How I teach Cunningham technique

The young students at the Complexions Contemporary Ballet summer intensive exchange uncomfortable glances when Banu Ogan walks into what, for most, is their first-ever class in Cunningham technique. “Please take off your ballet shoes,” she says, after eyeing their feet. As the group—a mix of comp kids and bunheads—begins pliés and tendus in center, it’s obvious they’re struggling with the curvy, twisting Cunningham torsos. Their upper bodies are loose and disconnected, and their movement is timid.

By the time they’re moving across the floor, the dancers have gained more confidence. They lunge deeply into position and play with their balance in off-kilter shapes. They initiate leaps from stronger cores and grounded transitions. “What do my arms do when they aren’t choreographed?” says one student. “How do you know how much your body should curve?” asks another. A girl observes aloud, “The timing is different from ballet because of the weight.”

By the end of class, they’ve made marked progress with the style’s demand for technical precision. The biggest contrast, however, was evident in the chances they were willing to take. “It’s about going for the impossible,” says Ogan later, after the dancers leave. “Merce wanted dancers to not be afraid of failure.”

Ogan, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, now teaches at The Juilliard School and Marymount Manhattan College. She says she loved the risk Cunningham demanded in company rehearsals. “There was one time Merce wanted us to do a crazy jump. He held himself up with the barre and rattled off eight movements that had to happen: Twist, curve and make these shapes with your hands and legs just before landing,” she says, imitating an older Cunningham’s hunched shoulders and gruff voice with complete admiration. “He walked away to sit down and we all started eyeing each other. It was impossible! Then, he turned around and started chuckling. He knew it wasn’t going to work, but it was his way of trying to make something that hadn’t been done before.”

It was this fearlessness that allowed Cunningham, who passed away in 2009, to flip technique on its head. His modern approach to space (using all facings of the proscenium), timing (combining counts of say, five, seven and nine in the same portion of choreography to discover new phrasing) and chance operations (like rolling dice to determine the order steps are performed in) were radical in his day. “I try to teach a class close to Merce’s, but he had a sporadic quality I can’t re-create,” says Ogan. “Most important for me is helping students understand that the technique teaches you how to make choices, even in a non-Cunningham work. And that they should feel emboldened by that independence.” DT

“At its most basic, Cunningham technique uses a classical lower body with an upper body that is influenced by Martha Graham,” says Banu Ogan. Here, student Gia Mongell demonstrates basic and advanced versions of a Cunningham tilt. The exercise promotes core strength and correct placement, while teaching students to use weight to take risks and find power in transitions.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Lani Corson. Photo by Royce Burgess, courtesy of Corson

Aerial work is growing in popularity in the dance world these days. Don't believe us? Check out this Dance Magazine article! If you're a studio owner who didn't grow up with aerial training (let's face it, how many of us really did?), then you may be feeling a little apprehensive about what to look for when bringing on a new aerialist faculty member. You know exactly what you want from your ballet teachers, your jazz teachers, your tap teachers, heck—even your tumbling teachers! Aerial, however, is a whole other ballgame.

To help you feel confident you're bringing in a teacher who is safe for your dancers, we sat down with Lani Corson, NYC aerialist, circus performer, adjunct professor at Pace University and teacher at Aerial Arts NYC, to get the inside scoop on exactly what you should be looking for.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance teachers have a lot of strengths (communicating corrections, choreographing gorgeous movement, planning excellent recitals, cleaning technique—just to name a few) but when it comes to interior design—talent isn't exactly a given. So when studio owners remodel or build, worrying about the decor can feel a little overwhelming (you've got just a few too many other things to worry about, don't you?).

No need to fear! In 2019 we have Pinterest, which shows us all the latest trends we should know about. To help you make the best design decisions for your studio, we've compiled a list of public Pinterest pins we think you'll love.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Unsplash

Is dance a sport? Should it be in the Olympics? They're complicated questions that tend to spark heated debate. But many dance fans will be excited to hear that breaking (please don't call it breakdancing) has been provisionally added to the program for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Vanessa Zahorian. Photo by Erik Larson, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet Academy

At the LINES Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco, faculty member Erik Wagner leads his class through an adagio combination in center. He encourages dancers to root their standing legs, using imagery of a seed germinating, so that they feel more grounded. "Our studios are on the fifth floor, so I'll often tell them to push down to Market Street," says Wagner. "They know that they should push their energy down to the street level." By using this oppositional force, he says, dancers can lengthen their bodies to create any desired shape.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

After years of throwing summer parties at your studio, you're likely fatigued by coming up with themes and event details. You want your students to have a good time, but you're also up to your eyeballs in choreography and costume decisions.

Never fear! We've come up with party themes and activities to do during the event. Delegate tasks to your teachers and office managers, and voilà! You have a stress-free party ready to go.

Have a blast, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I recently returned to a modern dance class after a long absence. While I didn't feel any acute pain at the end of class, the next morning I could barely walk from the soreness in both my Achilles. What can I do to fix this?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Q: I'm trying to think of ways to maximize studio space and revenue during the summer. What has worked for you?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox