Category Archives: pedagogy

Head Connections: Mental Health in the Dance Classroom

It’s the start of the new semester, hoorah!

Time to plan classes, make syllabi, greet new friends and old, and – for a large number of people – it’s time for the awkwardness, anxiety, and general discomfort and threat of getting your accommodation list approved by all your new professors, something that can be particularly difficult for students with invisible needs.

A few years ago statistics showed that in America, for every 1000 students with a disability only 87 would complete an undergraduate degree. That’s appalling. Unpacking those numbers is a complicated process involving cultures of stigma, the medical vs social model of disability, the mind-bending cost of the American healthcare system, the hideous pressure on teachers – adjunct teachers in particular – lack of education about inclusive classrooms… I could go on. In fact I do, I talk about this stuff at conferences and in pedagogy classes and in staff meetings and I co-founded a resources and information network within my own university. But anyway, some more figures:

The Guardian newspaper found that in the UK 87% of first-year university students struggle to cope with the stress of the transition to higher education. 60% say that the main stress is studying, while other issues include isolation, living independently, and financial difficulty. Students with mental health conditions have the highest drop out rate of any disability group in the US – 37%. In 2016 it was found that 78% of British students reported mental health problems over the course of one year, and 33% experienced suicidal thoughts.

Joe Booth, a UK activist, has been gaining support for his Take The Stress Out of Studying (TSOS) campaign, calling for standardized tests to be replaced with “a well-resourced, publicly accountable system, which supports and educates individuals by engaging them rather than pressuring them.” The most recent TSOS blog post, which can also be seen as a close-captioned video here, reports that 48% of 12-year-olds in England feel sad or anxious at least once a week. By the age of 16, 70% report feeling this way at least once a week, and 22% report having negative feelings as often as once a day.

Why all these numbers? Because I’m about to start speaking from personal experience. I know that as soon as someone with a mental health condition starts talking about mental health there’s a strong tendency from people to dismiss them, or to assume that they’re over-exaggerating the problem. I’m not. These numbers are the proof – if you need it – that mental health in our education system is in utter crisis. Now I want to talk to you about some of the things that crisis does.

I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and PTSD. I experience panic-inducing, frequently debilitating flashbacks, which can be accompanied by hyper-vigilance, depression, suicidality, nausea, disassociation, shaking… the list goes on. How often I experience flashbacks can vary from daily to weekly to monthly, and they can easily last a whole day, sometimes more. I started having panic attacks several times a day when I was 17, I have been on and off medication. I do not receive formal accommodations from my university. I am a final year PhD student.

I hid my mental health issues for around decade because I was ashamed of them. One of the main ways I justified this to myself was “I don’t need help because I’m doing fine in school.” If I could submit every assignment, pass every test, get to class… I didn’t need help. I never questioned the COST of submitting every assignment, passing every test, going to every class… because in my mind I could stop having mental health issues if I just worked harder. I could control them, and if I didn’t, it was my fault. But paying that cost every day had – of course – a crushing effect on my mental health. And then I stopped being able to do those things.

Dance valourises physical virtuosity. Dance champions the idea that the body is intelligent, versatile, adaptive, and capable. Dance does not do so well with the idea that your brain can incapacitate your body. Dance thinks of itself as a healing modality, one which you practice to get more healthy, happy, wise and well.

My biggest problem is not with academic or written work – there’s usually enough time given to those assignments that I can find some way to get around them. My biggest problem is that during a flashback I should not dance. Doing so makes my skin crawl, makes me want to vomit, makes me want to curl up on the floor. Dancing forces me to do the opposite of what I need to do, which is stop, listen to my self, and allow myself to come back to a place that I feel safe in again. The pressure from dance as an institution is that dance class IS a safe place, and if I would just try and be present and in tune with my body then the problem would go away. It doesn’t. Interestingly, ballet is slightly easier than other forms because I know what’s coming in a class. I know I CAN get through a class or, in fact, hold down a performing career. But I need to be able to make choices about when to make myself keep going, when to do less, and when to make myself completely stop.

Trying to tell dance teachers about this problem:

“So you have some feelings…”
“No, I have a panic disorder.”
“So you have some big feelings.”

“It doesn’t look from the outside like there’s a problem.”

“Why don’t you just start class, because you’re not injured, and just see how you go?”

“But you seem so happy.”

“I understand, sometimes I feel terrible too, but dancing always helps.”

“If you’re sat on the side you need to be watching and writing and to hand that in at the end so I can see you’re still engaged with the class.”

Sigh

All of these responses are very well intentioned, but all implicitly ask me to accommodate to the class by admitting that I need less.

In contrast, the absolute best response that I have had from a dance teacher whom I went to about this problem was this:

I don’t understand the problem, but I trust you. I will not ask you why you’re sitting out of my classes. You can tell me if you want to. You can answer questions or offer observations from the side or not as you are capable. But I will accept your assessment of what you can and can’t do on the expectation that you will do as much as you can, and that is healthy for you. If you want to walk out of the class at any point and go home, you can do that too.

I can already hear teacher’s hackles rising. I know the argument you want to make: “but what if students just use this as an excuse to get out of class whenever they’re feeling tired or stressed?” “What if what they really need is the encouragement to just try a little harder?” “What if they miss so much class that then they can’t do the work?” “I understand that YOU want to try hard and do everything, but most students, if we give them that option, will start missing class left right and center just because they’re having a bad day, and they’ll never get jobs or graduate.”

To which my answer, frankly, is: then make your classroom one that students want to be in, and your content things that they want to learn. Set clear expectations about what you want every student to know and be able to do, and hold them all to that, rather than their ability to be physically present in the room. If students aren’t doing as much as they can, their grade will drop. That’s not your problem. Your problem is giving everyone the opportunity to learn and the space for their efforts towards learning to be fruitful. If your students are not meeting your expectations, you can instigate a process to ensure they do so, and hold them accountable to that, but first you have to believe in what they say they can and cannot do, and what they need to do the things you want.

It is not a teacher’s job to decide what a student’s internal experience of mental health actually is, or what accommodations they need. This gets us into the dangerous territory of “psychological ownership” – a term coined by Julia Gleich and which we blogged about together a few years ago. In a nutshell it means that while you may have educational authority over a group of students, it does not mean you have authority over their lived experience. Teacher’s set expectations for learning and professionalism, and students work out how to meet those expectations, or if those expectations are unreasonable and need negotiation. Again, I hear the problem “but I don’t have the time to design thirty different classes and thirty different rules for thirty students based on their needs.” So don’t. Design a class that meets a broad range of needs, minds, and bodies upfront, and then only adjust for the unexpected. Mental heath issues should be expected in every single university classroom at this point, and failure to plan for them in the face of the statistics above is just asking for more work later. Build inclusivity into your syllabus and your classes and you benefit everyone, including yourself.

Some specific suggestions: at the beginning of each semester teachers usually set out expectations for what students should do if they are injured or sick. What if they added expectations for a mental health event? I’ve heard of teachers bringing red beanbags to class so that students could signal “don’t call on me today.” You could call one part of the class the quiet corner. Red socks mean, “I’m doing as much as I can, but that’s not everything.” Students who have disclosed a mental health condition can leave, and make up the time in another class, or by submitting a physical practice journal/video. Have an exercise that doesn’t involve touching as a ready backup to partnered touch work. Bring mental health out into to light of your classroom, and kill the stigma faced by individuals who overwhelmingly feel like they’re a burden, and alone.

I know I’ve gone on for a long time, but one more point: I’m a grad student. Grad students also teach. In my institution you are not supposed to cancel classes, and I teach a lecture course, which requires a lot of preparation to sub. That means that I frequently get up and teach while mid-flashback, and let me tell you that is not something you ever want to have to do. Funnily enough some of my best performance reviews come from my worst days because I’m so in control of my breathing, my affect, my pacing etc. Mental health issues have taught me to be a better, and sought-after instructor. Teachers have mental health issues too, and I am not trying to set up a binary or an opposition with this post. But when it comes to teachers I don’t really have any answers for how to tackle the problem at a cultural or institutional level, and I think that changing the culture for students might lead to some.

In the end I want more people to be able to be in more classrooms, learning what they love. I want more people to be able to talk about the mental health crisis in academia and how it affects them. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to pay the dreadful costs of hiding and silence until they can’t pay anymore. I want dancers and dance teachers to value excellence and professionalism as personal qualities, not as scripted performances. I want everyone reaching out to be seen as an authority on their own experience, without feeling like they have to play down their needs, or like they have to play their needs up in order to deserve help.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

P.s. A note on responses.

This blog has a lot of readers, who give me both support and backlash. I always appreciate both as long as they’re considerate of the fact that there’s a human being on this end of the keyboard.

I just disclosed a lot of mental health stuff that I don’t usually talk about. I am aware of the risks of doing that just as I go on the job market! I hope that people will employ me for my skills and abilities as a dancer and teacher, and – like I said – trust my capacity to do any job that I apply for. I am not unique for what I can do with these conditions – I am just one voice of a very common problem. I have amazing friends, I go to therapy, I have the support I need to make my voice heard, and I hope it chips away at the walls in front of other people.

Image from the Guardian’s series of sketches inspired by the university mental health crisis.

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Fusion… What Is It?

This is a post that’s been a long time coming – in fact I first began drafting it while I was living in England and contributing to the Dance X project, which was several years ago now. The topic was brought to light again during Mile High Fusion, particularly at the teacher’s summit, and has been kicking around ever since. Not every thought in here is 100% mine, and some of it flies in the face of some pretty well established social dance conventions. Special thanks to Mark Carpenter and Joe DeMers who helped me hash this out over exhausted Thai food. I’m probably going to get snarky. Here we go.

What is fusion?

The question comes up frequently as our scenes develop, and our communities try and find ways to discuss the work we’re doing. There have been attempts to re-name fusion and define is as a specific dance technique. There have also been a number of umbrellas applied to different approaches: Fusion as Fusion, Fusion as Philosophy, and Fusion as Aesthetic are three of the big ones. I subscribe to none of them… or rather, I do, but for me they’re not the answer to the question of “what is fusion?” and the subsequent question of “…and how do we teach it?”

Issues that arise in answering the question:

  1. The west coast tends to think it owns fusion, and that what’s happening on the west coast is what’s happening all over the country/world. This is not true. Folks who don’t travel to fusion events where a broad range of local fusion practices are represented make sweeping generalizations about what is “happening” in fusion, and ignore the very present and very valid approaches of other fusion scenes.
  2. Fusion gets a whole lot of shame and dismissal from other dance communities. I remember vividly standing in an airport this year while around me blues dancers performed a hideous parody of “fusion” to general laughter and agreement. The broader dance community is unwilling to recognize fusion as a unique and identifiable form of expertise.
  3. Fusion is FULL of experts… but they’re often experts at specific things that are not fusion. Folks trying to define fusion are often bringing in their own standards of what is neutral, universal, most efficient etc., without acknowledging the cultural weightedness of those assumptions and how they are producing limits and exclusions on the dance floor and in the classroom.
  4. People are coming to fusion wanting to be experts in just fusion, without the investment in other dance techniques. Everyone wants this to be possible, but no one is sure of the best way to go about doing it respectfully, and in a way that produces good dancers.

So where am I coming from?

I’m originally a conservatoire-trained concert dancer. I have a professional career in ballet, contemporary and modern dance that I started concurrently with my entry into the social dance world. I started blues and swing when blues was more like fusion, but I also danced fusion as a separate practice. I’m a contact improviser. I’m a trained movement analyst. I’m getting a PhD in dance, specifically in the construction of discourse. I lecture on dance in university and conference settings and I teach dance technique in the same. I organize my local fusion scene and I teach and DJ at national-level social dance events. I publish academically about blues and fusion. I am a full-time professional dance geek.

To start answering the question “What is Fusion,” I first want to introduce you to a few other terms: dance techniques, dance forms, dance aesthetics, and dance styles. I’m going to use those terms slightly differently than you may have heard before.

Techniques: physical, internally motivated ways of doing things. Techniques cluster together as…

Forms: recognizable collections of culturally connected techniques. Forms are often recognizable through their…

Aesthetics: externally recognizable traits of a dance form. Not the same as technique (see below). Individual practitioners of a form may use a combination of technique and aesthetics to produce…

Style: an individual or communal way of practicing a collection of techniques, or a dance form. Consistent enough to be recognized over a period of time.

The difference between aesthetic and technique… ok, here is where some blues dancers start to raise their hackles and get bitey, but bear with me. When Brenda Dixon Gottschild began writing about Africanist Aesthetics she was identifying features that could and should be recognized from outside the black dance community – visible things. When we teach the blues aesthetic in dance classrooms what (I sincerely hope) we are teaching are the internal, physical techniques required to produce that aesthetic. I know there’s a ton of classist and standardizing baggage around the term “technique,” and it makes sense to use an in-community word, but I am using the word here in a specific context to distinguish two important ways of doing. In other words:

You can recognize this as the aesthetic of ballet….

index

But this is the aesthetic produced by technique…

drama-swan-lake-1-tkhunt

….and this, plus ideology, is why I do not think fusion is an aesthetic.

Ideology?

In an abstract, ideological sense, fusion has no limits as to the kinds of dance it can produce. This is where Fusion as Philosophy comes in. In practice, fusion absolutely does have cultural norms and limits, which take into account the safety, comfort, and assumed background of everyone at the dance. At least 80% of the dancing is done on two feet, for example. So I say that the ideology of fusion – the ideals that shape and guide it – are different from the facts of its practice.

Returning to my point, I’d say that different scenes have different fusion aesthetics, produced by local pools of forms and techniques influencing the dancing. But fusion as a whole does not have/is not an aesthetic.

So what is fusion?

Fusion is not a dance form because of the way we treat techniques. Individual fusion dancers pull in a range of techniques from a huge variety of extant social and concert dance forms. I said that dance forms were clusters of techniques that are culturally connected – to history, to music, to a given population. Fusion does not really meet any of those criteria. Individuals share their techniques and add them to the local or national pool, but there’s no expectation of technical common ground when we go to dance with each other.

Ah hah! You’re talking about fusion as fusion!

Well… kinda. I do believe that for a dance to be fusion there need to be at least two dance forms meeting within the dance, but those two forms could meet in one solo performance. They could have been encountered only as techniques taught in fusion classes. They might be expressed between the partnership and the music, rather than between the partners themselves. I don’t think that it’s impossible to dance fusion as the only dance you do, which sets me out of alignment with the center of the fusion as fusion argument. It becomes clearer when I start talking about teaching fusion.

I believe that there are two strands to teaching fusion, and that both must be present for scenes to be successful: we must teach dance techniques (n.b. NOT forms, although I’m hugely in support of teaching the histories and cultures of those techniques as we share them), and we must teach methods of collaboration and combination. My current favourite analogy is to compare fusion to painting: we have to put colours on our palette, and we have to develop skills in applying them to a canvas in order to make art. A solo dancer with blue and red can still dance purple. A partnership may share green, or may come to it as a collaboration of blue and yellow if they have the skills to do so… or they can dance blue and yellow as distinct and separate colours, together.

The techniques of combination and collaboration across difference are the expertise of fusion. There are no fusion techniques, although there are dance forms that contribute our primary colours: blues, contact improvisation, tango etc. Individuals and local communities develop different fusion aesthetics because of the different colours offered to the palette, and because we by no means agree on how combination and collaboration should best take place – brushes, finger-painting, abstract splatters etc.

Wrapped all together, what does this mean? For me, fusion is a dance style: an individual or communal way of practicing a collection of techniques, or dance forms. Consistent enough to be recognized over a period of time. At its heart fusion is an individual practice that we choose, as a community, to do together. It is a shared exploration of technique, form, and aesthetic wherein we use the physical inspiration of others – dancers, DJs, videos – to develop a style that we can call our own. As we teach fusion, we are offering dancers the tools to continue that exploration for themselves, and to paint new designs and details in their own bright colours.

Fusion as style.

 

Thanks for reading!

Social Dance In Three Roles

I’m still on a dance high from DJX – the absolute peak of my fusion dance calendar, and an event I have tried and failed to get back to for years now. Beautiful people, wonderful, creative dancing… the House dance workshops with Marcus Tucker pushed my physical expertise in new directions, and required much more of me than I’m used to at weekend exchanges. I’ve come home feeling stronger, more connected, and with new movement and music ideas to feed into my home scene.

At DJX I was also hired to be a DJ, which means I’ve now been a core organizer, taught, competed, and DJ’d at international dance exchanges this year. This is also the year where I’ve started saying honestly “I cannot afford to come to your event unless I am organizing, teaching or DJing.” I thought this might be a good moment to reflect back on those roles, how I got into them, what they mean to me, and where I want to go with them. I hope that’s useful for folks out there who maybe want to expand in one of these directions and don’t know how, or who are interested in how it all might fit together. I’m leaving aside my work as a researcher and writer for now, because I’ll be talking about that much more soon in other areas (more details to come!). I am not a Rockstar, but most of you reading this have seen me around and danced with me. I hope this post also humanizes those of us making the dances happen and the trains run on time.

Teaching

Ironically, the work that I am best at is the work that it’s hardest to get into. When I first started teaching the phrase “I teach solo” or “I teach switch” was deathly poison in a lot of the places I was applying to. Luckily it was highly sought after in others. My biggest breaks came from more experienced instructors using me as a teaching partner, and even though I still prefer to teach solo for big gigs I am so happy to co-plan a class with anyone who wants to learn how to teach on our local scene.

Most teachers start teaching because they’ve won competitions, which makes me something of an anomaly – it’s do-able to build up a reputation as a teacher without competing but it is MUCH, MUCH harder. I did a lot of teaching for free, I made the most of my specialist research skills, and I did a lot of other roles before people would start hiring me to do what I wanted to do. A lot of events won’t hire you unless they’ve seen you teach, and I couldn’t afford even to go to other events unless I was being paid for, which led me to organizing (see below).

I put a huge amount of time into my pedagogy, and I ask that anyone I hire does the same. I’m still always pushing for how I can teach things better. One of the ways I challenge myself is to never settle on one right way of teaching content – beginner content in particular – so I can always try out what information, delivered in what way, gets people closest to the heart of the dances I love, and then what inspires them to take that class onto the dance floor afterwards.

I want to teach like my nerdy little self, and I never want to be someone who people are afraid of asking to dance. I’ve been teaching dance for over a decade now in all kinds of contexts, and there is still no better feeling than knowing you’ve led a good class.

Organizing/volunteering

When you want to social dance and you live below the poverty line you wind up doing a whole lot of volunteering. I am always and forever grateful to the team at European Blues Invasion, who have an incredible means-dependent scholarship program that does not require you to give back your time, but it just so happens that I really LIKE volunteering anyway. I like being the welcoming face of the event, whether that’s on the first night or at stupid o clock on Saturday and Sunday morning. I like being a part of all the extra work that makes the dances I love happen. If I turn up at a dance early, you will find me pitching in to rig lights, cook food, put out chairs, sit at the door… eventually people saw the value in that and started paying me a little extra to get a volunteer who loves their work, rather than someone who may or may not show up five minutes late and always be trying to get back to the main event.

Organizing, and core roles in particular, are not the same as being a volunteer – although my reputation as a volunteer is I think what got me asked to organize. Any named role at a dance exchange is incredibly hard work, and you will often not get a lot of dancing time around doing it. You have to love facilitating, you have to be willing to put in work before and after the event, and to think through the event from the perspectives of everyone involved. You have to be able to smile as your friends and peers go off without you, or when you have to literally and metaphorically pick up the scene’s trash. If you are a safer spaces official – which is one of my jobs locally – you have to be prepared to step into situations that feel WAY beyond your pay grade and come up with kind and ethical solutions for everyone involved.

I used to swear that I would never organize. Now I love it. I love seeing people happy in the space I’ve made. I love seeing an event from every side. I will always respect and love those folks who put in that time for big events year after year – we can’t thank them enough.

DJ-ing

I NEVER expected to be called a DJ. I have been DJ-ing for my local scenes for literally years now, and the invitation from DJX telling me they liked my audition set still had me gasping in shock and – quite frankly – terror. Some people DJ for a deep love of music and sound, they have super-expensive kit, they orient to music in the same what that I orient to pedagogy: how can I share this thing in the best possible way. I started DJ-ing as an organizer and a teacher, to facilitate an experience for my scene. I wanted to introduce new kinds of music and musicality, and I wanted to take people on a ride that felt good. I wanted to stretch peoples ears beyond the cultures they were used to, and make a welcoming space for as many different dance backgrounds as I could persuade to come out. I did not think of it as a vocation, just something that I worked at until I could do it well.

I didn’t understand why I’d been asked to DJ at DJX (which, for the uninitiated, stands for DJ Experiment and is ALL about DJ quality) until I looked at the instructions chosen DJ’s were sent out. DJX wanted at least five contrasting genres in every hour of set, which was absolutely what I was doing. Whether it’s blues or fusion, I want to show the connections and juxtapositions that bind our dance experience together across (oh goodness) space and time. I really care about set transitions, because they enable me to put surprises next to each other and convince people to jump joyfully into something new.

When I mentor new DJs into my scene I try and get them to find their own voice, not to duplicate mine. I advocate for spending a lot of time learning what you appreciate as dance music, and thinking about what kind of DJ you want to be. I was privileged that at DJX people took time to help me with hardware and software, to encourage me in my more unusual musical choices, to remind me that it was ok to still have questions. I stepped to a level beyond where I thought I was with my music and I found that I could do the job – with a little help from my friends. When I bring in new DJs to the scene I try and listen to what they’re offering me in a set – I assume they’ve worked hard and thought generously about the kind of experience they want to give the floor.

 

Al three of these roles can hit highs and lows of being celebrated and de-valued by our community. It is awesome to be told “that was the best class in …. I’ve ever had!” and it sucks to have people take your material uncredited and – worse – teach it without the pedagogical care it needs to work. It is awesome to be recognized for a hell of a lot of invisible labour, and it sucks to be treated like you are always and forever on call for whatever needs doing. It is awesome to see a floor of people moving to your music, and it sucks when people assume that they can do exactly what you do just by hitting play on spotify or pandora. I’m writing this post from my own experience, but I want people to recognize and celebrate the work of all teachers, organizers and DJs. I want people to demand a high standard, and high skills from the people who facilitate our dance experience, and I want those skills to be recognized and compensated. I want to do more of all of these things.

 

Happy dancing!

 

p.s. It’s the end of the year, which means it’s nearly time for another Holiday Guide To Dancers – watch this space!

 

So Emotional – Survival Tactics and General Education

I decided to study dance, and I write this blog, in part because I think dance can make the world a better place. Four years into a PhD later I am still just as convinced of that truth, and I am beginning to get a much clearer picture of how.

Part One:

In the UK we narrow our subjects early: by 15 we have around 10, by 17 that’s dropped to three or four. At university I only studied one subject and that subject was dance, which sometimes made it hard to keep track of the rest of the world. At 17 the bane of everyone’s life was “General Studies” – the everything else class. The little bit of ecology, sociology, science, politics, art, and culture that was supposed to make you a well-rounded human being no-matter what three other subjects you happened to specialise in. The class where we learned to dissect a newspaper article and an advert, and covered a whole range of subjects with such appalling superficiality that it often didn’t feel like we were learning anything at all.

It wasn’t until I started to really care about politics that I realised how grateful I was for general studies. For far too long I let my ignorance about politics act as an excuse not to engage at all: “I don’t know very much, so it’s better for everyone if I just don’t take part. Right?” Of course I eventually worked out that people with a lot less knowledge than I had were taking part and making an absolute mess of it, and if I wanted anything to change I’d better get more knowledge quickly, and then I was glad to have been given at least a basic crash course, if not in everything I needed to know, at least a sort of rough outline of what I ought to start teaching myself, and some of the issues at stake. And then I moved to America and just about had to start all over again.

For the last year I have been, essentially, teaching a general studies class. American universities – I still haven’t learned to call them colleges – require their students to take a whole slew of subjects, but General Education is still considered necessary for them to come out as well-rounded human beings, hence my class, Dance in Popular Culture. At first I thought that teaching this class was impossible: there are more dance forms on the syllabus than there are class days in the semester, and each one needs to come with its appropriate cultural background and contextual awareness. How on earth do I give everything a fair hearing without flooding my students with information? How do I teach dance forms that are completely new to me? How do I teach the context and culture of representation across an entire century and actually make it matter?

So I spent a lot of time thinking about the point of general studies.

Part Two:

Earlier this year I was made suddenly and appallingly homeless. I am still very much not ok. I am, however deeply, unendingly thankful for the human who on almost no notice gave me a safe place to stay, and who introduced me, among other things, to RuPaul’s Drag Race, and to the drag queen Sasha Velour.

I had never quite got the hang of drag before, but Sasha’s queer aesthetic, her articulate, cerebral deconstruction of gender through juxtaposition and hyperbole, her…. Her everything…. I was instantly smitten. Her drag, and undeniably, the other queens of the series, had a politics with the potential to slay conservatism in its tracks, a fierce energy that grappled with gender, race, mind and body, and didn’t shy away from deep feeling. In the face of the assaults on human rights of the last year, and on humans, I wanted to be like Sasha Velour: I wanted to tear my hair off, I wanted to cry until rose petals shook from my skin, I wanted to get So Emotional.* And for the last year, and the last months, I have not been doing those things. I did my job, I found a new house, I carried on. I had not, until I saw it, come to terms with my need to have someone else doing those other things for me.

So I had to rethink what I thought about drag.

Part Three:

I’ve come to see general studies as the class where we teach survival. The stuff we think people need to know in order to make their way in the world around their vocations. What are the messages in media, and why should we care about them? In shifts of the law, what are we being taught about power and ownership, and how do those new structures impact us, and the people around us? Dance is an art, but it’s also a lens to look at the control and emancipation of bodies, and how the fight around that is being fought on small screens, on big screens, in clubs and in government chambers. I still can’t teach it all, but I now I hope that I’m delivering the content so that my students will be able to teach themselves the stuff that matters when it matters.

My students are awesome.

Drag is on my syllabus now, at my own insistence – we have collectively decided that gender needs to be general, not just specialist education.** We go from Paris is Burning to Voguing to Sasha Velour. We talk about signs of gender and sexuality and what pop culture tells us we’re supposed to want. We talk about the need for community, behaviours of belonging, and how we have a choice in what messages we take onto our bodies. We talk about these things briefly and lightly and with nowhere near enough time, and I make my peace with that. I will be sad to leave this class behind.

When we need to teach too much, and we need to know too much, and we live in a political environment where every aspect of our society is undergoing fundamental policy shift, we have to be able to deal with a flood of information. We have to become generalists as well as specialists. We have to teach, and know, too much, and we have to be able to do so in a way that is survivable, and that matters.

We need general education. We need monsters and freaks and rose petals. We need the tools to survive, and for me that is, unexpectedly drag. And teaching. And dance.

 

 

 

*I cannot find the Grand Final version of this song, which I would dearly love to link in here. If you know where it is (NOT the Nightgowns version), let me know!

 

 

Boys in Dance – Too Much of a Stretch?

A few months ago a colleague sent me a flyer for a dance conference, and I sat with this post and that flyer for a long time before I decided to write about it. The Male Dancer Conference was advertised as:

…a groundbreaking, educational and social event designed exclusively for male dancers. It features education, connection and conversation all designed to improve the present skills and future lives of male dancers. It stands as one of the only large-group, multidimensional events for male dancers to gather, learn, share, and connect. MDC participants leave as better dancers who feel enriched, empowered and connected to a community.”

Focusing on conversation, connection and education, the conference held supervised discussions, panels, classes and workshops for male dancers and the community around them, there were social activities, and a visit to the pop up shop boysdancetoo [sic]. Testimonials speak to how inspirational and empowering the experience was:

This conference filled a void in the dance world. Instead of summer intensives where our boy is the only male dancer or one of a few, this conference was all about them. It spoke to the emotional and physical demands of being a boy dancer. It was a much needed safe space for them to be their authentic selves. It was a community of friendship and support, for the boys as well as their parents. It was a nurturing and empowering four days and they all left stronger dancers (physically and emotionally) when it was over.”

…. The thing is, I’m not sure there IS a void in the dance world. Or at least, I’m not sure this attempt to address the gender imbalance in the dance world was quite the way I’d have wanted to center the conversation. This conference, and others like it, and the literature advertising boys dance classes (of which there are many) focuses on a problem of numbers:

“The male dancer has been present throughout history, but the significant lack of male dancers in the field has been and continues to be a question and a challenge. From early childhood dance and movement classes through secondary education and beyond, the dance world is faced with the question of how to attract more boys and men to the field. This problem is not limited to one genre of dance, age group, or country; the dilemma is global. This symposium seeks pragmatic solutions to address the dearth of male dancers in our studios, schools, and companies as students, professionals, and educators.” – Men In Dance: Bridging the Gap Conference

The common strategy for addressing the problem seems to be to design events for boys only, and for classes to focus on fitness, flexibility, and dance forms outside of feminine stereotypes. A dance created by men, for men, separate from “girl dance,” where (or so it seems) different skills are being learned in a way that will isolate, intimidate, and otherwise alienate the next generation of Baryshnikovs, Poulins, Wheeldons, and McGregors.

At the same time, the professional dance community is speaking out strongly about the lack of female representation all over the dance world, especially in creative and managerial roles. The appalling lack of female choreographers, and the disparate opportunities and funding offered to those who do try and make a name for themselves in contrast to their male counterparts is striking. The narrative of the oppressed, isolated male dancer who needs to be given resources and a chance might be sweet, but rippling up the field it becomes the same old glass ceiling, the same old grandfathering system, the same old privileging of male authority and creativity.

So what’s to be done?

The first question we HAVE to ask is: do boys need safe, isolated spaces, and is that the best way to make dance equally attractive to dancers of all genders?

Consider a world where dance was more about what you do than who does it. Consider classes that focused on skills like dance story telling; dance making; high energy, athletic dance; or fundamental dance technique, so that students could choose the outcomes, rather than the settings that interested them. Consider a dance class in which you weren’t immediately considered to be unique or different because of your gender – it happens in other clubs and classes all the time. While most codified, examined syllabi continue to differentiate students by gendered dress and vocabulary, other forms of dance are leading the way in terms or normalising mixed groups. In what ways could more codified dance forms address the divides in their teaching, rather than doubling down on the separation?

This ideal doesn’t take into account the cultural reality of homophobic attitudes to men in ballet, and the pervasive attitude that certain parts of dance are only for men and women – but isn’t that a belief we’re supposed to be working against? Alexei Ratmansky went on a particularly vicious screed this week along the lines of “men have the strength to lift and women have lines,” which is worth answering despite how beautifully and completely it was deconstructed by other dancers, because it shows some of the quieter, nastier beliefs at play in this logic: I have met a number of female dancers who could quite easily lift me in a full press, but the effects of that training on their bodies gave them a shape outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic. Are we ok with bodies outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic, and if we are, why can’t we teach them in a way that builds the development of muscle? What about adopting lifts from techniques that aren’t strength dependent, or lifts with more than one base? Why is so important that one man lifts one woman anyway? As to the belief that men don’t have lines… I invite my readers to post their favorite video in the comments that disproves that old chestnut.

Secondly, I’m not flat out opposed to Male Dancer conferences, or Boy’s Dance classes, especially as dance works to change its image in public consciousness. What I find appallingly absent is a discussion of male responsibility in a world where men hold a shockingly high degree of power and privilege, as well as (frequently) control over the physical safety of their partners’ bodies. If we are teaching boys that they hold a different position in the dance world, what are we teaching them to do with that position, and how are we teaching them to view those it’s not offered to?

Here are a few examples of male dancers taking responsibility in my life:

  • Seeing my love of flight, and deliberately going across the floor with me so we could enjoy a mutual challenge of strength and power.
  • Insisting I be allowed into “boys” classes.
  • Offering to teach me “male” repertoire.
  • Creating pieces where the repertoire wasn’t gendered at all.
  • Letting me base them.
  • Showing up to pas de deux classes and learning how to dance both roles.
  • Seeking my advice on how to do both roles better.
  • Inviting me to give my perspective in classes they were teaching.
  • Comparing contracts with me so we could check we were being hired for the same wages.
  • Recognising and speaking openly about their advantages as male dancers.
  • Telling people who reached out to hire them “Actually, Fen has more experience.”

Yes, you read me right, I have had male dancers in my life turn down work because they felt it was being offered to them unfairly over their female colleagues, and in some cases over me. It’s weird, but that behaviour meant that institutions and companies had to take a step back and think about why they were offering that job in the first place. I’m not telling people to turn down jobs they’ve worked hard for, or that they’re bad if they don’t. I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong to have one man lifting one woman. But we do have to think about how dance reflects wider patterns of gender discrimination in the professional world, as much as it holds the potential to subvert those patterns.

The dance communities I’m part of work hard to challenge the notion that gender defines our role as dancers, and the kinds of opportunity that are offered to us. There is a massively long way to go. But if we are going to create isolated spaces for boys and men to learn what it is to be a dancer, we ought to be taking a long, hard think about the kinds of dancers, and people, we’re teaching them to be in those spaces, and how they relate to the rest of the world when they come out.

 

 

Cats, Carrots, and Teaching through Shame

I am trying, and failing, to get my cat to stay off the kitchen counters.

She is a fluffy, spoiled, ginger princess who has never quite got a handle on the whole “no means no” thing, let alone the “no means no now, and also no in every conceivable instance where you might want to do this in the future” thing. She is reluctantly getting better at the distinction between cat food and people food, and polite manners if you want to share someone’s bed, but the counters remain our biggest battleground.

Half the problem is her sweet temper, which seems to shrug of any attempt at discipline. She never bites or claws. But no raised voice, spritz of water, time out in a closet, loud noise nor any other disincentive seems to put the slightest check on her desire to snuggle and love… or her desire to be on the counters.

And yes, part of the problem is me. I am no disciplinarian. From small children to large children to adults to cats, there are some strategies I just don’t want to employ. I don’t want my cat to ever have reason to be afraid of me, and so I won’t teach a lesson through fear.

Which finally brings me to the point of this blog post, which has been germinating for a few weeks know in response to the pronouncement of one of my very smart colleagues. We were looking at an unsuccessful pedagogical instance (which I will not describe), and trying to pin down why it had failed: “It wasn’t the lesson taught that was ever the problem.” My colleague said, “It was the fact that it was taught through shame.”

Teaching through fear. Teaching through shame. In the dance classroom we’re no strangers to these strategies. Stereotypically it’s ramrod ballet mistresses who do the worst damage, particularly around size/food and yes, I met that problem… and I also met the ballet teacher who taught me how to think better than that. But while we can all imagine how shame and fear might be mobilised in that scenario, a more complex problem arises in the tangling of academia and ethics going on in humanities classrooms, and I want to think about how shame and fear are coming into play in the shaping of student’s beliefs about themselves and the world.

For those of you outside of dance in academia, let me back up a little and say that dance is providing the language and techniques for some of the best social scholarship being done at the moment. You’re probably familiar with the term “social justice movement;” what is the choreography of that movement? When a politician makes an ineffective gesture, what shape did they attempt to trace on the world, and why was it interrupted? How has dance been used to represent culture, and how could it challenge the representations that do harm?

So in dance classrooms, and especially dance theory classrooms, there’s a weight given to certain beliefs and attitudes, and certain conclusions that get implied in scholarship. Those conclusions are not bad. They are often demonstrably true. At other times they are more tenuous, or have holes themselves. But when we encounter students who do not already share those conclusions, there’s a temptation to skip the demonstration of the facts and jump right to the “but why don’t you know this already” teaching that’s extra dangerous now because it involves a value judgement about someone’s ethics.

From the opposite perspective, students face massive obstacles to critical thinking in these areas where scholarship and ethics intertwine, because there are certain question they’re afraid to ask their professors. A challenge to knowledge can all too easily become a challenge to ethics and a challenge to personhood – are we being clear about where we’re drawing the line?

An example from my own career: a few years ago I taught a group of students in their 20s who claimed to have never heard the term “patriarchy.” I really hope that the “Dear Lord, really?” didn’t show on my face as I put my lesson aside for a while to go over that term. Maybe it didn’t, because as I discussed household gender values a student interrupted me to point out that “actually, in my experience of Jamaican households and neighbourhoods the power structure looks very different to that.” I’m glad that I was young enough and unsure enough to admit the incompleteness of my argument then. I also wonder whether my students would point out that additional perspective now.

In a liberal climate, my identity categories mean that I am rarely told to check my privilege, and on a lot of subjects my experiential knowledge is accepted as a kind of truth. But I don’t want my students to accept things because I say so, or because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t. I want them to have the tools to decide for themselves whether something is valid, and yes, I hope that often our views will align. On a very basic level, I want them to do homework because they believe it will help them with school and the world, not because failing to do it will result in funding, security, or future opportunities being taken away. I want them to speak up in class because the material is interesting, rather than because they don’t want to fail on a participation grade. I’d rather teach with carrot than stick.

In the outside world, where I also teach dance, the same logic applies. Our organisation expects people to dance in ways that make their partners feel uncomfortable, and that is why we have a safety policy: so that teachers and organisers can fix people’s technique and make that happen less. What that policy is not is a statement of what all good, decent people should be doing automatically, and anyone who falls outside it is a terrible human being. In my learning-to-dance trajectory I have accidentally grabbed breasts, dipped myself against my partner’s consent, knocked people flying… and I am in CHARGE of dance safety on my scene, in part because I’m good at judging when someone is still learning, and when someone has learned that it’s fun to cross lines. My ideal is when I can tell someone that the way they’re holding me is hurting, have them change their grip, and still happily ask to dance with me again 20 minutes later.

In the outside outside world, where I happen to live as a human being, my pronoun is often a cause for contention, and other people feeling ashamed. I wish that weren’t the case. Yes, I wish they’d get the pronoun right, but I also think they’d be more likely to get it right, and less defensive about their mistakes, if they could feel calm about what the consequences of a mistake would be. Hugs and high fives and thanks the first few times they get it right are, I’ve found, not a bad way to start the switch from stick to carrot, and I’ve had all sorts of people ask me all kinds of cool gender questions as a result. (I don’t always have time or energy to answer, but that’s another matter).

I am by no means perfect, especially just after I’ve watched the news. A few weeks ago a dear cis friend said something about queerness and I snapped back “well that’s just factually wrong.” Luckily we know each other well enough that after a break to breathe we could come back to the conversation, and listen to the point being made and why it might or might not work in context. I’m glad that my abrupt closure of the discussion – shame is a really quick way to shut down a discussion – wound up not preventing that. I need spaces in my life where I am not playing teacher, and where I can yell and judge and be angry to my heart’s content. I know there will be consequences for that anger if I let if fly at the wrong place and time. I’m glad I have people around me who can forgive me when I do.

Yes, this is all a very idealistic perspective. As John Molyneux says, the argument that there’s always some right on both sides is, in itself, a bias that there are only two sides, and the truth is always split between them. That’s just factually wrong. A lot of things are. Ignorance, however innocent, does not have the same rhetorical validity as truth, and I am not arguing that it does. Nor am I pretending that people don’t go into situations wanting to create shame, fear, and other bad feelings of their own, they do.

But in classrooms, where we’re trying to prepare students for the world, I’m trying to be extra careful about the persuasive strategies I employ as models for how people might go out and persuade others. I try not to make it so that the views I value most highly are the ones that make my students feel afraid. I ask myself: if the only way I have to teach this viewpoint is shame or fear, why do I believe in it? If the only way I have to teach this viewpoint is by making my students feel shame and fear, is it really a lesson I want to teach?

Ask a PhD Dancer – Dance in Schools

Happy New Year everyone!

I’m glad that so many of you liked my holiday post, I hope some of you also found it useful. A lot of us are going back to school right now, so this month’s question is for all of the teachers out there. Just to remind you that if you would like to ask my a question to be answered on the blog, you can submit it here.

Name: Bennett

Age: 27

Occupation: Teacher

Dancing is part of the curriculum here in the UK, so it’s something all kids have to take part in. How would you recommend encouraging kids who are embarrassed by their dance skills or lack thereof? Their embarrassment tends to lead to shy, unfinished movements, which look worse than if they just flailed wildly but got the movement wrong. Thanks, and love the blog!

 

This is a a great question, and one that never seems to go away, whatever age group you have to be teaching, including professional dancers! I’m going to break down the problem a little bit first, and then I’ll move on to some exercises and examples that may help in your lessons.

Firstly: there’s a ton of cultural baggage around that tells us that only certain people are supposed to dance, or that some kinds of dance are better than others. Even really young kids have probably come across some kind of hierarchy of dance, and have placed themselves inside it, even if that place is as rebelling against it (whoop!). This means that when you show kids examples of dancing, it’s important not to go with videos that reinforce those false stereotypes of who can do what. Stop showing videos of Swan Lake and saying “this is ballet.” Sure, it’s one kind, but this is ballet too, and you don’t need to say that it’s “contemporary ballet,” or “modern ballet” or any of the other little qualifiers that suggest that the only REAL ballet is white and 100 years old. Show them Hip hop. Show them DV8. Show them Bharatanatyam. Set up a world in which virtuosity comes in a million different styles – because that’s the truth.

Secondly: But wait! Slow down! I just want kids to dance, and I don’t want them to compare themselves to professionals of ANY kind in case I intimidate them!

Yes, totally valid point, but I still believe in the power of examples. There a a ton of people out there making work on dancers with little to no professional training. If you want to show your kids that you can make a dance like that, then this is one of my favourite exampes, and also something you could replicate in your own classroom: have kids make up just two seconds of movement. Any movement. What happens when they string them together?*

* That’s not at all how this film was made, but it could be the basis for that kind of exercise very easily.

One last point before I get onto actual exercises: what do you mean by skills? There are so many different kinds of dance out there, that it’s totally possible to get two professional dancers together and have them have NO overlapping skill sets bar the rich desire to move. Rhythm. Balance. Flexibility. Performing for the audience. You name it and I will find you a kind of dance where you don’t need it. This doesn’t mean to say that having a set of skills you’d like to teach is a bad thing, it just means you should decide what those skills are and make them really explicit. Otherwise, your kids are going to imagine that you’re playing into those terrible false hierarchies that we mentioned before: I can’t dance because I’m not bendy, I can’t dance because I’m not thin enough, I can’t dance because… no, you just have to find the ways you can dance and learn how to kick butt with them.

Skills you might want to inculcate:

  • Listening and responding to music.
  • Sharing movement with others.
  • Transforming images and ideas into movement.
  • Moving with lots of different parts of the body.
  • Being able to plan and execute a series of moves.

So how do you set up that kind of classroom? Here, in no particular order, are some ideas you might like to try. As always, I welcome suggestions in the comments.

  1. Let kids people their own moves. One of my favourite warm ups is to get people in a circle, put some music on, and let them take turns suggesting moves to do. You can go round the circle and get everyone to try it: dance back the move that someone suggests, get people to make it bigger and smaller, do it in slow-mo, or really really fast – show that whatever they do is valid, and suitable material for making dance with. Encourage whooping and cheering.
  2. Rather than prescribing shapes, moves and poses for people to follow, get them to experiment with ideas. One very wonderful class idea is just get people to find all the ways that they can draw circles with their body. Or straight lines. Choose your three favouite ways and string them together into a dance. Other ideas (and I’m stealing from some other great teachers here) might be: how can they hide bits of themselves, or show them; what is the smallest thing they can do, or the biggest; can they draw a picture in the space without using their hands…. the thing all these ideas have in common is that they don’t ask you to BE something i.e. to represent a thing, because that tends to make people think of right and wrong ways to do it. Instead, they are tasks and problems that can be solved in an infinite variety of ways.
  3. Start small. Yes, gross body movements are easier for people to see and replicate, but they’re also the furthest outside a lot of people’s comfort zones. Can you make up a dance just with facial expressions? Just with hand gestures?  Sit on the floor and show them to your friend. Show them that details are great.
  4. Learn to share. Mirror each other, swap moves and string them together, play the telephone game where you take someone’s move, adapt it and pass it on to the next person. Make it less about performing for an audience than about collaborating and working together.

Resources:

Bring in someone with dance training whenever you can. Someone who knows the breadth of dance well enough to pull out an exercise to suit your kids, rather than the person who will try and make them do what they know.

William Forsythe has a great series of Improvisation Technologies, although if you’re teaching young kids then you will need to watch them yourself and parse them out with much simpler language. There are some great visuals in that play list, and underneath the complexity are some basic tasks that even little kids can use to make movement easily, and which I use all the time.

Wayne McGregor also has a series of Choreographic Thinking Tools with a few sample lesson plans. The language is simpler than the Forsythe, but I found that you had to have a chunk of movement to work with before they became really effective.

 

I hope that somewhere in here is something you can use for your classes, and I wish all of you teachers a wonderful spring term!