John Jasperse Leads the Dance Program at Sarah Lawrence

Jasperse observes a rehearsal at Baryshnikov Arts Center. Photo by Janelle Jones, courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College

John Jasperse has been a prominent player in many corners of the dance world for nearly 30 years. As a performer, he danced with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's Rosas. As a choreographer, he has presented his work at major venues across the globe with his company John Jasperse Projects. As an innovator, he co-founded Center for Performance Research, a rehearsal and performance space in Brooklyn. This fall, he adds one more role to his resumé: director of the dance program at his alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York.


Why were you interested in academia at this stage of your career? Teaching in a broad sense is something that I've been doing for a very long time. I'm thinking about my connection to a broader community and the way I can have impact. This feels like a natural extension of that.

Beyond your alumni connection, why Sarah Lawrence? Interdepartmentally there's a spirit of collaboration. The faculty long ago voted against faculty ranks. I'm not interested in hierarchical structures, but people I can collaborate with.

I'm going to be working with dancers who will go professional and others who won't. That's also interesting to me, because I want to bring a rigorous practice to students who may not stay professionally active. Helping people understand why dance is valuable is exciting, and, frankly, something the field needs.

What are your plans for the first year, and beyond? I'm not going to come in with a hatchet. There's a certain amount of living inside the curriculum and seeing what that means. We've talked about having my dancers rehearse at Sarah Lawrence, and having students come to dress rehearsals; I think the program can benefit from having the connection back into the field. I'll co-teach dancemaking for seniors and graduate students, and I'll teach a graduate seminar that's a creative laboratory, kind of an advanced comp. Eventually, collaborations across disciplines is something that I'm looking at: how we can keep connecting dance to other ideas.

Sara Rudner has led the department for almost 20 years. Does that put pressure on you? Whether it's been Bessie [Schönberg] or Viola [Faber] or Sara, three incredibly strong, visionary women have done amazing things with the department and very different things. There's a huge amount of responsibility, but Sara has been incredibly supportive. We come from different portions of the same community, but we're very different artists.

What do you feel dance training at large is lacking? Critical thinking is something that we need more than ever. You can teach a technique class with structural information about how the body works, or you can teach them steps. Somatic information is deeply important, so that anatomy doesn't sit in the right corner and technique in the left. Same with dancemaking. How does artwork sit inside social culture, and how does that shape society? I'm not pushing movement practice to the side, but I'm calling it movement practice instead of technique for a reason.

Music
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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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