Encouraging the Connection; Teaching Dance Technique in Higher Ed
I love teaching at the University level. There is something about the age of the students that is hopeful. These students enter their college careers with only a small inkling of who they are and then suddenly, 4 years later, they are amazingly capable human beings and dancers that are going to take the world by storm.
However, teaching dancers at this stage comes with some challenges. First, I need to insert a disclaimer: All students are different, each with their own backgrounds and experience. I do not intend to generalize. With that said, generally, students come in with a background in dance as an imitation art. They have been taught to copy what they see without asking questions, without knowing their anatomy, and without realizing the endless opportunity for artistry in their movement execution.
What I see is how utterly necessary the LMA language and theories are in class. As they navigate their way through the newness of different dance forms and the psychological shifts that accompany them, it gives the students some sense of a codified (although I don’t love that word-it seems stale) form. More specifically, I see that there are commonalities among first year students that transcend location; meaning that regardless of where a student is studying, there are some similarities in the typical incoming dance student. And, with these challenges come the opportunity to put LMA theories to work. So what are some of these challenges? And which part of the system can aide in working through them?
The rigid spine
Many young, trained dancers seem to have trouble with the idea that our torso has the wonderful ability to move while maintaining core strength. I admit this is extremely complex. More often than not, students, especially those trained in forms such as Ballet or Irish Dance, tend to immobilize their torsos completely. First of all it is necessary to use vocabulary that inspires movement. When I hear the word spine, I imagine a straight pole so I always use the term Head-Tail. During the first few weeks of classes, I find it absolutely necessary to teach the students about the anatomy of this area. Showing and explaining the types of vertebrae and the movement potential in each area automatically gives them an idea of movement potential. Exploring the breath and it’s underlying support for all movement is another key element that can jumpstart mobility. Remembering that we are taking in Breath in a three-dimensional way can be huge. For the students with the most trouble in this area, it is all about touch. Using touch to illuminate held areas is absolutely necessary. The experience of sensation can be an eye-opener in many ways.
The freeze frame phenomenon
Flow, flow, flow! Why is it that students come in without it?? I think it is the photograph epidemic. Have you ever had a dancer teacher that tried to encourage shape through the idea of having a picture taken? For example…I want to be able to take a picture of that great extension (or high kick). This encourages static shape rather than the ongoing evolution of shaping throughout our bodies. In fact, as a young dancer, I remember the moment in which I realized that dance was actually the movement between the ‘poses’ and not just the ‘poses’ themselves. I find it really useful to craft some movement exercises with flow as a baseline. It is important to remind dancers of their natural ongoingness included in their own never-ending rhythms (internal systems such as circulation, breath, and digestion). The other important discussion/experience is talking about Shape in LMA terms. Many of us think of shape as a static form, a picture as mentioned above. The Shape category in LMA is so much more. Pointing out ways in which to change shape, the breath support that allows shape change, and the inner attitude that results in the qualities of shape are vital! With all of this information, students can begin to integrate shape and flow to become a more solid mover.
Proprioception. Feeling our bodies and its’ movement from the inside. I would like to fault the mirror and dancers’ obsession with it for this. Although useful for learning placement, young dancers seemed to be taught, more often than not, to use the mirror to correct themselves. Is your back leg straight? Look in the mirror! Are your shoulders over your hips? Look in the mirror! This method reinforces the idea of learning how to dance and move from outside of ourselves rather than from an internal place. And when the mirror is gone, it causes difficulties, leaving for empty movement. Many university students need to be re-taught how to feel their alignment and movement from the inside. I find it useful to spend some time with organic movement, the sensation of touch, and Shape Flow Support. Bringing students out of their Space Effort, and into Weight and Flow Efforts (Dream State) allows them to have a different perspective on movement. It seems easier to teach them about sensation when their eyes are closed and their largest sensory organ (their skin) is touching the floor or another person. That brings us to touch. The sensation of touch gives dancers information that is impossible to get from a visual or auditory cue. They can literally feel the place where the inside meets the outside. Finally, ongoing exploration of the internal shaping and support that encourages the difficult and seemingly impossible dancer movements is essential for embodiment and full-bodied dance.
All movement is created equal
I often say this in my class and it is inevitably followed by a few chuckles. But I mean it! And it wasn’t until I started my LMA training that I believed it whole-heartedly. I find that students often come into my classes and think that one genre of dance is better than another, that pointed feet are better than flexed or relaxed feet, the being off vertical is less pretty than being upright. While there is always room for our own aesthetic preferences, it is SO important to teach the endless possibilities in dance. LMA is ideal for this. LMA as a system is as objective as possible. While observation is vital, negative judgment is discouraged. All movement serves us in one way or another so why not explore and decide what works best for your own body. This is key to fostering an artist.
I am fascinated that many dancers come to university level dance with similar elements to work on. Perhaps it represents the disconnect some students encounter in early training. Maybe students need to have a certain maturity to be able to realize the complexities of dance as a technique, an academic discipline and an artform.