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