Higher Ed


Every other year in August, a crowd of people gathers at Vedauwoo, a popular rock-climbing area outside of Laramie, Wyoming. They tilt their heads up, not to gawk at climbers, but to watch dancers hanging from ropes and harnesses as they perform against the curtain of a 200-foot rock face. Pushing off the rocks, the dancers strike poses in the air, flip over each other and move gracefully up and down the rock face. The scene, a combination of fluid choreography and natural grandeur, is stunning.

 

The biannual performance is put on by the University of Wyoming’s vertical dance program, a unique two-course sequence started in 1999 by geology and geophysics professor Neil Humphrey and Margaret Wilson, an assistant professor in dance. Together, Humphrey and Wilson teach students the basics of vertical (or aerial) dance, a form that features dancers suspended in the air performing traditional dance vocabulary. While some UW dancers who complete the program may go on to specialize in vertical dance, Wilson and Humphrey’s ultimate goal is to make the students better all-around performers, even when they’re firmly on the ground.

 

The seeds for the program were planted in 1995, when Humphrey, who had begun studying dance recreationally with Wilson, staged a flying scene in the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After the show, Humphrey went on to study vertical dance at the Project Bandaloop workshop at the Banff Arts Center in British Columbia. He attended in 1998, and upon his return teamed up with Wilson and director Rebecca Hilliker to stage a play at Vedauwoo that incorporated vertical dance. It was so well-received, and the students who participated were so enthusiastic, that Humphrey and Wilson easily convinced the university’s department of theater and dance to begin formally offering vertical dance.

 

The program consists of two one-credit classes: Vertical I, which is offered every spring semester, and Vertical II, which is offered every three or four years depending on interest and Wilson and Humphrey’s availability. Although there aren’t formal requirements to enroll, preference is given to dance majors.

 

Over the course of 16 sessions, Vertical I students learn how to use the equipment—including belay devices, static and dynamic ropes, pulleys and harnesses—required for vertical dance. (While some vertical dance companies use silk or ribbon, the UW program focuses solely on ropes and harnesses, so that the dancers don’t have to worry about interacting with and controlling other equipment.) Once they master equipment safety, they learn to dance while suspended. During the 16 sessions of Vertical II, students begin to experiment with choreography for different types of rigging.

 

In Vertical I, Wilson and Humphrey start by attaching ropes to the top of a theater grid and suspend the students just a few feet off the ground. They teach students basic movements, such as V-sits and planks. “They work with these to find the form,” Wilson says. Then they ask the students to move from one position to another trying new directions, dynamics and transitions. Not only does this help them get comfortable with their feet off the ground, it also requires that they use their dance knowledge.

 

“They are learning a lot about their bodies in the process,” Wilson says. “What works on the ground does not always work in the air, and if they just focus on the transition, they discover for themselves that they are moving in new and different ways.”

 

When the dancers become more confident on the rope, they climb to a higher position or lower themselves down from the catwalk onto ropes, where they work on movement ideas with a partner. “They create their own movement sequences,” Wilson explains, “because we have found that if they are problem-solving on the rope, they not only extend their vocabulary, but they are more comfortable as well.”

 

As the dancers gain competence in the air, they strengthen their back and abdominal muscles and develop a greater spatial awareness and understanding of their bodies, which enhances their performance in their other dance classes.

 

Though most Vertical I and II students are dancers, Humphrey says one of the first things they must understand is the different relationship to the audience.

 

“I have to remind them that as soon as you are lifted up in space, the audience has no idea where they should be looking,” he says. “On the ground, you typically know where the audience is relative to your body. In rope work, your orientation is often random—your feet may be pointing straight at the audience.”

 

Humphrey and Wilson emphasize the importance of using the whole body, making sure that every movement extends from the feet to the hands to the expressions on their faces. That way, “even if your back is the most visible body part,” Wilson says, “the audience sees you fully performing.” This  carries over to their regular dance studies as well, where the vertical dancers often appear to have more confidence.

 

Whether she ends up dancing on the ground or in the air, recent UW graduate Mary Alex Floyd says her vertical dance experience has had a tremendous impact on her. “Dancing on the ground is easier, and so is losing balance,” she says. “I am less afraid to try anything.” DT

 

Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

 

Photo: Performing at the Vedauwoo rock-climbing area (by Skip Harper, courtesy the University of Wyoming)

How-To

A small high school in the Bronx offers students a complete dance curriculum.

Before the school day begins, Lisa Clark is already hard at work with students.

At 7:45 am on a Wednesday, Lisa Clark’s classroom is flooded with sunlight and filled with nearly 20 freshmen. The students—all of whom are at Clark’s optional “zero period” open rehearsal—are practicing a piece about a pack of lionesses hunting a phoenix. Leaping and running in a large circle around her, the students concentrate on perfecting their arm placement and pointing their toes as they spring forward, trying to avoid colliding with one another. “I love it when you figure it out for yourself!” Clark cheers.

Clark’s classroom is the sole dance studio at the High School for Violin and Dance (HSVD), one of four small public schools on the South Bronx Morris campus. The school was founded in 2002, after the Morris HS campus was divided into smaller schools in an effort to improve lagging graduation rates. HSVD was created to provide students with a more intimate learning environment that allows for individualized attention, and to expose minority and low-income Bronx students to the performing arts. (Each of the four small schools has a unique focus, such as developing leadership skills or enhancing cultural awareness.) All HSVD freshmen take violin and dance—the two passions of the school’s founders—and, by the end of their first year, are selected by the performing arts teachers to major in one or both, based on interest and skill level.

Clark, the dance program’s head and only full-time teacher, has long been involved with arts education, including work with the New York State Alliance for Arts Education and the Bronx Council on the Arts. She has taught students from various backgrounds, but HSVD provided a new challenge: Students who wish to attend HSVD submit an application (though they don’t have to audition) and most students who enter the school have no formal experience in dance or music. “I am in a community of kids who love hip hop,” Clark says. “I knew they could dance, but I thought they needed to be exposed to a broader, more classical platform as well.” Over the four years she has taught at HSVD, she has developed a rigorous program that both provides technical training and instills a love of dance.

In addition to a regular academic course load, freshmen take an hour each of violin and dance four or five days a week. Clark teaches freshmen ballet to provide the groundwork that will help them learn other styles. The students begin at the barre, learning the traditional progression from pliés through battements. By the end of the first month, she says students start to understand the way the steps work together. She then begins talking about placement, balance, timing and vocabulary, and she supplements their physical practice with in-class lessons about dance history, nutrition and stretching.

By sophomore year, roughly half of the school’s 259 students have become dance majors and begin a more structured curriculum of lyrical and Graham, Dunham and Horton techniques. With the fundamentals of ballet and modern under their belts, juniors move on to jazz and hip hop, and seniors learn tap, clogging, African and Irish step dancing.

Though Clark’s curriculum provides a classical framework, she also emphasizes creativity, particularly with her freshman classes. “I allow them to come in and do their own choreographing because I want to saturate them with dance,” she says. “They can just create. I’m not worried about if their feet are pointed or if their backs are straight.” It is this aspect of Clark’s approach that comes across most clearly in her studio. She allows her students to be silly at times, encourages them to have fun and lets them contribute choreography ideas. By giving the students the freedom to express themselves and take ownership of their classroom experience, she has developed a strong connection with the young dancers.

Assistant Principal Franklin Sim notes the influence this relationship has on the students’ academic success. “Students need someone they connect to in the school, some purpose to drive them to want to be here,” he says. “The arts department provides those opportunities for a lot of our students.” Before the Morris campus was divided into smaller schools, the graduation rate was 25 percent. Today, Sim says that over 80 percent of HSVD students graduate.

Clark’s zero period gives her students extra time to rehearse. She also schedules informal monthly performances for each class and, twice a month, takes her students to see dance performances around the city—everything from New York City Ballet’s Swan Lake to the Trisha Brown Dance Company. “The more they are exposed to dance,” Clark says, “the more they are going to understand that it is bigger than the classroom.”

Her efforts have paid off. Despite their relatively late introduction to dance, Clark’s students have received scholarships from Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center, the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and Young Dancemakers, and some have gone on to college dance programs. And although Clark always has an eye out for her students’ futures, posting audition opportunities in her hallway, holding mock auditions and working before and after school to fine-tune their technique, she ultimately measures her success by the students’ deep connection with dance. “They can’t stop,” she says. “They’re moving through the hallway dancing. They tell me they’ve been dancing all weekend and thinking about choreography, and they say, “Miss Clark, I practiced and I got it.’” DT

 

Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.

Photo by Abby Margulies

How-To

Bevalie Pritchard and her daughter, Erin (circled), in class

You’re teaching a ballet class, and things are getting out of hand. Everyone is talking, no one is trying hard enough—and to make matters worse, your own daughter is the ringleader, talking over your instructions and refusing to take your corrections seriously. She is almost single-handedly derailing your lesson plan.

 

Teaching your own child can be a challenging task. Many parent-teachers struggle to find the balance between being the mother of a child whose skills they are uniquely proud of and being the teacher of a classroom filled with students they have to treat equally. But a few key strategies can make the pleasure of teaching your child far outweigh the added stress.

 

Teacher vs. Mom

 

For mothers who double as teachers, the first step toward avoiding conflict is helping your child differentiate between you in “teacher mode” and you in “mom mode.” Mary Price Boday, an associate professor at Oklahoma City University’s Ann Lacey School of American Dance and Arts Management and the coordinator of the school’s American Dance Teacher Pedagogy Program, suggests beginning when the child is young with a conversation that draws the distinction between you as mother and you as teacher. “Explain to your daughter that she is one of the students, and when she’s in the room it’s not mommy and daughter anymore, it’s teacher and student,” Boday says. “Mommy and daughter time is afterwards.” In fact, scheduling a specific “mommy-daughter” outing soon after class—a trip to the ice cream stand or the bookstore—can help younger children differentiate between “teacher mom” and “mom mom.” Bevalie Pritchard, the school mistress and principal teacher at the Orlando Ballet School, found this method to be highly successful when teaching her two daughters. “Eventually, they separated me as mommy from me as teacher, almost as if I were two different people,” she says.

 

Separate, But Not Equal

 

Isolation from peers is also common among the children of dance teachers, because it is hard for them to define themselves as individuals in their mother’s presence. Boday had trouble with her daughter who, as a teenager, developed an attitude about the other students in class. “Our late-night dinner conversations would be my daughter asking what was wrong with everyone else in the class,” Boday says. “‘Why didn’t you correct this? Why didn’t you try to fix that?’ She kept herself separated from all the other students because of it.”

 

According to Boday, children of dance teachers often feel overshadowed by their parents, and they have a tendency to think that things should go their way because they are the teacher’s child. In this case, Boday eased that tension by explaining the rationale behind when and how she made corrections in class. “I told my daughter that if I corrected every single thing that every single person did wrong, nobody would get anything done and everyone would have a flattened ego,” Boday says. “So I picked only the most important things to correct.” Boday also suggests preventing isolation from peers by making the rules the same for everybody and sticking to them. “It’s not always possible, but if you can, make it so that everyone has the same part and no one is going to be a soloist,” says Boday. “That way it’s easier for your child to feel equal to the other students, and they in turn don’t view your child as a threat or someone they are jealous of.”

 

Look at Me! Look at Me!

 

That same need to define themselves as individuals can also cause teacher’s children to engage in attention-seeking behaviors. Tracy Solomon, director of The Dothan School of Dance, found this was the case with her daughter Ashlie. “Ashlie wanted to be friends with everybody,” says Solomon. “But it was hard for her because I was there in class clamping down on her. She would resent that and, as retaliation, disobey the rules.” On one particularly harrowing day, Solomon asked Ashlie to leave class because she was disrupting the barre routine. A few minutes later, Solomon looked out the window and saw that Ashlie was right outside of the studio, ostentatiously continuing her barre on the porch.

 

For Solomon, the problem was frustrating on a number of levels. Not only did Ashlie misbehave so frequently that Solomon had to ask her to leave class at least once a week, but Solomon was also disappointed by the fact that Ashlie was wasting time making scenes and therefore not living up to her potential. “I expected her to be everything that I knew she could be, and when she would clown around or not try a hundred percent, it would really ruffle my feathers,” Solomon says. “It was hard to treat her the same as any other child because my expectations for her were higher.”

 

Boday acknowledges the difficulty of tempering your expectations for your child and recommends actively “checking” yourself as a parent. “You have to have a mental conversation with yourself,” says Boday. “Say, ‘I’m invested in every student that walks through the door.’ You have to give each and every person the same amount of yourself, your child included.”

 

Solomon found that giving Ashlie additional responsibilities as she got older also led her to be more attentive in class. “I would give her younger group dances to choreograph and also let her teach some pre-ballet classes,” Solomon says. “It helped her realize how important it is that teachers demand attention and attentiveness and that the students follow the rules.” Experiencing the challenges of being a teacher will help your child understand the decisions you make in class.

 

The More Teachers, the Merrier

 

Giving your child the opportunity to study under other teachers—both at your own studio and over the summer, if possible—is also helpful. “It’s important for your child to have the opportunity to learn from others along the way, so that you aren’t her only idea of what a teacher is,” Pritchard says.

 

According to Boday, working with different teachers will also help your child respect and enjoy the classes she takes with you more, since you will no longer be her only dance authority figure. And summer programs, if affordable, can be even more beneficial. “Sometimes the children of teachers love dance, but they haven’t really buckled down because it’s their mom at the front of the classroom,” says Boday. “Then, when they go away to a summer program, they get so excited about the progress they’ve made that they’re more serious when they come back.”

 

Solomon hired another teacher to teach Ashlie’s classes during her junior and senior years of high school. “She finally realized that dance class was serious, not just a place to goof off,” Solomon says. “Her junior and senior years were when she buckled down and realized that she wanted to do this as a career.”

 

Even with the challenges, most teachers agree that the experience of teaching one’s own child is priceless. “Watching them grow up is the most exciting thing in the world,” says Pritchard. “Now we’re closer because of it.” DT

 

Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

 

Photo of Bevalie Pritchard and her daughter, Erin (right), in class. Courtesy of Bevalie Pritchard.

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