David Howard

When I was living in NYC, David Howard’s ballet class saved my soul. In a city where most dance classes felt like an audition, taught by people who didn’t really understand how to warm up a body or just really loved deep plié in second position, with the body folded over- David Howard’s ballet class kept me grounded.  Well, David Howard’s, Alexandra Beller’s, and a few others.

These were the classes that reminded me of who I was, why I love dance, and that I didn’t have to buy into the hype that can come with trying to “make it” as a dancer.

I was not a rich dancer (oxymoron, I know) and had to be decisive with my time and my money- whose class I could take, why, and how it fit into my life. It was challenging. I was often torn between those with working choreographers who often cast their next show from their classes and so the mentality was that you had to be a regular, and those that fed me in movement and artistry where I wanted to be a regular.

Most of the time, I didn’t have enough money to be a regular but I had even less interest in the former. Yet, I felt pressured. I wanted a job but I hated thinking that I could out teach them, hated watching the dancers in class with a myriad of technical issues not even being acknowledged but being led on, and hated deep plié in second position with the body folded over.

I discovered, however, that David Howard was teaching a mid-day class at Broadway Dance Center. I had been introduced to him as an undergrad and knew this would be well worth my money and my time. It was a basic level class, maybe intermediate or something, that I at first felt ashamed to take given that I had come to believe I was an advanced dancer, needing an advanced class and needing to compete with other advanced dancers (not so much in ballet, for my modern/jazz body and movement ethic, but still the mentality persisted). Then I took the class.

It was filled with “advanced” dancers not necessarily in terms of their technical ability but their commitment, their age (in dance years), and the eloquence in their bodies. Many, I think, had been amateurs that had been dancing for years and acquired beauty in the process. Others were former professional dancers, looking for a place to maintain their craft for themselves. I was the youngest, at 23 or 24. I loved it.

I ended up rearranging my work schedule, splitting my shift in retail merchandising, so that I could take this class. It couldn’t happen all the time, but I kept up with his guest teaching schedule as best I could and would make the arrangements when he was in town. It complicated my life but it was worth it. Necessary, even.

I observed how David Howard spoke to these dancers. How he challenged their bodies but nurtured them, too. How spirits lifted, legs lifted, and it was all done safely in spirit as well as physicality. Soon, I didn’t feel like an outsider observing through motion but an insider, accepted by the group. I felt them take care of me. It was a community and it was powerful.

As a dance educator, I have been reflecting on how this experience has shaped much of my current philosophy and practice. I learned a lot in NYC, often by watching hours and hours of classes at BDC, Steps, and DanceSpace (now DNA) from doorways and through windows, when I couldn’t afford to take class. It was a profound education.

I may not be a ballerina but I am so proud of how David Howard has inspired and informed my work- building a community, taking care of people, and finding joy in movement.  I will always be thankful.

 

The Application of Technique

Recently, I have been fortunate enough to teach a rash of master classes around the state and in my area. One of the comments that keeps rising from the students in each place, many of whom are exposed to modern dance for the first time or elements of dance through modern concepts in new ways, is something along the lines of “the movement is free. It isn’t as technical. It is ok to make mistakes and just keep going.”

Now, I love flow. Seriously. So, yes, the movement keeps going but I think their comments are powerful in how it reflects a student’s view of technique.

By the end of class, I usually end up talking about how it isn’t that the movement we have danced lacks rules or discipline, terminology or shape.  It is perhaps more forgiving of the human body compared to the movement these students define as technical (often shape-oriented ballet, emphasis on form over quality, or some personal difficulty).

I start explaining that, to me, it is an opportunity to apply our technique to a “real” life situation. Movement!

If we spend all of our time studying technique, it often robs us of the feeling of actual dancing. For students that have limited opportunities to perform or limited opportunities to feel/sense movement rather than imitate the pictures of movement, this may partially explain the appeal of overly-stylized movement.

The other light bulb that keeps illuminating young minds is the notion that we don’t have to dance the same as everyone else in the room.

I say, “we don’t look the same, it doesn’t make sense to me that we dance just the same.” Of course, I explain the value of unison and that there are many choreographers that value a unified approach to movement but in an audition situation, even for ensemble work where “blending in” is important, you still need to find a way to “stand apart”. So even within a “technique” class, we are starting to talk about performance and basic composition elements, how to read a situation- developing the ability to know when to follow and when to lead or when to take liberties with choreography and when not to.

The definition of “technique” then broadens, for the minds of these students, to include the Elements of Dance (Space, Time, Energy) as applied in real dance situations, technical concepts that don’t require a French label, and permission to authentically assess where their technique is supporting them and where they need more work. We even use improvisation to explore these tools and make technical observations about our movement habits, preferences, and aspirations.

Then when the “study” begins again, it is from a more informed perspective. A more personal place. It even feels like dancing.

Changing the Variables

Something powerful happens when we take dance out of the studio. Or out of a theatre. Or out of dance clothes. Or out of trained dancer bodies.

I experienced this as a student but more so when I was living in NYC and other cities- seeing movement of all kinds in Central Park, in installations around the city, site specific works in L.A., and rubbing elbows with elite ballet dancers at a church on the Upper West Side.

Dance took on a whole new meaning. And the means for these experiences depended on changing the expectations of dance- where, when, how, and dressed in what. I felt the freedom of the experience yet it didn’t really start to impact my own work or teaching until I was directing the dance program at a liberal arts college and teaching a dance history/appreciation course that contained dance minors and general education students.

As we moved through time within that course, I offered practical dance experiences to give the students a sense of feeling for what we were talking about. They had technique class samplers in ballet, modern, and jazz. We had comparison sessions of dance styles within single genres. We had a rehearsal in which I staged a musical theatre work. We did a slow walk across campus and they had site specific composition studies that offered us a tour of campus.

Their final exam included creating a dance on paper. Some chose to notate in narrative form or a symbol system, some drew, some created origami, some collaged,…..it was fascinating and some were very good and explaining their thought process and creative decisions. Those that weren’t, were often able to admit, in the heat of the moment, with complete honesty and ownership that their work wasn’t informed by a process or much thought. They were “caught” but I didn’t do the catching, they did. For many of “those” students, that moment seemed real. They realized it wasn’t a joke. I felt that was just as valuable as those that had elaborate explanations for their choices, the meaning, and the product they created.  We were able to have a constructive conversation about what they would do differently or we talked about the things that were holding them back. And yes, for some, I let it go. I could see they simply weren’t ready. (This could relate to a portion of my Dance Advantage article, “Your Words and Shaping Healthy Dancers).

While I would approach many of these experiences differently now, with sage wisdom, it was a good start. I think it made an impression. I think the students were more invested and took the work more seriously, even though many of them were having fun. This approach is harder in K-12, particularly K-8. We do this a little with the clothing for dance class, which I will be writing about in August for Dance Advantage but my thinking cap is on, ready to take me further from the norm.

In a NYTimes article about Mark Dendy’s new work Ritual Cyclical, dancer Michael Figueroa said in reference to dancing outside with Dendy in a site specific work staged several years ago, “I ended up rolling all over the cement — the most crazy experience ever,” he said. “I had no idea that dance could be anywhere and could be anything.”

Sounds like a pretty powerful revelation to me.

Picking Up the Steps: An Introduction to Dance Training

I have recently written a post for parents of little movers on Green Spot Blue (a parenting and literary Web site) on dance education and what to look for and expect in a dance class.  The article can be found here.

Here is a snippet from the beginning of the article:

Dance education, like any other type of education, seems to be divided into two main approaches:  hollistic or test-oriented. In this case, however, the test tends to be the end of the year show, most commonly referred to as the “recital”.  Continue reading “Picking Up the Steps: An Introduction to Dance Training”

History Moves: Using the Creative Process to Explore Dance History

Here is my December article for Dance Advantage.

Bird

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

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.