EYE ON DANCE
Arts Resources in Collaboration, Inc.
Imagine listening in on a conversation between choreographer Erick Hawkins and mask-maker Ralph Lee as they discuss their collaborative process for costume design; or watching Edward Villella reveal his history with Balanchine; or hearing Alvin Ailey talk about the early days of forming his company. These are just a few examples of the in-depth video interviews in EYE ON DANCE (1981–2006), a PBS weekly television series created, produced and hosted by former dancer and choreographer Celia Ipiotis.
“I cannot imagine teaching dance history or theory without using this invaluable series,” says Sally Sommer, dance historian and professor at Florida State University. “My students regularly turn to these video archives, which my university library owns, for hard-to-find primary-source material.”
Viewers can find a media archive of excerpts from Ipiotis’ interviews on the website, as well as a list of select EYE ON DANCE programs available for purchase. (Select “Media Library” from the right-hand column on the website to search by artist or dance category.) The complete series can be viewed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts or purchased by educational institutions and libraries. Ipiotis is currently raising funds to digitize the extensive archive, which includes source material never seen publicly—raw videotape footage, handwritten communications, rare photographs and publications.
Teaching Creative Dance Through the Foundations of Dance Language: Space, Time, Weight and Energy
I have discovered, over many years as a dance artist, that the art of teaching young children does not differ much from the creative process involved in making adult choreography. Therefore, it seems important to create a class that subconsciously embeds the fundamentals of dance language that all dancers will need to employ: weight, time, space and energy. Early exposure to these concepts, in a kid-friendly way, can make a difference in the soul of a child and in his or her development as a future dancer and as a confident, imaginative individual.
Pre-K children (ages 4 and 5) are eager to pretend and speak through their bodies, improvising to stories, poems and songs. My creative movement class is designed to meet the children on their developmental level and challenge them to explore the incremental baby steps that will lead to greater awareness and confidence in life.
I try to utilize many teaching examples from authorities in the field. Then, I make them my own, or come up with my own ideas, valuing my own skills, personality, experience and intuition. Here is how I shape my 45-minute class into three 15-minute time components: "The Warm-Up"; "Movement Makers"; and "Steps and Patterns."
"The Warm-Up" begins with children sitting in a circle. Colorful rubberized "dots" on the floor act as visual place markers, defining the space we will use. The movement focus of the warm-up circle is an age-appropriate study of the technique of the body: How does my body move? With live piano accompaniment, we sing many simple childhood songs in unison, like "Head and Shoulders, Baby," "Sally Go Round the Sun," "Forward and Back, Bobolinka." We move through various simple yoga and Pilates positions, like "The Cobra," discovering how body parts move in isolation and are then integrated into whole body activity. Fun problem-solving questions ask children to find points of balance with their bodies, like balancing on one foot/one hand, on 10 fingers/10 toes or flipping upside down to find balance on two shoulders.
We explore weight exchange and levels in space with body shapes often by giving names to the shapes: "the table," "the bridge," "the chair," "the ladder." By reaching up high and climbing down eight steps of an imaginary spatial ladder with our hands while the pianist plays descending notes on the musical scale, we explore steps in abstract space. I then ask the children to hold onto, for example, the eighth high step with their hands, and the second step with their foot. Immediately, all can find balance on one foot because of the imaginary support of "rungs on the ladder" in space. Unknowingly, the children have created symmetrical and asymmetrical technical use of parallel arms and legs together.
When the time seems right, we travel around the center circle using songs that children love to sing and dance to: "Shoo Fly," "Skip to My Lou" and "Walking, Walking," experimenting with hops, skips, jumps, walks and runs. Having a live musician allows us to experiment with various time elements—meters and tempos—so that the children try to control their own bodies in time and space, using slow, medium or fast support.
We end the warm-up with a favorite folk dance called "Chimes of Dunkirk," which incorporates clapping, stomping, circling with a partner and then choosing a new partner. Children explore space, time, weight, energy and socialization quite naturally by dancing and moving in unison to an engaging, traditional song and dance, bringing the worldview of dance to a very young learner.
"Movement Makers" usually involves a poem, story, picture, song or question that inspires children to use their bodies as instruments and storytellers, improvising, pretending and exploring in space and in time to music. I often use beautiful pictures as motivational tools: A picture of a pretzel will help them think about a curved and twisted shape; a picture of fireworks will inspire sprightly percussive jumps and reaches through space.
Stuffed animals serve as visual aids as I manipulate them, encouraging the children to explore the technique of how an animal moves. The "elephant" asks them to shift balance from one side of their body: right arm/right leg together, to left leg/left arm together, developing center balance and coordination, and exploring heavy weight-shifting.
"Steps and Patterns" involves props, too: hula hoops, plastic dots, a bamboo stick. Each week, I lay the props out in different visual patterns around the room. Recently: hoop, hoop, hoop, dot, dot, and repeat that pattern. Then, each child participates individually in passing through the pattern with his or her body. Ideally, this pattern would ask for one foot, the other foot, one foot, then jumping with two feet together on each dot. The pianist then repeats this musical pattern. The children love this gross-motor, task-oriented exercise, and it usually ends with a grand jeté exercise of running and leaping over the stick. This shifting of weight and coordination of baby steps simulates the same type of large movement through space experienced at the end of an adult technique class.
The class finishes in the original starting circle to once again support emotional security, closure and "reverence" after an exciting movement experience. We express the satisfaction and success of working together creatively. DT
Mary Seidman is artistic director of Mary Seidman and Dancers in New York City. She teaches children of all ages at Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, NY, and directed her own school of dance for children in NYC for 10 years. Seidman is a guest artist and adjunct professor at colleges and universities and earned an MS at Lesley University, Cambridge, MA, and an MFA through the Hollins University/American Dance Festival program.
"I'm not just teaching classes, I'm teaching lessons. I am teaching learning that focuses on personal experience, starting with the child as the artist. Every class lesson has a focus. I write a sheet for parents on what the focus of the class is: goals, activities. This is real learning: how the learning in dance is learning in life." —Dr. Rima Faber, founding president of National Dance Education Organization and chair of the task force that developed NDEO's Standards for Dance in Early Childhood, available at www.ndeo.org
"In Pre-K, I begin to introduce ritualized sequences of entering and exiting the dance space, which become norms for all age groups. Single-file entrance, seating, shoe removal. Even these seemingly simple preparations become important control factors for efficient use of time, respectful behaviors and focused attention." —Catherine Gallant, choreographer and educator, PS 89, New York, NY
The story of Peter Rabbit can be used as a springboard for learning by asking the children to explore the space around Peter's rabbit hole: "The springboard idea is the visual image of the old gnarled tree where the bunnies live, and the movement concept is the shape of the roots and the negative and positive space they create and how one moves in and out of these spaces."—Mary Ann Lee, director, University of Utah Virginia Tanner Creative Dance Program, from her article, "Learning Through the Arts"
More than Hopping like Bunnies
"The elements of weight, space, time and energy are truly about how one relates to her environment.
When a child understands space, she is able to share, get into lines at school, honor another's space and feel safe.
Understanding the element of time helps children with impulse control and frustration tolerance. It also helps them move toward something they need and away from something that is overstimulating.
A balanced sense of weight allows a person to release and trust and also stand in one's power and get what they need.
Energy or flow shows us how one expresses herself in the world. Are emotions free-flowing, with no control, or so controlled they stay bound inside? Teaching a balance between these two extremes can help children safely express their emotions."
—Candy Beers, dance therapist, Richmond, VA
Photo by Matthew Murphy at Mark Morris Dance Center
"Technique is a way to facilitate, in the simplest sense, how to move,” said Merce Cunningham, who, besides his world-class reputation as a choreographer, was also a master teacher and mentor. His daily classes at the WestBeth studio in New York City trained some of the most brilliant and gifted dancers of all time. As early as 1967, Cunningham determined, “My work is, or at least, what I attempt to do, is to take each person for what they are, both in the teaching and in the making of dances, and to try to find out what it is they are as dancers, and make that come out.”
Like Merce, college-level modern dance teachers are responsible for the training and formation of young students who will become performers with stage careers or professionals in other fields. As part of her work in the Hollins University/American Dance Festival MFA program, choreographer Mary Seidman conducted interviews with teachers in the college setting. The five featured on the next few pages have developed exemplary approaches in their studio classrooms and share a common mission: to create expressive performers and sensitive human beings, as well as virtuoso technicians.
Assistant Dean and Professor of Dance
University of North Carolina School of the Arts
Winston Salem, North Carolina
On faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts since 1995 (and assistant dean of contemporary dance since 2004), Brenda Daniels is also a
popular and well-respected teacher at the American Dance Festival held at Duke University in Durham, NC. She has taught at the Cunningham Studio in NYC and directed the Brenda Daniels Dance Company from 1985 to 1995. She holds a BFA in dance from Purchase College and an MFA in dance from Hollins University/ American Dance Festival.
"I love teaching the Cunningham technique class and creating an environment where, for an hour and a half each day, students can have the sacred time in their busy schedules to just concentrate on themselves and feel complete. I encourage my students to discover that there are new things to learn each day, and I work hard to create a positive, neutral environment, where I am patient but have high expectations of each student. I love using humor to enliven the class so that students feel dance as a joyful experience.
“I see technique as the ability to take the body and be able to express more, to become more versatile in an anatomically correct way. Pelvic placement is the key to good technique, so I stress anatomical alignment and awareness.
“I tailor class to the appropriate level so that students can feel successful. I like developing a class where the daily format is the same each day, much like the progression of a ballet class, where there is a predictable warm-up but a variety of phrases and tempos from day to day. This allows the student to feel comfortable mentally, knowing what to expect, and then they can really concentrate physically on executing the movements within each part of the warm-up. The pace of the class must always be flowing, not too much talking and correcting, so that by the end of class, you have not run out of time and the dancers can really dig in to the movement, repeating it several times so that they can become more extravagant with how they dance and develop the phrase.
“After 25 years as a teacher, I have become quite efficient in teaching combinations. I try to blend ways of showing/describing the combination, using all of these tools at once: I will demonstrate a movement with my own body, teach the phrase using counts and describe the phrase, either with the names of the steps, or through imagery.
“For our first-year students who might be slow at learning combinations, I offer them the same class two days in a row, asking them to work on the phrases with a friend as homework after the first class, and then come to class the second day knowing the phrases better and feeling more successful.
“One of my early teachers made me feel very special as a dancer and therefore confident. In conjunction with this quiet good will, he had the best concrete technical information I’ve ever known. I work to achieve this with my students and try my best to give some form of response to each dancer every day and to offer praise when it is due.”
Lecturer and Teacher
Purchase College, SUNY
Purchase, New York
Megan Williams danced with the Mark Morris Dance Group for 10 years and remains affiliated with the company as a guest performer, rehearsal director and teacher. She holds a BFA from the Juilliard School. A member of the Conservatory of Dance faculty since 1999, Williams has choreographed the “Arabian” and “Mother Ginger” divertissements for the Purchase Nutcracker, numerous senior project solos, Carnival (2003) and Canto del Tucuman (2008) for the Purchase Dance Corps.
"Ballet teacher Alfredo Corvino taught me to see that things happen from the inside out. He made learning seem like a magical puzzle to solve through geometry, physics and mechanics. He made me think more three-dimensionally about the body and to be intelligent about this complicated instrument, long before I had a deeper anatomical knowledge.
“Over the years, I’ve become more intuitive about my students, so I teach less intellectually from a plan. My own conservatory training, my work with Laura Glenn, Mark Morris and later with Irene Dowd and Peggy Baker have influenced my approach in teaching modern dance.
“When I prepare a class, I usually plan from the end. I decide what my last phrases will be and then design what will come before them, what the warm-up will be. I decide at the beginning of the week what I will teach that week, and I base this not only on what was accomplished the week before, but also looking ahead to what I need to achieve for the semester with the particular level of class.
“In class, I encourage the students to experiment with the phrases I’ve given them, to do things more than once, try again, take time to play with the phrase. I will usually mix up the arrangement of exercises from day to day to stimulate thinking and new mental patterning. Within the arc of a semester, I try to attack different conceptual ideas, like inverting the phrases, falling themes, partnering, balancing/being off-balance.
“I try to make phrases that are strongly rhythmic and strive for a partnership with my accompanist in a kinesthetic/musical alliance that energizes the students and keeps them alert. I teach phrasing by emphasizing weight shifts and feeling the music in their bodies. I encourage them to trust themselves, what they know and what they don’t know. I enjoy helping students discover what habits are practical and what habits are hindering them, and then I encourage them to ‘not use it anymore!’
“I see daily technique class as a nourishing meditation where the student can practice being in the present all the time. This not only is fulfilling in the moment but sets up
Assistant Arts Professor
Tisch School of the Arts, New York University
New York, New York
Pamela Pietro received a BFA from Florida State University and an MFA from the University of Washington. She has taught at a number of universities and has been on the faculty at the American Dance Festival since 1997. She has danced with Gerri Houlihan, Mark Haim, Anthony Morgan Dance Company, Michael Foley Dance, Race Dance and bopi’s black sheep/dances.
"Teaching is where I am at my very best. It is home to me. I believe technique is a way of transferring an idea or information through the body. I encourage my students to make conscious choices about how they execute movement, try to stay present with those choices and use class as a platform for performance.
“I see the same students for seven weeks, four classes a week. After these seven weeks, they will rotate to a different teacher. They arrive to my class after having a ballet class, so they come fully warmed up and already prepared for dance. This allows me to work on different themes of technical training with them in modern, since I know they have already had a strong classical ballet class.
“Very early in the semester, I teach a set warm-up. When they arrive, they perform this warm-up on their own at their own pace until we begin a more formal class. I teach long pieces of choreography that evolve over the course of the week, so that by the last day of the week, they have learned a large chunk of movement that has developed and grown. I like them to feel like they are dancing all the time.
“At the beginning of the semester, I pass out index cards that they fill out. I ask them what their habits are, what they want to change. At the end of the semester, I pass the same cards out and ask them to write about how they have changed. We have one day at the end of the semester that is a ‘talking day.’”
Chair and Resident Choreographer
Poughkeepsie, New York
Stephen Rooks was a principal dancer for the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1981 to 1991. Besides his work at Vassar, he is also a regular guest instructor at the Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham schools. He has taught internationally at several dance festivals, as well as the Dallas Black Dance Theater, Ballet Nacional de Mexico, The American Academy of Ballet and the Houston Ballet.
"I see building technique as a way of working on skill sets to dance and execute movement efficiently and increase your longevity as a dancer.
“I come from a background of a set, rigorous developmental warm-up. I give variations of core exercises depending on the level of the class, but it’s a pretty standard framework so that the students know what to expect. I always give at least one combination that is new each day to challenge them from the day before. We start our warm-up on the floor with the Graham technique, then go to standing work, then across the floor. Because I have permission from the Graham Company to teach repertory, I will often teach phrases from her choreography during class, so that students can experience major work.
“I am better at teaching today than before when I was younger. I am more able to diagnose where the class is on a given day or as a whole and throw out my agenda if it is inappropriate to the class.
“I try to teach phrases that are long enough, but not too long, and to give clear images of what the phrase is. I emphasize the feelings behind the movement. I ask dancers to embody and ‘be in the material.’ I teach that timing has huge value. I vary rhythms and ask dancers to think qualitatively about what that means. Thinking about breath, imagery, weight, sounds and rhythm all teach phrasing. Ninety percent of the class is how the teacher communicates with musicians.
“Pat Thomas, one of my early teachers at The Ailey School, taught Graham technique. She encouraged me to be fearless about movement, to push my limits and move big. She had no hierarchy in the class and would push average students to dance with better students and vice versa.”
Chair and Artistic Director
New York, New York
Mary Cochran was a soloist with the Paul Taylor Dance Company from 1984 to 1996 and has been teaching in higher education for 14 years. She received her MFA from the University of Wisconsin/ Milwaukee.
“Barnard students are high achievers, so in my classes, I often encourage them to give themselves permission to ‘release.’ My approach is more intuitive now than intellectual. I try to deal more with what my students need rather than my own agenda. I talk less in class than I used to. Now, I try to put the information I want to convey into the material of the class.
“Technique is access to a range: both efficiency and expressive range. It’s having the ability to dial from 1 to 10 when you want to. I emphasize that we dance from the moment we start. I like to keep the class always moving from all the joints, as well as thinking and moving spatially. We start standing, then go to the ground for floor movement, then across the floor and in the air. It is important to warm up the core and open the hip sockets.
“I emphasize level changes, dynamics and taking weight as ways to keep focus. I ask students to create their own
strategies for execution that are applicable to all styles.
“In teaching my students life skills through dance, I emphasize something James Truitte, legendary Horton teacher, said: ‘Take your work seriously, but not yourself.’ Take away judgment, embrace the dance and make it your own.” DT
Mary Seidman is artistic director of Mary Seidman and Dancers in NYC. She teaches at the Mark Morris Dance Center and The Third Street Music School in NYC, and she is a guest artist at numerous colleges and universities.
Photo: Brenda Daniels (by Helen Simineau, courtesy of University of North Carolina School of the Arts)