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.

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.