Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Dance Lab for Teens Continues Even During Shelter-in-Place

Last fall, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's new teen program, the Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship, launched with 22 students accepted for its inaugural year. Even as the company and school have temporarily closed their doors this spring, Hubbard Street company member and choreographer Rena Butler continues to direct this exciting choreographic-study project for students in 10th–12th grades.

At the time of shelter-in-place in March 2020, the Dance Lab still had two more workshops left to do together and a final informal performance. Butler and Kathryn Humphreys (director of Hubbard Street Education, Youth & Community Programs), quickly and agilely took the program online and into the students' homes to see it through to completion. Humphreys says: "The current situation has actually allowed us to give the students more."

"I find myself asking the question of how a resting or home space can be generative for any art practice right now," says Butler. "The course was originally designed around the concept of how environment informs identity and how identity can inform environment. Transcribing the class onto a virtual platform worked out beautifully, because it was a matter of applying what the students learned from class onto a different landscape."

As part of the workshops throughout the year, Butler had the students explore numerous artists to learn about choreography, choreographic tools and genres of dance. With students sheltering in place, she reached out to five of her colleagues—Jason Anthony Rodriguez, Connie Shiau, Micaela Taylor, Yara Travieso and Robyn Mineko Williams—to each make a video for Dance Lab students. "It was important that I contacted choreographers in the field who had varying experiences to prompt extremely different tasks each day for the students," Butler says. "The range of incredible artists who have committed to this project is phenomenal. I wanted the students to work through each task using their imaginations to dream within and beyond their environmental confines."

Each video made for the Dance Lab students was 5 to 15 minutes long; an artist introduced themself and modeled the concept the students would be exploring at home. Butler asked the artists to play with the theme of "In My Room," and each gave a choreographic prompt. The videos ranged in topics from "feeling breath" to vogueing.

After exploring the five videos, the 22 students are completing their final solo projects now and will be submitting videos to Hubbard Street to compile a final video in lieu of the performance. Students are working on their own and at times during the week that work for them, instead of scheduled Zoom meetings together. "We reached out to the students and asked them directly," Humphreys says. "We wanted to be sensitive to their capacity right now and their environments. The students are so busy right now; we wanted to be as flexible as possible."

Additionally, HSDC is excited to share these new resources, free of charge, with teachers in the coming weeks.

Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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