Friday, June 28, 2013

Teaching: by Beth Megill

I often find myself wanting to be everything to everyone as a dance teacher.  But, of course, not only is that impossible, but it is also exhausting.

As a teacher I am continually changing and updating my techniques, approaches, methods, tools and ideas.  I continue to search for the right balance between tuning into student needs/wants and creating innovative experiences for those students to be challenged. 

I mistakenly believe that I can be/want to be/should be the best teacher in the entire world!  And, if I am not, then I have failed! Ha!  That is just crazy talk.  But, deep down that is the belief under which I am operating.

I know it is crazy. But, emotional belief sets don't see the line between realistic and crazy. So, I get worried. One minute I worry that I am not enough of a physical challenge, and the next I worry that my material is totally inaccessible and too hard.  I worry that I am too boring, then I worry that I am not taking enough time to slow down and go deep. I worry that other teachers push harder, then I worry that I am pushing them too hard and risking injury.  I am a mess.

It's no wonder I often leave the dance classroom feeling like I have in someway fallen short of expectation.  I have set up demands and conditions for myself that are outright contradictory and therefore impossible. 

I can't be everything.

And I hate to break it to you... But, you can't be everything either. 

We are just as we are.  And, I am ready to let that be ok. 

So what type of a teacher am I? 

Curious:  I love curiosity. I am continually curious about the way the body moves, the way we think, the way we feel, and how/why we create art.  I don't have all the answers, and I am suspicious of people who think they do have all the answers.  I appreciate students who are willing to be curious with me.

Concerned:  I am very concerned for the physical and psychological health of my students. I have suffered so many injuries of the years, that I can't/won't push people.  If people want a drill sargeant, I am NOT the teacher for you.  I would rather you think, then try, then rest, then re-think, and try again.  Fatigue is a real hazzard for dancers, and I just am not willing to risk it. 

Playful:  I like to have fun. I have serious moments, but my love of dance really comes out when I am joyful in movement. I like to smile and be silly in most circumstances.  What I notice is that this takes me out of "work" mode and into play mode.  So, class starts to feel less like a "technique" class and more like a celebration. 

Varied:  You really never know what you will get with me. One day we might meditate, the next day we might make dances, the next we might work on alignment, the next work on fuettes.  I worry that I am somehow NOT consistent enough, but I am learning to just accept that this is what I love about dance, that there are so many facets to the surface of the diamond of dance.

Guiding:  I consider myself a guiding teacher rather than a driving teacher.  This is tough, because it requires that the students drive their learning.  I realize that this is hard for many students, and can be exhausting. Sometimes, we just want to be told what to do.  I have also felt that way as a student! But, it is not in my nature to tell you what to do.  I will ask you to try it, then you get to decide. 

Nerdy:  I am a total nerd.  I know many dancers who love dance because it allows their kinesthetic brain to take over for 2 hours.  I don't exactly work that way.  I am interested in cultivating thinking dancers. Dancers who listen to their bodies, make connections between their inner world and the outer world.  I get jazzed about dance theory.  It opens up a horizon filled with movement opportunities.  I believe in dance as a creative and intellectual process as much as a kinesthetic adventure. 

Interested in Personal Growth:  Sometimes I wonder whether it is dance that I love teaching or whether it is quality of life.  The truth is one feeds the other.  Dance is a vehicle for life-learning about who we are, how we operate in the world and how we express ourselves (to others and to ourselves).  Dance is a vulnerable activity in which we are completely exposed in our strengths and weaknesses (physical and mental).  It incorporates so many of the senses and forms of intelligence, it is the perfect tool for self reflection on all fronts.  I don't really care how high you kick your leg or how many turns you can do.  I might be able help you do both better, but that is just mechanics. 

A good friend and fellow dance instructor said to me the other day "I am more of a trainer and you are more of an educator."  I have been thinking a lot about that statement.  I understand what he meant, but it forced me to ask myself, what type of teacher am I and what type of teacher do I want to be? What am I teaching through dance? And, which elements might I be missing in my current classes? 

I find my friends word choice so interesting. . . He is right in that, I don't use the word trainer for what I do -- in fact I don't think I ever have ever used train for the learning process in dance.  I have never asked a someone to come "train with me."  Or, say "Yes, that dancer trained under me."  Interesting.  I am just now thinking about this for the first time.  I might say that student "studied with me."  Maybe.  But mostly I say I have "worked with a student"  Worked WITH, because I ask the students to work 100% of the time; they do the work, with me, side by side.  They make the discoveries; they make the connections; they ask the questions of themselves and others. 

I have found that I learn things when I need to learn them. . . not before.  So, I trust that the students will ask the questions when they are ready for the answers. And, to take it one step further, I believe they need to find the answers for themselves 90% or the time!

I am not sure, if this is the best approach. I am not sure what this means in terms of changing student's lives and their dance world.  I am not sure of many things at the moment. But, I do know that I have to stop trying to be everything to every student who walks in the door.  It just doesn't work that way.  I have to trust myself, teaching what feels right. And, I need to trust that those students who want to learn what I have to offer will be there, and that I can walk with them on their journey of learning and learn even more about dance and myself along the way. 


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

So You Think You Can Dance: Follow Up

Thank you everyone for your responses and feedback to my last post about SYTYCD! You can read them and my follow up responses HERE

I must admit that for the past week I have been completely obsessed with the show and the questions I have surrounding it.  Last night I watched again (as I am staying with a dear friend who has cable and watches it).  And, this morning I got sucked into Dance Spirit and Entertainment Weekly blog posts about last night's show this morning. 

First, I really enjoyed the dancing last night.  I enjoyed the musical variety and the complete abandon in the dancers' performances.  I was particularly partial to musicality in the choreography overall.  This really is great dance that is available to the world. And, I believe in the good nature of the judges in general (despite the occasional misspeak or off color comment).  The show is great at what it does. 

And, as a dance educator, it feels good to have seen the last two episodes of my student's favorite dance show. I feel better informed by the value set my students are bringing with them into the dance studio.  This is an advantage for me as an educator.  But, now, I have the challenge of making sense of it all. Connecting the dots for my students between what they are watching on TV and what we are doing in the classroom.  Navigating the boat of education between the river's banks of entertainment and art.  When they are the same, when they are different, why they are the same and different. 

I think I am accurate in saying many (and maybe even most) higher education dance instructors have concerns about SYTYCD and as a result many don't watch it regularly if at all as well as criticize the show for its negative effects. I haven't had the opportunity to read much about the effect of SYTYCD on higher education.  Although, since my former blog, I am receiving more insights and connections (Thank you for your leads!).  But, it seems the higher education dance world has managed to largely ignore the presence of SYTYCD in our departments (and in our curriculum).  Perhaps we thought it would simply go away over time, lose favor and fall out of style. But, we are now in Season 10 and going strong.  So, I think we as dance educators need to take sometime to grapple with what this means for our students and for the future of dance.

If the show continues another 8 years, every single incoming freshman will have lived an entire life in the presence of SYTYCD.  Can you imagine that?  How will this change the face of dance education in 10-15 years when this generation of SYTYCD fans become the next generation of dance educators in higher education?  Will there be a swing back in the other direction, back toward long format works based in minimalism and characterization without virtuosity? 

I don't have the answers and I would need to study a lot of more sociology to figure this one out, but as an active dance educator and as a dance artist/ choreographer.  I am ready to begin this discussion.

If you are interested in joining, you know how to find me. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

So You Think You Can Dance: My Take

I get asked A LOT whether I watch good old SYTYCD and my answer is "mostly no." In part because I don't have cable, in part because at the end of the day, watching more dance is the last thing I want to do, and partly because it gets me agitated and thinking rather than relaxing.  In other words, when I watch SYTYCD, it feels like work.  It is not fun for me. 

But, I watched last night. Season 10 Episode 3.  The Top 20 episode.  

The truth is I have a love hate relationship with it.  Love: because the dancers are incredible and the choreography is interesting and thought provoking.  Hate: (well hate is a strong word). . . Dislike: because I am concerned for the negative effects it may be having on the dance world as a whole. 

Now, some of you reading this are saying "YES!" and some of you are likely thinking "How can it be bad?" 

The problems I see are the following:

1.  Competition:  I personally dislike that there is a winner and every one else loses.  Dancers are already swamped with huge insecurity issues (and that is because most people have insecurity issues).  In fact, I think some dancers are attracted to dance because there is an impossible ideal and it feeds a need for external validation (applause, awards, selection for company, pieces etc).  Competing confirms that they aren't good enough as they are and that is problematic for me as a dance educator.

2.  This is going to be the BEST SEASON EVER!!!  How many times did I hear that during the 2 hour show?  Again and again, best, most crazy, most amazing, most fantastic, etc.  This sense of always getting better, perpetuates the sense of current dissatisfaction.  We are always striving for more, rather than finding joy with what we have and taking pleasure in the process of discovery.

3.  We are training our audience to be impatient, judgmental and unidimensional.  It is all about product. The end result.  The final performance.  The dances are 2-3 minutes of intense physical dance.  So what happens when we ask our audience to sit through a 20 min performance?  They are trained to lose interest.  They are also trained to judge, making connections in terms of better and than worse than performances. We are also training our audience to appreciate dance that is physically demanding, hyper expressive and purposefully entertaining.  Some dance is exactly that, but the majority of concert dance is not. 

I see the benefits too! More people are watching dance!  More people are interested in the art form.  And, SYTYCD is one of the better reality TV shows I have seen.  I mean, these dancers are not just personalities; they are performers, technicians and students.   The choreography is inspiring for me, I get lots of ideas about how to push the physical limits of the human body. . . But, actually I am not interested in pushing the limits of the physical body, so. . . I am being inspired to do something against my interest.  Strange.

I tried googling to see if there were other blogs about SYTYCD, and mostly I got just the promo materials. 
Here are a couple that I found interesting:
A literal play by play of the last 2 hour show by Lauren S. (Entertainment)
Essay from 2011 by Kimberley Peterson (Educational)

If you know of one, or have written one please share in the comment section below. 

What are your thoughts?

What do you get out of the show?
What do you learn from the show?
What concerns do you have for its impact on the dance world?
And if you teach dance, how does this inform/contradict your teaching?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Dance Needs You! (Or, rather, you need dance?)

I have been thinking a lot recently about the nature of dance and its need for stronger community support.  And, I am not talking about TV produced Dance reality shows. Obviously. 

I am talking about the little fish in the pond, the smaller buggers that put their life and soul into their art and often receive little to no community support outside of their immediate friends and family. 

But, I realized that the issue is not that dance needs people, but that people need dance.  I need dance. You need dance. Our society needs dance. But, why? 

We are forgetting.

We are forgetting how important it is to be in communion with our fellow community members. We are forgetting what it feels like to dance in harmony, to dance in unison, as one body, with one common trust in our own humanity.   We are forgetting just how it feels to be present in the moment without competition, without an audience, without an applause meter or a phone line voting system.  We are forgetting how it feels to be in the body with others who are in their own skins, breathing, sensing, moving, relating.  Dance isn't just about moving to move.  It is about our ability to cultivate relationships in motion.  To release our own sense of identity in order to partake in a larger body. 

I learned just recently about a beautiful Global dance that happened today.  Initiated my Martha Eddy, the Global Water Dance is a dance in celebration for all beings, of all cultures, in all locations.  This is an example of how dance (and music) transcends all barriers.  How dance is a safe and open invitation for all people to simply participate in being human by moving together in harmony. 

I am tired of dance as spectacle.  I am tired of dance for the privileged.  Dance for the stars. Dance for competition. Dance can serve all people in increasing their quality of life, in their quality of being human. 

When was the last time you danced?  At a wedding? In your living room? In a dance studio?  Have you forgotten? 

 And, this is not to point blame at you.  I believe the active dance world is as much to blame.  I suspect that the dance world may have encouraged you to forget.

And, what I mean by this is the tendency I see for the "dance world" to make work that is either "light entertainment" or "inaccessible art."  What are your impressions of concert dance?  When was the last dance show you attended in person? Why did you go? What did you get out of it?  Please comment because I actually want to know!  I suspect that most people who attend live dance concerts go because they know someone in the performance.  They go to show their support. This is admirable and much appreciated, however I would rather people come to be inspired! To rediscover themselves through the experience of watching live dance. To be enriched as individuals making their ways through the world.

I am convinced that there is concert dance in this world that is both artistic and enjoyable. And, I intended to keep making dances until I find that balance.  Until the audience remembers that seeing dance can increase their enjoyment of life and the richness in their understanding of themselves as humans in this world. 

And, I will know I have succeeded when I see strangers take the risk to see dance performances in their local towns and return to their homes and friends with stories of how they feel more alive and more "inside their skin". . . and how they couldn't resist dancing in their hearts out in their living room.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: Nancy Evans Dance Theater and Guests in WORKS

I used to think that there was little variety in the modern dance scene in LA, but getting out more and seeking shows off the beaten path has proved me quite wrong.  Nancy Evans Dance Theater is a rock solid modern dance company, in residence at Porticoes Art Space in Pasadena.  And, when I say modern dance, I want to clarify that Evans' work is truly an extension of the historical modern dance era.  Much of what is called modern dance today is really contemporary modern dance, a result of the rule breaking post modernists and the subsequent techniques of contact improvisation and release technique. 

NEDT works within a movement frame work that predates these trends.  Evans choreography has all the compositional integrity, expressive narrative and shape based technique of the modern dance era, and her story telling through movement still resonates for today. The guest company SolevVita Dance Company, under the artistic direction of Joelle Martinec, was a playfully refreshing contemporary jazz company that contrasted the NEDT aesthetic and balanced the show nicely. 

Here are a few highlight from a few different works on the program:

Choreographed by Nancy Evans, Vigil, was originally staged in 2012 and restaged for this performance.  A 45 minute dance narrative about death, loss and grief, this was a moving study in character and storytelling through movement.  I appreciated the consistent "roles" the dancers played in the work. To me they were the family members left behind, mother, sister, wife and mother in law. Scot Tuper, as the deceased, held the energetic space for the duration of the work, mostly confined to his upstage platform, separate but always emotionally involved.  I was particularly swept into the piece during the candle solo by Monica Buckner whose emotive commitment gave me permission to invest in the characters' relationships.  Her emotional sensitivity to her gestural solo was detailed, patient and rich.  The music included a variety of classical works by Ravel, Liszt, Debussy and Mompou among others.  This style of piano scored music, has largely gone out of favor in current dance practices.  Most choreographers opting for minimalist scores, electronic soundtracks or popular music.  The use of music that is at once beautiful as well as irregular and dissonant blended with the choreographic composition seamlessly.  Evans musicianship (as seen in others pieces as well) is embedded in her craft.  Music, dance and expression all as one.

Another favorite of the show for me was the quirky and serene Flock of Two by NEDT company member Katrina Amerine.  This duet performed by Ashleigh Doede and Jenn Logan was imagery rich while simple in design.  The piece consisted of a strong balletic leaning, which worked brilliantly with the dancers' long and birdlike legs and arms.  In some ways I saw this piece as more of a contemporary ballet than modern with the curved port de bras, long lines in the legs, springs and turns that worked so well together. I did find myself wondering about the relationship of the two dancers as their focus stayed individually directed for the whole of the dance.  With that said, I wondered about their relationship not just to each other but to the world around them and their journey through time and space.  The piece closed with my favorite swirling image of the dancers, in which they magically evoked the quality of birds swooping and circling in the air. 

Joelle Martinec's SoleVita contrasted the longer works of NEDT with bite sized dances that were charming and fun.  An interesting programatic choice was the order of Flock of Two followed by SoleVita's 2, followed by NEDT's Coupling, Cycles 1-3 (choreographed by Jenn Logan).  These three duets were so notably different in tone, relationship and story that they could be their own compositional study.  2, choreographed by Joelle Martinec, contrasted Flock of Two, with a jazzy score and classical jazz styling on top of a playful romance.  These well matched dancers played over the top characters, who bumped and bonked their way through getting to know each other and falling in love.  The contemporary jazz technique and use of a male-female duet has become a very familiar dance formula made popular by So You Think You Can Dance.  Nevertheless, this piece was unpredictable in its use of humor and play to tell the story of these young and talented lovers. 

Modern Communication also choreographed by Martinec, was a satirical piece about our new best friends: cell phones (and their incredible ability to stop our in person lives in favor of our cyber-lives).  Martinec, clearly has her finger on the pulse of current pop culture, and I deeply appreciate her willingness to use the popular contemporary jazz style to comment on the hazzards or pop culture.  Her witty use of Sheila Chandra's music entitled Speaking in Tongues, certainly made me smile as it also demonstrated Martinec's use of musicality in her choreography (as well as the dancers' ability to recreate and perform such complex musical phrasing).

The last two pieces I wish to comment on are the two solos performed by the respective artistic directors of the companies.  Martinec danced a seductive jazz solo choreographed by Alex Little, called To Be Loved in Return, set to live a saxophone performance by Mathew Thompson.   Martinec is a luscious performer, generous, confident and very sexy.  She became the saxophone being played, cool and sweet.  Her body was alive in a way that made me very sad when it was over so soon. 

Nancy Evans took the stage for her homage to mentor Hanya Holm in Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach in meiner Brust meaning Two Souls, alas, Dwell in my Breast (and, I was so excited to put my German language skills to use!). As I had enter the lobby earlier that day, I noticed a slide show projected on the wall including images of and quotes of modern dance legend Hanya Holm.  Holm is part of the German expressionist line of modern dance, having studied with Mary Wigman before coming to America and continuing her extensive career teaching and choreographing.  I watched the slide show play all the way through, captivated by the expression in Holm's body and the truth in her quotes. . . and I am so glad I did.  Having seen the slide show images, I was able to see the physical and aesthetic lineage from Holm to Evans.  Dance that is musical, dynamically varied and extremely well crafted.  The second half of the piece was set to a piece of music in 5/4 and I could not have been happier watching the rhythmic play of Evans dancing through the space, viscerally connected to the driving music.  It was emotionally invigorating and not a surprise when the audience erupted into applause before the lights had even gone out.  That is a sign of a well crafted composition. 

I realized as I was watching the performance that the Hanya Holm slide show not only informed my understanding and appreciation of Evans' solo, but of all of her choreography.  Evans is not interested in post modern thinking or contemporary trends. She is a storyteller, trusting in the power of gesture, shape and rhythm for physical communication.  I was reminded just how important a simple moment can be, shifting the gaze from one space to another, holding someone's hands, reaching out for them, turning away.  Those are the moments I take with me from this afternoon of dance. 

This is the great dance that is happening right here in greater LA.  This is the dance that makes you think, makes you stop and wonder about what you value and how you want to be in the world.  Remember that the dance world needs your continued support and that you also need the dance world. We all need the reminder through movement that we are all human, and we are all dancing through this thing called life. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

94 Days to Live!

Less than 100!  (HOLY *%$#!)

Yes, my year to live has taken me through fall, to winter, to spring and now summer. I only have a little over 3 months left.  What is to be done about?

Hell, if I know.

The reality of having a year to live has come in and out of my awareness over the past 270 days.  Some days I feel acutely aware of having limited time here on earth, other days, I rush through without a second glance, not even pausing to notice another 24 hours gone off the clock. 

Admittedly, I have completely forgotten to rip of the days of my calendar for the past 25 days.  And, Kapow!  I crossed the 100 days mark, and hadn't even noticed.  What was I doing during this time? I was working.

Working in a wonderful and very rewarding and satisfying way, but I was working so hard and so focused on my project (updating my Online Dance Appreciation course) that I barely checked email, ignored all social media and even this blog which actually had reader comments! (Thank you, by the way! I really do love the feedback and support).

So, 5 days passed. Silently and under the radar. Yes, I wrote a ton of HTML code and managed to create a whole new learning tool for my class.  But, I had virtually severed by awareness to time.  Computers are strange things, you really can lose your life to them.  Dangerous.  And wonderful. And dangerously wonderful.  

94 days.

Imagine, what can a person do in 94 days?  What do I want to do in 94 days? What is the most important thing I can do? For myself? For my family? For the world?

As I sit here asking myself this question, my mind runs blank.  It could be fear. It could be fatigue (from looking a computer non stop for 5 days). . . It could be. . . ok fine. . . Let's face it. . .  it's fear.

Fear of what? Fear that I can't do enough in 94 days. Fear that I don't want to do anything? Fear that my body still hurts? Fear that I won't have been good enough.  Being a human is darn tough.  

I don't know the answers.

But, let's start with something before I give up on this post.

Let's identify what I do know:
1.  People matter.  (Family, Friends, Strangers.)
2.  Love matters.  (Sending it into the world to cause ripples of kindness)
3.  Art matters.  (It's how we make sense of the world and our place in it)
4.  Nature matters.  (This world is precious, it must be loved too)
5.  Forgiveness matters.  (and, it matters toward yourself the most)

What would you do with 100 days to live?  Think of it basically as the rest of summer.

You got summer babe, whatcha gonna do with it?!?


Oh, and if you teach dance, you should consider teaching our new and improved Online Dance Appreciation Course, because the 5 days I gave up in my year to live I gave up because DANCE MATTERS!  And, dance literacy is what I have to give to the world.