How to Approach Teaching After a Body-Changing Injury

Jessie Laurita-Spanglet teaches modern dance at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Photo by Betsy Mann, courtesy of author

Nearly all dance educators experience injury at some point in their careers.

After I was diagnosed in 2016 with Freiberg's disease, a rare foot injury, I began asking myself a series of questions, starting with "What do we do when we can no longer teach by doing?"

When I explained the condition to my dance program director, I realized that even if my department were to give me a semester off from teaching technique, I didn't want to put my career on hold. With this in mind, I devised a plan for teaching my intermediate modern technique class while injured. What I discovered has changed some of my core beliefs about teaching.


Can Verbal Description Be Just as Effective as Physical Demonstration?

I have always leaned heavily on physical demonstration over verbal explanation. In my own conservatory training, dancers were taught to do, but rarely to speak. My injury changed this. How did this work? For some combinations, I wanted my students to understand an overarching idea rather than the details of the movements, so I would only show the combination once and ask them to view it through a particular lens. Thus, the combination became a road map for improvisation, not a study of specific gestures or steps.

When I wanted to focus on detailed movement acquisition, I had to find ways to communicate nuance with words. I might say, "Swipe your right elbow like you're running it across a smooth table," or, "Drag the inside edge of your foot as if you're pulling a heavy chain." At first it felt awkward, and often I was tongue-tied or lacking words for something I understood on a visceral level. I craved a common language to describe movements to my students—an issue that might have been helped by a deeper understanding of Laban Movement Analysis.

Like many of my contemporaries, I am a product of an education that draws on disparate influences and teachers. If I'd been trained in only one technique—say, Cunningham or Graham—I could have drawn on an established vocabulary.

How Do We Move Away From Seeing Our Bodies Merely as Objects to Be Trained and Perfected?

Though I had to limit my physical demonstration of standing combinations, I found new freedom in floorwork. Drawing on distant memories of floor barres from my ballet training, my work leading Pilates mat classes and knowledge of Bartenieff Fundamentals, I created a lengthy floor warm-up combination. Then I transitioned to more physically vigorous floorwork and tumbling through space. As a result, my students improved their ability to drop their weight and release unneeded muscular effort—skills that translated well in standing combinations.

What Do We Do When We Can No Longer Teach by Doing?

Next, drawing my inspiration from a performance class I took with Adriane Fang as a grad student at the University of Maryland, I asked my students to learn a solo from video (in this case, Caribou, by the choreographer Helen Simoneau). The idea was to challenge them physically in ways that I could not, providing a stand-in for the full-bodied combination often at the end of a modern dance technique class. I divided the class into three groups, one for each of the three sections of Simoneau's solo. Once each group had learned their section, I created new groups, taking one person from each of the original groups so that each new group combined students trained in different sections. This project proved successful in many ways: My students learned from teaching their peers a short piece of choreography; they were challenged physically by the very intricate and complex nature of the work; and they gained experience performing a solo—a new experience for many.

Toward Seeing the Body as an Ever-Changing Record of Who We Are and Where We've Been

As a teacher who'd always relied on my own body to gauge students' physical experience, I felt blinded when I lost this ability. Eventually, however, I learned to see from the outside more than I ever had before—in part because I wasn't dealing with the interference of my own physical limitations. This new type of observing, done with my eyes rather than my body, allowed me to see each student in a more individualized manner.

From this, I've come to think of the body not as either injured or healthy, young or old, strong or weak, but as a constantly evolving entity. As I think about my own body on a continuum, I feel humbled at the position of privilege that makes my small foot injury appear to me as a major hurdle. When I shift to seeing my own body as I see others—in a constant state of flux—I recognize that my difficulties and the ensuing shift in my teaching are all part of the natural human condition of change and growth.

Checking in anecdotally with my students at the end of that semester, I discovered that they'd barely noticed that I was injured. What felt like such a monumental shift to me—what had completely upended my teaching style and approach—turned out to be barely discernable to them. Something else, too: Around midterm of this very challenging semester, I noticed a shift in my own language and thinking about my injury. Instead of saying that I was "dealing with an injury" or "getting over an injury," I started saying that I was "dancing with an injury." This minor shift in language marked a major change in seeing. Instead of ignoring my injury or letting it overpower me, I was doing something else: I was engaged in a dance with it.

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