When she was a kid, Liz Lerman thought she was going to be a ballerina. But, as the renowned choreographer and radical visionary said in her acceptance speech upon receiving the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award last summer, "Then the world happened." After early training in Graham technique and, yes, ballet, Lerman had a crisis of faith around age 14. She was witnessing the rise of the civil rights movement, but she didn't know it was possible to deal with such subject matter in dance. And so began a long exploration. From her disillusionment emerged a radical philosophy of inclusion that would underpin her art-making for the next 50 years.
Over the course of her career, Lerman, who turns 70 this month, has taught and made and built dances and experiences in studios, nursing homes, shipyards and laboratories. She has worked in residence at prestigious institutions, earned fellowships and grants from major funders, including a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship, and collaborated to build Dance Exchange, the company she founded in 1976. Her work has helped communities around the country and the world to excavate new insights into who they are and why they matter. Lerman has perpetually questioned who gets to dance, as well as what the dance is about, where it is happening and why it matters.
Now in her second year as Institute Professor at Arizona State University, Lerman remains as curious, engaged and ready for new work as ever. In 2011, she left Dance Exchange and published a book, Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer, about her inclusive nonhierarchical approach to making art.
What do you do when a student in a wheelchair rolls through the studio doorway into your Ballet I class? Many dancers—teachers and students alike—simply do not account for this possibility. Let's admit that the word “dancer" in the popular imagination still, despite slowly increasing diversity, evokes the image of a ballerina, long and lean and delicately balanced on pointe in arabesque. Long and lean, and able-bodied. That a dancer could use a wheelchair or crutches in the studio and onstage doesn't occur to many of us, despite the visibility of physically integrated companies such as AXIS Dance Company. So, when a wheelchair dancer shows up for class, many of us don't know what to do.
Alice Shepherd and Kitty Lunn of Infinity Dance Theater
Take Kitty Lunn's experience when she rolled into a ballet class in her wheelchair at a well-known studio in New York City more than 25 years ago. Lunn, director of Infinity Dance Theater, had been a dancer as a child and teenager, but an accident in 1987 had broken her back and left her a wheelchair user. The call of dance was too strong for her to ignore, and after working intensively with a physical therapist for several years, she decided to return to class. Her welcome was less than enthusiastic.
“I was told in no uncertain terms that if people complained, I'd have to leave," she says. Nonetheless, she stayed, and she has continued to take ballet, modern and jazz classes, in addition to founding and directing her own physically integrated dance company. At first, depending on the instructor, Lunn was sometimes ignored or simply tolerated in class, and sometimes welcomed and worked with individually. Regardless, she took her training into her own hands, and if one teacher did not want her in class, she switched to another.
Facilitating a physically integrated dance class, where disabled and “typically bodied" students work alongside each other, might be outside many teachers' experiences, but according to several dance educators we spoke with, an open mind and a willingness to ask, learn and adjust can enable students and teachers alike to expand their understanding of who dancers are and how we teach, learn and perform dance.
Get at the Core
“... when you get down to some practical issues, it makes sense to divide students up and work on particular skill sets (i.e. wheelchair skills)."
—Merry Lynn Morris
Dance techniques and styles embody certain core values, such as line in ballet, or weight in modern, and these values can be instilled in any body. Ana Rubinstein, a dance teacher at the Manhattan School for Children, runs a physically integrated classroom. “When I sit down to think about teaching ballet, I have to think deeply about the aesthetic core," she says. “What are the most important elements of this form? If ballet is about line and extension and smooth transitions between shapes and storytelling, that's what I will focus on. If I'm teaching African dance, it's really about that relationship to the ground, the energy of fast-firing movement, bouncing, call-and-response."
Additionally, exercises can be distilled to their essence and transposed for different bodies. Bonnie Schlachte, owner and director of Ballet For All Kids, offers training for teachers interested in working with disabled students. “I tell my teachers, 'Sit in a chair, and do the tendu yourself. What muscles are you working? Maybe you're just working on adduction.'" Then consider how to apply adduction to any body part—arms, fingers, feet.
Lunn elaborates on how this distillation worked for her. In that first ballet class she attended in her wheelchair, “as soon as the music started playing, I had no idea how I was going to do this, but my gut instinct was to start transposing the movement. I hung out in the back of the class and just started figuring it out," she says. At home, “I went through every ballet exercise I could think of, considering, Why is it done that way, and how can I make it work for my body? I realized for me, the process remained remarkably the same in terms of the pliés I constructed, using my arms as my legs, turning out from the shoulder as you would turn out the leg from the hip. It just seemed so natural for me. I'm doing the same thing differently, for the same reasons."
Maintain the Form's Integrity
Schlachte grew up dancing, majored in psychology, and after college began working with disabled adults. After the birth of her daughter, who is typically bodied, she wondered what she would do if her daughter had a disability and wanted to take ballet. She founded Ballet For All Kids as a way of teaching classical ballet technique inclusively. She wanted to make sure the technical training she offered wasn't “dumbed down," she says, because “you can't get the benefits of a classical ballet education unless you're teaching classical ballet. Everything that I do at Ballet For All Kids is based on ballet technique that can be taught at any studio, anywhere."
Schlachte teaches a range of disabled and typically bodied students, and she maintains high standards for everyone. “Keep expectations high," she says. “You don't ever want to treat someone with a disability any differently than you would your other kids. The more I expect from them, they always rise to the challenge." Along with high standards, teachers can help disabled students rise to the challenge just like they do typical students—by providing them the tools they need to succeed.
Several educators emphasized the importance of team-teaching in physically integrated classes, with both a disabled and a typical instructor. Lunn notes, “If you are going to have an inclusive class, it's really important to be team-teaching with a nondisabled and a disabled teacher so that both sets of kids can see a model." In introducing her own students to mainstream classes, says Lunn, she herself will accompany them when possible and demonstrate.
In addition to team-teaching when possible, the presence of aides in the studio makes a critical difference, whether they are advanced dancers assisting students or aides who accompany disabled students throughout their day. Disabled students may need more individualized attention that accommodates the nature of their particular disability, and one teacher cannot be everywhere. Aides facilitate safety for their charges, which is often brought up as a concern when disabled students want to dance.
Merry Lynn Morris, assistant program director at University of South Florida's dance program, works with REVolutions Dance. She teaches integrated classes and choreographs works for the company. “I think the fully inclusive spirit and mind-set is the way to go, but when you get down to some practical issues, it makes sense to divide students up and work on particular skill sets (i.e. wheelchair skills). We do have assistants in the class, which makes the flow of the class manageable."
Teachers can also approach students as partners in their own learning—which makes for sound pedagogy, regardless of ability. Schlachte suggests a one-on-one meeting with prospective students and their parents or caregivers. Have the student and parents come and watch a class; to build trust, spend time with the student before they join class. “Find out who this kid is, and what makes them tick," she says. “If you're going to work with a kid in a wheelchair, for example, you really want to make sure you're focusing on their strengths. Maybe they can't move their legs as much, but they can sit up really tall in the chair and really focus on their arms." It comes down to offering “a lot of individualized attention within a structure that's the same for everybody," Schlachte adds. “Teachers need to be patient."
Merry Lynn Morris teaches physically integrated classes for REVolutions Dance, a professional company based in Tampa Bay.
Individualized attention, however, does not mean highlighting students' differences. Schlachte emphasizes the importance of normalizing the presence of disabled students in the studio. Before a new student joins the class, she says, “prepare your other students. 'These students are the same as you.' Introduce them like you would any kid, with no condescension: 'So-and-so is in a wheelchair, and she's still here to dance.'"
Connie Michael, associate dean at University of the Arts, says: “When we do accept a student who's different, we must be very careful not to isolate within a studio. That could happen on so many levels. That's the risk, we have to really pay attention to isolation."
To combat such isolation, Rubinstein incorporates exercises that address particular students' needs into the entire class. For example, “if a student needs vestibular stimulation, I will incorporate that into the warm-up for everyone," she says. “If there's a kid who needs assistance to work across the floor with a physical therapist, then I will have everyone work across the floor in some kind of partnership."
This may all sound like a lot of work for teachers unaccustomed to working with disabled students.
As well, Rubinstein says, “It's really easy for people new to this field to focus on what children are not able to do, as opposed to what they are able to do. It takes a lot of time, collaboration, observation and relationship-building to discern what's important to a child and take them to their next level." Teachers may not feel they have the time or the context to do this work. Other concerns are more practical. Michael says, “In America, we tend to get litigious right away. People ask, 'Do you have insurance? What happens if somebody gets hurt?' People tend to put up roadblocks first instead of looking at the possibilities."
But, she adds, “People get hurt in dance classes all the time." Any responsible teacher, for any group of students, should “provide a pedagogy that minimizes pathways to injury." There's no guarantee, of course, that students will not get hurt, and disabled students (with their caregivers, when appropriate), must understand this just as any other students do.
Paving the Way
An openness to allowing disabled students to participate is not enough. “There's nothing worse than a teacher who agrees to include disabled kids but isn't prepared" says Schlachte. Preparation, on the part of both the teacher and the student, is key.
“Mainstreaming by itself is not always empowering," says Rubinstein. Integrating disabled and typically abled students in class means actually thinking it through, she says, as opposed to just opening the door to disabled students and saying, “Good luck."
But when teachers and students are prepared and open, dance can work its particular transformative magic. All students—disabled and typically bodied—learn how to take up space, says Rubinstein, and how to use their bodies as tools for problem-solving. All students gain a deep appreciation of dance and learn to understand different movement qualities and stretch themselves past their limits.
“If you don't present a program where disabled kids can see themselves as part of a larger dance community, there's no way they're ever going to see themselves as dancers," says Rubinstein. “Maybe even more important, it's changing the culture of the able-bodied kids in the room: understanding the power and strength of their peers who are disabled." And Lunn says, “I believe if more experienced disabled dancers put themselves into mainstream classes, then it will change. The more we stay segregated, the less we will become inclusive."
Teachers, too, can grow their own practice and expand their understanding of what dance can be by integrating disabled students into their classes. Morris says, “I love the way teaching in this context pushes me creatively and makes me think differently about definitions of dance and dance training. It's an opportunity to innovate." Michael completed teacher training with the DanceAbility program. “You're finding incredible ways of moving that you've never imagined," she says. “Different movements come out of you, and you don't even know where they came from. The expressivity of your own body really blossoms, not to mention being in a community with some really remarkable people." DT
Lea Marshall is associate chair of Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Dance & Choreography in Richmond, Virginia.
Teacher Training Programs in Physically Integrated Dance
• Axis Dance Company Teacher Trainings
• Dance Ability Teacher Certification
• Full Radius Dance
• Infinity Dance Theater
One of Bonnie Schlachte's longtime Ballet For All Kids students has peripheral neuropathy. “The pathways from her brain to her nerves don't always tell her the right things. She can't always feel her feet. She's been with me seven years and was supposed to be in a wheelchair by now. When she first started dancing with me, she had to have someone hold her up when she walked; her ankles would give out all the time. Last recital, she did a solo, walked onstage all by herself. It's been remarkable to see her blossom. Now she's going to college, by herself, not in a wheelchair. A lot of it is physical therapy, but a lot of it is the ballet."
“The more I expect from them, they always rise to the challenge." —Bonnie Schlachte
Photos by Sofia Negron, courtesy of Infinity Dance Theater; photos (2) courtesy of REVolutions Dance; photo by Susan Sheridan, courtesy of Ballet for All Kids
Ten educators and choreographers speak on preserving classic modern dance traditions.
While the field of dance grows broader and more eclectic by the day, classic modern dance technique increasingly takes a backseat. It’s not uncommon for young dancers to arrive in New York City to pursue their profession without knowing who Martha Graham was, much less Lester Horton or Alwin Nikolais. Yet modern continues to be the predominant genre your students will encounter in college, and for good reason. Here, educators, many of whom trained directly with the masters, remind us why classic modern dance still matters, and how they keep the work alive and relevant for today’s students.
Elena Demyanenko, on Trisha Brown
Demyanenko performed with Trisha Brown Dance Company from 2009 to 2012. She is on faculty at Bennington College.
“Trisha herself never talked about her moving as a technique or never developed a technique around her kinesthetic intelligence. The approach is that there’s no body identical to another, and each person will struggle with different ideas and concepts. Each will play with her or his own solutions. Stephen [Petronio] and Trisha represent milestones in my own growth and were certainly aware of embodied somatic practices to enhance the incredibly intelligent approach of their own physicality, always in readiness to change the direction and surprise the viewer. That, for the students, allows more virtuosic and complex and idiosyncratic relationships with the parts of their limber or available bodies. If I continue to pass those principles along, I hope it will benefit younger dancers.
Working with Trisha or Stephen for so many years made it clear that technique doesn’t necessarily stop there. The classes I teach at Bennington are centered around the human person as a whole. They’re not limited to the efficient articulation, but I’m looking at wider skills of relationships or understanding of space, real-time composition and ability to communicate and relate to each other. This is not separate, for me, from technique. If I would name things, I can say…the ability to recover, for sure, and keep falling as much as possible. It will teach you to recover.
I think what I’m carrying on from her is that openness to invent, more than anything, since she wasn’t trying to codify herself. It was all about what are the principles that can serve you as an inventor, that can keep opening up perspectives.”
Brown is chair of the dance program at Middlebury College in Vermont. She danced with Urban Bush Women for three seasons as principal performer.
“I’ve worked for companies that have always laid a precedent that dance is a catalyst for becoming human. So I try in my teaching not to alienate the human by focusing so much on the technique itself. All those things come into play, having worked for someone like Chuck Davis, where the communal aspect of dancing is more powerful than the steps themselves. I think the same thing is true for Bill, the way he holds a container of space within the studio—where the ritual of the rehearsal process and the ritual of unearthing the information out of the body transcends the actual movement and takes the ensemble to another level.
The work that Jawole makes might be sparked by her own artistic inquiry, but it’s fulfilled by the people in the room and the way that they/we are divulging ourselves to make the body of work complete. I’m often asking my own students to fill in the gaps, to really make sure that even in something as simple as pliés, they are putting themselves in the canon of information.
There’s one story that I tell my students when they think things are hard: You have no idea what it’s like to graduate from an undergraduate institution that was mostly release technique, and you had one West African class your whole life, and then you get into a West African dance company right out of college, and it’s with Chuck Davis, of all people, and you have peppermint oil in your nose to make sure you can actually keep up the stamina to keep breathing through the set, and he’s in the wing shouting, ‘Let’s go, Christal, let’s go!!!’”
Patrick Corbin, on Paul Taylor
Corbin danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company from 1989 to 2005. He has recently joined the faculty of University of Southern California Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
“Paul doesn’t necessarily have a technique, but a style, a Graham-based style. His influences are great and varied. You’re creating a sense of weight and weight change, and a certain use of the spine that makes a body available for a multitude of dance styles.
I think the contemporary ethic is phenomenal, this new eclectic way, using yoga and ideas out of space, along with postmodern stuff and modern stuff and ballet. It does create a certain kind of movement invention in class. It’s a big tent, and we need it all. These [traditional] exercises and these principles were built on single people’s bodies and minds, and so it’s a real physical connection to them. I just think it’s so important. And it’s fun! Students discover things like, ‘Oh, we can sustain a jumping combination.’ Because that’s something that’s lacking in the whole contemporary movement, being airborne for long periods of time. The floor work is phenomenal, and the movement invention, but they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we never jump. That’s right, so let’s jump.’
Usually a Taylor class is built on exercises from different dances. Within that, you also have some of these iconic shapes and patterns he normally uses. I always give the students an opportunity to experiment in little ways with the Taylor-based exercises, or with some of Paul’s choreography, whether we’re improvising spatially or on some other kind of principle. That’s how I keep it current, to open it up to the young people in class. They are interested in their own process. So, if I can click into what that process is, what’s going on in the dance community right now, then it gets the students jazzed about seeing Paul’s work through their own experience.
The biggest thing I learned from Paul is that you’re trying to get to the truth of a dancer. And I think that is something very important when I’m teaching people to connect with these exercises. Paul says that technique is a means to an end for communication. So we’re trying to communicate through these, at this point, decades-old (and one day they will be centuries-old) exercises that go to our human core.”
Earl Mosley, on Lester Horton
Mosley is on faculty at Montclair State University and The Ailey School in New York City.
“If you don’t have a strong foundation, you’re going to come up short. So I always try to keep students captivated. We might be doing what you’d call a traditional modern dance combination in class, and I’ll throw in a hip-hop element, or funky pedestrian movement combinations, and students love that. But no matter what I do, the warm-up is always built on the foundation of keeping the Horton technique as pure as possible, based on what Ms. [Ana Marie] Forsythe and Milton Myers and other teachers handed down to me.
During those times of Pearl Lang and Ethel Winter and all these great teachers—Denise Jefferson—it was a matter of learning not just the big positions, the end result, but how do you get there, how do you get from one place to another honestly, through doing the work? You have to be clever to help students understand the importance of process. I myself would go see a Taylor Swift concert. I would watch the VMAs, and I will make sure I’m as current as I can be with the latest Beyoncé video. A lot of the dancers who work with those artists, I’ve been fortunate enough to teach. I’ll use them as examples of doing work that demands a versatile dancer. Underneath more contemporary, very edgy, street styles are still strong technical bodies that went through a process of making sure they could speak loudly in many different voices.
I no longer dance, as a dancer, but every now and then I go take Ms. Forsythe’s classes, just to reimmerse myself within the technique. Trying to stay relevant with today’s dancers, it would be so easy to change it. Going back to the source helps me to stay grounded and remember, ‘That’s where this is coming from.’ And how to move it forward so that today’s dancers can say, ‘OK, it’s useful for me.’”
Sandra Neels, on Merce Cunningham
Neels performed with Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1963 to 1973. She is associate professor of dance at Winthrop University in South Carolina.
“I almost think that Merce was the first contemporary teacher, because my idea of contemporary is a fusion between ballet and modern. Because I’m in the South and things are softer down here, as well as hotter, I do something called a lyrical Cunningham. The students seem to really like it because it is much more free-flowing and not as erect all the time. I’ve added things, like threading through a negative space with the opposite body part, to give it more flow. And I did that in Merce’s studio when he was watching, and he didn’t say anything bad to me about it. He liked the class.
His classes were definitely the hardest classes I ever had. He wouldn’t give a lot of hints other than just, ‘Hold your torso, hold everything.’ For him, it was all about being centered. He would say those words, ‘Center yourself.’ But he wouldn’t say how. If anything, now, I use visualization and shapes to refer to, in order to achieve the Cunningham positions that are innate in his technique. I’m changing all the time, and I can’t stay in one place because dance is evolving.”
Miller is distinguished professor in dance at The Ohio State University. She formed the Bebe Miller Company in 1985.
“My experience with Nikolais technique was formative, from age 3 or 4 ’til about 14. The beginning of my own professional training was with Nina Wiener, who came out of Tharp. Working with Nina was more about standing on my leg, ballet influence, really technically hard, which was different from the fun and the snap and the space, and the line and volume and all the abstract, energy/time dynamic that I got from Murray [Louis]. That said, I think that as I’ve gone on, I definitely feel that the things that I ‘rejected’ maybe from Nikolais, I’ve come back to see in another light. I’ve found myself in my composition classes talking about tensile involvement, (which is a direct title of Nik’s) in order to convey something about the inherent dynamic in the body.
I can imitate a Murray phrase like, boop! Your eyebrows go up, and you feel the spirit, and you prance across the floor. That’s not necessarily what I do, but I know where it comes from in me, and I add my own abstraction or substitution of other elements. I’m speaking not necessarily of Nikolais technique, but Murray’s teaching of Nikolais, to be specific. His use of improvisation is deeply rooted in me and is something I feel is utterly necessary for dance training—its sense of abstraction, its sense of width, its sense of dynamic exploration, is in my fundamental tool kit.
I still remember two really specific improv prompts: empty chocolate box and spice jar. Make that happen with six other dancers—jump up and do it. Like all fantastic teachers, I see Murray moving and paying attention to us. My choices of how I want to give over information are related to him. Not that I do what he did, but I have that as some kind of a reflective base, to either move away from or toward.”
Lewis danced with the José Limón Dance Company from 1962 to 1974. He is founding dean of dance (retired) for New World School of the Arts in Miami.
“The thing about Limón technique is every teacher teaches it differently. José never codified his technique. He did that deliberately. He didn’t believe that any movement or any teaching could only be done one way. Therefore, a lot of us have our own approaches. We all come up with our own terminology. José had his. He always talked about the body as an orchestra, and each part of the body is a different part of the orchestra.
I don’t feel a loyalty to maintain José’s technique the way he taught it. I feel a loyalty to the style he created. José once said in a commencement speech at Juilliard, “Don’t spit in the face of tradition. Remember the old girl, your mother.” And it makes sense. You’ve got to have something to go from. My loyalty does lie with José, but I’m open to taking it wherever it needs to go.
How do you achieve José’s style? It’s a universal technique—it’s not like Graham; it’s freer. It’s built on gravity: how you fight away from gravity and how you give in to gravity. The giving in is probably more important, because other techniques have always fought gravity. When I teach it, I add centering to it, which comes from my ballet background.”
A Fulbright-Hays scholar steeped in African Diaspora dance, music and theater, Sherrod is chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University dance department.
“When Dunham was creating this work, there was not a lot of opportunity for black people to study dance. It was catch-as-catch-can. I call it teaching from scratch; she pulled a lot of things together. It’s a very holistic approach to teaching. You’re not only teaching movement, but the meaning behind the movement—the breathing, why the student wants to dance, how you’re engaging the student in understanding the importance of dance, preparing the student for performance, preparing the student to work in ensemble, preparing the student to make certain kinds of choices, understanding the musicality, understanding the origins of some of the movement, the rhythms, the songs.
I recall once in a class, in Ms. Dunham’s last three years of teaching, she did something that veered from the way it had been done. One of the Dunham people whispered in her ear, tried to correct her, and she said, ‘Well, it has to evolve, and that’s the way we’re doing it now.’ She was about 95 or so when she said that. She was always talking about the evolution and the development of the practice and the technique. But at the same time holding onto the fundamental aspect of what it is: this system that would allow dancers to learn a technique that had their bodies ready, open and available to learn any kind of dancing.”
Katherine Duke, on Erick Hawkins
Duke was a member of Erick Hawkins Dance Company from 1986 to 1991. She is now artistic director of the Erick Hawkins Dance Foundation.
“I think Erick’s floor work was the first time I ever found my center. It opened the door to flexibility, and then not tensing the muscles—the letting go. It’s a good letting go that can make these incredible changes happen. I try really hard not to change the floor work. I do add stuff in, because I think you have to do that just to be real. But as far as the work, the technique, I really try hard to stay very close to what I was doing when I was working with him, and what he showed me and inspired me to do.
I do try to share Erick with students, in a real sense. My favorite quote is, ‘The natural state of man’s mind is delight.’ I think Erick is the epitome of that, because when your body is moving the way it should be moving and you’ve got that conscious, in-tune mind, and your soul is dancing out through all that, it is delightful.
At the end of class I ask, ‘Did you do something that you liked today, or that you didn’t like?’ I ask them to share. I like to know that they learned something. It’s very important to me that they don’t just go and have a workout. To me, that’s the technique. It’s mind, body, soul; it’s not just physical.”
Deborah Zall, on Martha Graham
Zall has made a career as a solo dance artist. She has been on the faculty of the Martha Graham School and conducts independent workshops in Graham technique.
“I teach the orthodox technique. It’s exactly what Martha Graham taught me. I think we have to keep that orthodoxy alive in order to understand and do the repertory, because the repertory comes out of that technique. I may change a count, or the musicality may change, but the fundamental technique is there. The floor work, the falls, the knee work, everything I know. The internalization, the organic thrust, that it’s within the body, that it’s the body that does the movement. It’s not the arms or the shoulders or the back—it’s from the pelvis.
When I was at Juilliard, we were doing the turns around the back. Martha was teaching and she ran up to me and slapped me across the face. She said, ‘It is not face-body; it is body-face. And so when you move, you move from here’—and she hit her pelvis—‘not from there,’ and she hit me again. And I will never forget that, and I tell the story to my class whenever I’m teaching it. I also tell the story as an illustration of the movement coming from the pelvis. And that I remember. I didn’t wash my face for a week.
The thing that we have to understand is that the Graham technique comes from the inside out, not from the outside in. We were taught with images. Give students something that they can relate to, like, ‘You’re embracing someone with the contraction.’ Or the breath: ‘You’re crying, you’re laughing.’ That’s what they’re going to do when they perform, I hope.”
Photos (from top): by Julieta Cervantes; by Johan Elbers, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; Alan Kimara Dixon, courtesy of Christal Brown; courtesy of DM archives; by Lois Greenfield, courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company; Jack Mitchell, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; Paul B. Goode, courtesy of PTDC; courtesy of Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts; Matthew Murphy; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; by James Klosty, courtesy of Merce Cunningham Trust; Annie Leibovitz, courtesy of MC Trust; Julieta Cervantes, courtesy of Bebe Miller Company; Fred Hayes, courtesy The Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance; by Rose Eichenbaum, courtesy of New World School of the Arts; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; courtesy of Sherrod; Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The NYPL for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; Nan Melville, courtesy of the photographer; courtesy of DM archives
With 4 tips on how to choose a program
"I always knew I wanted to teach dance,” says Tawny Garcia, who studied dance as part of her high school’s program. Though she was sure she wanted to teach in a public school, earning a dance education degree didn’t initially occur to her. So she began studying elementary education at a California community college. “But after two years of that,” she says, “I thought, ‘This doesn’t seem right for me.’ I ended up switching to be a dance major.” She transferred to The University of Texas at Austin just when the dance department’s education degree launched: “It was exactly what I was looking for,” she says.
Programs like UT Austin’s give dancers the chance to earn skills and credentials necessary for K–12 teaching certification. Typical dance coursework, like technique class and composition, is offered alongside education courses and at least a semester of student-teaching. With a dance education degree, students get all the benefits of a standard BFA— like collegiate-level training—but with a few extras: guaranteed career options and the know-how to advocate for dance education.
From Graduation to Employment (Attn: Parents!)
A dance ed degree, unlike a typical dance BFA, comes with built-in job prospects immediately upon graduation. “One hundred percent of our dance ed students who complete the Michigan teacher certification requirements get employed,” says Wayne State University professor Eva Powers. That’s an appealing statistic for parents reluctant to let their kids major in a field as unpredictable as dance. Even if students plan to pursue performance or choreography careers, odds are that they’ll have to teach at some point to sustain a living—and they’ll be more marketable with teaching experience under their belts. Those who plan to teach in a studio setting, too, will be better qualified than non–dance ed BFA grads: They’ll learn basic pedagogy and classroom management and get practical experience.
Bottom line, the dance ed degree makes a difference to potential employers. “We developed this degree because we found that we had a number of dancers who had to find ways to receive their certification in order to compete in this job market,” says Lyn Wiltshire, UT Austin’s department head.
No Sacrifice Necessary
Students who dedicate themselves to a dance education degree don’t need to sacrifice the typical BFA experience, rich in performance and choreography. Dance ed students experience many (if not all) of the opportunities that their BFA peers enjoy, until the final semesters of their degree track.
At Radford University in Virginia and UT Austin, for example, the first two years include the same coursework in technique, performance and creative classes for all majors, regardless of track. At Wayne State, dance ed requirements are layered on top of either the BFA or the BS dance tracks—there are zero missed opportunities.
Dance ed grad Sarah Hayes performed in at least two productions a semester while at Radford. Though her final year was challenging (she juggled writing lesson plans, attending evening rehearsals, commuting 75 miles round-trip for student teaching and squeezing in adviser meetings), she found it “extremely rewarding” to be able to perform so frequently. Radford’s dance ed program, she says, didn’t scrimp on her artistry.
One important benefit of a dance ed degree is often overlooked: Students gain valuable skills as advocates for dance education. After all, they’ll be intimately familiar with the value of dance in the classroom, says Powers. “I hammer that into their delicate minds over and over again in classes,” she jokes.
At UT Austin, students take courses on state and national teaching standards, behavior and time management, curriculum design, how to work with at-risk and differently abled populations and developing relationships with administration. They’ll even have “the knowledge and skills to navigate external resources and funding sources,” says Wiltshire. Dance ed students graduate with their teaching philosophies, lesson plans, letters of intent and even teaching video reels ready-made—they are well-equipped for life after college.
Hayes, who now teaches at a private middle school and a studio, thinks that the confidence, authority and experience she earned as part of her dance ed degree distinguish her experience from non–dance ed majors. “Knowing how high Radford’s expectations are and just how hard I had to work to obtain my degree,” she says, “I can honestly say if I were given the chance to repeat it, I wouldn’t change my decision.” DT
Lea Marshall is associate chair of dance at Virginia Commonwealth University and a frequent DT contributor.
What to Look for When Choosing a Dance Education Program
Location Where you want to live after graduation should shape which programs you consider, since most schools offer teaching certification only in their state. But there are exceptions: Radford’s BS degree is recognized by 43 states (though additional criteria may be required).
Balance Dance education programs that build on the foundation of a BFA curriculum allow students to cultivate skills in performance, choreography and improvisation and knowledge of dance history and anatomy. At UT Austin, “everybody is on the same playing field in their first and second year,” says department head Lyn Wiltshire. “Physical process, creative process, somatic practice, scholarly practice and performance practice are exactly the same in the first two years, and then the [dance ed] students veer off.”
Hands-on experience Programs with hands-on teaching experience allow students to bridge what they learn in education classes with dance. Radford, Wayne State and UT Austin all include a semester of student teaching in the public school system for their dance ed students.
Is the program linked to licensure? The teaching certification or license granted through most dance ed degrees confers the ability to teach in public schools. But for the student who wants to teach in a studio, a program that offers a dance ed degree without licensure could be a more direct option. —LM
Photo by Tom Hikaru Lim, courtesy of Hayes
California Institute for the Arts offers the first massive online open course in dance.
The idea of online learning in dance is both laughable and profound. Laughable because, as we all know, the studio experience is central to learning dance technique and cannot be replaced or yet effectively replicated digitally. Profound because, in certain contexts, online learning has the power to bring more people to dance than we can imagine. Exhibit A: the 11,000-plus who signed up for Stephan Koplowitz’s online course, Creating Site-Specific Dance and Performance Works.
Koplowitz, dean of dance at California Institute for the Arts, has built his artistic career creating and theorizing about site-specific work. When he heard that CalArts had signed on with Coursera, one of the primary platforms for what are called MOOCs (massive online open courses), he immediately began thinking about a potential online dance course.
The university leadership was dubious. But, says Koplowitz, “I explained to them that I had been teaching and making site work for more than 28 years, and that I developed a very clear methodology about how to produce it. I had something very clear to teach that would work very well, visually, on this platform, since many of the examples would be visual and include work from all over the world.” Within three minutes, he says, they were intrigued.
A Word About MOOCs
Coursera partners with universities to offer free online education in many different disciplines, ranging from Buddhist philosophy to biology. The free versions of these courses do not offer academic credit. In many cases, however, students can sign up and pay a nominal fee to earn a Verified Certificate for the course.
The idea behind offering free content, says Koplowitz, is to draw students in. He notes that CalArts, like most universities, partners with Coursera to offer a glimpse of what happens on campus, particularly the high-quality teaching. Coursera enables universities to reach students from around the world who perhaps have never heard of them before.
“For me,” says Koplowitz, “it was a combination of pure interest from an intellectual, artistic point of view, and the fact that as the dean of dance at CalArts, I saw this as an opportunity for us to say to the world, ‘Hey, here we are!’ The idea that a course like this could potentially unleash new artistic activity around the world was really exciting.”
Seven-Month Roller Coaster
Koplowitz proposed his course in February 2013. Right away, he had to write a basic course description for the Coursera site. “That page went up in two or three weeks of me volunteering to do this, and it was really like getting on a roller coaster. Every week hundreds of people were signing up for it. And I was thinking, ‘Oh, God, thousands of people are signing up for a class that doesn’t even exist yet!’” The course launched that September.
Creating Site-Specific Dance and Performance Works consists of 10 hours of recorded lectures, quizzes, assignments and discussion forums. Once Koplowitz began working on the lectures, he realized he wanted to incorporate more than just his own voice. “I felt in particular with this topic that I needed to interview other people and I needed to show context and history, and I needed to imbed my topic with as many visuals as possible because it’s a visual medium.” This meant requesting rights to material and conducting interviews of other artists—all quite time-consuming.
The time crunch was intense. “All these things were going on simultaneously between March and September,” he says. “Looking at getting the rights; getting/producing the interviews; the writing and designing of my lectures. Then it was a matter of working with my videographer.” They recorded all 10 hours of lectures during two weeklong recording sessions. “Having to actually perform for the camera is really different from speaking to a classroom of students,” says Koplowitz. “It was an exhausting process; it was very rigorous, actually.”
The World Was Watching
By September, more than 11,000 students had registered, although that number dropped to 6,000 by the first day of classes. Each week for five weeks, says Koplowitz, about 1,000 people dropped out, until by the end, the registration hovered around 1,200. This is a typical pattern for MOOCs, which tend to keep 5 to 10 percent of the students who registered initially. But while those initial, staggering numbers may drop substantially, the global reach of these courses remains a major draw. Koplowitz’s students represented 152 countries.
In addition, he estimates that 50 percent of them were not specifically dance artists. “We had students who were dancers, theater people, visual artists, musicians and filmmakers,” he says. The diversity of nationalities and backgrounds, even those who did not remain active in the course, thrilled Koplowitz. “I couldn’t believe that many people were remotely interested.”
José Pérez of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was more than interested. In an e-mail, he shared how he came to sign up for the course. “As a theater-maker I am in love with creating site-specific work. I had been pursuing it on my own for a few years before I took Steve’s course, but never had any sort of formal training in it. I happened to be perusing Coursera after following a link speaking about ‘free online courses.’ At first I couldn’t believe that such a thing existed. Then to see that there was an upcoming course in creating site-specific dance?! Crazy…It was thrilling that there was a place and people in the world committed to the same thing that I was.”
Michelle Cox, of Bridgetown, Barbados, is a theater artist with a background in dance performance and a love for performing in nontraditional spaces. She jumped at the opportunity the course offered, she wrote in an e-mail, since “here in Barbados we don’t have many dedicated performance spaces, and I felt that the course would be useful in helping me to conceptualize how we could use alternative spaces for performance work—especially theater.”
As September drew closer, Koplowitz grew anxious. He and his team were still editing lecture videos, ultimately keeping a week or two ahead of the students once the course launched. Also, he says, “I felt a little exposed, being the first dance course offered” as a MOOC.
The launch went relatively smoothly minus a few technical glitches, such as students having trouble using a Google map when asked to note their location on it. (These problems have since been resolved.)
For those students who fully engaged with the course (as in most MOOCs, students could participate as much or as little as they wished), the forums became central to their learning experience. “I didn’t realize how powerful the forums were going to be in the sense that it put a face on the students,” says Koplowitz. “It really energized people and made it clear in a very immediate manner the impact the course was having on people. We were getting instant feedback.”
A critical aspect of the course was peer-assessed assignments, since it would be impossible for the instructor to assess hundreds or thousands of assignments. Koplowitz tried to be as present as possible, however, reading and responding on the forum. “But you see,” he says, “this is the interesting and powerful part of a MOOC: If you design it properly, it will sustain itself.”
Cox wrote: “I think the structure of the course was fantastic! ...The practical assignments really helped to put things into context. There was also very easy access to Stephan and the other community teaching assistants through the online forums. Finally, the peer assessment of practical work was truly useful—it allowed us to broaden our scope/understanding of site-specific work and was also encouraging to get feedback and suggestions from our peers around the globe.”
For Koplowitz, teaching the MOOC unexpectedly reinvigorated his whole approach to and appreciation for teaching and artistic practice. First, he says, pulling together his entire collected body of knowledge on site-specific performance was exhilarating. “I now have this real overview on my own knowledge that was in different parts of my brain and all came together and into focus. That felt very good.”
As well, he says, “I was meeting online and sort of witnessing how people were receiving this information, using it, how it resonated with them, from all these different countries and backgrounds. Not just dance folk, but musicians and theater people and visual artists. It made me feel like I was just beginning. I’ve been doing this for like 28, 29 years, but oh, my gosh, this is like a new beginning for me.” DT
Lea Marshall is associate chair of dance at Virginia Commonwealth University and a frequent DT contributor.
Content Is King
Stephan Koplowitz created and videotaped 10 hours of lectures for his massive online open course, Creating Site-Specific Dance and Performance Works. In addition to the recorded lectures, the course includes quizzes, assignments for peer assessment and discussion forums. For example, the first assignment is to “explore your neighborhood, city or region and see what sites and spaces inspire you,” writes Koplowitz. “The purpose of this assignment is to get you thinking and looking at the world in a different way and to permit you to go through a selection process before we deconstruct the experience later in the course.” Students were to find two locations and consider how a performance might be viewed by an audience. For each site, they submitted a 100-word description, a 100- to 200-word audience design summary and four photographs.
2014 Course Syllabus
Week 1: History & Context (1:14:30)
Course Welcome and Overview (9:02)
Why Make Site-Specific Work? (12:35)
Defining Four Categories of Site-Specificity (Part 1) (9:05)
Defining Four Categories of Site-Specificity (Part 2) (15:57)
The Origins of Modern Dance in Relation to Site Work (16:10)
Contemporary Dance Innovators (11:33)
Week 2: Working from the Outside In (1:02:13)
How Do You Select a Site? (8:37)
Getting Permission (18:53)
Designing the Event, Structuring the Audience (18:45)
Performers and Your Budget (XX:XX)
Making Decisions That Create Budget Lines (15:58)
Week 3: Research & Staging (1:21:28)
Introduction & Site Inventory (14:07)
Researching the Site: History (13:41)
Researching the Site: Current Use (9:10)
Researching the Site: Community (9:18)
“Reading” the Site & Staging Your Work (14:43)
A Demonstration: Examples of Site Inventory (20:29)
Week 4: Technical Considerations (1:44:35)
Generating Content (24:24)
Creating Your Sound (25:33)
Lighting Design (20:24)
Week 5: Creative & Production Challenges, Part 1 (1:40:20)
Rehearsal Process (15:28)
Working in Urban Environments (14:42)
Working in Natural Environments (10:07)
Production Roles, Part 1 (7:14)
Production Roles, Part 2 (19:00)
Week 6: Creative & Production Challenges, Part 2 (1:48:51)
Budgeting and Fundraising (23:13)
Promotion and Marketing (16:10)
Last Words (19:20)
Photos from top: courtesy of Stephan Koplowitz; by Scott Groller, courtesy of Koplowitz; courtesy of CalArts
For many young dancers, leaving their home studio to enter a college dance program can come as a shock—like diving into a pool and forgetting how to swim. Often, they’re asked to engage with dance in strikingly different ways than they have before. Freshmen dance majors who are accustomed to measuring their success in very specific ways—by their class level at their studio, or by their score from judges at a competition—may suddenly be at a loss in an improvisation class or a modern dance class that asks them to begin lying down in the X position.
As their studio teacher, you’re charged with the task of making that transition from studio to college as smooth as possible—by preparing your students well for the new world of college dance and, consequently, instilling confidence in them. “The more confident the student who steps into our program, the more sense they have of who they are and what they’re capable of,” says Stephan Koplowitz, dean of the dance department at Cal Arts. Here are three challenges a college freshman often faces in a modern-based college dance department—and strategies for you to meet them head-on and start cultivating that confidence.
Talk About It: What Is Dance?
Many freshmen dance majors come to college with a fairly narrow understanding of what dance is. They are usually only familiar with ballet, jazz, tap and contemporary, and they’ve devoted most of their time to preparing for recitals or competitions.
Help your students expand their understanding of dance by “planning a field trip to see a dance show that is not a Western European concert dance performance,” says Karen Schupp, a professor at Arizona State University. An African or classical Indian dance performance can immediately broaden their perceptions.
“Opportunities for students to talk and write about what they’re experiencing and seeing could go a long way toward preparing them for college,” says Schupp. A good way to do this is to encourage your students to deepen their thinking about dance. “If they go to a competition and watch lots of pieces, ask them why a particular dance was outstanding,” she says. “If they respond, ‘The dancer did 32 fouetté turns,’ ask what beyond that made the dance outstanding.” In this way, “students can start to articulate what it is that made them have that visceral response. So they’re practicing finding depth in their experience.”
Shake It Up: What Is Technique?
Another challenge for freshmen dance majors is the introduction of new teaching styles and techniques, often including a somatics-based (or mind-body technique) approach. Their definition of technique must shift to encompass more information about how the body works and what progress means. A goal of a college technique class might be “developing somatic awareness—specifically, how your pelvis relates to gravity,” says Schupp. Though she testifies that somatic approaches to technique are something students come to value, it’s difficult for them to accept that in the first semester. Karen Bradley, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, remembers a student returning for her sophomore year and asking, “Are we going to have to lie on the floor and breathe again?” Bradley says she looked at her and said, “Every day, sweetheart, every day.”
Prepare your students by taking occasional breaks from mastering certain technical feats or learning a new routine to offer master classes in different dance forms or styles new to them. Finding teachers from outside the studio—especially those from colleges—to lead classes in Horton, Cunningham, flamenco or Afro-Caribbean will give your dancers a taste of what awaits them in a college program. Try starting your own classes with a focused breathing exercise or even a short meditation, getting students to link breath with movement and focus on their core. Shake up your ballet class with a floor barre, or begin jazz with a Pilates-inspired warm-up.
Open Doors: What Is Choreography?
A third challenge for new college dancers revolves around dancemaking. According to Koplowitz, when it comes to choreography, there is a big learning curve. “All of a sudden students are put in the position of having to create movement and come up with solutions to movement problems,” he says. “They tend to enter college having just learned a lot of steps.”
Give your students the opportunity to be leaders, whether as choreographers or rehearsal or class assistants. “They’ll leave with some sense of their ability to have a vision and direct other people,” says Koplowitz. “If students don’t understand how movement is made or what the concerns and pressures of a choreographer are, they won’t be sensitive performers and collaborators in college.”
Rather than stressing a single-minded focus on comparison or competition with your students, Koplowitz advises giving them a creative problem to solve, allowing them to express themselves and gain confidence. Ask your students to create their own transition between two sections of a routine or even improvise a few eight-counts. “They’ll see that they have their own unique voice,” he says. With that knowledge—and confidence—in hand, your students will be ready to tackle anything that comes their way in college dance. DT
Lea Marshall is a freelance writer and associate chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance and Choreography.
It’s a high school senior’s worst nightmare. Sarah Lustbader, now a dancer with Catherine Cabeen - Hyphen and CabinFever, was rejected by all of her first-choice colleges. The New Mexico native dreamed of living in New York City, and she had applied unsuccessfully to New York University/Tisch School of the Arts, SUNY Purchase, Barnard and Fordham. “I found myself with no college to go to, which was devastating,” she says. “I felt like a failure.”
College admissions season gives students the jitters, with good reason. Top-tier programs accept a limited number of students (Juilliard, for example, accepts approximately eight percent of applicants to their Dance Division), meaning many young dancers inevitably face rejection from their top-choice schools. Teachers can support their students through the applications/admissions roller coaster by focusing on three Rs: research, reality checks and recovery from disappointment.
Research: Know the Programs, Know the Options
Acceptance into a college program rarely hinges on multiple pirouettes or a six o’clock penchée. Students can be rejected for reasons beyond a simple lack of training or technical proficiency. Karen Bradley, associate professor at the University of Maryland, notes that a poor understanding of UM’s program and faculty may be grounds for rejection. Students must research programs they’re interested in to determine whether and how they fit their interests, and vice versa. This way, during an audition or interview, they can articulate why they’re a good candidate for the school and demonstrate an understanding of its offerings.
Your students may be naturally drawn to top-tier programs, but make sure their list includes multiple options. Encourage them to search for schools based on program characteristics, rather than simply reputation or location. Dancers need to look deeply at what each school offers, keeping in mind a list of questions. (Is the program ballet- or modern-focused? What is the curriculum? Does it emphasize dancemaking?) The answers should help dancers assemble a range of programs that reflect their interests, including second- and third-choice schools. Of course they should try for their top choice. But, as Lustbader notes, “I should have had a couple of other options as well, instead of having all my eggs in one basket.”
A well-researched list of program options should also be prioritized based on admissions deadlines and audition dates. Dancers should plan out their audition schedules well in advance and know when they can expect to hear from each school, so they can adjust their plans, if necessary.
Reality Check: Know the Student
Know your student’s strengths and weaknesses, and be honest about them. Encourage her to aim high, while also guiding her toward programs that best suit her abilities. Look at dance techniques your student has been exposed to and ask where he or she shines the brightest. If he is lacking in ballet technique, say so. If you see great creative potential in her choreography, make sure she knows it. The more students know about their talents from experienced observers, the better they can determine which college programs are right for them.
Also, encourage students to articulate—for themselves and on applications—what they want from a dance degree, and where their other interests lie. Bradley says applicants may be rejected from UM if it seems “they haven’t thought about what they want to do in dance; they only seem to want to be accepted into the program, and then figure it out.” Susan Van Pelt Petry, chair of dance at The Ohio State University, adds that demonstrated interests beyond dance are a plus. “We like to see evidence of intellectual curiosity, and ability to make connections across different disciplines,” she says.
Recovery: Embrace Possibilities
If your students are rejected, be ready to console them and help them regroup. Let them know they have options, and discuss possible strategies for moving forward. For instance, they could apply to a new round of schools, attend a backup school for a year and try to transfer, or even take a year off to focus on their training. Some dancers might also consider entering their top-choice school (if admitted) as a nonmajor, and re-auditioning for the dance program later.
After Alex Tenreiro Theis was rejected from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she enrolled as a dance major at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In hindsight, she realizes she was unprepared for NYU’s conservatory training and had little choreographic experience. After attending CU-Boulder for one year, Theis re-auditioned for NYU—feeling much better prepared the second time around. “Having that freshman year to grow up and explore my technique matured my dance styling quite a bit,” she says. After her second audition, she was admitted to NYU, where she’s currently a sophomore.
Remind students, too, that being rejected by their preferred college doesn’t mean they won’t find success somewhere else. Lustbader attended Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle after auditioning via video (the dance auditions had already ended). Looking back, she marvels at the unexpected opportunities that emerged. “I was challenged in ways I never expected. [Cornish’s] program was so different than the others I’d looked at,” she says. “I thought I knew what path was in front of me, but then it redirected in ways I could have never imagined.” DT
Lea Marshall is interim chair of the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance.
High school students looking to dance in college often can't turn to the usual sources for savvy college admissions advice. Their guidance counselor is unlikely to have specialized exposure to dance programs, and things have changed since the college days of their studio instructors. That's what makes college-hosted summer intensives such a great resource when you want to set your graduating dancers on the proper path.