Mind the Gap(s)

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

Here is a sample:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the other gaps:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which gaps are you mindful of these days?

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.

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.

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.

Marimba: Still Entranced by Lar Lubovitch

As a sophomore in college I had the distinct honor of dancing Lar Lubovitch’s Marimba. John Dayger, long time Lubovitch rehearsal director and dancer, set the work in a number of marathon weekends- a process that proved to be my first REAL introduction to professional dance.

REWIND

I entered college from a dance studio owned by a couple of ‘adagio’ dancers. I studied ballet, pointe, jazz, and tap.  I taught classes to children. I dabbled in a little choreography. Dance notation to me, meant the notebooks filled with either stick-figures with counts or short-hand representing choreography that the studio owners created and I was to teach my classes. Choreography simply meant an assembling movement together and that movement was intended to demonstrate the skills we’d hopefully developed throughout the year.

When I interviewed for entrance into the dance major program and interviewed for a scholarship, my future mentor asked me my favorite choreographers. Having had zero dance history education apart from what I read in Dance Magazine and a book my first ballet teacher gave me, I listed Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and…Lar Lubovitch.

At this point you might think to yourself, “huh?! These are the three she lists? Kelly (mainstream), Astaire (mainstream), and…..Lubovitch (NOT mainstream for a girl growing up in a rural town in Michigan.).” The thought strikes me as odd, too.

The thing is, my dad likes to arrive places early. And I mean EARLY (especially when he’s anxious).  So, I had about an hour and half to kill in the hallways of the dance department before another auditionee arrived. There was still probably another half hour before check-in.  During this time, I read every article on every bulletin board I could find. Since Lubovitch had been in residence the year prior, his company performing and teaching several master classes, there were a lot of articles about the company’s presence and about Lar Lubovitch himself.  I recognized his name. Honestly. Remember, I was an avid reader of Dance Magazine.  And I thought I had seen some of his work on PBS. (To this day I am not sure that is true). Yet in my mind, in the span of two hours, he’d come to be one of my favorite choreographers.

RE-DEFINE

Magically, I was cast in Marimba during my sophomore year. It was the most intense dance experience I’d ever had. In fact, I think that was the most intense dance experience I have EVER had but mainly due to my age and level of training at that point. Here are some of the things that challenged everything I thought I knew about dance at that time.

Counting: Mostly 8’s. Sometimes 5’s or 7’s. Always consistant.

Lubovitch: 11, 12, 7, 5, 13, 9, 9,…..it was alllll over the place and actually had to be counted out loud by the group in order to keep track. Skipping 6 and 7 of course because the sound resonates into the house.

Composition tools: they exist

Lubovitch:  they are complex, beautiful ideas that shift movement into meaningful visual pictures and contextual ideas. They may also make you want to stab your eyes with forks because they can be that complex and relentless.

Cast:  the people that co-exist with you in Time and Space

Lubovitch:  No man is an island and without these people, you are sunk.  They are your life-line. And if someone happens to make a mistake in the fifth of a twenty-two minute piece that impacts the entire cast and the success of the entire piece, well….you better find acceptance and forgiveness because: 1. sooner or later that person will be YOU and 2. there is going to be another run of the piece in 5 minutes and anger will just get in the way.

Conditioning:  there is this thing called your “center”

Lubovitch:  nothing helps you find your center like running in plie for a 7 hour rehearsal on Saturday and doing it again on Sunday for 5. (Not to mention the 3 hours on Friday night). Weekend after weekend after weekend. (Which follow weeks of dancing 6 hours minimum per day). That kind of knowledge gets you through your 5 hour dance day when still moving (dancing) in the 9th month of your second pregnancy.

Elastoplast® is a miracle product when you have splits and blisters

Dancer’s tools:  shoes, mostly and then calluses

Lubovitch:  Elastoplast® is the greatest invention in the world. Second only to gaff tape (maybe).

RETURN to current day…..

So, this has all come up because yesterday during dinner I had a very powerful movement memory of a section from this piece. Sadly, I cannot remember the full name of the section….it was something like Big Turns, Fast Turns, Sudden Death.  It is my favorite movement I’ve ever danced, mainly because I love turns, speed, and being off-center. Then, when you divide movement by half each time it is repeated it becomes a wonderful, death-defying movement puzzle that keeps you engaged for…..umm….over a decade. Yikes!!

REFLECT

I dance, for most of the year, every single day. But this is the dancing I miss. The kind in which every cell of your being is engaged because your life, or the life you have dared to imagine for yourself, depends on it.

The Next Verbal Challenge: Describing Contemporary Dance

I am relatively new to Twitter but I have already enjoyed the relationships I have started to cultivate and the dialogue they have inspired.

One of the threads we’ve created is the comparison of contemporary dance to modern (look for #comodance).  I have biases.  Know this.  But also know that while I consider myself a modern dance artist, my roots are firm in the jazz idiom.  Allow me to clarify:  Jazz created by people that were investigating the possibilities of the body with applied theory and clear purpose.  Jazz dance that actually related to jazz music and shared rhythms and the percussive qualities that resulted in those rhythms.  Jazz that sculpted space as well as the body.  Jazz choreography that was new each time based on the music, the lines, the feel for the piece.  Jazz artists branded their styles yet offered unique perspectives with new works and demonstrated a development of an idea, a motif, and strong movement selection. In these ways, artists working in jazz were working as deeply and as intellectually, I think, as many modern dance artists- which were then often using the term “contemporary”.  Yet, the “contemporary dance” of Martha Graham is nothing like the “contemporary dance” being presented current day on shows such as Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance.

I will be the first to admit that modern dance, like jazz, has suffered an immense departure from its origins that so clearly identified its belonging in the dance world; like it or not.  I will also be the first to propose that we need a revision ( a RE- VISION) in order to perpetuate this idiom into the future.  But the same goes for all dance idioms, wouldn’t you say?  Wasn’t there huge discussion about six months ago about whether or not ballet is dead?  The same could be debated about modern (also touched on in the #comodance thread).  I have some theories as to HOW this might be done but they need some refinement before I share. I also have some theories as to how all of this should relate to dance education but I am also not ready to show those cards.  For now, I will keep them close to my jazz vest (of which I wore A LOT in my jazz days. 😉 )

Okay, so here goes.  My attempt to fairly explain contemporary dance to the non-dancer.  Gulp.

  • Contemporary dance is a category of dance which borrows movement from the disciplines of ballet, modern, and jazz dance and places an emphasis on virtuosic athleticism.
  • Contemporary choreography often demonstrates one of two themes:  direct/indirect narrative or movement for movement sake yet both approaches are usually dependent upon musical selection and often rooted in popular culture references.
  • As in everything, there is good and bad.  Contemporary dance aspires to be aesthetically beautiful or aesthetically ugly, relying on body rather than embodiment to make the concept clear.

What do you think?  I chose my words carefully…..

Here is a brief list of contrasting ideas that may provoke further thought regarding the differences between modern dance and contemporary. This is not to say these concepts don’t exist in both classifications, these are just general comments to the trends I see in them separately.

Modern                                                                                   Contemporary

Expressionist                                                                                  Impressionist

Organic                                                                                              Assembled

Internal                                                                                             External

Re-Creation of Mvt (embodiment )                                           Imitation of Mvt (line/shape)

Again, what do you think?

If you are interested in joining the conversations about dance online, check out Jordon Cloud’s recent post here and “like” the Terpsichore: Movement as Muse on FB here. Also check out this article by Nancy Wozny on this very topic!!

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:

Technique

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.

Composition

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.

Theory

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.

Underdogs Unite!

One of the things I like best about what I do is that it connects me with people of all ages, experiences, and relationships to dance. I especially like becoming a fixture in certain circles so that my observation and understanding of certain groups increases and I am better able to relate to these people with each subsequent meeting.

Not long ago, I met with a young woman I first worked with when I was a guest choreographer at Michigan State University. MSU offers a phenomonal dance minor completely developed and executed by one Sherrie Barr. This young woman with whom I met, wanted to pick my brain and my impressions of the dance world and procure any advice I could muster. After doing my best to satisfy her request, I left thinking about the advice I had been granted when I was in her shoes and I realized that I failed to mention perhaps the most important and most impossible piece I have ever received:

Find your own niche.

As a twenty-something, I not only found this daunting but nearly debilitating. How does one actively find their niche?! Sure, I could come up with things I did well and things I thought set me apart in one setting only to find in another, they were not at all individual or distinguishing. I also kept rehashing the possibilities for this elusive niche in the same cliché pathway, performance; as if it were all that existed in Dance.

As a thirty-something, I think it is has finally hit me. My niche is not in any of the areas I expected, or rather hoped it would be. It is in teaching. On top of this, it is not even with the type of student nor the kind of environment I projected myself to be most adept at working. It is with students of all ages and backgrounds that are looking at dance to serve a role OTHER than that which would lead to a typical performance or choreography job. Probably, this is because it is what I need dance to do, too.

My students tend to need dance to lead to something greater. Movement may be their first language and thus their best method to develop critical thinking and other skills. Dance may serve as a therapy in ways more profound than the mere release of endorphins or adrenaline. Their understanding of the business side of dance may lead to a profession in which both sides of their brain are engaged. And all of this could have a trickle effect, impacting more people in innovative and interesting ways. Great. But then what?

When I was directing a dance minor program at a small liberal arts college here in Michigan, I told a colleague from another institution about my program and my philosophy. I included that several of my dance minors were not dancers in the typical sense, performing terrified them, but more, they were interested in the field of dance; the theories existing in and relating to dance, and linking those ideas to their “other” areas of academic interest. They were interested in thinking outside the box –well multiple boxes, if you consider that they were viewing dance as well as their majors in ways completely new to them. When my colleague laughed and likened this to being an astronaut but not wanting to go into space, I realized this person was not interested in thinking outside the box. It surprised me and yet, I think this mentality is the norm rather than the exception.

So, where do these underdogs go? Where does one send a dance minor that is a lovely mover but with less contact hours in technique than a dance major to find their niche, particularly when dance industries prize physicality (and by extension, professional clout) first and intellectualism second? Is there room for entry-level, non-performing dance artists? Where do they go in the time between the lightbulb moment that dance is more than dancing and heavy-hitting dance scholar status? How do we advise the dance minds that our field depends on…the John Martins, the Margaret H’Doublers, the Lincoln Kirsteins? Surely, if we leave all of Dance up to the dancers, we will crumble in 5,6,7,8.

Maybe I am wondering this for my own journey, as well. I trust that an entire career must contain multiple niches and I always like to think ahead. Maybe some, even much, of my pondering stems from the doors that have been closed to me which ultimately guided me to those that have been open, thus prompting me in unexpected directions.

At the close of our meeting, this young woman said she was envious of my professional and personal timeline; that it seemed things had worked out perfectly. They have. Certainly different from how I had planned them, however. She also remarked that it appeared things had fallen into place for me, almost by chance. I replied with, “No, by hard work.” I suppose from a distance it might appear opportunities have just come to me. But, upon closer examination, they have all stemmed from trying my best at whatever I was doing at the time. The people that witnessed that kept me in mind when they heard of opportunities, and the professional game of “telephone” has led to successes. Maybe instead of chalking it up to “who you know” it really should be “who you impress.”

Ultimately, I have decided “niches” are not destinations you can set out to find but must stumble upon through reflection.

So, twenty-somethings, ready to take on the world:
work hard, be flexible, and look back to project forward.
The rest of us underdogs are here for you when you need us.