Movement Connects

This week, I co-led MAEIA Re-Ignite!- a day-long Professional Learning event for the Michigan Arts Education and Instruction project (MAEIA). We used Simon Sinek‘s The Golden Circle as a lens to reconnect with ourselves, each other, and the arts-education community at large. Representatives from individual schools, school districts, local and state arts organizations, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA), Creative Many Michigan, the State Policy Pilot Program (SP3) and the Michigan Department of Education were present. It was a moving day, one in which I felt reconnected to people and the ideas which have driven my work through the years.

There were a few important lessons which I needed to hear, and ironically, came out of my own mouth. Have you ever had that experience? For me, it is one of the motivations for presenting. I am often reminded that the answers to questions I am holding ARE in fact inside of me.

This time:

-Movement connects.

The purpose of my work is to reconnect people to themselves, to each other, and to the world-at-large. For a few years, I have been calling my community-driven, movement class Creative Self-Care. What we do, though, is process life in broad terms and for the invididual to apply the more narrow terms. Sometimes I get distracted by the what/how of what I am doing– worrying too much, perhaps, about the movement modality and less about the purpose.

-Go to the people.

This can be conceptually, but it can also be physically. I am currently without a base studio to work out of but have a list of community, arts, and academic venues. I am currently booking classes and workshops for the coming year which are taking me into interesting spaces with interesting intersections of people. (Let me know now if you’d like to book!)

-Operate from openness.

Anytime you plan a big event, propose to move people away from their standard operating positions, there is risk. Though I enjoy presenting and do this often, there is always vulnerability involved- bringing with it a vulnerability hangover (as coined by Dr. Brené Brown). But it is ALWAYS worth it.

-Communities make change.

We need each other. We rely on each other to hold us accountable, honest, and to drive the work further. Even when doing the internal work to improve ourselves, it is helpful to do this with a community of others to remind us the work is worth it, and so are we.

I am ever so grateful for the movement and education communities to which I belong for pushing me to dig deeper and be better. For reminding me I am not working in isolation, and for sharing vulernabilities, discoveries, experiences, and stories.

What have you been up to this week?

Bend It Like Bikram

Gloriously, I am back into my Bikram practice. So far, it hasn’t been as frequent as I’d like but I gradually feel myself coming back. In the months away, I continued to teach and dance yet I lost a lot of strength. It has been a strenuous year in terms of body and spirit and thus, the return to a class that makes me feel safe and able to care for myself is most welcomed. It also inspires me to provide that same sense of safety and self-nurturing for my students. More on that to follow…..

One night, post Bikram, I woke to check on one of my kids I heard talking in their sleep. Once awake, true to form, my mind wandered and wondered. There have been several situations  pulling at me to reflect on what I do and how I do it. Within this process, I am pushed to define the differences of those that practice the arts and those that claim it as an identity. I work with both. I am both.

Here is what I decided that night:

I believe anything done with intention becomes an art. Expression is not about the audience but the projection of self. Therefore, the performance never ends, the processing is the constant rehearsal. The refinement results in enlightenment and a lift of the soul created through an authentic act of learning.

 

I view the arts as a humanity- an innate part of the soul through which one creatively problem-solves and articulates deeply-held theories and ideas– so deep they shall be expressed only in artistic form.

 

Artists are those who nurture the talent and commitment to perform at intense levels and who might also feel they know no other way. For them, practicing the arts is beyond a lifestyle; it is a way of life, a way of knowing, a way of being.

This summer I have been more attentive to my dabbling in the arts. I have returned to sketching, painting, crafting, creating, cooking, writing, knitting, even cross-stitching (working on patches for my son’s backpack since patches are really, really hard to find these days!).

I have realized that for a long time I have not claimed some of these interests and meager talents because I don’t have professional level skills nor am I pursuing them as a profession. I say “claim” in the meaning that they are a part of my identity (except knitting, I have called myself a knitter for a few years now). I have also tended to see writing as an extension of my work as a dance educator simply because of the subject matter. I haven’t allowed that identity to stand alone.

I have also noticed that I feel the need to find an excuse to engage in these enjoyments- a recipient for the item I am knitting, etc. I have a hard time allowing myself to do these things because I enjoy them. I feel pressured to be busy and have a product that proves it wasn’t time spent selfishly.

So, I pledge to work on that. I am striving to see “play” as the invaluable tool it is- the time to connect with others, let some things go, and open doors for new ideas and inspiration.

Bending my thoughts to be just as intentional about play and rest and creative expressions, just as I bend my body for nourishment and nurturing in Bikram.

Renewal: Controlling the Minutiae

Each summer seems to have a theme, beyond that of our television viewing. (See For the Love of the TARDIS)

“Dr. Who Summer” continues in all gloriousness. I sobbed over David Tennant but am warming up to Matt Smith.

Past years have included “the summer of awakenings”, “the summer of reflection”. This year? The summer of renewal.

  • I am back “in” my body.
  • My body is back in contact with my mind and my spirit.
  • Some old relationships feel rekindled.
  • I am back into the guest teaching and project planning that was common for me pre-kids or at least pre- 2 kids.

I am clearer on who I am, what my strengths are, where I would like to see myself in the next 5 years and I am starting to take the steps to get there.

The last 5 years have been full of learning and loving; taking in new teaching situations, content, environment, professional expectations, and methods for delivering information. I have learned and processed a lot.

It is now time for me to push myself in sharing what I have come to know. It is time I follow through in the academic writing, and publishing, that I have put off in exchange for curriculum writing, program development, freelance writing, and choreographing you know, 20 plus dances a year for a K-8 program.

In reality, though, there have been other obstacles. I think of it is as the minutiae- these small, accumulating tasks or inconveniences that add up to block the path or tire you out with detours.

Reading Shawn Lent’s  “Am I A Dancer Who Gave Up: A Follow Up” helped me identify some of the areas of conflict I have been experiencing between the dance world and the non-dance world (I resist the urge to type “real” world there).

The Chatter
Like Shawn, I get frustrated with the dance conversation. I, too, love dance people but I have really strong feelings about needing a vision in or through dance. So many dance people I have interacted with seem to have lost theirs, if ever they had one, and I find myself having difficulty connecting with them let alone collaborating. Or maybe it isn’t the dance thing, it is the personality thing- the people that do want more from their art and those that don’t. Or worse, those that think they do and have no idea the work they produce (in their teaching or their choreography or their community relationships) really isn’t accomplishing much.

Or maybe there is more that I am not seeing and the problem lies with me. At any rate, withdrawing from some portions of the conversation doesn’t really help any one. I better get back in there.

The Current
Several years ago, again when I was teaching at a small liberal arts college in a rural town in Michigan, a guest artist asked me how I stay current. I have been thinking about this for years.

At the time, I said that I learn new things and immerse myself in new situations. My example was knitting. (He must have thought I was NUTS. Okay, maybe I am).

But I felt it was important to have the urge to make, tangible things in addition to ephemeral, to remember what it is like to learn a series of steps and put them in specific patterns, to analyze small scale movement as well as large, to return to a place of wrong and right methods with direct outcomes, and to just recall what it is like to learn new things- the frustration, the excitement, the pride). The process of learning and making has, I think, been invaluable in keeping up with the world, even in the world of dance.

Thanks to the internet and friends doing great things in all facets of dance, I feel that I have been able to stay up to date if not “current” in spite of not having the budget to travel, attend national conferences, and living in a place where I have to wait to see world-class companies on their next tour instead of their next season. Time has even prevented me from taking part in more local dialogue (Much of the dance events in my state seem to be scheduled for the same weekends!) Well, time and a little chatter.

But I do know what he meant. As a choreographer, and an artist- how do I thrive. I think the usual stance on this is to see what work is being made and then how does one recreate it with a personal stamp. I get that. I even value that. But it isn’t exactly for me. Not to say I don’t need some fresh ideas and could benefit from new visual experiences- I do, I could!. But the process has led the creative work for me- the relationships, the perspectives to a topic by all in the room, the democracy of art making with people beyond physical pictures. That has led to my work feeling current. I continue to think about this, though, and hope I always will.

All of my work- curriculum writing, program development, freelance writing, and choreographing you know, 20 plus dances a year for a K-8 program- will continue, naturally, but I admit my priorities are shifting a little. I am opening myself to new things, new methods, new attitudes, and new realities.

I am hoping to perform, to publish, to respond, and to revise.

Somehow I hope that if I write it here, I might actually follow through. Help me keep on track, won’t you?

The Application of Technique

Recently, I have been fortunate enough to teach a rash of master classes around the state and in my area. One of the comments that keeps rising from the students in each place, many of whom are exposed to modern dance for the first time or elements of dance through modern concepts in new ways, is something along the lines of “the movement is free. It isn’t as technical. It is ok to make mistakes and just keep going.”

Now, I love flow. Seriously. So, yes, the movement keeps going but I think their comments are powerful in how it reflects a student’s view of technique.

By the end of class, I usually end up talking about how it isn’t that the movement we have danced lacks rules or discipline, terminology or shape.  It is perhaps more forgiving of the human body compared to the movement these students define as technical (often shape-oriented ballet, emphasis on form over quality, or some personal difficulty).

I start explaining that, to me, it is an opportunity to apply our technique to a “real” life situation. Movement!

If we spend all of our time studying technique, it often robs us of the feeling of actual dancing. For students that have limited opportunities to perform or limited opportunities to feel/sense movement rather than imitate the pictures of movement, this may partially explain the appeal of overly-stylized movement.

The other light bulb that keeps illuminating young minds is the notion that we don’t have to dance the same as everyone else in the room.

I say, “we don’t look the same, it doesn’t make sense to me that we dance just the same.” Of course, I explain the value of unison and that there are many choreographers that value a unified approach to movement but in an audition situation, even for ensemble work where “blending in” is important, you still need to find a way to “stand apart”. So even within a “technique” class, we are starting to talk about performance and basic composition elements, how to read a situation- developing the ability to know when to follow and when to lead or when to take liberties with choreography and when not to.

The definition of “technique” then broadens, for the minds of these students, to include the Elements of Dance (Space, Time, Energy) as applied in real dance situations, technical concepts that don’t require a French label, and permission to authentically assess where their technique is supporting them and where they need more work. We even use improvisation to explore these tools and make technical observations about our movement habits, preferences, and aspirations.

Then when the “study” begins again, it is from a more informed perspective. A more personal place. It even feels like dancing.

You Can Do Anything But Not Everything 1.0

Recently, Dance/USA produced a series of articles about professional choreographers who have turned to working in higher education as a means to keep creating choreography within concert dance and earn a living. Most of the artists interviewed are of notable stature (David Dorfman, Joe Goode,…) and discuss the balancing act required of working in two demanding aspects of the field- choreography and higher education- simultaneously.

I don’t doubt for a moment that their balancing acts are difficult.

I don’t doubt for a moment that they have valuable information and experiences to offer students.

I don’t doubt for a moment that they are qualified to teach.

But I do feel resentment rising in my chest each time I think about the articles.

As someone who has been passed over for others with “better” resumes and not necessarily “better” skills, this touches a nerve.

 Let me be clear, I don’t mean to diminish the depth of artists and the many hats that artists wear as creators, facilitators, curators, teachers, leaders, thinkers, and so on.

However, I start thinking of the underdogs.

  • What about the people that want to teach in higher education because their priority is to teach? 
  • What about the people that are great without having great resumes, and by that I mean as performers or choreographers? 
  • What about the people dedicated to teaching but choose to balance this with having a family and not a full-blown second career?

Underdogs: The people that shape the field of dance in more ways than the stage and the studio.

  • What about the people that guide the critical thought process in the act of creating art in addition to developing ideas, perspectives, and missions leading to non-performance based careers or jobs?
  • What about people that develop critical writing?
  • What about people that explicitly teach dance history and other frames of reference for what and how we communicate in dance and society?
  • What about people that help students translate their experiences from the abstract to the practical foundations that launch them into many types of careers?
  • What about the people that teach the general education classes that can directly impact the support or lack thereof for dance in the local community and into the world beyond college?
  • What about the people that teach the artists to talk about what and how they are creating so they get the jobs the underdogs are seeking?

The problem I see is cyclical.

In the end, the notion of choreographers finding a way to create and earn a living in higher education is a symptom of a larger problem.

Not enough people understand and support dance.

Artists alone don’t seem to be enough to teach the masses about how and why the arts, specifically dance, are important. That is not a comment on the quality or volume of their discussion, simply that we need more people educating about dance than just the practicing artists.

We need people to be promoting the myriad of what dance has to offer in addition to technique and performance. As such, we need to be producing more specialists in more categories under the umbrella of dance- such as arts integrators, theorists, critics, writers, dance scientists, etc.

Higher education is competitive enough.

I also start wondering about the departments that employ the big names from the performance world. I understand the desire to market these people and draw potentially more students.

However, with the teaching loads described in the articles and what I understand from other sources, how often are students truly being mentored by these artists?  Is it ethical?

Other questions arise as I ponder the big name hires:

  • How many programs treat choreography produced in-house as research?
  • What is the culture of the department like?
  • How is the faculty morale as the lesser-knowns may be picking up the less satisfying classes?

Personally, the first thing I would prefer to stop teaching would be straight technique but if a big-name choreographer were hired in my department, I bet that is exactly what I would be saddled with as they chose composition, improvisation, and perhaps theory courses.

  • What does this mean for guest residencies?

Aren’t residencies a better solution in offering students insight to how various artists think and act?  Aren’t residencies more cost effective for colleges and still a means for choreographers to earn a living? Isn’t variety the spice of life?

  • How are the faculty balancing a families expected to compete?

This touches on a separate but related topic of if and how having a family and surviving in academia is a real possibility. In my view, departments that allow for the “how” of that over the “if” are becoming more and more rare.

It is the number one reason that I choose to remain in K-12, where I have plenty of stimulating arts and education problems to solve but can be home at a reasonable hour, leave my work at school (for the most part), and can pace my extra-curricular activities at a digestible rate rather than always operating under the “publish or perish” time frame dictated in the university system.

And on that note, nap-time is over…..more soon.

History Moves: Using the Creative Process to Explore Dance History

Here is my December article for Dance Advantage.

Creative Process: 10 Ideas for Moving Beyond the Steps

Here’s my November article for Dance Advantage.

Unsung Heroes: Taking on Community Dance

Is there anything as inviting and intimidating as a blank page or an empty studio.

I am sorry for my negligence in writing….it has been a very full fall.

My pages have been filling of notes on the differences/observations/musings about teaching dance in the K-8 setting instead of high school and college. And I have recently been in studios that don’t seem to stay empty long but fill with many ideas, discussions, reflections, oh and bodies in movement, of course.

I began the season preparing a piece to be included in ArtPrize, an enormous installation of visual art throughout the downtown area of Grand Rapids, MI. As the name suggests, it is a competition with a large sum of money awarded to a winner, smaller sums to subsequent winners, and moderate controversy over quality, artistry, motivation, and exploitation on behalf of some artists, some hosts, and the ArtPrize organization.

I created a work titled Process/Progress that was designed to illustrate the creative journey in making dance. We were to begin with a 2 hour open rehearsal followed by performances over the span of three weeks that changed in order of content, music selection, and presentation based on when the performance fell within the 3 week journey. Therefore, it would never appear the same way twice and the process would continue to progress.

Well, the vendor that agreed to serve as host for this performance (and other live performing arts works) presented these works on an outdoor stage in the parking lot of the establishment, which also hosted the work of other artists. The establishment also entered their own “art” presented next to the stage. Their piece (basically a boxcar that opened to serve alcohol with go-go dancers on the roof) required large club music which the owner would turn off while we were “performing” but not during our two-hour rehearsal. They didn’t seem to understand, nor care once it was explained to them, that the two-hour rehearsal (which was only scheduled to occur once within the 3 week span) was part of the performance. So. After careful thought, I pulled the piece.

I was fortunate to have had premeried the piece, in draft form, in an event produced by local artists committed to raising the community aesthetic of dance and art. This event, Salmagundi produced by Dance in the Annex, Wealthy Theatre, and Art Peers, featured performances in dance, theatre, music, and film and I enjoyed it the most of many “local” performances I have seen for a very long time. A very, very long time. I enjoyed it more than some events I attended when living in NYC and Chicago. The whole evening- the performances, the audience, and the conversations I had with varying people afterwards made me think.

I found myself comparing this to other community arts events and trying to put my finger on the difference. What I was able to place, was my frustration with the typical local arts (perhaps it would be more fitting to specify dance, here) scene.

I am so bone-tired of people applauding bad dance/art just because it is “local”.  This may be really really snobby, but I am tired of bad taste being put up for all to see/hear/watch.  As consumers, why do our expectations drop because the artists live among us. Why are some artists that present work locally celebrated as pillars of our community yet create under-conceptualized, under-developed, under-reflected work. Why do we allow this? What can we do about it? Who cares?

Read this by Meagan Bruskewiscz. I love this article and know I will read it a few dozen more times.

In Michigan, I think Amy Wilson (Dance in the Annex), Erin Wilson (Wealthy Theatre), and company are on the right track. They have put their money where their mouths are and have identified ways to make a positive change in their community. There are others, too, in other parts of the state although I think they are working a little less comprehensively. Anyway, thanks to these artists and more for daring to hold artists and audiences accountable.

I’d like to propose a toast to the unsung heroes of local art.

To those that strive to change the mentality of “since it is local it must be inferior”.

To those that commit to quality and mastery and teaching the people around us the difference between good and bad art.

To those that invite a dialogue and an honest exchange of ideas and know we aren’t too old to learn or experiment or play.

To those that make the sacrifices- giving up shifts, distracting children, pausing “normal” life to be involved in a process that usually results in a product that could inspire further discussion and enlightenment.

THANKS.

The Summer of Awakenings

Recently, I was chatting with a friend about all that has gone on this summer. It has been an emotional roller coaster for many reasons including the birth of our second child in April, my emphasis on dance writing, the worrying about an unstable job in a challenging school district, the development of new dance projects, and plenty of reflection regarding identity, history and projection into the future.

I had dubbed it the “Summer of Growth.”  My friend dubbed it the “Summer of Awakenings”. I like hers better.

Writing has played a major role in my semblance of sanity. I have always kept journals. I love journals. I have stacks and stacks of notebooks containing ideas, plans, feelings, memories, dances and now topics for blog posts and articles. My students identify me by my scarves and my journals. Maybe my shoes, too. And sometimes my hair. But I digress.

This summer, however, writing has taken on a whole new meaning for me. A new potential. It has added a new aspect to my identity- one that volleys between confidence and doubt like a teenager (good reminder, given my day job of teaching 8-12th graders!!!). And has brought me even more respect for my real-deal, actual (like books, plays, screenplays, freelance articles) writer husband.  Overall, writing has provided a new sense of fulfillment as well as new and returning groups of friends.

Writing about dance and dance education, both professionally and personally over the past nine months or so, has led me to tackle some biases, confront some half-truths in my practices versus my philosophies, generate some really good ideas (if I do say so myself), and most importantly has connected me with people affiliated with dance, like-minded and otherwise, and in all walks of dance experiences. It has been a very profound season.

At Home

Most of my large scale writing: blog posts, articles, academic writings, and notes for upcoming projects happens at home. This is also where I do the majority of my reading. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to combine both and refer to it as my large scale responding. Anyway, this (and last) summer has brought plenty of thought-provoking topics that I would love to write about formally when time allows. Several have been about writing in dance and/or education.

  • Jennifer Edwards wrote a lovely piece for Huffington Post centered on dance journalism and audience (readership) engagement through blog commentary.  I relate to writing in all facets of my dance life and the important intrapersonal connections it has forged for me (as well as my students). Let us also not forget the reading that accompanies and often prompts the writing. The dialogues that happen internally as well as inter-personally are cyclical and key in the development of an artist’s (or student’s) point of view, ownership of voice, and relevance of expression. This is true whether their selected language is physical or written.
  • Last summer, Wendy Perron, editor of Dance Magazine, blogged about young choreographers blogging about their creative process. I personally love the rebuttal written by Zachary Whittenburg (trailorpilot), although I generally enjoy the work of both writers.
  • I have also been intrigued by the subject of blog writing in academics. I am encouraged to include blog writing in my dance courses at the high school level as I feel it responsible arts education to compliment and supplement core instruction without sacrificing our elective content. I did this at the college level and its why I describe my teaching philosophy as being from ‘a liberal arts perspective’.

I have appreciated the comments that I have received in response to blog posts here as well as my Dance Advantage articles. I value the conversations that have developed as a result of my professional writings with both familiar voices as well as new ones.  I am excited to re-configure a tool I had used in my college teaching for my high school teaching.

On the Road

Then there is my small scale writing. As in 140 characters small. Twitter! I was shocked that blogging about a treasured dance experience, performing a work by Lar Lubovitch, did something that my dancing was never able to do, and that was to bring personal contact with Mr. Lubovitch himself!  I posted the blog, tweeted the Lubovitch company and within the hour, had a personal response! Talk about the power of social media and the potential of small scale writing. The kind of writing I tend to do away from home, on my smartphone, something I never would have considered years ago. My, how things change.

In the Studio

Then there is the writing within the creative process and even the performance venue (program notes). I am currently working on a dance for ArtPrize in Grand Rapids in collaboration with Dance in the Annex. I am working with a wonderful but varied group of dancers which all happen to be an hour away from me. Technology is a big factor in the process/ progress of this work, which also happens to be the title. We each have vastly different relationships to dance and its purpose within our lives.

We also have commonalities in how we’ve feel we’ve been perceived in dance. We shared these narratives in rehearsal last week. I’ve drawn on them in the creation of movement and will do so more extensively as I coach the piece long-distance through the aid of technology. No, we won’t have video chat rehearsals, but we will use video and notes. We will use reading and writing to nurture performances, clarify intent, and provoke further investigation.  I have mixed feelings about it but I am grateful for the time, energy, and willingness of these dancers to go through this process/progress with me. And I am aware of the reality. We are all sacrificing to make this happen. I am aware of the time carved, the money lost, and the children distracted in order to make this piece happen. I am thankful. And it is likely that I’ll blog about it.

Our commonality in dance is this, and I dare say it isn’t exclusive to this particular group. At some point, we’ve all felt like outsiders. We have all, in some way, been told or made to feel we don’t measure up and we’ve remembered the words.

In my journals, I’ve written about it a million times in a million different ways even if I didn’t realize from where a particular emotion or issue was coming. I think it is a problem in dance training and the more I teach, the more wounded I find…people that once loved dance but for one reason or another left and have struggled to return. Many can’t bring themselves to watch dance. This is a problem. And one worth discussing. Stay tuned.

We each have stories and our narratives are worth sharing. I firmly believe it. I also believe there is a time and a place. And the stage is not necessarily the appropriate venue. But I think the process of writing (and dancing/choreographing) is important in the coping with these narratives and the development of new ones.

Writing brings clarity, awareness, and action. Just like moving through space and time with or without other bodies. Ideas connect, relationships are forced, negotiation and reconciliation occur. It is why I expect my students do it. Shouldn’t I expect the same of myself?

Yet, I feel about writing much as I do about choreography; everyone should do it but it doesn’t mean it should be made public. Nor does its mere creation mean it is artful. As my 3 year old son said so eloquently when asking for a snack, “Cookies are not dessert. Cookies are just cookies.” Sometimes the same rings true in art. Including dance and writing. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t yummy.

Right? Write. Thanks. More soon.

The Verbal Challenge: Describing Modern Dance As Succinctly As Possible While Evoking Visual Image and Possible Definition of Intent

Yeah….It can be that difficult to maintain brevity when attempting to describe modern dance to the non-dancer.

This is by no means the first time I’ve visited this puzzle in my work but this is a most recent stab prompted by the impressive Jordon Cloud.

So, here goes. My meager attempt to describe modern dance with attention to creative intent, technical expression, and aesthetic. Gulp.

  • Modern dance IDEALLY seeks to convey meaning which may or may not include direct narrative.
  • Modern dance IDEALLY relies on organic, natural, and technical movement vocabulary, which supports that expression and which may or may not be codified.
  • As in everything, there is good and bad, but in modern dance either may be ugly.

What do you have?