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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
Yeah….It can be that difficult to maintain brevity when attempting to describe modern dance to the non-dancer.
This is by no means the first time I’ve visited this puzzle in my work but this is a most recent stab prompted by the impressive Jordon Cloud.
So, here goes. My meager attempt to describe modern dance with attention to creative intent, technical expression, and aesthetic. Gulp.
- Modern dance IDEALLY seeks to convey meaning which may or may not include direct narrative.
- Modern dance IDEALLY relies on organic, natural, and technical movement vocabulary, which supports that expression and which may or may not be codified.
- As in everything, there is good and bad, but in modern dance either may be ugly.
What do you have?
The beginning of the academic year always brings back a flurry of my own memories as a student. As an undergraduate dance major, I entered my program as a jazz dancer who watched modern dance, always thinking, “that is what I want to do. That is dance.” I suppose at that point of my training and pre-professional career, I considered jazz to be dancing, and modern to be dance. Maybe in some ways, I still do.
As I progressed through my BFA, I was encouraged to dabble in all, specialize in few, and to try to understand who I was as an artist. This was hard for me. I enjoyed the dabbling in all although admittedly performance always took priority. I tried really hard to figure out where I fit and where I wanted to go next. But, the specialization was a particular challenge. Easily, I was a jazz dancer who could also “do” modern. That was the box I inhabited, somewhat agreeably as jazz was my first language and had provided the most opportunity for me. But it was also where I felt most other people—–faculty and peers–kept me boxed in. In my class, there were three BFA majors in three sturdy boxes: “the ballet dancer”, “the modern dancer”, and “the jazz dancer.” Three unique movers, three distinct personalities, and three pre-conceived identities more rooted in how we entered the program versus how we finished it.
As I moved around the country in pursuit of a dancer’s life, the box that contained my undergraduate experience was essential baggage that helped and hindered as I transitioned to the professional dance world, and with it, the “other” real world. Once out on my own, I realized how much of the rest of me I’d boxed up during college in order to concentrate and condition myself for the world of dance. Professionally, I struggled with strategy. Should I focus on jazz, making jazz contacts, securing jazz gigs, and then attempt to transition to modern? Or, now free of the jazz stigma, should I start with modern. Already, I was aware I needed balance and frustrated at how that might roadblock my way to success (as I then perceived it) in either discipline. It took a while for me to see that my new sturdy box was one of a multi-dimensional person and artist that could forge in many different directions and still claim success. My perception was what needed to change, not my identity. My box simply needed to upgrade from the size of an egg-crate to one of, oh I don’t know….a dishwasher? No room for a refrigerator box yet, I was still living the gypsy life and rent in NYC is expensive.
Standing on 52nd Street in the days following 9/11, waiting to start my shift as a visual merchandiser for a large retail chain, it hit me. This isn’t for me. Working 40-plus hours and hoping to have enough money and energy to take class, audition, and do all that comes with my “dance habit” (as later one of my graduate professors lovingly referred to it) was not cutting it for me. Even though I had had opportunity to perform, had networked and made valuable and impressive contacts, and was starting to make it happen, I was not fulfilled. Suddenly, my life felt frivolous. Dressing windows by day, auditioning and taking class by afternoon and night no longer seemed the responsible thing to do. How was this helping anybody but myself and what exactly was it helping me do?
I soon met my husband, who happened to be living in Los Angeles, where coincidentally one of my best friends, the aforementioned “the modern dancer,” was living. I packed my boxes and drove across country to a slightly redesigned dance existence and with my perception of success still under construction. There, “the modern dancer” and I started a short-lived pick up company. My pursuit of a dancer’s life was now veering from performer to creator and even more quickly back to academia with graduate school calling. More boxes, more notions, and dimensions were developing.
So, to grad school I went, where I was now the modern dancer who could also“do” jazz. The bottom of my original box and opened and now become the top. I was struck to find much of the same stigma, but viewed from a different angle. An angle in which jazz was not as readily respected yet in a pinch, was a highly valuable skill to have. It still afforded me unique opportunities within a predominantly modern dance program. Yet, due to the quality of my jazz training and the depth of my classic jazz experiences, I was now somewhat of an authority of what seems to be a dying art form in spite of its popular existance.
Since graduate school, I have tried on other cardboard dwellings: teaching dance in the public schools, higher education, community college, private studio, masterclasses, and more. I have performed for repertory companies, pick-up companies, and free-lanced. I still choreograph mostly modern works and take pride in my ability to bridge concepts in multiple genres and ideologies. I am supremely thankful for my background in Dance and having worked with and been influenced by people with deep understandings of the difference between dancing and dance, regardless of genre.
I am no longer simply inhabiting a single box, but able to stand proudly on several for a better view of the dance world, the other real world, and most importantly, to use as leverage in order to help someone else. It is from this perception of success that I write to you of my experiences, viewpoints, and other ponderings.
Originally published by Dance in the Annex. http://www.danceintheannex.com