Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fighting Dance Discrimination with Dance Literacy

If you are a dancer, you know what is feels like to be a part of the "forgotten art form."

Granted, it is tough being an artist of any sort, but within the family of performing arts, dance has notoriously been at the end of the line.  Dance only recently graduated from PE (where is still lives for some dance departments) within the last 50 years.  Yes, we are more than exercise.  Gasp!

I teach within the California Community College system and am very, very proud to be a faculty member at Moorpark College.  I love teaching. I love it so much it hurts sometimes.  (Yes, teaching has made me cry-- more than once!)

And, it particularly hurts in times of budget cuts and "restructuring." 

Currently, community dance departments are under the gun to rewrite their curriculum in order to essentially "save" their departments.  This comes in the demand for leveled courses within each genre, with different learning objective and different content for each.

Hmmmmm.  A good challenge for this recently born area of academic study.  Because, of course the arts are ultimately immeasurable.  At least, not in the same way that you can assess a student's ability to add 2 + 2 (hint: it's 4).  In dance 2 + 2 might equal 5 or 6 or 0, depending on the aesthetic and artistic goal of the creator.  Soooo. . .

Tonight I sat down at my computer to decipher for the "non dancer" how I can determine whether a dancer is Level I, II, III or IV.  And, here is the hitch: It is not just mechanics.  It is not as simple as someone performing a single, double then triple pirouette.  Every dancer knows this, as does every audience member at a performance.  But, where is the language to effectively describe the difference?

I believe this lack of language, this lack of literacy within (and without) the field is what is ultimately holding dance back as celebrated field of academic study.  So, what am I going to do about it?

Well, shucks. I'm am going to find the words.  Then I'm going to use them, and then I am going to teach them.  I will teach them so often that they become household phrases!  I will teach them until they are used on billboards, in puns and as Facebook status updates!  Yes, the dance language will prevail!

But, back to the issue at hand. . . These d@mn course outlines of record. 

I sat down, I got quiet, and then I got honest and this is what I came up with.

Level I performance is about gross motor skills. Can you be on the correct foot at the correct time in the correct space?  If you can, then you are a level I dancer.

Level II performance is about coordination and increased complexity, strength, control and endurance.  Can you be on the correct foot at the correct time in the correct place EVEN when it gets tricky AND when it lasts for longer than 2 minutes?

Level III performance is about adding depth to your performance.  Can you do all the stuff you did before AND even more complex patterns WHILE modulating your dynamic energy so there is "texture" and "character" in your performance? Haha! That's the rub. 

Level IV performance is about doing ALL of the above AND helping others out in the meantime.  Can you do all that you need to do AND see the big picture? Take it for the team?  Make the whole better even if it means you may not get to be the star?  Can you do all of this, while still cultivating variety and subtlety in your performance?  And most importantly can you do this without acting like a jerk?

Of course, I couldn't put that last part about being a jerk on the formal state document (but I wanted to!). So there you have it. If you were to take dance performance 4 times from me, THAT is what I would want to see in you.  Of course. . . now I need to get the rest of the state on my band wagon.

Wish me luck!

(P.S. I realize that this post does nothing to address the fact that students learn dance and it various aspects (physical, emotional, energetic, character) at different paces-- but since the state budget doesn't care about that, I have decided to leave that topic for another time.)


  1. (Scot again)
    Having started dancing at 17 in my second semester of (high school) senior year at (GASP) Moorpark College, I would have to argue that your standards, or question of "can you...", while accurate and quantifiable, mark a dancer's readiness to graduate to the next level, not be at that level. I really did need that 20 minutes in Stella's Jazz 1 of "start loop{stepBallChange, stepBallChange, stepBallChange, pasDeBarret}". One I didn't, I was ready for level II

    1. Scot,

      You are completely correct. I did not make that clear. The student learning outcomes outline what the student should have accomplished by the END of that level. For instance if you are still working on being on the right leg at the right time then you should still be in Level I. But, if you gross motor skills are in order, then you should "graduate" to level II.

      And, even this is far from definable and "test-able," but at least it's something.

    2. and sometimes you're level 4, but you take level 2 because it fits in your schedule...

  2. I also started dance classes at 17 (now I'm the only full time dance faculty at a community college), but with a strong background in acting and music. For me, the performative and team-work aspects were with me from the beginning of my dance training, but the dancing technique took much longer.
    I could excel at production and even choreography (especially when I had stronger dancers than myself), but couldn't get past level III technique class for a loooong time because my body just hadn't been trained enough.

    I think the trouble with this conundrum is that we're assessing more than technique in technique class leveling; often because we're having to teach performance and dramatics and teamwork in whichever of the few classes we can teach (due to scheduling, budget cuts, program size, etc.)