Interpretive Dance: A Rant

There are plenty of semantic issues in dance, such as the definition of “contemporary” dance.  But the one that may frustrate me the most is the term “interpretive” dance.

This is commonly used to describe modern dance when people (audiences) don’t seem to understand the artist’s intent.  In many instances, I think it is the lack of cooperation on behalf of the viewer to give in to the experience and try to engage. It is simply written off as “weird.”  And, it can be. I do recognize that it can also be the fault of the artist, particularly those creating dance works that leave little room for dialogue and instead dance to satisfy their own egos without much attention to the craft or the responsibility of the artist.  I think of this as self-indulgence, best done in a darkly lit studio in the middle of the night as in all of the best and worst cliché dance movies. 

The term “interpretive” dance is also assigned to dance improvisation.  Okay, here is where most people, dancers and non-dancers, conjure prompts as the impetus of movement.  The joke then becomes, “be a tree.”  Ha ha ha.

I find improvisation, in the wrong hands, to be dangerous.  As a dancer, improv experiences can be exhilerating.  But when the participant turns facilitator, and attempts to recreate their “feel good” experience for their students, without an educational or artistically based motivation, things can quickly revert back to self-indulgence.  (I actually witnessed a choreographer- in all seriousness- invite auditionees to progress across the floor as a sand bag!!!  No partnering.  No expectation that this should halt movement.  Ugh!!)  It is this kind of work that viewers tend to think of as “weird” when really we should all simply understand this to be BAD dance.

But, back to the language of dance.  Shouldn’t we be promoting accuracy in the description of dance just as we do (arguably) in the acts of dancing and creating?  Let’s get specific.  We do in visual art and it is pretty universally accepted: impressionist, expressionist, minimalist,…..  The masses seem to understand those examples.  Let’s take what they already know (“accessing prior knowledge”, for those teachers out there) and deepen their understanding.  Dance, by nature IS interpretive so to call it “interpretive dance” is redundant.  Isn’t the purpose of art to interpret?  And let’s start with the dancers….I REALLY don’t want to come across another sandbag incident.

And speaking of prompts, here are some of the things that inspired this rant:

First, a clip of the brilliant and prolific Margie Gillis being raked over the coals by a Canadian talk show host.  Disgusting.  Assuredly, there are plenty of items to discuss regarding this interview and I’ve not selected the most important with this entry, but I need to reach a place of calm before I can put tips to keys and write about the rest.

Second, a clip of some seriously beautiful and interesting dance created by Helen Simoneau (and danced by one of my grad school colleagues, He Jin Jang). Stunning. Many words and prompts come to my mind when I watch this, which I find myself doing over and over and over and over……

Oh, and since we’re talking about dance….how about the Deborah Jowitt’s departure from the Village Voice?!  More on that (probably) soon…..

“I’ve got legs!”- My take on collaboration


The good thing about marriage is the assembling of worlds, the meshing of experiences, tastes, and perspectives. The best thing of marriage is finding the infallible support system created upon that foundation. To the former, my other half introduced me to the comedy of Eddie Izzard. Life has not been the same since. There is not a day goes by that I don’t think of an Eddie Izzard quote from one of his stand up routines, and I’ve been a fan for 10 years now. In one of his skits, (Dressed to Kill, I believe) Eddie tells of a playground romance in which he was so dumbstruck that he failed to utter anything more impressive than, “I’ve got legs!” To the latter, in many respects, I could credit my other half as “my legs.” He’s my base, he’s my navigation system, he’s my foundation from which I can do much of what I like and certainly what I need.

Looking at this term from another view, a post-pregnant one, hey- “I’ve got legs!” And I can see them. Wow. It has been a while. I even put them to use the other day as we trekked through a nearby zoo that is more like a nature walk than a concrete pathway for animals on parade. Hello, hamstrings, I’ve missed you. I am glad I’ve found my legs again and C A N N O T wait to put them to use once cleared for rigorous exercise. I think the recovery period is worse than pregnancy in this sense. Sigh….I miss dancing.

Finally, the dance perspective: And no, I am not going to talk about extension or rotation. For years I have recognized that I’ve needed an anchor of support in the varying spheres of dance in which I participate. I’ve tended to collect mentors along my journey and I’ve reveled in the fact that my “teachers” often become even better resources of information/inspiration/perspective once my formal training with them has been “completed”. The older I get, I see that these “mentors” come in all kinds of shapes and sizes- which can be translated as ages and specialties. Considering myself as one with something to learn by these relationships, I continue to think of these artists as “mentors” when perhaps “colleagues” would be more fitting. As I’ve eased into dance education full time, I have found that having a sounding board in the form of a colleague (actually, a community of colleagues) has been essential, particularly since I keep finding myself in one-person program positions!

What is a lonely educator to do?

1. Find someone with a shared aesthetic, different strengths, and a perspective that compliments but does not copy your own.
2. Avoid a “yes man”: someone who will tell you all of your ideas are great (they aren’t always). You need an honest response or even better- someone that can ask the right questions in order to get you to dig deeper in your own view/work/intent.
3. Keep it fresh. Be social. Engage in a community together and compare notes. The more regions- geographical, intellectual, organizationally- you experience, all the better.
4. Stop, Collaborate, and Listen. (heeeheehee….) Share the listening responsibility and create collaborative projects that relate to your daily teaching life without being part of your daily life- projects if you will.
5. Filter. Know what is worth the expending of energy and what is not (this is a lot like choosing battles). Recognize when you need help or when your partner does. Do not assume your collaborator understands what you mean simply because you’ve been working together a long time. Communicate often and effectively.
6. Keep the humor. C’mon, we work in dance. Don’t get me wrong, I take Dance
V E R Y seriously. But, c’mon, we work in dance. No one will die if we don’t complete the weight shift or spiral. Find a way to remember why you enjoyed dance in the beginning and do whatever it takes to keep it. All work and no play makes Martha a very dry experience.

From that list, you can see good partnerships take work as well as a daily decision to engage. Just as in marriage, the “I do” has to occur every day, not just the wedding day.  Maybe I should send a link to William and Kate?

The secret to a good marriage was whispered to me by a very sweet little Spanish woman named Olga, living in L.A.’s Koreatown, while her husband, Jorge, watered the begonias. She was delightful and he always kissed me on the lips (less delightful). And no, the secret does not appear on this list. And no, it does not revolve around activities in the bedroom. And yes, she was right.

Thanks to my current colleagues: EFP, AW, and especially SB. Thanks to my other half: SDS. And thanks to my past mentors and colleagues, of which there are too many to mention by name.

The Body, Part III: Form, Function, and Baby

I need balance.

As I have matured, I have come to realize that for me to be happiest, I need a balance between physicality and intellectual stimulation separate from, or rather complimentary to, physical intelligence.  Most glaringly, these usually come down in the following ways:  heavy dancing/heavy writing, work hard/play hard, professional checks and balances/ family focus.  Similarly, the more creative work I am doing professionally, the more structured and organized the work in my teaching must become and vice versa.  Once upon a time, I prided myself on not being routine-oriented, and to this day I revel in being able to think on my feet. Yet, I have also come to realize that this ability is dependent upon the over-preparation I have done in quiet times versus the storm.

I live in layers.

Everything I do is layered with intent, meaning, and relevance to the rest of my world or the world I am seeking to create for my students.  I love symbolism. I love relationship.  I love color and texture.  This is true of my choreography, my lesson plans, and my overall approach to life.  I am not sure which came first- this attention within my creative work or the mere application of these qualities that were already naturally present.  Is it dance education teaching me about life or real life informing my dance experience?  I think it is a toss up.

Most excitingly, I also recognize that often the layering is a discovery and not pre-planned.  Sure, this tends to enable my talent for over-analyzing.  But isn’t it important to turn a weakness into a strength?  Take “fat pants” for example.  In most instances, the pants worn in heavier episodes of life cover some degree of embarrassment and potentially shame.  But, post-baby, being able to fit into those same pants days after delivery may just make that same woman feel like a million bucks.  I’m just sayin’.

My body’s form.

For years, I have spent grueling hours trying to perfect the instrument I inhabit.  I don’t have the “ideal” dancer’s body, but I generally like the one I have.  I like what it has been able to do, and again, as I’ve matured I have especially liked its limitations.  I have spent years upon years trying to imitate others’ bodies, teach my own to look and play the part, and finally sought to train my body to recreate the intent and movement of others’ bodies but with my own reflection and inflection.

Among the most drastic bodily changes I have encountered over the years (weight, injury, etc.) the most profound have been my two pregnancies.  My first was at 31, not long after completing graduate school in which I was dancing and performing heavily followed by teaching in the public schools in which the change of program philosophy demanded that I demonstrate a lot and thus danced my classes in addition to teaching them.  The latter half of that pregnancy was spent directing the dance program at the college level and thus the frequency of classes and rehearsals lessened.  During that pregnancy, I performed at 7 months and taught/danced up until 3 days before the delivery of my son.  While pregnant with my daughter at 34, I returned to teaching at the high school and found myself again needing to dance/teach 5 hours per day.  I also found that the students were leery of a pregnant instructor and were heavily concerned with what this meant for their own movement experiences.  Thankfully, I had another smooth pregnancy and was able to keep dancing right up until the end, again until 3 days before delivery.  Thankfully, I also have a lot of experience teaching in many different formats and don’t need to demonstrate everything in order to be effective.  Many of these students have only had instructors that dance and don’t always get around to teaching. But that is beside the point.  This experience was punctuated with comments from students such as, “I always forget that you’re pregnant” and “There she goes….still kicking and rolling and dancing all over the place.”  High praise, indeed, and from tough critics.

My body’s function.

Of course the creation of human life is a miracle and a unique function of the female form. What has struck me as interesting during both pregnancies, have been attitudes toward the female body and its capabilities during particularly “female” experiences.

I often hear from students that they “can’t dance today” because they are on their periods, or have severe cramps, or in some instances, are pregnant.  I am always a little surprised when parents write me excuse notes attempting to relieve their daughter of her academic responsibility due to cramps.  Unless a medical note is included, I usually spend a few minutes mentally composing a humorous retort followed by a real response explaining that as a woman, I understand their daughter’s situation but do not excuse lack of participation for such reasons.  It was extra fun when occasionally I’d meet the parents while being visibly pregnant and obviously still dancing.  But I digress….

The part that has been most thought-provoking and the revealed layer of relevance, has been the opportunity to redefine the image of being a woman, for many of these kids.  Pregnancy, usually an intensely private journey became a very public demonstration and subject to great discussion in my classes and I suspect in some homes.

For many, my identity as a dancer may not have been clearly understood as many parents and community members don’t necessarily ‘get’ what takes place in a dance class within a public school setting. Being new (ish) to the school, my role as a woman and that of a mother facilitated relationships to a degree that may not have been achieved as quickly had I just been the dance teacher.  Being pregnant has offered some unexpected common ground.  Who knew that my physical form would take on the function of community building?  It fostered personal investment and the sharing of personal stories in a way that proved to be invaluable in class dynamics and community development.  I think it helped me be perceived as accessible in a way that highly trained dancers in community dance settings tend not to be considered, no matter how nice they are.

Pedagogically speaking, it encouraged line/imitation-oriented students to use their imaginations to finish the movement puzzle.  They were not provided with the visual answer but had to take control of completing the picture.  Different students took on different leadership roles based on their success at these tasks. In some ways, it helped level the playing field from what the students had experienced before and reinforced my strategies for these lessons in a truly efficient way.  They took these lessons differently than if I’d simply presented the material and then obviously withdrew from completing the work for them.  They arrived at that ownership organically and more effectively.  They accepted my pregnancy as a fact and not a hindrance.  So did I.

This journey culminated, obviously, in the birth of my daughter last week.  On day 2 of recovery, I was on my assigned hall-walk when I saw one of my students in the “pantry” of the maternity ward.  Texting. Naturally.  (I may not have recognized her otherwise).  She was there helping her mom who had just given birth to twins the day prior.  We were sincerely excited to see each other and she eagerly returned to my room with me in order to hold my daughter.  It was really nice.  This is a student that is in my class for the electives credit.  She is not a dancer’s dancer. She is not even that fired up about dance.  She has had some exciting “light bulb” moments this semester that I can clearly recall.  In time, however, those recollections will fade.  We spent quite a bit of time comparing pregnancy notes between her mother and me.  It was a nice and quick way to get to know her background, preferences, and personal attitudes which supported my approach to teaching her.  Now, however, she’s burned in my memory forever.  We have shared valuable experiences together in and out of the classroom. Enduringly, though, we have shared a personal story through a connection made possible by dance.  I hope it was half as meaningful to her.

If you are interesting in more personal connections through dance, check out the link to

The Worst of Times

A couple months ago I wrote about an interaction I had with my son following a displacement meeting for my school district. At the time, I was facing a one class reduction which I ended up picking up at the visual and performing arts K-8 feeder school. While any kind of change can be unsettling, this has turned out to be a great thing for many reasons. That entry primarily focused on my decision to live in the arts, the resulting cuts that my career has inevitably faced, and the fact I would still make the choices I have made to get here. This one, is about the secondary point of that entry- education.

My school district is facing a $25 million deficit, I have heard 300+ lay-off notices will be distributed, and more than 55 jobs will certainly be lost. The cuts will impact teachers that have been in the district for 15 years. We all know about the debates in Wisconsin and Ohio. Michigan is quickly joining the ranks in actions against collective bargaining, freezing wages during contract negotiations, and so on. The fight is not pretty and I can’t help but feel deflated, discouraged, and in some amount of despair. The part that troubles me most is not necessarily the loss of income that would come with paying more for insurance, or a freeze in pay (hey, I am in the arts remember- I have to support my family but I don’t do this strictly for financial gain) but the tone with which all of this is being handled. It isn’t being handled. It is being forced. And there seems to be no thought for whom this will ultimately hurt- the kids. You know, our future. Of course I don’t want to lose my job. No, I don’t think I do get paid enough for what I do compared to what I could earn teaching the same amount of hours in other dance settings given my experience, credentials, and contact time with students. But that, for me, isn’t the point.

I choose to be in the public schools for the connections I am able to present to students outside my discipline alone. I choose to be there to help them find a voice to express themselves and an opportunity to explore what they might want to say. I choose to be there to assist them in thinking outside the box which will help them solve problems on many different scales and in many different contexts. I choose to be there because I genuinely care about them, their successes, and their failures. So, when my profession (one or both- dance, education) is so viciously attacked by people (and shall we go ahead and acknowledge that many of them are parents), I feel disillusioned and alienated. I want to say, “you don’t have to value me, but I would hope you value your child.” Since teachers play such a large role in the development of children, the two hopefully go hand in hand.

I get the hard facts. I see the deficit. I understand the issues at hand. I don’t, however, see how many of the debates being battled are fixing the problems. I just see bullying.

Sigh….And then I listen to David Brooks be interviewed on the Diane Rehm show and am reminded again of the exciting possibilities in education, including arts education- If anyone other than the teachers cared.

Part II: The Body Re-Members

An authentic autograph- one of the best birthday presents my husband has ever given me.


I wrote “A Passion Observed” over a month ago although it was only recently posted. Last week, Bill T. Jones was interviewed by Tom Ashbrook for NPR’s On Point radio show.  I always love the show, but when my favorite liberal artist/choreographer in on….I REALLY love the show.  (Last week also featured a show on knitting…another score for me!)  We listened to this on our drive to Ann Arbor to see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour.  What a wonderfully dance filled Saturday.

One of the things Tom Ashbrook was perseverant in getting Bill T. Jones to answer regarded the significance of dance; why use dance as a vehicle for expression instead of literature, poetry, etc.  Mr. Jones commented with a few, well-selected words:  “it’s real people, in real time, using the most basic of instruments.”   He explained that this is the power of live theatre- “the exceptional moment.”   He likened dance to life by outlining the journey of birth, growth, and death.  Essentially, it is what we all have in common and dance may serve as a metaphor of that.  Hmm.

The body tells our story, whether we like it or not.  It relates us to one another in a way that language and culture can often fall short. Dance is visceral, kinetic, and binding.  In watching dance, we respond first instinctually and then intellectually.

In watching the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on Saturday night, I was keenly aware of the body- the isolation of it, the explosiveness of it, the control of it, and the development of it.  At times, I was also aware of the absence of these things.  None where more noticeable, however, than the absence of Merce Cunningham or at least his critical eye and the coaching that inevitably would have followed.  I enjoyed the performance and I thought the choice of program was insightful.  Yet, something was missing.  It was a little as though the glue holding these elements together was a little less gripping than it used to be.  It seemed to me that liberties in movement were taken.  Some personalities shined through while others felt a little dull.  For me, the latter were dancing bodies not necessarily engaging fully in the “exceptional moment” and I had never seen that happen in a Cunningham performance before.

Appreciating Cunningham’s movement, for me, has been a journey of an acquired taste.  Yet, his methods for dance making and commitment to longevity had me from the beginning.  In watching Squaregame (1976) and Splitsides (2003), I recognized his ability to reflect and redirect without sacrificing any of his integrity in movement or commitment to his philosophy.  He seemed simply to be able to change with the times and continued to explore and develop his work accordingly.  I hope when I am approaching 90, I am able to be so open and yet still so focused.  He seemed to see his dancers for who they really were, physically, and put their strengths to use.  Don’t get me wrong, a Cunningham dancer will still stand out as a Cunningham dancer in a studio of branded and non-branded movers, but he seemed to embrace their cross-training in his later work more than I think he would have in his beginning.

What I appreciated most, however, was our collective sense of mourning.  If I can read into the patchy personal performances, I would be inclined to think that by now, this tour must be brutal.  I wonder if, in an act of self-preservation, some of the dancers have started to emotionally separate themselves from the work.  Performing these dances without the motivation of having Merce’s approval and winding down to the end of it all must be excruciating.  Dancing for people that are attending because it is the last chance rather than a brave new start as a Cunningham supporter must be difficult.  After seeing the company in 2004, I can safely say the wind has been taken out of the sails.  But we were there in the theatre together, remembering.  Dance brought us together again to recall, reflect, and re-inspire.  Dance allowed us to re-member our Cunningham community, our dance community, a facet of our greater arts community.  I needed it.

On our drive home, we listened to the remainder of the Bill T. Jones interview. At one point, a caller relayed something that Bill T. Jones had said in a class she was attending at The Ohio State University in the 1990s.  He apparently seemed frustrated with the class and sat the dancers down.  To paraphrase, he told them they wouldn’t all become dancers. But regardless of what they did do, if they dug deep and kept true to what dance requires, they would still be dancers.  If they went to places that challenged them, where they were uncomfortable, but were fully present, they would still be dancers.  This touched me.  Hmm.

As I think about it that was exactly what happened in the theatre last night.  Cunningham allowed us that.  I had been looking for the “exceptional moment” to happen under the lights but it happened in the dark.  It was my “exceptional moment.”  It happened in the attendance of live theatre.  To Merce, his dancers, and the rest of our community, Bill T. Jones and the OSU grad included, I am forever thankful.

The Body, Part I: A Passion Observed

Woman watches a stage full of eccentricly collected performers saturated in power, expression, individuality, character, and grace.

Instead of seeing each detail, woman feels her way through the action, the story, the statement.  The experience transcends vision, permeates the body, infects the core, stops and starts the beating heart.

Unable to speak, tears brimming, woman witnesses the creator take the stage and command his dancers to proceed, recede, bow, and exit.  The show is over.  The impression made, is not.

Eleven or so months later, woman watches the creator’s intensity as he feels his way through the exerpt of this powerful work as he is recognized with one of the nation’s highest artistic award, the Kennedy Center Honor.  As soon as the movement begins, tears start streaming down her face.  She immediately re-enters the “place” she was in when watching this moment of this piece live, but this time there are pregnancy hormones to contend with, accounting for her tear soaked shirt.  The man is Bill T. Jones. The woman, of course, is me. The piece was Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray. 

I first considered calling this piece, “The One” but I thought that might not sit that well with my husband, although he is fully aware and supportive of my feelings for Bill T. Jones.  So maybe, “The Other One.”  Or, “The First One” since I did discover Bill T. before Scott D.  Nah,…better to preserve feelings and marital bliss.  (Honey, you’re the real deal.)

Bill T. Jones changed my life.  I had appreciated his work upon introduction through a 20th century dance history course.  But it was watching the PBS Bill Moyers documentary about Still/Here in a Senior Seminar class that really rocked my dance existence.   Bill T. Jones scared me in the most exciting and positive way.  His work spoke to me aesthetically, but more importantly demonstrated the power of physical, non-verbal communication and the responsibility of the dance artist to guide others through this process.  I became very aware of my comfort in pretty, visually interesting but “safe in meaning” movement.

Still/Here, Jones’ work referencing terminal illness, struck/strikes a personal chord for me.  My mother passed away at the age of 48; when I was 13.  She had severe asthma and emphysema and in the years she was ill, I remember the frustration she could not verbally express. Language simply didn’t cover it.  While her body would not have been helpful, she was winded after walking from one end of our small ranch-styled house to the other, I can’t help but think structured movement in a contained way, may have offered some form of emotional relief.

As an adult, I realize that dance may not have served as an outlet for her, but it certainly did for me.  I have always easily recognized that dance has been my constant.  In a life full of change and multiple directions, dance has always been there.

As a dancer, I am familiar with muscle memory and the ability of the body to recall movement.  After researching the role of the body in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (and the success of using structured movement experiences to alleviate the physical symptoms of PTSD) I also understand the ability of the body to recall emotion.  Having these two elements present themselves through two bodies over the same experience, was striking to me.  In watching the Kennedy Center Honors, I had an emotional recall response while watching Bill T. Jones have a physical recall response to the performance of his dancers.  Once again, I am reminded of the power of dance.  I am aware of the prism that dance provides: opportunities to see, to feel, to consider, to live.

In a recent interview with Tom Ashbrook of NPR’s On Point, Bill T. Jones discusses briefly the state of our current union, citing his feeling that we are in “an undeclared civil war” with no clear boundaries or sides.  I agree.  Often in the last few weeks/months, I have felt the world has lost its mind.  Much of what my husband and I count on- in our community, in our careers, and in our consciences- seems under attack.  Our perceived road to stability never felt fully paved, but feels more and more like a dirt road filling with potholes.  Maybe those pregnancy hormones are getting to me again, but this is certainly an interesting and sometimes disconcerting time to live.

Ironically, in some ways, this brings me back to my constant:  dance.  For the first time, perhaps ever, dance has not been the first constant in my life.  Over the last two years as my career has suffered some bullets, as programs or hours have been re-organized offering a sense of instability and related anxiety.  But, in hearing Bill T. Jones express in words how our current world relates to the dance he created about our world’s past, I am comforted if not encouraged.  He articulated physically and verbally, my emotion.  He found the language I was seeking. It explains my response when seeing the work live, and again on TV.  Once again, the power of dance prevails.  This time, however, it didn’t have to be my physical body in control in order to make peace.  It was done through bodies I’ve never met but understand on an intrinsic level.  Bill T. Jones continues to change my perspective and thus change my life.

Finding 1st

I do a pretty funny impression (if I do say so myself) of a favored former professor of mine, in which I circle myself for a couple loops as if casually chasing my tail, finally locating my final destination and carefully placing myself accordingly:  1st position parallel.  Essentially, it is the same position I was standing in before the skit begins, and yet, the arrival marks a change in mental place, as well as physical placement.  Nearly every time I think of this woman, I hear her voice calling “Let’s start in 1st.” and envision her looking at her feet (as if her class ever started in any other way). I cannot help but smile.

In my philosophy of dance, I state that I teach dance from a liberal arts perspective. What this means to me, is that instead of expecting my students to come to dance with a sincere and devout interest, I take dance to where they are, first.  I most often find myself, regardless of venue, working with dancers that may never be “real” dancers but for one reason or another have decided to give movement a chance.  Whether as an elective, for the fulfillment of a graduation requirement, or simply recreational pleasure, most of my students have a reason other than burning desire when coming to me to learn about dance.

In practice, this generally means that instead of one thread of consciousness (dance for dance sake), I need to be aware of multiple threads (dance for multi- or inter- disciplinary sake).  This does not, however, mean I need to be an expert in another field.  It just means that I need to be able to explain dance in multiple ways, accomodating for varying learning behaviors (if you don’t know about genius Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, look into it!) and encourage students to be the “experts” in their fields (college students) or their other classes (K-12).

Once one learns to question information, investigation, and relating concepts, it is amazing how quickly one can apply these skills to other subjects, even those in which one is not an expert.  It is precisely why I feel the arts and humanities are critical in the preparation of our youth for the future. Yes, science and math will be important, but without creativity and critical thinking, our students will not be able to sufficiently problem-solve in new and innovative ways.

Here is where I rethink the point of dance education in many contexts, particularly public education and propose that others do the same.  Most people expect arts classes to inspire an appreciation for the arts.  This is true, they do.  But, it isn’t all they do.  With intentional thought and responsible teaching, the arts introduce and expand vocabulary, introduce methods for creative analysis and problem-solving, allow for individual voice which leads to confidence building, and let’s not forget create opportunities for effective collaboration.

I think it is important for my students to understand the culture, history, and profession of dance from a realistic and artistically relevent perspective.  Yet, I also realize that these kids need help in life, first.  My intent is to teach practical skills through the medium of dance.  I have distilled the discipline of dance down to its essential elements and present them for maximum affect.

Here are some samples:


When discussing core elements of dance technique, emphasize non-technical vocabulary that is relevent to the field (manipulation, articulation, oppositional force, gravity, lateral, distal,…), basic principles of physics, anatomy/kinesiology, the list goes on and on.  These are more likely to appear on standardized tests than say, rond de jambe.  And they provide a connection between the students’ interest and their core classes.  Dance allows them to access the information in their core classes and put it to use in a unique way.

The best compliment I had last week occurred while inviting my advanced class to do some slides across the floor.  I was explaining how to distribute their weight and where they needed to be placed in order to use momentum to their advantage. One student said, “what, is this, phyics?” Well, yes.  Several light bulbs went off and we had a great conversation about shared principles.  It wasn’t long and several students tuned out but real learning occurred for some.  Authentic connections were made.


A similar approach can be explored in dance composition.  I am not convinced we can “teach” choreography, but we can inspire creativity and offer tools for clarifying ideas and adding visual interest as well as offering perspective in interpretation of questions and answers posed in movement and followed in critique.  Using tools such as embellishment, retrograde, reversal, inversion, and more allow students to gain insight into pattern development and how play with audience expectations, again for maximum affect.


Working in concepts rather than steps, also opens the door for learning that embraces emotional as well as intellectual response and therefore longevity within the lessons.  Learning to analyze dance through a variety of lenses such as ethnicity, gender, ability/disability, and other cultural contexts provides a greater understanding of our own environments, biases, and relationships.  Having a safe place to discuss some of these subjects is also crucial.  Given that dance tends to be physical, and therefore personal, often this is an ideal setting for such dialogue.  Once collaborative relationships have been forged, trust tends to follow, and again allows for more open conversation among students than may be possible in the classrooms of other disciplines.  And for students that don’t consider dance to be their first language, this can be a direct path for deeper engagement when you return the focus to the studio and the physical act of dancing.

I came to dance first as a mover and later as a generalist.  I tend to interpret the world through movement and in color/texture.  I am a visual and kinesthetic learner, who in high school could manage in a traditional school setting but would have been so much more successful if I’d had opportunities to learn as I am inclined and not in how I was expected.  I am fortunate to have learned how to learn later and have the natural curiousity to be a life long learner.  That is what we dance educators should, in my humble opinion, be offering more universally.  Again, dance for some is a way to live but for more can be another method for divising a living, even if it is outside the arts.


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

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.