As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."
Her method? Full immersion. "My natural proclivity is to understand any program as best I can," she says, "so I understand how what I'm responsible for really fits into and adds on to what's there. I think I teach best when I understand that."
Portier's package for the students of UMD is rich: real-world professional experience, a fresh approach to curriculum and a movement aesthetic that's physically demanding and community-enhancing.
"Because I am fresh on the heels of having danced for somebody for a decade, I can talk about what it actually means to be a part of a company now," she says about the assets she offers to her UMD students. "It's very different from what my teachers taught me. It's not a full-time job anymore. I can speak about how to negotiate your time and the way you think about dance."
She also brings a contemporary view to higher education curriculum. "Students today need to take hip hop seriously. They need to take African seriously," she says. "They need to understand what these forms do. Hip hop, for example, has an exactitude in its qualitative rhythm, and in its quick-synapse learning." Contributing to a curriculum brainstorming session is exciting—and Portier recognizes that her perspective, though fresh, might ruffle some feathers. "Being a visiting artist means I can do my best to understand the history of where they're coming from but not be beholden to it. I can suggest some outlandish things," she says. "And maybe they'll say, 'We tried that five years ago,' but then I can say, 'Why not try it again?'"
Finding a Balance
During her tenure in New York City, rehearsing and performing with Dorfman, Portier became a fixture on the teaching roster at Gibney Dance and other studios. Part guided improvisation, part body physics and part dance-hard-till-you're-sweaty phrase material, Portier's open-level, drop-in classes quickly became legendary for their challenging physicality and feel-good nature. Teaching in higher ed—the same students three times a week, over the course of a semester—is a very different ball game. "Class is expensive," she says. "That means some people are coming because they need it to be church; some need it to be training; some need it to be their social time; and some need it to be their preparation for their next rehearsal. So I'm always confronted with this incredible level of energy. They show up."
With undergrads and graduate students, though, that same urgency and enthusiasm isn't always there. "I do feel the intense labor it takes to pull students up," she says, "knowing full well that many of them, after a day of studying, are going to part-time jobs. I'm trying to understand that," she says, "but also, I think: 'Let's go.'"
So much of her approach comes down to balance. "When can I drown them, and when can I spoon-feed them?" she says. "I'm trying to find the ways in which they need support. And when they need to be under fire." It's a philosophy that Portier has honed over years of experience—constantly calibrating who's in the studio with her and what they need. "I like to teach through a variety of layers," she says. "Sometimes it's purposely saturated to drown someone and see what sticks, and sometimes it's just parceling out information so that we're all on the same page. But I do find it's really valuable to lose people sometimes."
At the same time, she's equally aware of a dance class' power over its participants at any given moment. "I just love how much the joy of dance is spread. I know, I know, that's a tagline on everything," she says. "But joy is actually a part of our technique. A leap isn't just a leap—it's a somatic expression. Everybody smiles when they do a leap!"