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!

A Holiday Guide to Dancers

It’s that wonderful time of the year: presents have been received; the carols have finished, and now comes long stretch of parties and socialising that lasts until the New Year. Here at the headtail connection we know that dancers can be difficult to entertain. We don’t like to sit down. We often have cruel and unusual dietary requirements. But most of all, we’re really hard to talk to.

I know there are plenty of people reading this blog who know, in the very depths of their soul, that this festive season their job will be reduced to a comparative analysis of So You Think You Can Dance. Again. You’ll have relatives who can’t differentiate your successes from your failures, and friends who think your backbreaking job is the last phase of an extended hobby.

Never Fear!

This year, all you have to do in advance is present your friends and family with this handy hosting guide.

Those of you here in a panic because you have a dancer coming to dinner, this is your one stop solution to stress-free entertaining: simply work out what kind of dancer you’re dealing with (spotter’s tips included), and follow these very easy prompts.

Ballet Dancerindex1

Look out for: standing on one foot while the other sticks turned-out to the side.

Wearing: a draping cardigan and heels.

Most likely to be eating: very very fast.

Favourite tipple: white wine.

Ideal Gift: pointe shoes.

 

Conversation Starters

Bad: Do you have to watch your weight over Christmas?

Better: What are you excited about in the repertoire this season?

Best: What do you think we should do about the lack of female choreographers?

 

Contemporary Dancerinvertigo550

Look out for: contact improvisation with the furniture.

Wearing: stretch fabric and leggings.

Most likely to be eating: gluten free.

Favourite tipple: artisanal beer.

Ideal Gift: studio space.

 

Conversation Starters

Bad: So what is contemporary dance?

Better: Whose work should I introduce myself to this year?

Best: How do you think the London/New York dance scene compares with Europe?

 

Academic Dancer index

Look out for: raiding your bookshelves.

Wearing: eye bags and a great scarf.

Most likely to be eating: vegetarian.

Favourite tipple: red wine.

Ideal Gift: ask to read their work.

 

Conversation Starters

Bad: Can you actually get a PhD in dance?

Better: What good books have you read recently?

Best: What’s the best use of interdisciplinary methods you’ve seen this year?

 

Dance Teacherdance_teacher_mug

Look out for: absently-mindedly marking steps with hands.

Wearing: accessories with a school logo.

Most likely to be eating: at all hours.

Favourite tipple: gin.

Ideal Gift: a spotify subscription.

 

Conversation Starters

Bad: Don’t you just wish you were performing?

Better: What are you proud of in your students this year?

Best: I hate that dance is losing ground as part of education, how could we do that better?

 

Swing Dancer7430eef44971a83cef30dfc6e499cf82

Look out for: bouncing in seat whenever anything with a swung rhythm comes on.

Wearing: vintage.

Most likely to be eating: paleo.

Favourite tipple: whiskey.

Ideal Gift: event passes.

 

Conversation Starters

Bad: Aren’t there better ways to get a man?

Better: When was your last exchange?

Best: Could you swing out to this?

 

Happy holidays readers!

 

If you’ve got another dancer you want to add to the guide, please leave suggestions in the comments.

Ask a PhD Dancer – Research

Happy Christmas readers! Today we have a question from Ask a PhD Dancer. I’m always happy to get questions about dance and what I do, and if you’ve got something for me, just follow the link at the top of the screen.

Name: Leila

Age: 20

Occupation: Student

Hi, my name is Leila and I just started a blog on dance not too long ago. I’m still a student and a dance major. I’ve been doing a lot of research into dance history along with cultural and social aspects of the dance world (especially how feminism and politics cross with dance) that aren’t heavily covered in dance research. (I’m at a research university so I basically just live on the free database in my free time.)
I was wondering how research is done for the period immediately after post-modern dance. I hear references to post, post modernism (which seems silly) but I don’t quite understand how periods are separated within the modern dance realm. I just recently saw this blog and loved it. My professor comes from a Laban background and he’s always yelling at me for the “head-tail connection.” The title is well chosen for the blog.

 

Hi Leila, and thank you for writing!

Separating dance into periods can be really useful, especially when you’re trying to draw links between dance and other genres of art/literature/history, although dance tends not to line up very well, and like you said, we get a bit stuck for names once postmodernism finishes.

A note on hyphens: some people use post-modern to mean “in reaction to modern,” and postmodern to mean “with artistic tendencies of integration and bricolage that go beyond structuralist values.” Other people use both terms interchangeably, and most professors have a preference for one or the other. Putting a definition around modernism and postmodernism is a whole different blog post. Or a book. Or several books. A general rule of thumb is that if it’s formal, dance-heavy, and draws on archetypes, it’s more modern, and if it’s about personal exploration, or the layering of many different ideas/abstractions, it’s more postmodern.

Now let’s actually answer you question: how is research done for postmodern dance? It’s a great question, especially because it means I get to recommend lots of books! … Did I mention that I love books?

In roughly the 1980s the academic world took a “cultural turn,” and started looking at how cultural and social factors affected how we perceive and understand the world. Dance took that turn really really hard, focussing particularly on the performance of race and gender. It sounds from your letter like you’re already happily going down that road too.

Now we’re going through a period that I’ve heard called “the performative turn” which asks how things on stage acquire meaning, and how works of art, and documents of works of art can have different kinds of meanings. If you want an example of how that works ask yourself:

  • What sort of things am I learning in the rehearsal studio, and how can I talk about them?
  • Does a performance always require living bodies, or can video/virtual reality allow for “live” performance?
  • How can we understand what audiences saw in the past, and what experience they have now?

Depending on your particular interests, one of these questions is probably more exciting to you than the others. If you liked the first question, then I highly recommend Robin Nelson’s Practice as Research in the Arts, and Vida Midgelow and Sarah Bacon’s article on the Creative Articulations Process. If the second question is more your style, try Entangled by Chris Salter or – if you have the cash kicking around – one of the best books I’ve read recently is Perform, Record, Repeat by Amelia Jones. Susan Foster’s Choreographing History would be a good start towards the third question, as would any of the books on intertextuality; if you wanted to look at audiences in particular periods and how culture affected them, try Kate Elswit’s Watching Weimar Dance or Susan Manning’s Modern Dance, Negro Dance.

I’m sure that you’ve heard of some of these books already, and I hope that helps point you towards what you’re interested in. Thanks very much for writing!

 

Fenella

In Three Sentences… Intertextuality

We understand what things mean in reference to things that we have seen before.

We can see references made intentionally if we have a shared background of references.

But our unique collection of references can also lead us to whole new conversations and interpretations.

Intertextuality is one of my favourite ways of tracking meaning in a particular work – be it dance or writing – and opens up ways for linking ideas across time and mediums. Films are particularly big on making intertextual references, as this collection from Pixar will prove:

Intertextuality Reading List

Janet (Adshead) Lansdale: Dancing Texts: Intertextuality in Interpretation (well-written dance text)

… in fact most of the other texts I want to recommend are by Lansdale. Folks outside of dance, do you have any recommendations from your field?

The Aviary

A treat for you today everyone! Back in October I choreographed an installation with a wonderful group of dancers. Here are some of the highlights of that evening.

Music: Music: Zoe Keating, BBC Sounds of Spring, David Attenborough Paradise Birds. Mix by Fenella Kennedy.
Dancers: Emma Acheson, Marissa Ajamian, Anthony Milian, Paige St. John, Marissa Thomas

The Aviary is intended to be a long installation, and was limited in this performance by both space and time. This film shows the most theatrical end of the spectrum that the choreography could occupy, while in my head this piece lives outdoors in a zoo-like structure and takes about an hour. The improvisation scores used in this performance are based on instructions from ballet classes, and things you can do with pointe shoes. I encourage you when you watch to consider the alien, feathered dinosaurs that are both birds and ballet dancers.

Is Free Speech Created Equal?

Today was the third time this year that anti-abortion protesters have been invited to host demonstrations in my university. This may seem an unlikely subject for a dance blog, and for those of you who want to skip this post we will be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon, I promise. But this blog is my professional platform, and the university is my professional home; my colleagues, and my students are being affected. As a dancer I deal with bodies, and there are (as one of my professors would put it) “bodies on the line.”

The group in question is Created Equal, an organisation that sends protestors, literature, graphic displays and giant TV screens to universities and towns across the United States. They are not a university group; they are a collection of people dedicated to using shock tactics to spread a nationwide political agenda. The first time I saw them on campus I tried to get them removed by security, only to find that they had full permission to be present, rationalised as “free speech.”

Unfortunately, the terms of free speech do not quite apply here: the university requires external organisations to get permission to use the grounds, which means that somewhere in the administrative chain someone has looked at what this group stands for, decided it seems like a good idea, and offered them university space to continue their work. I believe this also makes the university complicit (at least tacitly) in the tactics used by Created Equal to do that work, which include harassment, invasion of privacy, and causing deep fear and anguish among the student and faculty populations.

I will clarify now: this post is not for me to argue my position on abortion. Instead I want to state my heartfelt objection to the way one particular stance has been promoted in university space, and with university backing.

To begin with, Created Equal’s protests are in the centre of campus grounds, and obstruct the majority of students on their way to and from class, home, and other resources. This means that when walking across campus you have no choice but to see the violent, bloody images on signs and screens, which are a regular feature of these demonstrations. You must pass through a scowling army of volunteers who try and interview you – some of the volunteers are women, some men, and some just teenage boys.

I won’t belabour the nauseous horror induced by that particular gauntlet, but suffice to say that it’s not something anyone should have walk through just to get to class.

Secondly, Created Equal volunteers are all equipped with cameras on body harnesses. I don’t know if these are video or still, but I do know that they record images of students without their consent, and threaten anyone who objects to their presence with a warning that those images will be spread around. A superbly brave collection of students who staged a counter-protest during the first visit, found that exercising their – actual – right to free speech (students may use campus grounds without applying for permission) resulted in harassment from which they were not protected. One student was asked if she would “drown a two year-old,” and said that Created Equal seemed determined to provoke them into an emotional reaction.

It’s also worth noting that Created Equal did not target the university’s own counselling staff, who came down in their own free time when notified of what was going on. Created Equal does not want to engage in debate, or convince others of their position with logic – their primary methods are bullying and intimidation, backed up by a known history of violence towards those who disagree with their stance.

When students first protested the presence of Created Equal on campus, they were promised a number of protections: a warning that Created Equal would be on campus, and privacy corridors for getting to class. Neither of those measures were in place at any of this year’s protests. If the university will not stop this group from coming it should, at the very least, allow students to avoid them.

But why does the university continue to allow them to come? This group deliberately sets out to horrify/intimidate/traumatise students, photographs or films them without permission, and threatens those who try to stand up to them. They spread information that is demonstrably untrue, and have no official representation inside the student body.

My final consideration is that this university has a young population, but nevertheless it is a population who may already have had to make difficult choices about their lives and bodies, or may have to make those choices in future. The goal of an educational establishment should be to serve that population with the best information available for its wellbeing, and the university should therefore be making sure that it promotes the best knowledge available, in an atmosphere where students can think, discuss, and use that knowledge without fear.

I have prioritised logic over feeling in writing this post, because I hope that will help those who do not empathise with my feelings at least understand my argument. Nevertheless I am shocked and appalled at what I had to walk through today. I have deep gratitude for those who have attempted to mitigate the impact of this unwanted incursion into our space. I feel betrayal at how the university is shielding Created Equal behind a tenuous justification of free speech, but turning its back on the students it should be educating and keeping safe.