How I teach modern

Williams and Tacon demonstrate a suspended moment of an under-curve.

On a Friday morning at Mark Morris Dance Center at the end of a two-week summer intensive, Megan Williams’ students are exhausted. Aware of their depleted energy and sore legs, she chooses a gentle, somatic warm-up. They begin on the ground with some Bartenieff Fundamentals, a thoughtful combination of exercises lying supine and then on hands and knees that release tension and prepare the body for finding the vertical spine. Once dancers are standing, Williams continues to focus on anatomy as it relates to modern dance technique.

Typically, modern classes reinforce the concepts of weight, space and rhythm. Williams’ dynamic, waltzing combinations in the center and moving across the floor utilize all three of these ideas. Her carefully worded notes, however, impart another layer of knowledge, helping dancers understand how their own anatomy and anatomical limitations relate to these foundations of technique. For example, she uses “outward spiral of the leg” to describe turnout, in an effort to help students avoid the bad habit of tucking under in the hips. Her alignment cues favor a more neutral and vertical pelvis, “where your legs are accessible” and not static in gripped or hyperextended positions. She encourages the students to take ownership of their own process by asking questions like “What does parallel mean to you?” and gently reminding them in plié to “own your own range.”

Soft-spoken with an easy humor, Williams is conscious of the power of language. Pop culture similes are used to highlight spatial pathways. She asks dancers to arrive at the top of a curve without posing, as if “they are riding a BMX bike in a half pipe.” At one point, in an effort to get a student to find more side-to-side flexion in the upper back and sternum, she invokes the image of the glowing power source on Iron Man’s armored chest.

She remembers modern dance luminary Hanya Holm as her teacher at Juilliard asking the undergraduates, “What is technique?” The answer has stuck with her ever since: “It’s a means to an end. And you decide what the end is.” “Technique is really just a big toolbox of skills,” Williams says. Integrating the intellectual with the visceral completes her approach to class. “As a teacher, you are constantly asking students to think, but you also understand the importance of just doing it.” DT

Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow at Columbia University.

An alumna of The Juilliard School, Megan Williams went on to dance with choreographers Ohad Naharin and Mark Morris. After dancing with Mark Morris Dance Group for 10 years, she assisted Morris in staging his work. She has been on the faculty of the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, State University of New York, and her extensive anatomy training with Irene Dowd at the National Ballet School of Canada and certification in yoga further inform Williams’ approach to teaching dance and anatomy. She is currently an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College, with plans to research the integration of anatomy study in undergraduate learning.

Maya Tacon, 21, is a junior at the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College, SUNY.

Photography by Kyle Froman

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