by Gregory King, Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance, Swarthmore College for The Dance Journal
I remember auditioning for New York University’s Tisch School before having any formal dance training. Kay Cummings called me into her office and told me they didn’t have my level at the school but expressed that she thought I had potential.
Her saying that, made me start taking dance classes.
As a dance student, I remember being in ballet class with Victoria Leigh at the Washington Ballet. She was always specific with her corrections. She was hard but encouraging, funny but passionate, demanding yet understanding. Years later, I encountered Risa Steinberg at a Limon Pedagogy workshop in Fullerton, California. A fireball of a woman with deep insight, she personified professionalism. With hair, white as snow, the top of her head hovered around my mid section. She was half my size but her teaching style was grand. She was always dressed in leotards and tights, with clear concepts to share and the physicality of any eighteen year old (Ms. Steinberg graduated Juilliard in 1971). She demonstrated everything…and full out might I add. That was the kind of teacher I wanted to be.
Along my journey in dance, I have encountered Don Martin, Bill T. Jones, Arthur Mitchell, Rudolf Kharatian, Naima Prevots, Donald Byrd, Diana Byers, Ana Marie Forsythe, Milton Myers, Nina Watts, Ruth Andrian, Myra Woodruff, Alan Danielson, and Ed Groff. They all taught me something about myself, dancing and teaching. I held on to the information they gave me, knowing one day I would be in their shoes.
What kind of teacher did I want to be?
What kind of teacher would I be?
After teaching formally for 5 years, I now know that teaching is the best teacher; the greatest teacher.
So I wanted to share some of my experiences as a teacher and to engage in dialogue about practices that work for us as educators.
From plies to class planning and beyond, let’s exchange stories.
Technique is the alphabet that allows you to create a vocabulary. It is a toolbox that contains all the information you need at will. It is your foundation.
Teaching a plié
A plié is a movement that changes level. It goes down and out and was meant to stretch. The action begins in your groin. With six joints active, allow the inner thighs to move away from each other, making sure the knees are over your second and fourth toes. Using the imagery of nostrils over your knees, continue to breathe over your toes. Maintain the position of the torso as you change level.
Returning to standing from a plié, one must think about two actions of equal commitment. The heels reach towards the earth as the soles of the feet widen into the floor. The pelvis rides on the elevator going up. The knees are the last part of the body to get there.
Words I try not to use
|Words I try not to use||WHY||Suggested alternate|
|Balance||It suggests holding your breath||Stabilize|
|Fix||It suggests that something is wrong||Think about correcting|
|Maintain||It suggests hold||Reinvent|
|Squeeze||Suggests tighten||Activate, engage|
|Position||Suggests the end of the action||If saying “shape” doesn’t work, try emphasizing the need to remain active|
|Exercise||Makes one think about the gym||Phrase or combination|
|Pull up||It causes the dancers to fall back||Elongate|
|Ummm, like||When you use these words, you appear uncertain||What I think is….What I would do is…
If you’re not sure, let them know you will get back to them about the issue
|Push||Makes what is being done seem tedious||Be more urgent|
|Let go||Some students take that to mean “throw it away”||Before suggesting to let go, be clear about telling your dancer not to change his/ her form|
Rhythm and the body
Communicate the importance of listening to the music. When dancing, you want those watching to see the music in your body. Every movement should have a sound. Dancers are trained to hear and listen to music. Well shaped phrases should move with continuity. Should a dancer choose to ignore the music, he or she is dwarfing the full experience. Don’t forget that even silence has a sound.
It is important not to rely on downstage. Teaching class from different points in the room teaches dancers to be present in performances even when they are not facing the audience. When we give information from multiple spatial orientations, it allows the dancers to grasp new perspectives and see different things. Changing directions help dancers understand the entire space around them and not just their immediate space.
Use of mirrors
Dancers sometimes get stuck on the image in the mirror and start to stare. They begin to rely on that image instead of trusting themselves to know what their bodies are doing. They don’t realize that the mirror is not their assessor, we are. There is the image they see, the image the teacher sees, what they feel and what the teacher asks of them. Be diligent about suggesting that they use the mirror as an initial marker for identifying a given shape.
Know your students; know what level you are teaching? Are you teaching a mixed level?
- Is dance for them a hobby or a profession?
- Have they had class before you and/or will they have class after?
- How many semesters do you have to teach the information?
- Know the temperature of your class; are they tired from rehearsals/ a show?
- Make sure the information is fitting to your class.
- Pace your class.
- Allow your students the right to have high expectations of you, similar to that which you have of them.
The position of dance in academia is a shaky and shifting one as we are constantly working to validate the discipline. No matter how dance and dancers are viewed in the academy, teaching practices transcends discipline. We have all encountered teachers whose teachings will stay with us for many years. My only hope is that the impact that my teachers have had on me will somehow flow from me into the next generation of dancers who will eventually become teachers.
So as I wrap up the this exchange, I would like to share five things Ms. Steinberg said to me that I still use and say;
- “Learn everything as if you’re doing a solo; rely on no one”
- “It is important to know your students’ names”
- “Ask questions of your students as it allows them to be present…to stay engaged”
- “You may adjust your expectations but never lower your standards”
- “Let them know the objectives of any phrase, combination or assignment and be specific when identifying a problem, being careful not to create new ones”
So to teachers everywhere, thank you!
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