February 26th, 2014
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When Product Meets Process | Annie Harrison Elliot

When teaching, I often feel caught between my love of the creative process and the desire for a polished end product. Both are important, but limited time frames to work with students is always challenging. I generally only have 45 minutes to an hour once or twice a week to work with a group of students.

On the one hand, my proclivity is to invest more heavily in the creative process by allowing plenty of time for students to explore their art form unencumbered. On the other hand, I personally feel there is a need for an end-product, which requires focus on performance technique, polishing, and other important tasks. Particularly with the performing arts, I believe if students are not getting a chance to actually “perform” in front of an audience (big or small) they are not really learning the art form fully. Is it fair to cut out the “performance” element in favor of process? I lean towards no.  Recently, I was fortunate enough to experience a fantastic solution to the product vs. process problem.

The collaborative performing arts activity I experienced was developed by Christy Robinson, Director of Enrichment at The Children’s School in Atlanta, GA. I am currently working as a choreographer at The Children’s School and we were in the midst of working on the musical There’s a Monster in My Closet.

Production paused over winter break and, when we returned„ instead of rehearsing for the musical in the typical fashion, Christy devised a refresher/warm-up had the students work collaboratively and write a musical scene about what they did during their time away from school. 

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February 17th, 2014
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Freshman Conditioning | Angela M. Gallo

This semester I will have two courses with our freshman.  Freshman year of college is always a difficult time but I think being a dance major makes it a little more challenging. 

Most of these students have been the ‘stars’ at whatever school they attended  before college and it is always a real eye opener to them to suddenly be in a class where they are more like equals to the other students. These students also have a different schedule than their peers in other majors. They take their dance and academic classes all day long and then spend the evenings in rehearsal. They have between 6-8 courses on their schedule while their peers may have four. Their ‘Dance’ classes also contain many writing and reading assignments.  They don’t get to just ‘dance all day’ like their peers assume. When they are not working on all of this, they are cross training. They work at least as hard as the athletes but without the respect.

I am most excited to be working with the freshman in the dance conditioning class.  Dance conditioning teaches students alternative techniques for training their body.  The complimentary approaches of Pilates and Yoga, for example, help them with the alignment with their torso and pelvis and also with incorporating more breath in to their movement. This course also spends a good deal of time focusing on anatomy. For many of these students, it is their first look at the anatomy of the body and how that anatomy can influence their dance and their performance.

Dance conditioning makes visible just how much unlearning and relearning my freshman dancers need to do. Many of these students have come to us with bad alignment habits. As an instructor, there is a fine line to walk and a lot of trust that needs to built up with the students in order to begin to have them make changes to their alignment and the way that they have been training. Much of this work began when they arrived at school in the fall, but in this class we can really focus on it. 

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The dance students, after their lecture on leg muscles, use the foam roller to ‘roll out’ the fascia of their IT band.

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January 21st, 2014
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What Young Children Can Do | Annie Harrison Elliot

This is the third post in our January series around how perceptions of who can and can’t make art affect their teaching practice. Enjoy! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor

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I teach young kids, but at some point I realized my assumptions were getting in the way. The reason I teach very young children in the first place is because I believe strongly in their capabilities and creativity, but at the same time their age was limiting how I was thinking about teaching them. Once I adjusted my thinking from “what are they too young to do,” to “what they can do,” my teaching process became much more fulfilling.

I decided to challenge myself by encouraging my three year old drama students to participate in a scene or at least a “scene-like-structure.” I racked my brain on how to approach this in the classroom. “Are they too young for scene work?” I wondered. In the traditional way, yes. A 3 year old is not going to do a scene analysis of Romeo and Juliet. I thought about how we had begun our dramatic learning earlier in the session with one-word story circle with pass the sound games, and by acting out fairytales and fables as a group. Through these games, they had begun to understand (at their learning level) concepts of beginning, middle, and end, as well as narrative structure. I felt we were making progress, but I also felt like somehow they could be doing more. I needed to ask myself again, “What can they do?”

In order to create a scene-like-structure, I decided to bring in two non-working cell phones to drama class. I set up two chairs in the stage area of the classroom and the students took turns being the audience and the actors. The students who were the audience decided on what character each actor should be, starting with “mommy,” “daddy,” “grandma,” or the “family pet.” Then we decided that “mommy” would call “daddy” on the phone and talk about ______________. I would invite the students to come up with the topic of discussion and fill in the blank. Then the two actors would call each other on the “phone” and voila! An improvised scene! The concreteness and familiarity of the phone -call served as an effective vehicle to introduce the concept of dialogue. Each of the students had previously witnessed their parents and other adults having conversations on the phone, so they could actually utilize their “own experience” to make a scene. This allowed them to translate their own powers of observation about the world into an art form.

Over the next few weeks, I gradually took away the cell phones and, over time, the students started creating more complex scenes with a wider variety of characters and topics.

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December 9th, 2013
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How Older Adults Learn Choreography | Judith Sachs

I like to show my 80-year-old dancers examples of performances on YouTube in order to inspire them for the work we’re about to tackle. They are typically incredulous that they can see all that movement on my tiny iPhone screen and also of the opinion that “all those twists and turns are fine, but I’m not 25 any more like you!” (I am 66.)

I learned my choreographic technique from training with Mark Morris’s Dance for Parkinson’s format. The idea is to help my students feel like they are graceful, limber, and accomplished, even if they can’t stand up.

When Morris first thought about crafting dance classes for people with Parkinson’s Disease, he went back to his own choreography to see what he had done that might be possible for non-dancers to recreate. Seated dancers can  convey a great deal of what the whole body can do (the mourners in a semi-cirlce in Morris’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” for example)—so I always start my dancers with chairs to make them feel secure, even if we end up standing behind them or moving away from them.

Building muscle memory in an older dancer takes time and patience. Students have to be able to imagine the move before they do it. I both show and tell the group what to do (speaking the instructions about a half-second before I demonstrate the step); I use motivating language to get them to try something new; I convey the sequence of a phrase (what comes first, second, or third); and I talk about the musicality of it (“this is a long, slow step so you can take your time and breathe here”). I then put the steps to music and indicate how they go together.

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The Dance for Parkinsons training gives TAs tools that help to chunk up the phrases and teach them one at a time. My strategy is to evoke common images, like “picking up your grandchild,” “sweeping crumbs off the table,” or “stepping out of a bathtub” or (my personal favorite) “helicoptering your hand until the propeller falls off.” I teach it first, with no music, and then, as I play my iPhone or ask my accompanist to start on the downbeat “…and-a 5,6,7,8,” I lead the dancers through the phrase and count it out to supply the rhythm.

Most of my classes meet only once a week, which means that any changes I make in the choreography once I have set the dance have to be very simple. It’s hard enough to remember steps and sequences of movement when you’re 20—imagine how tough this is at 80. What I typically do is build a choreographic vocabulary made up of a few very distinct patterns. Then when I want to alter something or add a few nuances, my students are more likely to catch on. I find that the leaders in the group will go over the latest details with their companions during the week when they get together for coffee or a card game and this reinforces the changes.

They often want to discuss what is going to happen in the dance (as though they were ticking off items on a shopping list) before they actually do it, just to be sure they understood me. We’ll have a discussion about which moves come in which place and when they change. Then we’ll run through. I try not to stop them because I feel the sequence and build of a dance is something the dancer learns from doing over and over. Also, stopping is frustrating. Once they’re on a roll, I want the momentum to carry them!

In the video that follows, the dancers knew that I had studied with Alvin Ailey in the 1960s and had a feel for his choreographic style—several of them had seen “Revelations” when the professional touring company came to Philadelphia in recent years. I stripped down one of the songs in the suite and made this a dance that they could perform physically and which also meant a great deal to them spiritually.

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November 26th, 2013
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This is Hard | Angela Gallo

Of all of the courses that I teach, Dance Composition II has always been a class where, year after year, profound things occur. This course focuses on different forms of group choreography with an emphasis on the students creativity, movement invention and performance quality.  At my institution this class takes place in the fall of one’s junior year. This is a point in students’ careers when they have finally gotten past the first two years of just figuring out the expectations of dance in college.  It also seems to be the moment when they become  aware that their college days are in fact numbered.  Every year, students in this class show me that they have matured enough to be open to making drastic shifts in their artistry.  

It’s about 11am on a Wednesday, late October. My composition class has been working on a choreography project for about the past hour. It’s a simple project really—they are choreographing duets.  I ask them how things are going and the overwhelming response is: ‘This is hard.”

I hear this a lot from the dance majors in this class and it amuses me. I wonder (sometimes out loud) who told them or when did they decide that choreography was supposed to be easy?

This particular project is a duet, but there are some rules for how they should shape them.  Each dancer must be absolutely essential to the choreography at all times. This could be done a number of ways—there could be partnering work, or their relationship to each other in the duet could be defined in such a way that it renders them essential, or focus or spacing could be altered to affect this goal. Each student must continually work at expanding their own movement vocabulary. Because there are only two dancers, they must have a clear relationship to each other, so the choreography can not be unison. There must be unity and variety between the two dancers phrasing, along with contrasting elements, such as dynamics, rhythm, and use of space. They have to consider transition and the overall sense of a beginning, middle and end of the work.  

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The students finish their first drafts of the duets and they prepare to show to each other their work.  After each student shows their choreography, the rest of the class gives constructive feedback before I do. Because of their work in Composition in previous years and earlier in this semester, their feedback is really getting quite good. It is objective, well thought out and really intuitive. It makes me very happy that they are picking up on a lot of the same points that I would make.

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In this space, Teaching Artist correspondents from around the U.S. and the world bring you stories of their work at the crossroads of art and learning. ALT/space is a project of the Teaching Artist Journal, a peer reviewed print and online quarterly that serves as a voice, forum and resource for teaching artists and all those working at the intersection of art and learning. Individual online subscriptions of the TAJ print journal gives you access to a very useful, easy to access, 55-issue archive--the only such archive of its kind.