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8 dancers talk about how they teach contemporary dance—and why

Christian Burns directing dancers before a performance at San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. Photo by Andrea Basile, courtesy of Christian Burns

Whether you work in concert dance or in the commercial world, the question of the moment seems to be, “What is contemporary?" The answer is as varied as the practitioners one asks. Here, eight teachers who experiment with modern dance vocabulary, new and old, share their philosophies, the way their classes developed and what it takes to be a versatile dancer.


Christian Burns

Improvisation

San Francisco Conservatory of Dance

For Christian Burns, choreography and improvisation are inextricably linked. “There are different ways people approach improvisation, and for many it's a personal practice that is never seen," he says, making it clear this is not the case with him. “The primary end point I'm interested in is performance." The co-founder of the San Francisco–based company, The Foundry, has performed with Alonzo King LINES Ballet and has had experience with both contact and Forsythe-style improvisation. “My classes are almost as much composition classes as they are experiential," he says. “It's very important to be choreographically literate, even if you do not want to be a choreographer."

In class, he strives for a balance between improvised movement studies with strict parameters and more open structures. To help students understand the intention of an exercise, he moves with them and talks through what he's doing. “I'm always in the middle of my classes, practicing what I'm teaching," he says. “I think more is transmitted by my being there in the space with them." He sometimes uses a stopwatch to keep his dancers working in the moment—something so vital to successful improvisation, yet so easy to dismiss. “Whether we do 10 seconds or a few minutes, regardless of what they're doing, when the time is done, I call it and we break." —Andrea Marks

Chanel DaSilva

Modern Dance Sampler

Trey McIntyre Project

Chanel DaSilva's widely varied modern dance training—she's done Graham, Horton, Limón, Cunningham and Taylor, to name a few—has provided her with a surefire way to hold her students' attention: Just keep changing things up. She'll wake up her students' feet with Horton exercises, mobilize their cores with Graham contractions and sprinkle in some Limón, since it “feels really good" on her own body and incorporates well.

As a dancer for Trey McIntyre Project, she teaches master classes in which participants range from junior high students to those studying dance at the college level. Her class always finishes with TMP repertory as the final combination.

She's also a stickler for musicality. The Juilliard-trained DaSilva grew up attending Creative Outlet Dance Theatre in Brooklyn, NY, where she took an array of classes—hip hop, jazz, West African—all of which required strict attention to rhythm. This has aligned nicely with her professional career. “Trey's work is often super-musical, so I'm going to stress what he stresses," she says. She guarantees her students that it will come in handy. “As a professional dancer, it's something people just assume you have." —Rachel Rizzuto

Jodi Melnick

Postmodern Release Technique

Barnard College; New York University

“Many of my new students think I'm totally wacko," says Jodi Melnick. “'Why is she talking about her liver and kidneys in dance class?'" Instead of focusing on the external lines and shapes, Melnick teaches from the inside out, making sense of how the organs, tissues, muscles and bones inform a dancer's technique. Her cerebral thirst for modern dance came after college, but that doesn't mean her students should expect philosophy without physicality. Melnick grew up studying everything from gymnastics to tap, earned a BFA from SUNY Purchase and danced with Twyla Tharp, 1991–94. Her diverse movement history is what truly informs her class.

Drawing on her scattered studies, Melnick has created a secure class structure. “I'm not teaching a codified technique, but I've really codified class for myself: I was doing jazzy Twyla, I worked in release technique, I can't imagine warming up without Cunningham exercises and I'm deeply interested in yoga and tai chi. Why not embrace it all?" she asks. “That's an intelligent dancing body. One that takes in as much information as it can and uses what works." —Kristin Schwab

Ariel Freedman

Gaga

Jacob's Pillow; Peridance Capezio Center

As an undergrad at Juilliard, Ariel Freedman had the Type A personality that many dancers possess. “I was a very anxious student—always stressed and wanting to get things exactly right," she says. It was her first Gaga class, the sensory-focused improvisation technique created by Ohad Naharin, that brought her some relief. “When you're training very seriously in codified dance forms, it's easy to forget to let go and remember why you're dancing," she says. “By the end of class I felt I could tackle anything. I reconnected to my original passion, which was to move."

A year after graduation, Freedman relocated to Israel to join Naharin's Batsheva Dance Company and, after five years with the company, returned to New York to pass along the technique. “Gaga can make you feel uncomfortable, naked and overwhelmed. But I hope to show dancers that those feelings show progression," she says. “Part of my job is to help them learn how to undo some of their training. They're not throwing it away, but keeping it at their fingertips. Then dance doesn't become imitation, but about trusting your instincts and training." —KS

Bebe Miller

Contemporary

Ohio State University

Though as a student Bebe Miller struggled with the finer points of technique, she has become a strong proponent for traditional modern dance class structure. “My teacher was Tharp-oriented and very articulate and specific, but I was not a detailed technician," Miller says. But she stuck with it and eventually discovered an interest in body mechanics. “I became fascinated with how I was doing things and what was actually happening in the body. I drank the Kool-Aid of technique," she says.

“I learned to teach a conventional technique class: a warm-up and across the floor and then the 'big dance,'" says Miller, who has also studied Nikolais, Alexander and Klein techniques and qigong, a Chinese meditation method. She contrasts her approach to the more free-form, experimental trends of today: “Dancers who are doing everything on the floor, everything in silence with their eyes closed," she says.

Miller has been teaching certain exercises for more than 20 years, about as long as she's been directing her internationally renowned Bebe Miller Company. If something works—for her students or choreographic process—she sticks to it, like a qigong exercise she uses during her warm-up. “I do that just as I learned it," she says. “That's one of the things that I don't mess around with. It's just like magic." —AM

Nicole Wolcott

Punk Rock Modern

Dance New Amsterdam; Hunter College

Nicole Wolcott's mission is to spread what she calls the JOD—Joy of Dance—because she finds that students who take themselves too seriously can easily become disheartened about their training. Ultimately though, the co-founder of Keigwin + Company seeks to foster the artist as a whole.

Her first job was dancing with Gus Giordano in Chicago. She studied briefly at Lou Conte Dance Studio and went to Columbia College Chicago, where she met Risa Steinberg. “I was so inspired by how she taught Limón," says Wolcott.

“The paradigm of modern dance is that dancers are collaborators. They need to be able to generate movement and make smart choices. Technique is only one tool in your belt," she says. “That's hard for traditionally trained people to be comfortable with. It makes them itch. But for me, letting go of it a little bit was absolutely freeing." She says that trusting her technical base and relinquishing the idea of right versus wrong allowed her finally to take control of how she wanted to dance. —KS

Teena Marie Custer

Modern Rooted in Hip Hop

Slippery Rock University

No matter the course title, some element of street dance is always evident in Teena Marie Custer's classes at Slippery Rock University, where she teaches hip hop and contemporary. She describes her modern class as “Doris Humphrey and [b-boy legend] Ken Swift shaken up in a bottle." “If I'm teaching them about Loie Fuller," she says, “we'll add in some house technique. With Graham, I'll add in some breaking, because there's so much floor work in Graham."

Growing up as a street dancer in Pittsburgh, Custer wasn't exposed to formal dance training until college. After she earned her degree, she spent a year performing with Attack Theatre and Dance Alloy. Then, as an MFA candidate at Ohio State University, she was introduced to Cunningham and dance theater.

Strengthening and conditioning take up a significant portion of her 90-minute class: Pilates and exercises like burpees are all included. “I call them Mack Trucks by the end of the semester," she says, laughing, as she refers to how strong the students get. But there's also a noticeable change in their confidence—the community-building element of hip-hop culture inevitably creeps in. —RR

Chris Aiken

Contact Improvisation

Smith College

Chris Aiken's class flips the stereotype about contact improvisation on its head: Rather than the I-lift-you, you-lift-me approach, he teaches people about their bodies and the physics of dancing, equally interweaving movement and theory. Understanding issues of alignment and one's center allows his students to achieve structural support that's also mobile.

One building block of his class is “tensegrity"—balancing tension with compression, like a successfully constructed tent (strongest when the tension is stretched across its entire surface). Tensegrity, as Aiken explains, allows someone, regardless of size, to maximize strength and flexibility—a necessary tenet of successful weight-sharing.

Awareness is equally important: Aiken will ask his students to attune themselves to vision, sense of space, balance and, eventually, the space between each other. “Can you touch somebody in a way that makes no physical demands on them?" is one of his favorite questions to ask his students, most of whom are entirely new to the practice.

After listening to Aiken talk so intelligently about contact improvisation, it is surprising to learn that he didn't take a dance class until age 20. In Boston, he went to Dance New England's freestyle jams (“Like a nightclub," he says, “without the alcohol and smoke") and saw people doing what he later learned was contact improvisation. This started his intensive exploration of the form, studying with gurus Nancy Stark Smith, Steve Paxton and Daniel Lepkoff. After nearly 30 years, Aiken feels confident in what he imparts to his students. “I know how to make the work safe and physical and sensitive and creative," he says. “And I need to continually reinvigorate my students' sense of imagination—that's my job, as their teacher." —RR


Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

News
Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.


Here's why your dancers (and you!) should tune in:

They'll see dance history in the making.

Carlos Acosta. Debbie Allen. Camille A. Brown. Laurieann Gibson. Alonzo King.

If you haven't already taught your students about these esteemed awardees, odds are you'll be adding them to your curriculum before long.

Not only will your students get to hear from each of them at a pivotal moment in their careers (and Dance Magazine Awards acceptance speeches are famously chock-full of inspiration), they'll also hear from presenters like William Forsythe and Theresa Ruth Howard.

This year, all the Dance Magazine Awards are going to Black artists, as a step towards repairing the history of honoring primarily white artists.

And meet tomorrow's dance legends.

Dance Magazine's Harkness Promise Awards, this year going to Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders, offer funding, rehearsal space and mentorship to innovative young choreographers in their first decade of presenting work—a powerful reminder to your students that major success in the dance world doesn't happen overnight.

They'll get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

Solely teaching your students how to be a great dancer doesn't give them the full picture. A complete dance education produces artists who are savvy about what happens behind the scenes, too.

In 2018, Dance Media launched the Chairman's Award to honor those behind-the-scenes leaders who keep our field moving. Each year's recipient is chosen by our CEO, Frederic M. Seegal. This year's award goes to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who is using philanthropy to make the performing arts—and the world at large—more just.

And, of course, see dozens of great dance works.

Where else could your students see selections from Alonzo King's contemporary ballet classics next to Camille A. Brown's boundary-pushing dance theater works? Or see both Carlos Acosta and Laurieann Gibson in action in the same evening? Excerpts from the awardees' works will show your students what it is exactly that makes these artists so special.

So gather your class (virtually!) and join us next Monday, December 7, at 6 pm. To receive the special student rate, please email dmawards@dancemedia.com.

See you there!

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