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.

The Power of Now

I recently listened to an interview of Jennifer Homans on NPR’s FreshAir hosted by Terri Gross. Dance scholar and author, Homan’s book, Apollo’s Angels has recently been included in the top 5 non-fiction works by the New York Times. I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

I enjoyed the entire interview, but was left with two sticking points. One, Balanchine’s treatment of the “now” and the insisting that dancers forget all else but the task at hand, and two, the quest for intellectual and physical balance in the lives of so many dancers and the fact that many seem to decide they have to give up one in order to pursue the other. That said, I recognize often it is the breakdown of the body that facilitates this change, as was the case for Homans. While the power of “now” is by no means exclusinve to Balanchine, I hadn’t necessarily thought of it as such a singular concept before. The other point has been a general topic of discussion in my advanced class throughout the semester. Both points left me pondering what kind of powers intentional discussion of these concepts may hold in my students’ learning.

The First Sticking Point

It dawned on me while listening that this situation of the “now” is the precise point of frustration for me in my current teaching. I am teaching at a visual and performing arts magnet high school but before you conjure up images of “FAME”, let me assure you… it is NOTHING like that nor will it ever be, for good and bad reasons. This school is ‘middle of the road’ in terms of its urban-ness and accompanying charms and dilemmas. It is a microcosm of the world on the whole, presenting students from all walks of life, backgrounds, and with PLENTY of attitude. Most days and weeks out of the year, I love my job and where I do it. But the weeks between holidays can be excruciating. I had forgotten this, living in the ivory tower of higher education over the last three years, but now that I have returned, I REMEMBER. Painfully. The holidays can be hard even in the best of circumstances.

When it comes to working with these kids, I am awed by the possibilities for approach. Within a single class, there may be a couple students that are dedicated to dance, many that enjoy the change from their standard academic class, and a few that had no idea what to expect but it certainly wasn’t this. There are a myriad of challenges, one being of course, how to get them to see where they fit in the grand scheme of Dance. I want to be supportive to all and yet, when a dedicated freshman is asked if she feels challenged in my technique class and replies “It is nice to go back to the basics” it is hard for me to stifle my eye-rolling and guffawing, and stop myself from shaking her while screaming, “ you can’t even stand on one leg!! How can you return to the basics if you have no idea what they are in the first place?!” Deep inhale…..and exhale…… Often, it is harder for me to be a staunch supporter of those that think they know about dance because it is often hardest to get them to truly recognize where they fit in the grand scheme of Dance.

At some point, I want to say to all students, “What are you waiting for. Do it right. This time. Figure it out. Or don’t. One way or the other: stop pretending. Decide what kind of work you are doing, and get on with it.” I say “kind of work” because, simply, there are different ways of working. One doesn’t need to be on the pre-professional track in my class to be my favorite student (if I had favorites, of course)- just honest and committed. Dedicated to improving their technique, or their movement experience. Eventually, maybe they can do both. But I am working with pretty entry-level dancers even if they have been dancing since exiting the womb and have trophies galore.

But, this aside, I have been frustrated on a different level; one that I think can be universal in the world of dance. How does one TEACH to live in the now? How does one demonstrate, practically, the need to develop this skill and the millions of uses it will serve? Can it be taught or must it simply be learned, and how much of that depends on the timetable (read: maturity) of the student. I feel as though I can tell my students a million times, in a myriad of ways, that they must drop everything at the door and be ready to focus, to give in to the movement, and to experience time in shifts of weight. And yet, how do I keep them accountable without delving into the authoritative practices of dance training that I strive so hard to shed? And that leads me back to questioning why I do what I do in the way that I do it, as well as how I phrase this instruction to leave everything else behind for the minutes we share.

The Second Sticking Point

I am thankful for all of my teachers. And I often find myself thinking of those that were “hardest” and wanting to do what they did, only “healthier.” But, I wonder, can it be done? Or rather, can it be done with students that do not yet have the “experiencing the now” ability? There is so much pressure with that kind of attention and repetition, and it is the negative pressure associated with that approach to work that I want to leave behind. From experience, I see it promote a certain perfectionist quality, which is really productive and necessary in the world of dance and can be soul-crushing in many other areas of life and personal existence. I am not one that tends to live in extremes but I feel this pull when it comes to this topic and every now and then it creeps into my teaching.
This, to me, also may represent the difference between dance training and dance education in the physical sense. One can train the body to technical perfection, or as close as that body is capable of achieving, and to some degree neglect the theory of how, why, and to what intellectual extent. Dance education provides a holistic approach to exploring movement theory through technical vocabulary, to me, a more inclusive and forgiving approach to teaching.

Some may argue that as soon as one coaches the “how” of execution, one enters the realm of dance theory. But in an authoritative approach, at least my experiences, “how” is not answered with any more than “do.” It is up to the dancer to “figure it out. This time. Do it right. Or don’t.” (After all, Yoda did say, “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”) There is no opportunity for pretending because you’ll be dismissed on many, many levels. This is what I find so common in the tales of many former dancer friends that now find they can barely bring themselves to buy a ticket to a dance performance let alone take a class. It is also what I find so disheartening in the traditions of dance training.

My Conclusion

I believe the answer to my own quandary is the re-assigning of who has the “power” now, not in an “entitled and superior” kind of way, but in a “relaying of information for a best educated guess” kind of way. This is a strategy for building student ownership, improving self-efficacy, and expanding the opportunities in dance. Maybe this method could be blamed for the over-saturation of dance major programs and the number of dancer-hopefuls, but it has also led to some of the best teaching and best theoretical work in the field. I also suspect in the development of the best artists.

We all want to dance and I firmly believe that we all should dance, while perhaps not all become dancers. Honesty and integrity on behalf of the instructor is still required, but, overall, guidance (and career planning) rather than dismissal may just be the “healthier” approach.

Originally published by Dance in the Annex.

My Nutcracker Prince

Today I shared The Nutcracker with my three year old son.  For ease and change of pace, I decided to show this to him on television, thanks to PBS and our DVR.  We enjoyed San Francisco Ballet’s version which aired on our PBS station last night.  G-man sat through the entire ballet, only once asking when the dancers were going to talk, and repeatedly commenting that the Spanish dancers looked a little like his beloved action figure “Indiana Jones.”  I think it must have been the hats.

When his dad asked his favorite part, he told him about the growing Christmas tree but at other parts of the day he talked to me about the snowflakes and the silly dancing bear.  There was much of this ballet that I didn’t particularly love, but I was thrilled that my little man seemed to appreciate the entire thing.  He’s seen plenty of dance, but less ballet than anything else.  He has a passion for “Singin’ in the Rain” and regularly imitates Gene Kelly by swinging on the lamp in our living room and jumping in any puddle he can find on the driveway.  While there is not the opportunity to sing along with the soundtrack, Tchaikovsky’s score, with its relative character themes keeps the action pushing forward when, for a three year old, the dancing blends from one scene to the next.  Overall, I think he enjoyed it and I expect to see some new movement vocabulary in the coming days.

For me, Classical ballets have limited appeal.  I loved them as a child because that was what I was exposed to and what my parents viewed as appropriate dance for a child to see.  It was the only dance performance my mind could really grasp outside of recital dance. But even as a kid, I preferred less narrative driven dance with more unique movement potential, although it was harder to find, especially when my parents didn’t understand it and therefore didn’t really want to share it.  Is this ballet’s advantage?  Generally G-rated, accessible dance, with clear story and ‘safe’ characters and plot?  Prescribed movement that audiences have seen in some capacity and can readily digest?  Shape and line with little to interpret on an emotional or intellectual level?  Maybe.  Not to say that isn’t brilliant; it just isn’t usually my cup of tea.

Except….

  • when I sit in the audience, the overture begins, and the curtains open to present the New York City Ballet in all of Balanchine’s genius and respect for a classical ballet that brings families together and sends goosebumps up and down my arms.  I am captivated, awed, and flooded with all of the best sensations of being a kid again.  My physical memory of falling in love with dance overwhelms me and puts me in my place.  At heart, I am a fan and always will be.  I am thankful for my Nutcracker foundation in viewing and valuing concert dance.
  • when I share dance with my toddler son and remember how incredibly dance can communicate with all ages and both genders when given the chance.
  • when I show the Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland version to my classes of high school students in a semi-urban setting, days before Winter break, and they actually watch it, ask questions, and bravely offer their reactions because even if they’ve only seen the Barbie (?!) version before, it is familiar.

One must love any kind of dance that can do all of that.

Underdogs Unite!

One of the things I like best about what I do is that it connects me with people of all ages, experiences, and relationships to dance. I especially like becoming a fixture in certain circles so that my observation and understanding of certain groups increases and I am better able to relate to these people with each subsequent meeting.

Not long ago, I met with a young woman I first worked with when I was a guest choreographer at Michigan State University. MSU offers a phenomonal dance minor completely developed and executed by one Sherrie Barr. This young woman with whom I met, wanted to pick my brain and my impressions of the dance world and procure any advice I could muster. After doing my best to satisfy her request, I left thinking about the advice I had been granted when I was in her shoes and I realized that I failed to mention perhaps the most important and most impossible piece I have ever received:

Find your own niche.

As a twenty-something, I not only found this daunting but nearly debilitating. How does one actively find their niche?! Sure, I could come up with things I did well and things I thought set me apart in one setting only to find in another, they were not at all individual or distinguishing. I also kept rehashing the possibilities for this elusive niche in the same cliché pathway, performance; as if it were all that existed in Dance.

As a thirty-something, I think it is has finally hit me. My niche is not in any of the areas I expected, or rather hoped it would be. It is in teaching. On top of this, it is not even with the type of student nor the kind of environment I projected myself to be most adept at working. It is with students of all ages and backgrounds that are looking at dance to serve a role OTHER than that which would lead to a typical performance or choreography job. Probably, this is because it is what I need dance to do, too.

My students tend to need dance to lead to something greater. Movement may be their first language and thus their best method to develop critical thinking and other skills. Dance may serve as a therapy in ways more profound than the mere release of endorphins or adrenaline. Their understanding of the business side of dance may lead to a profession in which both sides of their brain are engaged. And all of this could have a trickle effect, impacting more people in innovative and interesting ways. Great. But then what?

When I was directing a dance minor program at a small liberal arts college here in Michigan, I told a colleague from another institution about my program and my philosophy. I included that several of my dance minors were not dancers in the typical sense, performing terrified them, but more, they were interested in the field of dance; the theories existing in and relating to dance, and linking those ideas to their “other” areas of academic interest. They were interested in thinking outside the box –well multiple boxes, if you consider that they were viewing dance as well as their majors in ways completely new to them. When my colleague laughed and likened this to being an astronaut but not wanting to go into space, I realized this person was not interested in thinking outside the box. It surprised me and yet, I think this mentality is the norm rather than the exception.

So, where do these underdogs go? Where does one send a dance minor that is a lovely mover but with less contact hours in technique than a dance major to find their niche, particularly when dance industries prize physicality (and by extension, professional clout) first and intellectualism second? Is there room for entry-level, non-performing dance artists? Where do they go in the time between the lightbulb moment that dance is more than dancing and heavy-hitting dance scholar status? How do we advise the dance minds that our field depends on…the John Martins, the Margaret H’Doublers, the Lincoln Kirsteins? Surely, if we leave all of Dance up to the dancers, we will crumble in 5,6,7,8.

Maybe I am wondering this for my own journey, as well. I trust that an entire career must contain multiple niches and I always like to think ahead. Maybe some, even much, of my pondering stems from the doors that have been closed to me which ultimately guided me to those that have been open, thus prompting me in unexpected directions.

At the close of our meeting, this young woman said she was envious of my professional and personal timeline; that it seemed things had worked out perfectly. They have. Certainly different from how I had planned them, however. She also remarked that it appeared things had fallen into place for me, almost by chance. I replied with, “No, by hard work.” I suppose from a distance it might appear opportunities have just come to me. But, upon closer examination, they have all stemmed from trying my best at whatever I was doing at the time. The people that witnessed that kept me in mind when they heard of opportunities, and the professional game of “telephone” has led to successes. Maybe instead of chalking it up to “who you know” it really should be “who you impress.”

Ultimately, I have decided “niches” are not destinations you can set out to find but must stumble upon through reflection.

So, twenty-somethings, ready to take on the world:
work hard, be flexible, and look back to project forward.
The rest of us underdogs are here for you when you need us.

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.
hvs

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