything and everything and to share everything I know; including the way that I have come to know it.

Now I take an active role in choosing, and building, my legacy.

I think my mother’s best attribute was knowing her kids as individuals and loving us accordingly.  While she had impeccable taste and oodles of class, she was aware in ways most people aren’t and parented accordingly. Although there are things of hers that I own, there are still other items of hers that have been stolen. I don’t know that I wouldn’t do this anyway, but what I value most is the time I spent with her talking and the depth of our conversations; the way she guided my understanding of the world and the ways she encouraged me to live it in my own way, founded in the principles my family shared including a certain amount of respect for risk. I learned to appreciate material things while they last but to put real stock in other pursuits of happiness like art, conversation, personal reflection, and the evolution of ideas.

Dance has reinforced this for me; teaching has compounded it.  There is a language, a protocol, and a history but with deep understanding comes freedom to push new boundaries and apply the understanding in new ways and to new situations that even the masters couldn’t have predicted.

In many respects, this results in ‘embodied knowledge’. I tend to talk about this with my students as living dance principles outside a dance situation. Things like, keeping your weight over the balls of your feet as you walk and while you wait. Sensing the distal and the core as you walk, reach for something, etc. Essentially, I encourage students to bring a mindfulness to their movement at all times. I explain that these are things that help one identify a dancer walking down the street, not the turn out of the dancer’s legs. Then, when the dancer enters the studio, they are prepared for the real work and everything improves efficiently. The discipline of the art form demands that in those moments of real work, nothing else matters. I like to think of it as the “power of now”. In this method of working, the principles stop being what we do and become who we are. And it requires dedication, and practice- much like spirituality.

This is the legacy I want to offer my children- one founded on self-awareness, acceptance, and adaptability. A view of life that is successful in all spheres by valuing ideas, conversations, people, and context but also evaluating these ideas, conversations, and contexts to determine relevance or steps to progression.  As for people, acceptance goes much further than expectation but in the end we are all parts of a story. Let’s start where we are and go from there.

Currently, I have given up trying to keep my mother’s spirit alive by forced measures and have been comforted in how her spirit actually lives in the true quality moments of life such as how my kids may phrase a question, spend hours drawing and coloring, flash cheeky expressions, and listen when others speak. Her presence is felt in how I parent my son and daughter according to their own strengths, weakness, and personalities, as well as how I gauge what may work best for my students. Her principles are acknowledged in how my husband and I communicate deeply and promote meaningful experiences for our kids to share but also to discuss and reflect upon again and again. Just as I attempt to do for you, my students.

Dance has been the constant in my life. Dance has provided me with an outlet, a purpose, a path, and a point of view. It has also taught me to think and speak critically, constructively, and compassionately. It has taught me how to learn and how to teach.

By dancing together, I hope you feel as though you’ve been recognized, heard, accepted, and pushed. I part from you now as I have always done and hope I always will- from a point of honesty, with a desire to see you define success by your own measures, armed with the means to accomplish your goals, and with a hope that through the work we share we each continue to search for and find our truest selves.

Yours in Movement,
Heather

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