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Stephanie Miracle Is Preserving—and Challenging—Tradition at University of Iowa

Zhenya Plyasunova, courtesy Miracle

When I first interviewed Stephanie Miracle, the University of Iowa visiting professor was headed into spring break—which quickly became a Zoom crash course, as the university migrated all of its classes online. The key parts of Miracle's teaching philosophy—establishing community and relationships, building awareness of the space around you—suddenly needed brand-new consideration and planning. "Taking that part of my curriculum into online teaching was really challenging," said Miracle, in a follow-up interview conducted after the spring semester's end. What she eventually came up with was characteristically thoughtful: She paired students with accountability partners each week, so that they might work on assignments together; asked dancers to journal about their experiences however they preferred—from bullet points to vlogs; and recorded audio lessons, so that students could take their class experiences outside. "Teaching on Zoom often felt like being in a cave—spatial memories were hard to create," says Miracle. "This brought a different kind of humanity to the experience."


During high school, Stephanie Miracle and her family moved to Germany for two years. She was thrown into German school, despite not knowing the language. "I failed all of my classes that first year," she says. But by year two, her immersion and commitment to learning German began to pay off: "I started to become fluent in German," she says. "It ended up being a triumphant experience. It was hugely rewarding, to feel that I could go through hardship and emerge with this new set of skills and insight into a culture."

Fifteen years later, Miracle found herself in Germany once again—this time as a Fulbright research fellow in dance, studying Pina Bausch's history and lineage at Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen. Miracle assimilated quickly into the nearly 100-year-old institution, going quickly from taking classes to being offered a spot in The Folkwang Tanzstudio, the international touring company associated with the school.

At Folkwang, Miracle saw firsthand how older traditions battled with and sometimes gave way to newer methods in higher ed pedagogy. As an educator interested in questioning older approaches to dance curriculum, she knew her time at the university would be a valuable learning experience.

Four dancers in bright patterns and colors fall to the floor in gradual stages. One is mid-hand stand

Miracle performing with Folkwang Tanzstudio

Isabelle Wenzel, courtesy Miracle

"One of my motivations for studying there was a real interest in how traditions can be preserved without becoming stale," she says. "Those older forms come with some politics and ways of viewing the body that need to be evaluated, definitely. But there's also something in the power they've accumulated. If it's already stood the test of time, it's something strong. What is that, and how do we use that, and not let it just get buried in all the new ideas? How can we construct from that?"

Now, as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa, Miracle is able to translate what she learned at Folkwang to another institution with its own particular set of rules and traditions. She manages to straddle seemingly oppositional stances—she remains both respectful of tradition and unafraid to question long-held standards of dance in higher ed.

"I need a system of exchange with students."

Because she is a visiting professor, Miracle is uniquely positioned to both quietly observe and offer a fresh perspective. For Miracle, the time at Iowa is an opportunity to deepen her choreographic research and refine her teaching philosophy, which translates to spending a lot of time with the undergrads. "It feels mutually beneficial for me to offer them as much as I can, because that helps me better refine my craft," she says. "I don't think I have anything to lose in that, as long as I'm setting personal boundaries and not overloading myself."

Her contemporary technique classes often oppose typical dance studio etiquette—dancing with a group but acting as if you're a soloist, for example—and encourage students to question norms. "I've seen a trend in university dance department technique classes to pretend like you're alone in your own little box," says Miracle. "I like to think of technique studio time as research toward how we are in relationship to others and to space—differentiating between dancing as soloists who happen to be next to each other and when we dance truly together."

She frequently incorporates partnering, touch and floorwork into her classes. "I make use of different passageways in space—circles, for example—as opposed to just standing in the center of the room," says Miracle. "I'm interested in giving the space different attributes, playing with conjuring, a sorcery of manipulating space so it affects the other bodies in the room. I find that it changes how you train your body and also prepares you for performance."

Miracle, wearing a forest green dress, dances in tall grass, a vast landscape behind her

Pat Berrett, courtesy Miracle

"My approach is about hooking in to the material—and then being able to play."

Another opportunity for Miracle to compare and contrast her time in the German university system is in teaching composition. "In Germany, the approach to choreography was, 'Get in the studio and just start working, and let's see if you come up with anything good,'" she says. "It was a little bit severe. I remember watching the adjudication process for some students and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, is there any room to fail?'"

Such high expectations, coupled with little pedagogical direction, could be daunting. "And while I do have issues with that approach," says Miracle, "I recognize that it did drive some students to work really hard. My approach, on the other hand, is about hooking in to the material and then being able to play." She gives her students space and time to reflect on their choreographic choices as they go. "I like to give students the chance to test those choices to see if they work, both in how the dance is being received by viewers and also if it elicits pleasure in the maker," she says.

It's thrilling when undergrads discover a penchant for choreography. "Some of these students have no idea they're choreographers," she says, "and it's as if their whole world is exploding—it's exciting!"

Technique
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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Teachers Trending
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.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

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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