Living Life as an Experiment

Have you ever had that experience in which what you have been wishing for materializes and you can hardly catch your breath? You can hardly believe it is real. It is as if your mind has been read and you find yourself in a place where all the right things align? A place that you thought may only exist in your imagination but in fact is real and only an hour away. One that doesn’t hold perfection but does hold immense promise? And your eyes may or may not occasionally leak as a result.

You feel a little like Alice in your own version of a Wonderland- a place full of curiosity, provoking thought, happy people, and things to learn and see and do?

Yeah. That is me right now. See….

I love teaching dance in the public school system. I love it for its potential for students, its representation of the breadth of the field, its opportunity to develop dance advocates.

Dance in the K-12 setting allows me to teach everything I love about dance: technical theory, history, performance theory, and the creative process. Every lesson is experiential, whether it is challenging our definitions and applications of technique, understanding the legacy of dance in concert and social forms, or relating dance to other subject areas to simply make sense of life. (Okay, maybe not so simply but certainly profoundly.)

Teaching in the public schools has introduced me to a passion for teaching and understanding many layers of development (social, emotional, cognitive) that I didn’t realize I had when I was working exclusively in the world of dance.

Teaching in the public schools has introduced me to a desire to really connect with people and not merely communicate with them on a variety of levels. Teaching here has allowed me to put down my biases (artistic, social,….), be willing to truly be seen by the students among me. I have learned to truly see them. Students have taught me about what is most important in life. It may include battements and flatbacks, but it isn’t about them specifically.

Teaching in the public schools has introduced me to people that have made deep impressions on my life- in how I think, plan, structure, communicate, create,….. Some of these introductions have been in the classroom, or in the school itself. Others have been due to related work, such as assessment development at the state level. All have been professional and became personal.

Finally, I have met a community that shares my values and has put these values into practice. Our values are visible, tangible, sustainable.

  “Live life as an experiment”.

I have been doing this in the studio my whole life.
     
I have done that with my dance career.
  
I am doing that now with my career in education.
         

I have gained so much in teaching dance in a K-8 program for the last few years. But I have come to decide that I do my best work with secondary students- middle school, high school, and college. I like the K-12 setting for the inclusion of all aspects of dance rather than segregating concepts into classes and styles (modern, jazz, history, composition,….).

Now, I return to the high school level but this time in a district very different from the one I have known. I am directing a serious program of serious dancers with beautiful training. I lead a community of people committed to making dance and arts education a priority. I am already professionally challenged and supported.

I am grateful for all the lessons and the people that have led me here. And now, I am grateful for the opportunity for change and for growth. I know it won’t all be easy but it will be positive and it will be valuable. It will be professional and become personal.

Just as “a world-class education”- a Wonderland- should be.

present and connected

This weekend I had the distinct honor of presenting at the McEntire Education Summit, hosted by Trent McEntire. Trent and I are old friends- the best kind, where you don’t speak nearly often enough but when you do, it is as if not a day has gone by. Trent is a force in the pilates world, a real icon and one that takes people and their potential seriously.

A couple months ago, Trent and I had a conversation about helping educators enhance their relationships, their connections, with their clients.

This, in tandem with research I have been conducting with a dear colleague and special education expert, Karen Hicks, has launched a new line of professional development presentations for me.

We address the presence and application of movement in academic classrooms, how to conceive and implement authentic arts integration. As a dance educator in a dance-specific setting, I present alternatives to the traditional and often shaming methods of teaching dance. Here is another way to describe it:

What is it?

Empathy-based pedagogy, emotionally-intelligent teaching

What is the application?

Acknowledgement of people first, then organizing movement systems to help them reach toward and beyond their potential. Get the most out of your time, get the most out of your experiences.

What is the result?

Happiness by way of growth, service, and satisfaction. By way of relationships, communication, and support.

Why? (Although I have always known the why, Trent has continually pushed me to find the words).

I believe movement connects. (Bodies to ourselves, our minds, our ideas, our potential)

I believe connections save lives. (Connections of people, ideas, dots, movements, mantras, communities, you name it…….)

But the longer why is that it has taken me years to put down my “dance-traumas” as a friend has described them. The wounds and complications experienced in training my body and mind to master and compete. For what?

In working with the students I see on a regular basis, life is already full of challenge, condescension, and competition. Pitting students against each other, yelling corrections, and delivering nasty looks doesn’t produce anything productive. Even subtle “judgements” set up obstacles over solutions. I am not against competition altogether, but there is healthy competition and unhealthy. I realized that many of the negative messages I received from teachers (of all subjects- NOT just dance!!!) were probably not even intended, they may simply have been received. So my goal is to help people understand those messages and build intention in what they are sending and what they are choosing to receive.

Want to know more?

  • I will be teaching a pedagogy-based movement experience for Dance in the Annex this August (dates to come) in Grand Rapids, MI.
  • Karen Hicks and I will be presenting a professional development session for STEAM teachers at the Mt. Hope STEAM school in Lansing in August.
  • AND we will be presenting at the National Dance Education Organization Conference in Chicago this November (Saturday 11:30).
  • Or I/we can come to you…..

This is the work that has nurtured some of the best relationships of my life. You deserve the same.

 

When the Body Answers Back

We know our stories are trapped in our bodies. We know we use our bodies to express personal perspectives within our stories. But what about when the body needs to do the speaking?

When I was living in NYC, one of my favorite classes was that of Alexandra Beller. She started each class with us laying on our backs, talking us through our bodies, giving us permission to let go of whatever we had been trudging through prior to class and to simply be before she invited us to move.

It never failed, each and every time I would get a lump in my throat, tears would stream from my eyes, and it seemed to come from nowhere. As I described in my post about David Howard’s class, here I was accepted as a person and then supported as a dancer. It was empowering, complex, surprising, and thought-provoking. Over ten years later, I am still thinking about it.

Over the years, I have had students go through similar experiences in my own class. This summer, I have finally had that feeling again in my practice of Bikram yoga.

Interestingly, this topic keeps coming up as I communicate with people from all over the dance map.

It makes me think the conversation needs to be opened.

In grad school, one area of my research was how organized movement curricula can help alleviate symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This, for me, was a brief and shallow advance into the world of research but the topic keeps cropping up in everything else I research and in all facets of my teaching- embodied learning for at-risk students, learning styles and methods for delivering information in a dance classroom, and more.

Without going into too much personal detail, I have experienced many traumas (death of a parent, being in NYC on 9/11, several robberies,….) and I have been conscious of how my body has felt and how my dancing has been impacted as a result of events. Things have helped and hindered along the way but nothing has had the profound effect for me as I have encountered this summer.

Through movement and possibly related to certain environmental conditions, I have felt the ‘baggage’ I have been carrying for years shift and eventually be left behind. Not all of it, but a substantial amount.

I have acknowledged the unevenness of sides of my body- in feeling like I am laying on an incline while in reality laying on flat ground, in sensing complete relaxation on the left side of my body while the right side is tense literally from the top of my head to the toes, even in wanting to cry but only on the right side of my face.

My head has flooded with thoughts that I have not allowed myself to entertain and in the next posture those thoughts flooded out.

I have felt the front of my body roar like a lion and I have cried, and cried, and cried- not in sadness but in release.

My body, mind, and spirit feel stronger than…..well, maybe ever.

In the reading I have done in recent weeks, I am suspecting that this breakthrough is, naturally, because I am ready. However, the environmental conditions of the yoga experience might also be important in my case. Namely, the heat.

Bikram as I understand, is the original hot yoga and all of this- the heat, the focus on my own practice and not that of my students, and the dedicated time to myself-  has returned me to when I was dancing intensely, in hot studios, sweating immensely, and so on. For me, living in NYC and dancing my way through the summer, all of this is relevant to conditions not directly relating to trauma but surrounding the trauma. It has taken me back to the time and not the event. And dance, the technical practice and focus on my progress and process, has been consistent in the time of all other traumas.

None of this has been easy, but it has been necessary. Due to the conversations I have had with others over the last few weeks, I feel prompted to share this in the spirit of “you are not alone”.

My experiences have been dependent upon my interactions with Alexandra Beller, Trent McEntire, and the instructors of Bikram Yoga Capital Area, as well as everyone else that has shaped my life’s path in movement and stillness.

For all those that have had similar experiences or may in the future- keep moving. May you find your own guides, maybe even in the most unexpected of people or situations. At any rate, I hope you find your release.

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.

 

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?

The Application of Technique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycle 1: How much of what we teach is “curriculum”?

Let’s face it, I am fortunate in that my subject area- dance- is not included in the standardized tests that my students take each year. That doesn’t mean, however, that I am not careful and intentional in how and what I teach. As I see it, there are three main types of teaching/learning relationships in every classroom and how we choose to acknowledge those relationships goes along way in determining our success in teaching people.

When posed with the question of “what is curriculum?”, my mind begins to flood with complex and conflicting thoughts. At the outset, I would describe curriculum as the intended content a teacher strives to share with their students; information and skills that are developed to reflect state benchmarks. Concepts that will be assessed in formal ways and will result in deciding how money is spent, jobs are allocated, and experiences lived.

When asked “what is curriculum for?” I think it is an attempt to create a common foundation- a common language if you will,  for teachers within a state, a grade level, and subject areas to agree. In theory, this might ensure that students moving from one school to another may not miss essential concepts that help them advance to the next grade. In theory, this might ensure that all graduating high school students might be equipped for their vocations or for college with the skills appropriate for those paths. In theory, curriculum would evolve to draw from big ideas maintained in “the Classics” but also include methods for preparing students to adapt to ever-changing demands of daily and professional life.

And yet,…..

I am distracted by what I have come to know and understand as I have developed, time and time again according to varied teaching environments, my own “curriculum”. I am conscious of how my ability to authentically help  students has shifted with experience and how this has in turn shifted how I choose content and methods for delivering information through experiences. I am embracing my “ways of knowing” to realize that I approach all of life as a dancer and translate every situation and interaction through my mastery and analysis of movement, body language, and non-verbal cues. And I am acknowledging truly, that as an educator my views of the world provide the fabric for my practice- even as I gaze on what I do through the lenses of intentional, innate, and hidden curriculum.

Here we arrive at another question. “What does that mean?” Well, here is what these things have come to mean in my life up to this point.

Direct or Intentional

I would describe direct or intentional curriculum as the stuff teachers set out to teach. This is the material that will be tested. This is the material that has been deemed most important. This is the material that fills books. This is what you write on your lesson plans. I would dare say that in most classrooms, this is boring.

As a dance educator, the direct curriculum is what I check the state standards for- terminology, definitions, age appropriate skill development. Boring. Until….I think of interesting ways to connect these things to non-boring things- images, textures, feelings, forces of motion, patterns as they exist in the world, cycles of ideas/relationships, current events, and more.

I find that when I apply context and guided experience to the programmed “curriculum”, the content comes to life. It isn’t necessary the stuff that is exciting but the discovery of how it is exciting.

Indirect or Innate

Innate curriculum helps me sleep at night when I have reached the tipping point with a challenging class and I stop pushing engagement and allow myself to “lead” class rather than “teach” it. I am not proud of these moments- I have just admitted they keep me up at night. But the innate curriculum is what my arts discipline “does” when I do little more than teach in the traditions of how dance has been taught (follow the leader, do what you are told, do it better, and don’t ask any questions.) This is when I rely on what the arts are credited as doing even when little thought has gone into the “how” of how these things are  achieved- things like providing self- discipline, conditioning bodies, building coordination, self-esteem, and being “fun”.

Innate curriculum is the material we assume is being learned simply because kids are in classrooms. These are the lessons that kids are not being explicitly taught but are using cultural inference to figure out and practice. And it leads to my third teaching/learning relationship category. This is the work that depends on the environment to be conveyed rather than the direct acknowledgment. An example might be: “you should behave in school better than you do at home, because well, you are at school. ” It is a standard expectation that is often assumed and not necessarily uttered out loud.

Hidden Curriculum

This is what kids notice about you and your classroom. This is how kids determine what your real expectations are. This is how kids decide if they will allow you to teach them. There is only one guarantee.

Kids. Notice. Everything.

If you don’t think so then they are your mirror image. They know you don’t think they care or don’t think they can do it and they will show you exactly that.

Hidden curriculum is varied and comprehensive:

  • Why should they turn assignments on time if you are late to school every day?
  • Why should they organize their ideas if you can’t organize your classroom?
  • Why should they be prepared to start the assignment when you say so if they know you will say it three more times ?
  • Why should they like math if they know you don’t like math and are uncomfortable teaching it?

Do you see the pattern?

Many educators, I think, place the power and importance in the order I listed: direct, indirect, and don’t consider the hidden messages in the class. I, however, place the value and therefore power in the exact opposite order.

There is a lot about the field of dance that challenges perceptions of people and of the world. I use hidden curriculum to encourage awareness and even conversations among kids that I don’t necessarily have time to conduct. And truly, kids are smarter than we give them credit for. They are capable of having important and discerning conversations when there is something worthwhile to talk about.  Want them to stop gossiping? Give them something juicy to think about and discuss.

In my classes, one way I do this is in the pictures I hang up. In recent months, I decided one challenging topic is the body and expected gender roles.

Dance challenges our acceptance of the body as something to see, watch, move, and touch. Gender roles in dance challenge our perceptions of relationships in many different ways.

Now, in my teaching I have limited time (30 minutes per week for each elementary classroom, 45 minutes per day for each middle school dance elective class) and we all know class discussion- especially about fascinating topics- can eat up those blocks of time easily.

I have found simply posting pictures of bodies in different kinds of shapes, costumes, and relationships have raised discussions of bodies and people in safe and constructive ways that carry over into the hallway before lunch or on their way to their next class.

While I listen to the conversations as they peruse the pictures, I often say very little until there is a direct connection to our classwork or if they have any questions they want to ask. Or until there is room for me to make a very brief but powerful statement.

I have been impressed at how their imaginations have anticipated movement that came before or after the image they actually see. At how they discuss weight or partnering- often delicate matters- in mature ways. I have noticed that they sometimes will make an accusation and then look at me to see what I think. And that is when I can address how their word choice might be offensive and why. I am not mad at them. I am seeking the opportunity to change their perception and be mindful of others. But I don’t necessarily need to do this in front of the whole class at the same time. Word spreads in other ways and the lesson is shared.

It is also not something that is necessarily in my “curriculum” but serves them in life. Isn’t that what education should do?

So when I think about “curriculum”, I agree with Sir Ken Robinson when he says schools are killing creativity and the paradigm is shifting. Kids are expected to ingest the information and not contextualize or develop a sense of themselves as it relates to the information.

Yet I also wonder what determines college “readiness” or another measures of success. Is it the memorization of a map and ability to identify states based on sight? Or is the ability to find an app on your smartphone that shows you the state as well as the ability to understand what the geography means in terms of what to wear and what you should eat if you visit those locations.

What leads to a fulfilled, productive, contributing life?

Thinking and problem-solving. Willingness to take risks, change assumptions, hazard a guess, and use mistakes to advance your thinking.To reflect on your own existence and make a positive impact on your community and the world at large. This is what fulfills my life and what I hope to inspire my students to do.

Shouldn’t that be goal of education?

What is in your “curriculum”?

Here is the link to a review of two new excellent reads. Check them out! Prepping for the Common Core with Two Informational Dance Texts | Dance Advantage

http://danceadvantage.net/2012/06/21/hitting-the-books-two-valuable-reads-from-oxford-university-press/

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?