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.


Letting It Be: Renewed Intent

Friends are the best.

I tend to get ahead of myself in most ways, worrying about things that are important but likely to ebb and flow as we move through life. This is true of my professional life and my personal life. I spend a lot of energy putting things into action that sometimes I need reminding that I just need to “let it be”. There are two particular people in my life that do this for me.

Be aware. Sometimes observing is enough.

Be patient. It will come or it will shift.

Be present. Focus on the now.

I am so fortunate to have married my best friend but also for a group of friends that continue to inspire me, encourage me, challenge me, entertain me and remind me. Some I have had for a long time. Whenever we talk, even though it isn’t as often as we’d like, we seem to never skip a beat. Others are the best “bonus” of marrying my husband. (And he thought it was his music collection.)

Photo by Heather Vaughan-Southard

In celebration of these loved ones, here is a small glimpse of what I’ve spent time working on over the summer months.

It is a peek of our daughter, H,  and a project I am working on for some dear friends getting married next spring. In broader terms,  an image of family and friends, time shared in person or in spirit, and energy spent making (although a knitter, I learned to crochet specifically for this project).

When I started this blog, my intent was to share my experiences in the dance world in the hopes that future (or current) dancers might feel it is useful to their own lives.

Over the last few years, one focus of my dance experience has been the balance of dance and life. I have shared the dance part, certainly from a personal point of view, but I am thinking of being a bit more balanced in how I manage this topic on this blog.

No, I won’t be sharing family secrets but I will offer more insight as to what the life of a dance educator can be like,…the questions, the demands, the joys, the rewards, the process,….peppered with what makes me, well, me….my aesthetic, my family, my hobbies,…

It is what makes me return repeatedly to the blogs that I tend to follow. Maybe you’ll like it, too.

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.

Playing Superhero: The Dark Side of Discipline

Discipline in the arts is usually one of the major “gains” in training and one of the reasons many parents choose to enroll their child.

Discipline in pre-professional dance, for me, was what separated those that wanted to succeed and those that did.

Discipline in professional dance takes on a different perspective in response to the nature of one’s success. For those with company success, discipline may still be dedication to their craft, daily technique class and the commitment involved. For those without consistent work it can mean carving out the time and money to maintain one’s technique and conditioning and challenging one’s self to stay engaged at the fullest level.

But when all is said and done, discipline can have a dark side. The cape donned in the thrill of physical prowess and being at the top of one’s game can lead, in other scenarios, to a mask of re-hashing and obsession over improvement with less healthy side effects.

This is where I sometimes find myself now. I have come to the opinion that, in teaching as well as other aspects of life, reflection is what separates those that want to be successful and those that are. But there is a precipice where success can fall into obsession the longer one dwells. From the outside things may still look very successful, and they are, but the inside graphs another story.

I have mentioned before that the last twelve months have been challenging. For all the positives, I tend to focus extensively on the areas in need of work. There is my challenge.

Here’s an example: rather than simply rejoicing in the fact we have a 9 month old baby, a bright and active 4 year old boy, a nice home, seemingly stable jobs, a challenging new teaching environment, new and interesting problems to solve, satisfying side projects, and opportunities on the horizon,…

…I find myself dwelling on whether or not my baby has as much of my attention as my son did at her age and what I can do about it, if my son is in the right learning environment and what the arrangements should be made for him next year (whether he starts school or not and where), the dust and the cleaning that is so sub-par based on my pre-children standards and the related shame whenever anyone comes over, the overwhelming awareness of judgement (positive or negative) when working in a new place, with new people, new students, and new curriculum, how to balance what is artistically satisfying with what I do and how I have to do it, what I need to do to maintain my artistic, educational, online, friendly, and familial reputations, and so on.

Instead of material goods, the Joneses that I am trying to keep up with are the top of their fields no matter where they are working: at home, in the classroom, in academia or online. In my mind, I find myself competing with the moms that stay home focusing most exclusively on the family and the home, the teachers that dedicate themselves and many extra hours/days to supporting their curriculum, to the professors that balance teaching and publishing and presenting, and the internet gurus who seem to be able to seamlessly document their lives or their creations (I visit a lot of craft-based lifestyle blogs).

Has my profession taught me to always feel I can’t quite measure up and there is always more work to be done?

Has the sheer number of times as dancers we’ve been told, “there is always a replacement” elicited a feeling that you can’t possibly be less than super-human if you still want to be good at what you do? In all that you do?

Has the emphasis placed on cross-training and generalist approaches to dance academics seasoned me for eXtreme multi-tasking and over-achieving  and thinking it is”normal”?

Or is it all personal?

Which aspect of my personality does this reflect most- the artist or the perfectionist? Can they be separated? Or which came first? Is one a product of the other or the inspiration?

Often, people seek my advice in teaching, or balancing professional and personal lives, or both. But now, perhaps it is me that needs the advice.

In truth, I do rejoice in our kids and family life, love my job and my opportunities, and all that go with it. Yet….

What do you do when you can’t find anything to let go of……  When life demands that you have your hat in many rings and your personality and/or your conditioning doesn’t allow you to be second rate in any of them….

Or am I the only one?

Four Confessions and a Concern

Recently, dance educator Sheena Jeffers wrote the blog post, “Teaching Dancers: Non-serious v. Serious” to which I contributed a few brief thoughts as did our highly esteemed friends, Nichelle at Dance Advantage and Dance_Reader. Sheena is an inspired teacher with a clear perspective and serious motivation. Her post was started as a conversation on Twitter that has had my wheels turning for some time. Here’s where I am right now.

Confession Number 1

I don’t think we necessarily need a million more professional dancers but we do need smarter people and an arts literate culture. Dance can do both.

Dance training takes on many different looks and often there is a primary focus: to produce professional dancers.  Anyone else encountered on the road is met with polite interest and tolerance if they manage to hold their own. If they don’t, or they decide to follow a different path, then they simply didn’t have “what it takes”. In this sense, the objective becomes subjective; the business becomes personal. The person that left is dismissed; the one that remained is lauded.

The hierarchy in dance education somehow remains- those that “do” are often more valued than those that “practiced” as if somehow those that watch, fund, discuss, teach, and advocate are lesser than those that perform and create.

Confession Number 2

Once upon a time, that was my view. I felt my “success” was mainly due not necessarily to talent or skill, but desire and passion. I suppose I still do, but in very different terms than when I started teaching.

When I was a student in a college dance pedagogy course, we were instructed to write a paper “teaching” something that we felt we did better than others- something that we felt set us apart from the rest. Expecting turns, leaps, or petite allegro, I suspect my professor was taken aback when I submitted my paper topic as “passion”. After a brief conversation, she directed to another professor (the grand lioness of the department) to talk over my point of view.

We eventually agreed that passion could be inspired but not taught.

That said, I still felt if one was majoring in dance, or pursuing a life as a professional dancer, one needed to “put up or shut up”, “go big or go home”, “go balls to the walls” …you get the idea.  When it came to being cast in a piece or dancing in technique class, it wasn’t that I was competitive with my peers. I was competitive with myself.

But I imagined the life of a dancer to be one of privilege due to sacrifice. I didn’t feel everyone deserved to be a dancer simply because they wanted to be, but because they earned the right to be. I suppose I still do, but in very different terms than when I started teaching.

When I set out to finally accomplish what I’d been dreaming about for years, I was stunned to find it wasn’t my dance experiences that shaped my happiness- it was the rest of me that had gone unacknowledged, unnoticed, undeveloped in the years I focused so sharply on preparing for professional dance. I remembered that I liked to read books, write, spend time with friends, watch movies, take walks in parks, learn, teach, laugh,…..  And it didn’t all have to be connected to dance in order for me to still be a dancer (even professional), and for me to be serious about my craft.

It took years, but I finally understand that I am not a lesser dancer. I am a better person.

These experiences have made me a better teacher. Teaching has made me a better parent and vice versa.

Confession Number 3

Here’s the thing: I hope there comes a time, a turning point in a dancer/dance educator’s life, when that view changes- not just intellectually, but sincerely. When it shifts from being something that we acknowledge could be true (in a very politically correct way) to something we believe. When we truly and honestly push forward with an understanding that each of us wears many different hats, and we each have a role to play in the enhancement of our aesthetics and our communities. When we put aside what separates us from them as a category and instead use it as a tool to push dialogue, boundaries, and forge collaboration.

Confession Number 4

I used to think I wanted to only teach “serious” dancers. For me, this meant dancers that were as dedicated and committed as I was. This meant dancers that saw themselves dancing professionally and would not stop until they “made it”.

Now, I want to teach.

I used to think that I needed to bring students to my level of commitment, understanding, and eventually mastery.

Now, I meet them where they are.

I used to think my favorite students would be the “best”. That probably meant technically/artistically/behaviorally.

Now, they are sometimes the ones that learned the most, those that make me laugh the most, or those that I’ve spent the most time with (which may include detention!). They are always the ones that trust me enough- or will risk enough- to share a meaningful moment, idea, or laugh.

A Concern

I hope this post doesn’t seem critical of the views Sheena and others shared in her original post. My intention is quite the opposite- to highlight that teaching is just as much of a journey as learning. We each have our individual styles, needs, motivations, and goals.

The important thing is that there is thought, care, and a willingness to discuss. Thanks to Sheena, Nichelle, Dance_Readers and others for these three things and so many more.

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.


Leading Me Here

Ten years ago I was living in NYC. I loved it. Good and bad, I loved every bit of it. Every blade of grass in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. Every bookstore. Every pretzel cart. Every step stepped where history was made and interesting people walked before.

Ten years ago I was pursuing the life of a dancer. I loved this a little less. I had a hard time finding where I belonged. But I loved the volume of dance, the accessibility to dance, the appreciation of dance. I loved figuring this out.

One day, ten years ago everything turned upside down. My journey back to my apartment on 175th from midtown was the loneliest of my life. I walked with strangers. I could call no one. Thankfully, I had spoken to my family in Michigan before I left the store in which I worked. Black fighter jets flew low overhead. I remember wishing that if I walked long enough, I could walk into my dad’s lovely backyard in Michigan. I visualized it. I thought about stopping in Central Park. I continued on. I eventually made it to my apartment. I entered and closed the door. I put my back to the door, and slid down it in tears. Years later, without the tears, this slide was the first significant image in my graduate thesis solo. The next image represented my world turned upside down. I am in the fetal position. It is the picture in the header of this blog.

Days later, ten years ago, things re-oriented themselves but nothing was the same. Perspective. Now I had it.

Ten years ago, I realized I needed to give back. I needed to teach. But I wasn’t exactly ready yet.

Nine years ago, I moved to LA to be with my love and to dance with one of my best friends.

Eight years ago, my husband and I returned to Michigan so I could attend grad school. I thought earning my MFA and teaching at the college level would be a way to give back. Teaching in higher education seemed the way to reconcile my goals: teaching and giving back.

Six years ago, I completed my degree and interviewed for college jobs. I learned a lot. The position I ended up taking was one in a visual and performing arts magnet high school. Had I seen the posting, I probably wouldn’t have applied for it. It wasn’t what I thought I wanted. As it turned out, it was what I needed.

Four years ago, as I was completing my K-12 certification a glitch surfaced, forcing me to explore “back up” plans in case I was not able to return to my high school gig due to a paperwork error. I accepted a job in higher education, at a liberal arts college.

For three years, I really enjoyed the job. I appreciated the time it allowed me to experiment in teaching and the freedom it provided me to approach my content area from unique angles. The school was small enough change could happen quickly and since I was the entire dance faculty, program meetings were a breeze. My students were nice, polite, responsible. Several were deeply invested in what we were doing. Many, I think, sincerely enjoyed our time together even though they were in my class to fulfill a gen ed requirement. Again, I learned a lot. And then it ended. The College had to make some decisions and they ended up cutting programs. Dance, unfortunately, was one of them.

One year ago, I returned to the high school job I left years ago. Much has changed. I still love the staff. I still enjoy the students. We embraced change and beautiful things emerged. The kids of this district need an outlet and an opportunity. If dance can be a gateway to any of those things, I feel it is my responsibility to help.

One week ago today, I accepted a position teaching at the K-8 visual and performing arts magnet in the same school district. This time, I need the change. I think this position is slightly more stable. This position is more challenging to me since I’ve not taught this age group in public ed before. And boy, is this staff supportive of arts integration! I feel a little guilt over leaving my high school students. We had big plans for this year. But I also know that I made the right choice.

I spent three days last week working with new colleagues on dance integrated lesson plans and performance plans. I need this.

Now, when I think about teaching in higher ed, I enter an internal debate. Is that really what I want? Or is it my ego talking? I think right now it might be my back up plan. Just as I did when I was dancing, I am always looking for my next gig. It doesn’t mean I am not committed to the one I have, I just never know when it might end.

Now, as I think about dance, dance training, and related topics, I see things far differently than I did when I was pursuing the life of a dancer. I see the need to support the whole person. I see the necessity in looking at attributes of dance rather than focusing on attributes of the dancing body.

There are times I wonder what all of this has done to my identity as a dancer. Or my reputation. I have spent time wondering how much dancing one needs to do in order to still be considered a dancer. Or is about performing? Is it about daily class? Is it about the dancer’s spirit? How much dancing does a dance writer do?

What I have realized is that I am no longer pursuing a dancer’s life. I am living it. Life changes. It adapts. Even for dancers. Our relationship to dance shifts. The purpose of dance in one’s life morphs. And it is okay.

Ten years ago, if I’d been asked where I would be in ten years I may have said still in NYC and “making it”.

Instead, my house is filled with the noise of superheros flying and falling “like bad guys”, of bad recordings of fake monkeys and elephants from a contraption called “a jump-a-roo”. My dog is asleep on the floor next to me. There are five roses in a vase on the table in front of me that my husband grew and cut for me. Later today, I will spend more time on lesson plans for the kids I meet tomorrow. I have notes to give my very patient dancers for a piece that goes up in two weeks. I’ll make dinner and spend quality time with my family. My life as a dancer has allowed for all of this.

It’s okay.

Finding 1st

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.

Why NOT Dance?

There are times I am astounded at the directness of my child and his ability to read my inner most thoughts.

Last evening, as my son played with the strap on my leotard, he asked, “Mommy, why do you dance?” Yesterday was a rare day because if forced to comment, I would’ve said, “I don’t know.”

When he asked me this, I had just arrived home after a displacement meeting conducted by the school district for which I teach. I direct the dance program of a visual and performing arts magnet high school, a title I am not sure how much longer this school may hold.  My position is most likely being reduced by one class due to low enrollment during first semester, an issue that was present before the fall semester began and before I was rehired to fill this position.

Due to my rank on the seniority list and my qualifications, chances are I may fill my one-class void with what is essentially an alternative education class. While I am certified in K-12, endorsed only in dance (it is one of those unique certifications in my state), I could end up teaching lower level math, science, and English to students who did not succeed in a traditional high school experience. It is an “out of the box” kind of approach to student learning. On one hand, that suits me perfectly. But, on the other,…..WHAT?!!!!  There are other possible scenarios with varying degrees of drama and intrigue and I eagerly await the outcome.

In the hours I waited for the displacement meeting to begin, I found my thoughts wandering to the space of “is this because I chose dance?”  Last year, I experienced a very similar circumstance when my position directing a dance minor program at a small liberal arts college was eliminated.  In the three years I was there, class numbers drastically increased, the total number of dance minors tripled, and almost all of the dance course offerings counted toward general graduation requirements and provided a valuable service to the college as a whole.  I poured myself into that program and was devastated although not entirely shocked when it was cut.  In this instance, the high school dance program has a fair amount of rebuilding to do for a variety of reasons.  And we’re making progress.  So, while I understand the decision for this reduction, and acknowledge it is minute in response to the current unemployment statistics, it is still disappointing.  The difference this time, however, is that I have colleagues fighting for my program, for my students, for me.  That makes a world of difference in the feeling of this experience.  In that sense, people make all the difference.

At the end of the day, however, money talks and people have to listen.  So, we’ll see what happens.  As I looked around the conference room during the displacement meeting, I remembered that I was the only dancer in the room.  Of the twenty-something people impacted by this process, only 2 (I think) are arts positions.  For the second time, (my experience at the college included), I didn’t feel the arts were automatically the first to be cut.  At the college, computer science was eliminated!  And so, I hope we are making progress on this front.  I hope the arts are being valued for the creativity they encourage and are cut now when the going gets tough and not when it nearly gets tough.

After I caught myself contemplating my decisions to pursue dance, I scolded myself.  How can I, a dance educator and advocate, doubt my own path?  Easily.  Doesn’t everyone at some point in their career, regardless of their field?  Yet, can everyone say, that given the chance to do it all over again, they’d make the same choices?  I can.  I think about the parents I have met with, concerned that their child may not be profitable with a career in the arts.  I recall the advice I have given them, the experiences I have shared, and still feel confident it was right.  There can be a life in the arts but it takes hard work, an ability to think on your feet, and a thick skin.

Years ago, I would have dwelled on Why Dance?  But now, I focus on Why NOT Dance?  It isn’t because I don’t know any better or can’t do anything else.  I have cultivated many skills and interests.  It isn’t because I can’t sit still or have an ego that can only be quenched with performance.  My body doesn’t want to move the way it once did and I am quite happy in the shadows of backstage or behind the computer relating to other aspects of Dance.  It IS, however, part of my identity.  It IS the largest part of my personal story/history, so far.  It IS what makes me feel good and inspired to work with others.  And I firmly feel it has a place in the future of many disciplines outside of dance.

While my perspective and the questions I ask myself have drastically changed since I entered the profession, some things have not.  After asking me why I dance, my son said, “You have to take off your socks when you dance.”  And it became crystal clear again.  Years ago, I said I wanted to spend my life in bare feet and dance pants.  Over ten years later, I still do.  Yet again, he was exactly right.  Some people make all the difference.