History Moves: Using the Creative Process to Explore Dance History

Here is my December article for Dance Advantage.

Creative Process: 10 Ideas for Moving Beyond the Steps

Here’s my November article for Dance Advantage.

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.

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!!


Morning doves by Hazel M. Vaughan

My mother painted birds. My English mother came to the US with her English husband and two small English children, a passion for art, and raw skill. One Christmas, my father bought her a set of paints and she set to work. She was drawn to nature and specialized in birds and flowers. Watercolor was her medium of choice. The most striking element of her work is the detail in the feathers and, to me, the dew drops on the flowers. She received a fair amount of local notoriety for her art and instilled in us- her two English born and one American born kids- a love of art that has continued long after she has passed away.

I am the American born child of this arts-loving English couple. I have letters from my Nana, my mother’s mother, referring to me as the “American doll.” As a kid, I was often aware of the difference in my upbringing because I used words that the other kids thought were funny. For example, we said it was “spitting” out instead of “sprinkling” and I wore “knickers” instead of “underpants”. But then there were the words that my creative father made up and passed off as common language, which I later found out didn’t exist in either English or American English. Being from Merseyside, he also told me he went to school with the Beatles but didn’t know why they stopped calling him. (My mother did watch the Beatles at the Cavern Club, probably around the Pete Best era). And I got my own back….after seeing Ringo in Rockefeller Center while I was living in NYC, I called my Dad and told him that I saw Uncle Ringo but he acted as if he had no idea who I was. My dad rolled and rolled in laughter.

Where am I going with this? Art making: specifically, my mother’s attention to detail and my father’s creativity. I find it fascinating how or where people place value on a ‘finished’ product.

It seems to me that dancers that are trained from an external perspective- those taught to imitate line and shape instead of re-creating it for themselves, place importance on synchronicity and clarity of execution. There is value placed on the cleanliness of the group rather than the detail of an individual movement and the opportunity to see this movement become unique as performed my multiple bodies. I am all for clean dancing. I am all for pretty pictures. Yet, I find art making to be in the exploration of these possibilities and not necessarily the drilled, machine-like demonstration of skill. I once had a student that watched Paul Taylor’s Promethean Fire and commented that she thought it was messy and should have been cleaned before they taped the performance. I think my mouth may have fell open. I realize not every dance speaks to every person but I was surprised that she had not been moved by the music, the movement, and relationship between dancers due to some discrepancy in degrees angles of the arms, and so on. In considering her background and resulting aesthetic preferences, her comment should not have surprised me. And, had we had more time to work together, I hope her view of ‘quality’ dance would have expanded.

When dancers are encouraged to shed this initial regimented impression of the creative process and are invited to explore movement, detail can be just as clear but with potentially more meaning. Even when working in a line-concentrated medium (say, jazz or ballet), the approach to the movement and the nuance found within is what brings the choreography to life. Sometimes we need to momentarily leave behind what we’ve been taught and focus on what we can create, even if it defies our personal definitions of dance. Then, if needed, we can marry these two concepts and find brilliance in what may ordinarily be ordinary dance. In my view, this is the source of artistry.

This is precisely why I feel improvisation should be used in all kinds of dance classes, especially dance technique classes offered through private studios and in public schools. If not allowed to ‘create’ movement, it is difficult for budding dancers to claim movement as their own and can be more difficult for audiences to connect with them as performers beyond the admiration of physical skill. Dance is an incredible physical discipline that can feature athleticism but we need a distinction between sport and dance. This is expression and communication. How can we cultivate new voices if never allowing these young artists to figuratively clear their throats?

As educators, we need young dancers to understand how their bodies work. I think it is a shame that by the time they get to college, a dancer may be able to whip off multiple pirouettes but cannot balance on one leg. They may expend way more energy than should be required because they have no sense of true placement and need to adjust position before entering a movement. They’ve been taught to imitate and not re-create.

As I have said before, I like to work conceptually first and physically second yet that hasn’t always been the case. As I develop as an educator, I embrace the abstract and move to fill in the detail. We need to shift weight before we may dance.

My life is full of the abstract and preparation for detail as we expect our second child to arrive this April. As she moves and rolls, bumps and delivers quick jabs to my ribs, she moves from an abstract idea of “having a girl” to distinct ideas of what her personality may be like. I feel our identities taking shape. I am eager to share with her our family history, in creativity and detail. She’s our little bird and she’s a work in progress. Though, aren’t we all?

An experiment in pen and ink by Hazel M. Vaughan

A Love Clear and Simple

A couple weekends ago, I bought a bar of soap. Not just any soap. The best smelling, most decadent, exfoliatingly brilliant bar of soap I’ve ever purchased (from the Olive Mill, in Saugatuk, in case you were wondering). When telling my husband about my love for this bar of soap, he said, “wow, and it is made at that little store in Saugatuk?” “Well, no. It is made in Provence, but I can get it at that little store in Saugatuk.” I continued, “ But it smells of sage and has wheat bran for exfoliation and….who knew a simple bar of soap could make me so happy.” He said, “Yeah, coming from Provence and full of all that stuff…it sounds simple.” Smirk. And with that, he got me thinking.

If I would like to consider my personal aesthetic for fashion, beauty, and so on as simple, how would I describe my dance aesthetic? The word I have come up with is functional.

That same weekend, I had the opportunity to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform at the Power Center in Ann Arbor with my dear friend and fellow DITA fan, Sherrie Barr. (This AND soap…It was a big weekend for me!) While Paul Taylor is not always my favorite choreographer, I still consider PT’s work to be a “sure thing” for me. I will walk away having enjoyed at least one piece very much, perhaps another somewhat, but overall I feel satisfied, nourished, and have learned something new.

On the Friday night program, the company performed Orbs (1966) and Also Playing (2009). Truth be told, I had difficulty following the narrative of Orbs, but I didn’t care. I was able to watch the construction of the movement, the innovation within the movement vocabulary, and ponder such things as the change in dancers’ bodies from the time the piece was created to now. Currently, dancers are so focused on cross-training that I often find myself bored from the lack of nuance that I usually find so endearing in first and second generation dancers- regardless of company or genre. Technical prowess is a beautiful skill to have, but I would much rather watch someone with style and an identity onstage that compliments the choreographer’s perspective. This allows me to get to know the dancer without ever having shaken their hand. (Speaking of shaking hands…I also met dance legend Dan Wagoner at the PTDC concert and shook HIS hand…really, REALLY big weekend for me!!)

One of the qualities I find so appealing in Paul Taylor’s work is his clarity, particularly in his earlier works. He has a set repertoire of movement, clear organization of space and time as well as movement, and incredible–even absurd–wit. He has a distinct voice and while I would consider his work to be virtuosic and athletic, these attributes have never been used for the self-indulgence we so often see in “contemporary” dance these days. Very simply, his movement supports his point. And it is this point, or conceptual clarity, that for me separates concert dance from commercial, often the good from the bad, and perhaps the dance from the dancing.

This reminds me of a quote by famous NY Times dance critic, John Martin, in which Martin defined modern dance not as “a system but a point of view.” For me, this really is what separates dancing from dance. As I have mentioned in a past post, I could extend this to my feelings toward jazz (as we’ve come to accept it) versus modern. But this also taps into my prejudice against so much of the dance readily digested by audiences today. What is its function? And whom does it serve?

When watching shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” I often feel cheated. I love that mass America is consuming dance on a regular basis. Yet it is the skewed focus of the choreography, the feedback, and the presentation of dancers (as well as dance training) that concerns me. Frankly, I find little of the choreography to have any focus at all beyond fanning egos and promoting much of what I think is “wrong” with the dance world, namely “tricks”. Such an emphasis on complex and non-communicative movement parlays into problems on multiple levels. These levels include dance education: in which talented students may be belittled for not being able to execute such movement and ultimately turn away from dance; dance appreciation, in which dance is dismissed as athletic feat; and dance administration, where choreographers with a point and a clear voice may not be funded due to their lack of public “accessibility.” I wonder, if starting today, would Paul Taylor make the cut?

So, how do we restore the art to our favorite art form? I think it begins with simple honesty. Why am I dancing? Why am I creating dance? Why do I expect people to value this? Why am I compelled to create this particular piece? Am I considering this concept from multiple angles and perspectives? Am I enriching the lives and creative journeys of myself AND my dancers? My audience? What does this motion infer? Does it support my concept? Could it be misinterpreted? Essentially, we follow the same process we do for professional writing, with the repeating question, “So what?” With this line of interrogation, I am not trying to create a generation of self-doubters. But, I would like the current generation of artists to doubt their first responses and demonstrate some higher-level thinking. When we do that, we not only restore the art in dance, we also restore the culture. Clean and simply. Smirk.

Happy cleansing.

Originally published by Dance in the Annex.  http://www.danceintheannex.com

Little Boxes

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