The Next Verbal Challenge: Describing Contemporary Dance

I am relatively new to Twitter but I have already enjoyed the relationships I have started to cultivate and the dialogue they have inspired.

One of the threads we’ve created is the comparison of contemporary dance to modern (look for #comodance).  I have biases.  Know this.  But also know that while I consider myself a modern dance artist, my roots are firm in the jazz idiom.  Allow me to clarify:  Jazz created by people that were investigating the possibilities of the body with applied theory and clear purpose.  Jazz dance that actually related to jazz music and shared rhythms and the percussive qualities that resulted in those rhythms.  Jazz that sculpted space as well as the body.  Jazz choreography that was new each time based on the music, the lines, the feel for the piece.  Jazz artists branded their styles yet offered unique perspectives with new works and demonstrated a development of an idea, a motif, and strong movement selection. In these ways, artists working in jazz were working as deeply and as intellectually, I think, as many modern dance artists- which were then often using the term “contemporary”.  Yet, the “contemporary dance” of Martha Graham is nothing like the “contemporary dance” being presented current day on shows such as Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance.

I will be the first to admit that modern dance, like jazz, has suffered an immense departure from its origins that so clearly identified its belonging in the dance world; like it or not.  I will also be the first to propose that we need a revision ( a RE- VISION) in order to perpetuate this idiom into the future.  But the same goes for all dance idioms, wouldn’t you say?  Wasn’t there huge discussion about six months ago about whether or not ballet is dead?  The same could be debated about modern (also touched on in the #comodance thread).  I have some theories as to HOW this might be done but they need some refinement before I share. I also have some theories as to how all of this should relate to dance education but I am also not ready to show those cards.  For now, I will keep them close to my jazz vest (of which I wore A LOT in my jazz days. 😉 )

Okay, so here goes.  My attempt to fairly explain contemporary dance to the non-dancer.  Gulp.

  • Contemporary dance is a category of dance which borrows movement from the disciplines of ballet, modern, and jazz dance and places an emphasis on virtuosic athleticism.
  • Contemporary choreography often demonstrates one of two themes:  direct/indirect narrative or movement for movement sake yet both approaches are usually dependent upon musical selection and often rooted in popular culture references.
  • As in everything, there is good and bad.  Contemporary dance aspires to be aesthetically beautiful or aesthetically ugly, relying on body rather than embodiment to make the concept clear.

What do you think?  I chose my words carefully…..

Here is a brief list of contrasting ideas that may provoke further thought regarding the differences between modern dance and contemporary. This is not to say these concepts don’t exist in both classifications, these are just general comments to the trends I see in them separately.

Modern                                                                                   Contemporary

Expressionist                                                                                  Impressionist

Organic                                                                                              Assembled

Internal                                                                                             External

Re-Creation of Mvt (embodiment )                                           Imitation of Mvt (line/shape)

Again, what do you think?

If you are interested in joining the conversations about dance online, check out Jordon Cloud’s recent post here and “like” the Terpsichore: Movement as Muse on FB here. Also check out this article by Nancy Wozny on this very topic!!

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.