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.

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/

History Moves: Using the Creative Process to Explore Dance History

Here is my December article for Dance Advantage.

Four Confessions and a Concern

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

Confession Number 1

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

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

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

Confession Number 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confession Number 3

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

Confession Number 4

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

Now, I want to teach.

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

Now, I meet them where they are.

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

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

A Concern

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

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

Unsung Heroes: Taking on Community Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THANKS.

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

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

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

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

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

What do you have?