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,… 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.