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Bessie Schönberg: Teaching the art of making dances

"The only thing dance should never be is dull." —Bessie Schönberg. Photo courtesy of the American Dance Festival archives

During a time when universities were just beginning to offer dance degrees, Bessie Schönberg invigorated the study of dance composition in higher education. She was a celebrated composition teacher at Sarah Lawrence College for nearly 40 years, known for championing her students' individuality. A revered mentor, she helped shape the creative work of four generations of artists.


Schönberg was born in Hanover, Germany. In her late teens, she and her mother moved to Eugene, Oregon. She took her first modern dance class in 1927 from the renowned dance professor Martha Hill. Inspired, Schönberg followed Hill to New York City two years later.

Upon arriving in the city in 1929, Schönberg began taking classes from Martha Graham at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She immediately caught Graham's attention and was invited to join her company. For two years she danced with the troupe, performing in iconic works like Heretic (1929) and Primitive Mysteries (1931). But in 1931 a knee injury put an end to her career as a professional dancer.

She shifted her focus to teaching, earning a degree from Bennington College in Vermont in 1934 and joining the faculty as a dance instructor upon graduation. During her four years there, she was a teaching assistant to Martha Hill in her modern classes at the historic Bennington summer workshops and began to develop her own teaching philosophy. Unlike her contemporaries, she believed students should develop their own, unique expressive style, rather than simply mimic their predecessors.

She joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, New York, in 1938, teaching fundamentals of choreography. She worked there for 37 years, eventually as director of the dance program, and became a highly influential figure in the study of dance composition in higher education. Her reach went beyond the classroom, too. She often attended her students' concerts and work-in-progress showings to offer guidance. Many of those students went on to become prominent choreographers.

In 1975, Schönberg retired from Sarah Lawrence but continued to teach at schools and festivals throughout the U.S. and the U.K., including London Contemporary Dance School, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Dance Theatre of Harlem, New York University and The Juilliard School. The famed Dance Theater Workshop in NYC named its theater after her. She lived to age 90. DT

Schönberg at Bennington College in 1934. Photo courtesy of the American Dance Festival archives

Classroom Style

Schönberg celebrated her students' individuality and choreographic choices. She was interested in any dance form or style. In class, she focused on the fundamentals of movement like locomotion and gesture and encouraged her students to explore variations on those ideas, by prompting them with open-ended questions, like “How many ways can you fall or run or turn?" She gave dancers parameters to create short choreographic studies, which they would then show in class. Analysis and discussion were key. By avoiding the “I" pronoun and offering suggestions rather than personal statements, students learned to provide articulate critiques of each other's work in a constructive, supportive way.

Fun Fact

The New York Dance and Performance Awards, which were established in 1983 to honor innovative dance work, are more commonly referred to as “The Bessies" in honor of Schönberg. She received her own Bessie Award for lifetime service to dance in 1988.

The Legacy Lives On

A mentor to many, Schönberg influenced the creative work of choreographers, dancers, teachers, writers and producers, including luminaries such as Jerome Robbins, Carolyn Adams, Lucinda Childs, Meredith Monk, Norton Owen and Ronald K. Brown. She helped to solidify Sarah Lawrence College as one of the nation's preeminent dance programs. Additionally, tenets of her dance composition teaching methodology, like creating short dances under explicit instructions and offering constructive feedback through group discussion, are now used in university dance departments nationwide.

Resources

Print:

“Bessie Schönberg, 90, a Mentor for Dancers," by Jack Anderson, The New York Times, May 1997

“Bessie Schönberg," by Rachel Straus, Dance Teacher, September 2010

Web:

Dance Heritage Coalition: “America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures": danceheritage.org

Sarah Lawrence College Archives: “Bessie Remembered": archives.slc.edu


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As a dance teacher, chances are you strive daily to be a great role model for your students—cheerful, enthusiastic and motivating, offering plenty of positive reinforcement as well as a sense of clear control over your classroom. But what happens when your personal life gets in the way of those good intentions?

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Name calling, physical intimidation and cyberbullying are all-too-common experiences among male dancers. Photo by Goh Rhy Yan/Unsplash

Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.

"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "

A different classmate, who often called Russo "Dancing Queen," would lurk near the cafeteria doors each day at lunchtime, hoping for an opportunity to corner him. "I'd find ways to exit the cafeteria at the same time as a teacher, or go as far as walking out through the kitchen and reentering the building somewhere else," Russo admits.

Anthony Russo was called names like Bojangles, Twinkle Toes and Dancing Queen while growing up. Photo by Christopher Erk, courtesy Russo.


His experience is sadly similar to what many male dancers endure throughout their training and careers: name calling, physical intimidation, cyberbullying, sometimes even death threats.

Although girls, too, can be bullying victims, it's far less common, as our culture views dance as a more acceptable activity for them to pursue. Boys who dance are frequently stereotyped as gay and mocked for participating in what many consider to be a feminine art.

As conversations about bullying heat up throughout the country, with the role of social media and the effects on adolescent mental health emerging as related concerns, there's no better time to consider what the dance world can do to help male students of all ages feel safe and accepted.

Teachers Can Make a Difference

Many male dancers agree that positive adult role models are essential for bullying prevention. Dancer and choreographer Chris Bell, who remembers being incessantly called a "faggot" throughout middle and high school in San Antonio, Texas, says he channeled his anger into his school work, focusing on excelling academically.

Now a performer with Eryc Taylor Dance and dendy/donovan projects, he realizes how necessary it is for teachers—both in academic schools and dance studios—to speak up.

Chris Bell says teachers need to stop bullying in its tracks. Photo by Craig Macleod, courtesy Bell.


"The second that you hear anything demeaning or demoralizing, stop it and talk about it," he says. "You have to acknowledge that it's wrong, explain why it's wrong and then move on."

The message is especially effective if teachers work in schools that support dance as part of the curriculum. "The dance world should get into public schools, especially younger grades, to show what both men and women do in the dance world—any kind of dance," says Andy Jacobs, a modern/contemporary dancer and choreographer in New York City. "It's all going to open up their eyes and show them there's no boundaries to what you can like."

Dance Should Be Introduced More Like a Sport

Tap dancer Leo Lamontagne, assistant director at North Andover School of Dance and former company member with Chicago's Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, asks what would happen if dance were treated more like sports in school. "What if dance were introduced at the same age that basketball was? What if dance were used to teach gross motor skills?" he asks. "Bullies are intimidated by what they don't understand, so it's up to us to educate not just dancers but also non-dancers on what dance can be."

"So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Peter Sabasino suggests creating more performing arts schools altogether. "Then more kids would look at dance as a cool thing to do," he says.

Peter Sabasino suggests more performing arts schools could help dance look "cooler" among kids. Photo by Matthew Carby, courtesy Sabasino.


We Need More Role Models

More male ambassadors in popular culture could also help. "We could certainly use another Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire to show how cool dance is, not just showing hip-hop dancers as cool or men as strippers, like in Magic Mike," says Todd Shanks, an artist in residence at Dean College. "Honestly, though, dance doesn't have to be masculine to be cool. Talent doesn't have a sexual preference."

Todd Shanks feels another Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly could show that men dance, too. Photo courtesy Dean College/Paladino School of Dance.


But maybe we don't have to wait for a dance celebrity: Young men can also be role models for each other. "We need to expose boys to other male dancers, not just the professionals," Lamontagne says. "We need to come together to support our boys to support one another."

He suggests that competitions and conventions offer classes exclusively to boys, as all-male classes can sometimes be impossible in many small communities, where few male students are in attendance.

That is exactly the idea behind the Male Dancer Conference, launched last year by the founders of online dancewear store Boys Dance Too. The event gives boys a chance to be surrounded by their peers in classes led by role models like Sascha Radetsky and Alex Wong.


Similarly, Earl Mosley's Hearts of Men intensive offers two weeks of training and networking for male dancers. The National Dance Education Organization also held a symposium last year for teachers of male students to address how dance can attract more boys.

Power in numbers, after all, may be a valuable tactic. Bell points out that all dancers who are bullied have something in common—a shared experience that has made them stronger. "These experiences help you to become a better, more enriched person," he says. "A lot of the kids who bully want some kind of essential quality that you have. They want the freedom that you already have to do what you love."

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