I have typed and deleted an opening sentence about ten times now. This blog is in some ways a public journal- it is a way for me to motivate myself to put into words the concepts and ideas I am wrestling with. I am striving to define my personal philosophy on dance, teaching, and life in general. Who am I and how do I want to present myself to the world? I haven't always been able to come up with an eloquent way to share these thoughts that are churning in my mind, but I think it is important to try, and that the more I write, the more clarity I will find.
Last night during a conversation with my dear friend Diane Cahill Bedford, I started to articulate this idea of granting permission and what that means and looks like in a dance class.
In a tradition dance class there are two roles. There is the role of the teacher / facilitator and the role of the student / participant. Customarily, the teacher / facilitator is the position of power, and establishes the framework of the class / session. I have chosen to use these two sets of nouns as I am finding that there is a trend towards using more democratic words to describe the learning experience. While that may be a step in the right direction, I don't always notice a shift in actual practice.
What does it look like to grant permission in a dance class?
I would define permission as a recognition of the needs of the participants and an environment that encourages students to explore those needs and take responsibility for their learning experience.
What is it that a student need permission for in a dance class?
What are the potential transactions and results of granting permission?
So where does permission fit into the framework of a dance technique class and why do I think it is a crucial part of teaching?
As a student I choose how I behave in a class, and in return the teacher and my classmates choose how they are going to respond to my choices. My decision to attend to my self by modifying movement may be met with a smile or a demand to push through and adhere to what has been given. I can accept either outcome. However, many students have not reached a point in their education where they feel comfortable going against normative behavior without being given an explicit invitation.
As a teaching artist, it is a tricky balance to attend to the needs of a diverse group of students. I am still developing methods for ensuring that every student feels valued, safe, and free to follow the path and process of their own learning. I am finding that in my class this means you will not find the tight knit unison found in many traditionally technique classes. While I do teach set movement exercises and phrases, I am finding that it is important to allow flexibility in the structure. We can work collectively on an element, but often students have their own agenda and I feel that is important to make space for that.
In the end I feel that this comes down to my desire to allow every student the opportunity to fully embody movement. I am not interested in a student's ability to copy my actions, but rather in their ability to fully investigate and explore what the pathway is in their body. In order to do so I must give them permission to make choices, play, take risks, and ask questions.
A while back I took an online class through Coursera entitled "Effective Classroom Interactions: Supporting Young Children's Development." The class was taught by several professors at The University of Virginia, and was free and open to the public. This class was hands down the most valuable training I have received as an educator. Furthermore, the information shared in this class has also outweighed everything I have read about teaching. I can not give this course enough credit for my development as a teacher or my growing theories on education.
Lately I have been considering the need to interact with students outside of instructional time. I feel that a personal relationship with my students would deepen the learning experience. For example, as I get to know my students better I may learn that English is not their first language at home. Or I may learn that a student has a passion that connects or relates to the work we are doing in the classroom and that in return may deepen their engagement with the material. I believe that relationships have a huge impact on learning. I find that I am more comfortable asking questions once I know how a teacher will respond to my questions. I feel more at ease expressing myself when positive communication has been established.
This strategy of spending time with a teacher outside of instructional time was first brought to my attention during the previously mentioned online course. The idea was called Banking Time, and you can learn more about it by reading clicking here.
Banking Time however, only addresses relationships with students who are disruptive in the classroom. I believe that all students deserve one on one time with the teacher. As a well behaved student, I would have been upset that the trouble makers were receiving special time with the teacher. This would have created a frustration, and perhaps hostility in me. I love the idea of giving students free time with a teacher, I just have trouble with the inequality of who gets the time.
I have been considering what this free time would look like and how it might be implemented. As a dance studio teacher, I saw that my first classes of the day often went more smoothly than the rest. I feel that this is partly because I was able to spend time with the students in a more relaxed environment before class began. I would strive to arrive 15-20 minutes before class began, and would play, read together, and have conversations with my students. The students who consistently came early for class and had this bonding time did better in class. It allowed the students time to be heard and engaged without an agenda. The students felt closer to me from this shared experience, and in return were more open in the classroom. I was able to teach the students better because I had spent time with them. In the classroom we are leading, teaching, and asking questions of our students, but I feel strongly that there needs to be a time built in that is more neutral. When we engage our students in a different environment we are able to see other facets of who they are.
So how can we as teachers make this happen in our already limited teaching time? While I am not an elementary school teacher, I love the idea of teachers setting aside one hour before school starts for each student. Students would be encouraged to schedule a "play date" with their teacher. This free time would be spent in the classroom, between the student and teacher, and would involve whatever safe activities the student wanted. For example, a student could bring a favorite book from home to read together or an art project could be done or you could just eat lunch together. Just like banking time, the teacher would not lead, teach, or question the student. Not only would this give the students time to adjust to the new classroom and lay of the land, it was allow them to establish a positive relationship with their teacher before school started. I strongly feel that investing one hour in each student at the very beginning would make a HUGE difference in the success of the classroom. I recognize that this time would be difficult to carve out, and would require the support of administration.
I am still sorting out all of my thoughts on free time- and I suspect that I will be writing about this more and researching strategies already in place. For the time being, it's dinner time :)
I haven't written anything in a while. This summer I was busy teaching summer camps at Claire School of Dance followed by a move to Iowa City, Iowa. Now that things are finally settling down, I am finding myself with some free time to recharge and incubate before school starts. Did I mention that I am starting my MFA at The University of Iowa this fall?
A daily habit I am cultivating is regular nature walks. As a child I can remember playing outside every day. At the center of this memory are tire swings and honeysuckle bushes. I remember the changes of the seasons and the different activities each would bring. I was fortunate to grow up in a spacious neighborhood with large yards, trees, and gardens. I feel a deep sense of peace outside. Our new apartment building is right off of Clear Creek Trail, a two mile walking and biking path through woods and prairies alongside a creek. The past few days I have walked the path there and back, roughly just under four miles round trip, that takes me a bit over an hour. I pass the occasional biker or jogger; thus far I have been the only walker. This quiet, secluded time has given my mind the freedom to wander.
Lately I have been feeling so full, it has been difficult to write, because my thoughts feel jumbled. These walks have helped me find a clarity and have cleared my head space so that I can be creative. I am learning that I need quiet, secluded spaces to decompress. The physical act of walking also gives my body enough movement to let my mind release. For me, the act of sitting is too loud- I notice too much about my body when I sit or stand still. I sense every micro shift, and my mind is not free to let my body go. I am finding that walking is like the lull of the ocean or the rocking of a boat; it is soothing, and gives me the respite I need.
I know that this habit will be much more difficult to continue as my schedule becomes fuller. However, I know that when my life gets hectic I will need this quiet time more than ever. I am excited to continue walking as the seasons begin to change, and I hope that by sharing this experience here on my blog, it will serve as a reminder and motivator to continue the habit!
I learn my best when my brain is free to focus on the task at hand. I know that sounds obvious, but I have noticed that when I am in new situations, much of my thought process is devoted to making sense of the world around me. What is the proper way to behave? Every community has its own culture, and as human beings we are constantly adapting to our current environments. As an educator, I work hard to eliminate this guessing game for my students. The first day of a class session and every time I sub a class, have a new student, or change the structure of my class, I take the time to explain a few things. I have heard some teachers describe this act as “Meet the Studio” and while the space is one aspect of the class, there are other crucial elements in knowing what to expect.
The past two weeks I have been teaching summer camps to children ages 4-6 years old. I get to spend three hours with the same group of kids each day for a week, which is quite a change from my normal teaching schedule. Our daily activities includes anything from dancing, arts and crafts, free play, story time, snack time, and even cooking! This has opened the doors to a lot of interactions that I normally do not get to have with young children, and has given me the opportunity to consider how I could respond.
I place a high priority on being mindful and intentional with my interactions with children. I have noticed that I say, "no" in situations where I could say, "yes." It is much easier and faster for me to do things in the classroom. I can pass out the napkins in 30 seconds. I can pour the juice without spilling. I can keep things neat, clean, and organized. I have to remind myself of the importance of supporting a child's independence. It is important for children to have responsibilities and do / decide things for themselves. I have no problems with this at the beginning of the day when I'm fresh, the children are excited to arrive, and we have all of our time ahead of us. The "no" creeps in when the parents are set to arrive in five minutes and the room looks like a tornado has hit or when we are 30 minutes late for snack, and there is a whole lot of crankiness in the room. Yet, I think that it is the most important to make space for "yes" in these moments. I am constantly reminded that children are sponges. My every gesture, mannerism, tone, and language is mimicked, and fuel for future interactions. When I am at my most frantic, frazzled, and exasperated, I am being watched. I am teaching how to handle these moments. What is the example I want to set? I want to say, "yes" and be considerate of a child's need to be independent and make decisions despite my own feelings of frustration. I want to say, "yes" and foster and encourage considerate, helpful behavior even when I am in a rush. I want to teach that no matter how you are feeling, you must always consider the feelings and needs of those around you. Being tired/cranky/stressed/angry/rushed is not an excuse to treat others differently.
Another way I consider the yes/no dilemma is to consider how I would respond if another adult asked the same question. I find that my answer would almost always be "yes". Why do I treat children any differently? A child is perfectly capable of discerning when to go to the bathroom or if he/she is thirsty. Yes, he/she may be asking out of boredom, but I remember doing the same thing as a college student. This class is boring, I need a break, I am going to leave the room with the only valid excuse- the restroom. If I was denied that right / privilege I would have had feelings of resentment towards the teacher. I believe that the situation holds the same truth for young children. When we say "no", and that "no" feels unfair or unjustified, we negatively change the atmosphere of the classroom.
Sometimes a "no" is necessary, and in those situations I am realizing how valuable it is to communicate to the child why. If the answer is "Because I said so" than a "yes" was probably in order. Safety is a reason I often say "no" in the classroom. We may not run inside because we could get hurt. We may not throw inside because we could hurt ourselves or others. We may not use the hot glue gun because we could burn ourselves.
As I type this I feel silly for having to advocate for the concept of granting permission in the classroom. It seems like a universal truth, an obvious way to behave and treat others. Yet, it is much harder to put into practice when you have a classroom of fifteen-twenty children with very vocal needs and opinions. By saying, "yes" you are relinquishing control and allowing some chaos into the classroom. It requires you to be vigilant in your observations and to trust your student's judgement. It requires you to explain how, why, and when in every situation, creating teaching moments for students to draw from later. It means being patient when messes are made and accidents happen. It means accepting that your classr
Lastly, I want to mention that this framework is most successful when you have established a clear, regular structure for your classroom. My students know what to expect every day, and what I expect of them. This means having a routine for
how to enter the room, where to go, how to wait for the other students to arrive, what we do when everyone has arrived, how to express needs, where things belong, and every detail in-between. I can allow my students to make decisions and have responsibilities because I have considered every transition and activity and how to maneuver it.
I have had a long term relationship with ballet. My first ballet class was in second grade at Hampton Roads Civic Ballet with Ms. Lisa. For a very long time, ballet was the only form of dancing that I enjoyed. I loved the repetition, precision, exactness, the universal language and expectations. In many ways, ballet was probably not a healthy activity for my type A personality. I am naturally driven, focused, and disciplined. I needed a less structured activity that encouraged flexibility, creativity, or relaxation. The way I was taught ballet was focused on learning the names of steps and how to execute them the right way. I felt very uncomfortable making any decisions in a dance class. Now I find that very ironic as I feel that dancing is about an awareness of the body and making choices about how to move and then directing the body according. I did not have a thought process as a dancer- it was about muscle memory and how movement looked in the mirror. I had a total disconnect from my brain to my body, and was so frustrated when my body wouldn't cooperate. I wanted to be the best, perform the best roles, out jump, out turn, out kick everyone else. I wanted it so baldy, and the tension showed in my dancing. I was constantly being told to relax, yet I had no concept of how much I was forcing my body. I was often closed minded as student, refusing to believe that my body wasn't build with amount of fake turn out I was using or that perhaps my future in dance lay elsewhere. I lived in a world of concrete right and wrong, yes and no, this or that, and I think ballet encouraged my tendency to dig in my heels, stubbornly refusing to admit that there were more than one way to do something. It was my way or the highway.
These days, I wish I could break up with ballet. I rarely enjoy a ballet class, and am hyper aware of my bad habits. If I do take class, I want a beginning level class to move slowly and redirect pathways in my body. So I rarely end up in group ballet classes, and instead get my dose of plies and tendus in my own practice, alone in a room without judgement and mirrors. While I am not big into taking ballet class right now, I have found myself teaching a lot of ballet. My summer teaching will include ballet for children ages 5-10 as well as adult ballet. In the fall I am currently scheduled to teach Continuing Ballet at The University of Iowa where I will be a student again- working towards my MFA. Given my history with ballet, I have been really struggling with how to approach class. I know I will find myself writing about the process, and I always start with an evaluation of what has or hasn't worked in my own training history. What did I love about ballet as a child? What did I hate? What made me return to classes day after day? How did dancing make me feel? How did my teachers make me feel? What do I remember learning? What memories are the brightest and clearest? How did my own personality and baggage affect my learning?
I have addressed these questions before, and will continue to consider my own training history. What do I value as an artist and how do I share that within the confines of ballet- a tradition rich with history, aesthetics, and point of views?
I have a rather expensive hobby of collecting books about dance. I have an Amazon wish list of hundreds of books that I long to add to my collection. Every once in a while, I can't resist the temptation and buy a few. The latest addition to my collection is The Place of Dance by Andrea Olsen with Caryn McHose. I highly recommend it. The books is broken into tasks to do, to dance, and to write. Huzzah! More writing entry points to use for this blog :)
Today I will answer the question, "What do you care about, and how is that reflected in your work?"
I care about honesty, vulnerability, and genuine interactions. I want to respond truthfully in the moment. I want the spontaneity of improvisation within the structure of choreography. The choreography said that this was going to happen, but it unfolded in this moment, allowing space for genuine responses. I saw you, held you, brushed, lifted, touched, directed, received what was given to me today.
I care about you. I care about you the dancer, you the audience, you my student, you my critic, you my biggest fan. I want you to feel cared about, taken care of, listened to, supported. I care about listening to all those involved and letting their collective wisdom wash over me. You can listen to anyone without loosing yourself. Listening acknowledges differences, but does not require you to change. It requires openness, calmness, and peace, not always a giving in.
I care about learning. What have I discovered along the way? I want doors to open when I create. I want my mind to learn new pathways and make new connections.
I care about laughter. Life is best filled with joy even amongst the darkness nights. Theres is a satisfaction in knowing that you are alive, present, and able. Able to watch, able to create, able to move, breath, be present. And that thought makes me smile, and giggle, and wonder at the immense pleasure that is life.
I care about leaving something behind. I care about leaving a trace. I want all involved to be left with a feeling, a picture, a memory of what was created and performed. I care about being remembered. I care about leaving my mark, my stamp on the art form.
I care about perspectives. I love hearing your story of how you got here. I care about getting to know people and their outlooks on life. What memories do they cherish? What are the things that are held onto? What is painful, private, and whispered? What is shouted out for all to hear? How do we define who we are as people and what matters to us?
I care about traveling, feeling alive in the discovery of some place new. I feel renewed with each new discovery, renewed with the unfolding of memories of places I once was. I have a deep sense of place. Landscapes cleanse my soul. There is a deep satisfaction in arriving, of breathing in the newness, and letting go of all that way. Returning home after traveling feels like a fresh start to life. The world is viewed with new lenses.
I care about rocking chairs, gardens, large expansive porches, wide open spaces, the stars, lush, green landscapes, peaceful nooks and corners, the smell of paper, the easy gliding of a pen as I'm writing, the sound of music that speaks to my heart, beginnings and ends, reaching, expanding, and growing. I care about my husband, family, and friends, children, all children everywhere. I care about this being read, that someone has heard my voice and can relate or be surprised that someone could be possibly care about these things. Because I do. I care.
I am currently researching yoga, as I feel that I may be interested in pursuing teacher training sometime in the near future. I checked out a bunch of books from the library and The pure heart of yoga by Robert Butera has been thought provoking on many levels. I find that many of the themes in establishing a yoga practice also apply to what I believe a dance practice should look like. The book constantly describes yoga as a holistic practice, not a physical activity solely focused on poses. Dance is often taught as a combination of steps, shapes, and movements. The language used in class generally emphasizes the body. However, to be successful as dance artist, there must be a mind, body, and spirit connection. As I have written before, I believe that dance classes should always benefit the whole person. Most dance students will not pursue a career in the arts, therefore, class should not solely emphasize solely the accumulation of dance phrases.
But what does this look like? I am constantly struggling with the application of these ideas. I have given a lot of thought to how material should be presented in dance classes. In my development as a teaching artist, I have felt that the how to teach is much more difficult than the what to teach. Sadly, the majority of my pedagogy training in college focused on the what of teaching, and while I know that this is important, I believe that the what doesn't matter if you struggle with the how. The strength and depth of my knowledge doesn't matter if my students can't receive it.
What does being receptive look like as a student?
The first chapters of The pure heart of yoga discuss intention, attitude, and posture. How often do we address why we are in class- what is our purpose, motivation, driving force? What is our attitude in class? Are we comparing ourselves to others? Are we competitive? Are we infatuated with the teacher or dancers around us? Confused? Clinging to an idea or movement? How do we in the midst of the craziness of life arrive at a place that is calm, peaceful, content, and open? The best thing I can do as a student is to accept where I am today and be willing and open to experiencing what is happening in the room in that moment. It is being aware of the mind and spirit and how it manifests in the body. As Martha Graham said, "Nothing is more revealing than movement." and "The body never lies." Nervous energy makes it difficult to balance or turn. Comparing myself to Sally can cause me to ignore my own body and push into injury. And the list goes on.....what we are thinking and feeling impacts our movement.
How can we facilitate an open mind and body in our students?
I feel strongly that as a teacher I must be friendly, patient, calm, and passionate about what I am doing. I want my students to know that I care about them as people, not just as dancers. I want my students to feel comfortable enough to be honest. I strive to teach by example. I am honest and vulnerable. I am receptive to comments, complaints, and ideas. I encourage students to share their thought process and perspective.
For example, when I demonstrate a combination I might say:
"I am really excited about my family coming to visit me, and as a result I am having difficulty calming my nervous system. I feel a bit off- kilter. I am going to choose to demonstrate a balance here, but you are welcome to turn if you are able to today. Does anyone have any suggestions of another choice I could make? What do you do when your energy feels frantic?" As dance teachers, we are asking our students to expose their physical selves to a room full of people- it is a delicate and intimate venture, and I believe that the student needs to feel supported in order to take that risk. Openness requires you to first accept where you are in that moment in order to receive and try something new.
I know that these ideas have taken some tangents. I am working on organizing my thoughts....it is a process :)
Maria Hanley wrote a great article on Dance Advantage a few weeks back about how she incorporates thought into her dance classes for young children. I've spent the past few weeks considering this idea and what the role of thinking is in the classes I teach. Check out her article by clicking here.
Now for my own thoughts:
How do I define myself as a dance teacher? What is different about my classes versus another teacher? It is common practice for teaching artist to write a description of their class to give new students an idea of what to expect. What are the defining aspects of my approach? I believe that this idea of the "thinking dancer" is at the core of what I teach. Now how do I articulate exactly what I do?
Dance is body. It is a physical act. However, the brain initiates the body. Awareness, observation, and choice are key in developing a fully articulated facility. The emphasis on dance class is often the memorization of movement. You begin by learning a sequence of movement, then, you imitate, copy, embody that sequence in order to build pathways, patterns, and develop strength, balance, and flexibility. As a dancer, I am often frustrated when class ends up being one long exercise in memorization. As a teacher, I do not have an alternative to the role of learning set material. Improvisation alone will not prepare students to the demands of working with choreographers. There must be an emphasis on learning specific material. However, the learning of set material in class must have a specific training purpose in mind. Dancers need to be able to apply what they are learning in class to their own work as a moving and creating artist. As a student, I often feel as though I am deciphering a secret code in class. Why am I doing this movement? Am I fulfilling the teacher's choreographic desires or is there a big picture training goal in mind? Which leads me to.....
What is the purpose of dance class?
It is the preparation of the mind and body for performance. Dance class is where we train dancers to dance. Dance is a performing art form. Performance is not limited to the stage, rather all of life is a performance. The audience can be myself, my students, my peers, and/or the public. The dictionary definition states that performance is "the execution of an action" and "the manner of reacting to stimuli." I would define performance as a conscious initiation that may include unconscious habits and mannerisms. Performance begins with choice.
If the purpose of dance class is to train the mind and body for performance, what does that entail?
There are so many things a dancer needs to be able to do today. However, for me, at the heart of it all is the ability to make conscious choices in the body. This requires thought. I decided that my knees are tracking over my toes, because I am aware of where my knees are in space, and I have the ability to choose their pathway. I noticed that my jaw is clenched, so I choose to release it by separating my back molars. I am finding myself using the words notice and make a choice in class more and more. I also find myself sharing the purpose of movement- I created this phrase because I wanted to explore the weight of the head. This phrase is about exploring use of breath to initiate movement. This emphasis has lent itself to the use of sensation, initiation, and intention. When you are observing and deciding, those three words become key in the performance of movement.
I find myself really interested in what is happening in the minds of my students in class? What are they exploring during the phrase? What aha! moments are reached? What are they noticing in their own bodies and observing in others? These questions have become a regular discourse in my class. We finish an exercise with What did you notice? What learning took place? What are you more aware of? What choices became available to you? What do you need clarified due to new information being received? These discussions take time away from moving- and I have to be careful to keep dancers warm and discussions short- however, I find that verbal and written articulation of thought adds a new layer of understanding and growth.
Dance classes can feel so rigid and powerless. I often feel an obligation to perform as told, rather than to listen to what my body is telling me today, and making a choice different from the rest of the class. I desire an openness to new perspectives, approaches, and understand that there is a time and place to experience new challenges. However, I believe that students should be allowed permission to explore other choices in a safe and respectful way. Is it worth it for me to do as I am told if I am doing it incorrectly and building bad habits? I am not sure how this would always look in a dance class where students are sharing space.
These thoughts at times seem random and unconnected to me. Yet, what I am coming closer to is a definition of the atmosphere I want in a movement class, and how the material should and can be presented. I want dancers in class beside me who challenge me intellectually
Kids love to jump. My students share with me images of flying through the air like a bird, plane, or butterfly and blasting off like rocket ships. They love being air borne and I love that they are experiencing gravity, momentum, and suspension first hand. The lovely Ashley Horn inspired this lesson plan, and I am sure many dance teachers are using most if not all of its components at some point in time in their class. I think the use of language is key is sustaining an interest of its repetition throughout the year.
There are five ways of jumping, this is not dance specific and can apply to any form of movement. In parenthesis I have included one example from dance.
I like to spend time in each class exploring different ways of performing one or all of these types of jumps. I do not teach these movements as specific steps with precise beginning and endings, shapes, or in turnout. We DO describe the take off and landing for all jumps and talk about using demi plié to give ourselves power to propel in the air. We talk about landing softly and quietly; this automatically encourages toe, ball, heel landings, and helps protect their joints. We talk about stretching the feet and knees in the air when appropriate. I remind the dancers to start and finish on a certain number of feet. I often ask dancers to tell me what I need to know about jumping. This gives them an opportunity to review these basic jump "rules" on their own, and gives them ownership of the material.
It helps my young dancers to have something concrete to relate to when jumping. You can use any variety of props. I like to use circle, square, or star dots, bean bags, cones, and hula hoops. This is an example of how we might explore "jump" in class:
I also like to present multiple ways of jumping together as an obstacle course. You can use any variety of props- as long as there are different types of items for different jumps. I try and emphasize ballet vocabulary when we do obstacle courses. Since the dancers have to take turns, using the vocabulary gives them something to focus on and learn while they are waiting for their turn. We will say the French vocabulary as each student performs the jump.
How do you encorporate jumping into class? I would love more ideas on how to work on these skills!n