Manipulation of the Spine

At various parts of our days, weeks, lives, careers, we take on varying roles with varying emphases on specific aspects of our professions and/or interests. Yet, the unifying factor – for me, my creative compass- establishes cohesion among these experiences.

Here is an example.

This week, in my classes, we’ve been exploring the manipulation of the spine. It is the first week of the second semester and finally, my students seem to be ready to investigate movement. Last semester was spent getting them acclimated to my style of teaching, my expectations, and introducing styles of dance and/or creative processes. This semester, the real work begins.

I am not a typical K-12 dance educator in that my “segments” don’t necessarily address what I would consider a survey of superficial dance. For example, I don’t teach a two-week session on world dance, which spans continents instead of cultures and attempts to teach similarities of all, let’s say, African dances. . I personally find that culturally insensitive and educationally irresponsible. I don’t necessarily teach nicely packaged units of ballet, modern, and jazz but instead introduce Space, Energy, and Time and use style of dance to emphasize the qualities of these elements. In essence, I take big concepts and scale them down to digestible pieces instead of attempting to cover vast plains of information and never really succeeding in authentically teaching anything.

Technique is usually the first order of business in teaching dance. In my experiences, trying to teach students to contract, and swing, and arch, and tilt, and spiral, and…..can be overwhelming for them and exhausting for me. Yet, if presented as examples of how the spine can be used in dance, beautiful things emerge and often in the most unsuspecting of bodies. I have found this foundational work builds to efficient and confident execution of the technical concepts related to this very movement function in a timely manner for beginning dancers.

This process can lead to success in creating choreography for the end of the year showcase, as well. Often, I am overwhelmed by the amount of choreography I need to generate for my semi-annual concerts. Producing shows majorly filled with my choreography can be a challenge creatively, in addition to educationally. At some point, I nearly always feel I revert to giving them “steps” instead of “insight” to the world of real dance-making. After all, I work mainly with teenagers with little background in dance and not usually much desire to continue beyond high school. I find I reserve my most artistic work for my company of “advanced” dancers at the high school but the rest of the classes learn a piece that I hope doesn’t much resemble a recital number.

My strategy for turning this around is considering how dance is made and designing these concert experiences to mirror those practices. This year, the first concert was very much an authoritative example of repertory learning: I set choreography. Students learned my choreography. I coached their performance. They demonstrated what they had learned. And we all lived happily ever after. However, my internal artist struggled and agonized over the thought of re-hashing this experience in just a few short months. So this spring, the pieces will feature movement explorations that we generate over the course of the semester and will be assembled collaboratively between teacher and students. So far, the students are interested and curious about what this process will be like and already seem willing to follow me further into the “real” side of dance; the side committed to “insight” and not “steps”.

On a larger plain, I feel this type of methodical investigation would benefit most choreographers, even those working as professional artists. Recently, I virtually adjudicated a dance festival produced in the Seattle area. It was a great experience and a fun opportunity to see work generated in another region of the country. Naturally, there were artists that stood out for various reasons- some were brilliant innovators of movement, others offered a full package of quality concepts and quality dances, and others were terrific wordsmiths yet less than inspired choreographers.

I found it fascinating that I felt I had a sense of each artist after only reading a few paragraphs and seeing a few minutes of their movement. There were very distinct personalities with, what I imagined to be very set impressions of their roles within their dance community or the world of dance on the whole. I found their writing- either by depth or frugality- indicated how much they felt they had to explain their work. Of course their work should speak for itself, but I related their writing to how much they felt they needed to flesh out a concept or whether it was a mere excuse to make yet another dance that rather looked like much of their other dances. As if writing a project description was a technicality in securing a performance opportunity rather than the impetus for a new journey. I remember those days, when ego and physicality ruled.

I don’t mind ego, especially if it is well earned. For these artists, however, I found the ego to be a distraction from their work. I wondered why one of these choreographers was still making dances since they seemed to be re-creating the same vocabulary and promoting it in a different context. Don’t get me wrong; it was pretty. But this would be a nightmare for me. I hate being trapped in the same dance and I would hate to be described as merely pretty.

For these choreographers and others, I would encourage even more writing as I view writing as a means of reflection. Without reflection, where is the learning, the development, and ultimately, the success? Some would have benefited from a simple list of words relating to their main topic from which to inspire new movement threads. Others would have benefited from listing words relating to their actual dance and comparing these to words that described their concept. Then the movement editing can and should begin. Still others need to decide where they want to go and how they are going to get there.

I should also say that many of these artists seemed to be without ego but with great potential and surprising self-awareness. I would be very interested in seeing where they propel within the next 2,5, 10 years. The Seattle dance scene seems to be vibrant and inviting with a solid variety of movers. This is crucial in creating a sustainable dance scene.

We are all constructed the same yet unique with personal nuance, ticks, and personalities. And it wouldn’t do for us all to be the same. Yet, with a little reflection, attention to detail (personally, creatively, and socially), we can stand a little taller and make dance a better place. If we can learn how to learn, we can learn how to communicate. That is how dance makes the world a better place, too.

Why NOT Dance?

There are times I am astounded at the directness of my child and his ability to read my inner most thoughts.

Last evening, as my son played with the strap on my leotard, he asked, “Mommy, why do you dance?” Yesterday was a rare day because if forced to comment, I would’ve said, “I don’t know.”

When he asked me this, I had just arrived home after a displacement meeting conducted by the school district for which I teach. I direct the dance program of a visual and performing arts magnet high school, a title I am not sure how much longer this school may hold.  My position is most likely being reduced by one class due to low enrollment during first semester, an issue that was present before the fall semester began and before I was rehired to fill this position.

Due to my rank on the seniority list and my qualifications, chances are I may fill my one-class void with what is essentially an alternative education class. While I am certified in K-12, endorsed only in dance (it is one of those unique certifications in my state), I could end up teaching lower level math, science, and English to students who did not succeed in a traditional high school experience. It is an “out of the box” kind of approach to student learning. On one hand, that suits me perfectly. But, on the other,…..WHAT?!!!!  There are other possible scenarios with varying degrees of drama and intrigue and I eagerly await the outcome.

In the hours I waited for the displacement meeting to begin, I found my thoughts wandering to the space of “is this because I chose dance?”  Last year, I experienced a very similar circumstance when my position directing a dance minor program at a small liberal arts college was eliminated.  In the three years I was there, class numbers drastically increased, the total number of dance minors tripled, and almost all of the dance course offerings counted toward general graduation requirements and provided a valuable service to the college as a whole.  I poured myself into that program and was devastated although not entirely shocked when it was cut.  In this instance, the high school dance program has a fair amount of rebuilding to do for a variety of reasons.  And we’re making progress.  So, while I understand the decision for this reduction, and acknowledge it is minute in response to the current unemployment statistics, it is still disappointing.  The difference this time, however, is that I have colleagues fighting for my program, for my students, for me.  That makes a world of difference in the feeling of this experience.  In that sense, people make all the difference.

At the end of the day, however, money talks and people have to listen.  So, we’ll see what happens.  As I looked around the conference room during the displacement meeting, I remembered that I was the only dancer in the room.  Of the twenty-something people impacted by this process, only 2 (I think) are arts positions.  For the second time, (my experience at the college included), I didn’t feel the arts were automatically the first to be cut.  At the college, computer science was eliminated!  And so, I hope we are making progress on this front.  I hope the arts are being valued for the creativity they encourage and are cut now when the going gets tough and not when it nearly gets tough.

After I caught myself contemplating my decisions to pursue dance, I scolded myself.  How can I, a dance educator and advocate, doubt my own path?  Easily.  Doesn’t everyone at some point in their career, regardless of their field?  Yet, can everyone say, that given the chance to do it all over again, they’d make the same choices?  I can.  I think about the parents I have met with, concerned that their child may not be profitable with a career in the arts.  I recall the advice I have given them, the experiences I have shared, and still feel confident it was right.  There can be a life in the arts but it takes hard work, an ability to think on your feet, and a thick skin.

Years ago, I would have dwelled on Why Dance?  But now, I focus on Why NOT Dance?  It isn’t because I don’t know any better or can’t do anything else.  I have cultivated many skills and interests.  It isn’t because I can’t sit still or have an ego that can only be quenched with performance.  My body doesn’t want to move the way it once did and I am quite happy in the shadows of backstage or behind the computer relating to other aspects of Dance.  It IS, however, part of my identity.  It IS the largest part of my personal story/history, so far.  It IS what makes me feel good and inspired to work with others.  And I firmly feel it has a place in the future of many disciplines outside of dance.

While my perspective and the questions I ask myself have drastically changed since I entered the profession, some things have not.  After asking me why I dance, my son said, “You have to take off your socks when you dance.”  And it became crystal clear again.  Years ago, I said I wanted to spend my life in bare feet and dance pants.  Over ten years later, I still do.  Yet again, he was exactly right.  Some people make all the difference.