Helping Dance Students Enter the Whirlpool of Dance-Making

How do you explain dance-making and its creative processes to middle-school or entry level high school students?

Recently I opened the dialog on creative process in my own class with the image of a whirlpool.

black and white photo of a whirlpool

Leading questions:

Have you ever been to a water-park? Have you ever been in the whirlpool?

For those that haven’t been, imagine this: There is a circular pool that has a single entry/exit point. Once in the pool, you begin walking in a circle. The more people there are, the more force there is and soon you are riding on a current, having to decide when and how you exit.

The creative process can be a little like walking in that pool – entering, whirling, and having to choose when to exit.

Initiating Conversation

Let’s start with at the beginning, at the initiation. Turn to a partner and tell them what you had for breakfast.


Who initiated that conversation? How did the person respond? Did they have the same breakfast? Something similar but different? Something totally different?

Leaving the concept of breakfast behind, develop a movement phrase or a movement “situation” in which one of you leads and the other(s) respond. Remember that your responses may come in the form of a movement echo, similar movement, or contrasting movement. You may have elements of improvisation and/or choreographed movement.


After giving students a few minutes to work, I offer a visual.

Asking a student to volunteer, I improvise and encourage him/her to respond to the movement I produce. We soon discuss, as a class, what stood out and the meaning we were able to infer.

We then return to the concept of the whirlpool as it relates to the creative process.

What is the entry point?

Most commonly, the entry point for dance-making is inspired by a story or a song. We typically use choreographic devices to support the meaning we intend to convey through movement. In that sense, meaning leads and movement follows. Yet, that is only one method.

Using the choreographic device of initiating movement as a means to infer meaning offers another entry point into the whirl of creativity that many middle school and even high school students may not have considered.

What if?

At this point, we flood the board with “what if” scenarios for potential dance-making:

What if the dance is performed in the wings but only an arm or a leg is occasionally visible from stage.

What if the entire dance is in low space, on a chair, what if the audience is onstage and the dancers are in the house? The possibilities are endless.

I have found that in their studies, we are able to find examples of choreographic tools listed in such sources as Blom’s The Intimate Act of Choreography.

Tools such as instrumentation, fragmentation, repetition, embellishment are used organically- serving as the gold for us to mine rather than the tools with which we do the mining.

How are you talking about the creative process?

Dance Your PhD: Choreographer/Bioengineer Christopher Knowlton explores knee replacement through dance

If you ask any PhD student what his thesis is about, one of two things is likely to happen:

1. You get a long, drawn out paragraph of mumbo jumbo things that no one in the outside world will ever understand…


2. “It’s about electrons.”

That is to say, you get the watered-down, one word version and a subtle invitation to please stop asking questions because you wouldn’t understand it anyway.  But what if there was a way to communicate complex ideas, the stuff of PhD’s, without watering it down or shutting the rest of us out? 

Apparently there is…

What was once a little known video contest for PhD students to explain their research through dance has blown up into a full-scale online dance film fest.  Scientist/writer John Bohannon developed the Dance Your PhD contest as a way to make science accessible and understandable to everyone.

Plus, he sees this model as a way to attack some of the problems we face in the dance community. Bohannon gave this TED talk a few years ago, where he claims that dancers are a valuable and fragile resource.  Using dancers as a learning tool and a means of communicating lofty, inaccessible ideas could be one way to protect the fields of both dance AND science.

Science is hard. 


The Dance Your PhD project attempts to make really complex ideas a little more accessible to the outside world.  On top of that, it forces scientists to take a look at their work, step away from the numbers, and ask themselves, “So, what?”  Doing this is important to finding the big picture.  It’s a really healthy and cathartic process to force yourself to summarize your work in a way that everyone (including you) can “get”.  Scientists need to find the “Why” in what they do as much as dancers do.


If you know me, then you realize that these are ideas that I can get behind.


I got the chance to sit down with one of my favorite dancer/scientists Christopher Knowlton.  Ok, “sit down” is an exaggeration for an email conversation…..

photo of Christopher Knowlton by Kelly Rose, courtesy of Synapse Arts


Anyway, we chatted a bit about the pursuit of his PhD in Bioengineering, balanced against his life as a professional dancer/choreographer and Artistic Director of The Dance Team, and how he’s combined his two worlds to create a dance film for the Dance Your PhD contest.  Here’s the gist of our conversation:


LW – How did you learn about the Dance Your PhD project?


CK – Rachel Thorne Germond of RTG Dance, the first choreographer I worked with in Chicago, posted a link to the contest on Facebook a little over a year ago, and I took an immediate interest. It was too close to the contest deadline to participate, so I mentally (and browserly) bookmarked it, hoping it would happen again in 2012. Not long after, there was an explosion of posts among my dancer friends sharing a TED talk given by John Bohannon & Black Label Movement called “Dance vs. powerpoint, a modest proposal“. Dancers were buzzing over the video’s use of stunning choreography to convey facts and data, in a way that lecture and performance really became inseparable. I’ve always been interested in movement conveying factual information as well as emotional, and since both my work as a scientist and my work as a choreographer have attempted to do those, I decided that I just had to participate. So my mental bookmark has now become a fulfilled New Year’s resolution.


LW – Explain your film a little bit, and how it relates to your thesis.


CK – The film takes the viewer through my thesis, as demonstrated through dance and subtitles. Much of the technical jargon that I work with on a daily basis, such as replacement, accumulation, isolation, inversion,  and alignment, also have meaning in dance. Sometimes these meanings are similar, sometimes they are different; in that way, much of the dance is somatic wordplay, and I hope that that is the glue that makes technical concepts stick with a broader audience. The subtitles help the viewer navigate the relationship between the movement and my research, but at different times I try to anticipate, match or follow up the movement. We actually created the choreography first, which we made in silence during three two hour rehearsals and filmed in six hours. The script was added during editing to provide more context, and music was slapped on for some continuity. I made the film for a very broad audience, and so I focus a lot on why my research is significant to the viewer. I wanted to add citations for each statement as you would in a research paper in order to appeal to those who wanted more technical information, but there simply wasn’t enough time. The competition is called Dance Your PhD, but in reality, the competition is Dance Film Your PhD – anyone who has made a dance and a dance film know how different those two things are. Our choreography was made for live performance, where the text would be spoken, but I feel it translated to camera fairly well.


LW – What, if anything, do you hope viewers take away from your film?


CK – If people understand my thesis and never have to ask me awkwardly again what I do, that would be great! But what I’d really like them to take away is how effective dance, or more appropriately, movement, is as a communicative tool. Scientists often lack the abilities to clearly, concisely and memorably explain complex ideas. Every career requires strong communication skills, but research needs a special combination of good technical and soft skills; even if you had a cure for cancer, it wouldn’t do any good unless you can translate that science into the real world. To me, dance and art are necessary components to any education so that problem solvers and innovators can learn to express effectively.


LW – What’s next for you?


CK – Dancerly, I have a lot happening next: I [premiered] a trio called Shelter for Synapse Arts Collective’s New Works this weekend at Hamlin Park, I’ll be premiering a quintet called The Bro-uble Standard in Links Hall’s Dances to Songs I Hate 2 at the end of October, and I am re-staging an evening-length work called Hub and Spoke in a show I put together called The Past Is Prologue in early November. (That’s not to mention projects I’m performing in for other people.) Scientifically, I’m currently writing my second and third academic research papers to submit for publication, and I plan to present my preliminary thesis defense in December. But more in the vein of this film, I’m in the process of writing a residency proposal to create a simple engineered suit to track and record motion. With it, I want try to better understand differences in dance movement styles, investigate the dancerly and scientific notions of ‘approximation’, and create a performative-lecture to explain the results.


It sounds like Chris is a pretty busy guy, and an ambitious one.


And now, here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for…the film:



NEAT! Want more? If you have a nice chunk of time and a hunger for learning, view the other 2012 Dance Your PhD entries here.


Christopher Knowlton is a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago and researches joint replacements in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Rush University Medical Center. Chris is honored to be choreographing in his second season with Synapse Arts Collective. Chris is also currently a collaborative performer for Mark Jeffrey & Judd Morrissey, Erica Mott, Katie Graves, We Stand Sideways and The Dance Team, a group for which he has acted as artistic director for the past year. Chris’s choreography credits include Shortest Distance, a solo performed at the Cincinnati Art Museum, The Box the Gift Came In, a solo premiered at the annual Links Hall benefit THAW and Hub and Spoke, an evening-length piece for The Dance Team premiered at the 2011 Chicago Fringe Festival.

Bessie’s Back

…and Boy is She Bouncin’

I don’t normally cover a lot of dance news on Dance Advantage but it’s important to me to recognize important events within the dance community when I can. Many young dancers may not realize that since the 1980s New York has celebrated dance with its own awards ceremony. Wouldn’t it be nice if someday The Bessies were as widely recognized as The Oscars or The Tonys? The Bessies are not televised, so thankfully choreographer Mark Panzarino was there and kind enough to paint a picture with his recap of the event. ~ Nichelle, Editor

What makes a great awards ceremony?


A beautiful location. An hysterical host. An enthusiastic, well-dressed audience full of celebrities. Laughs in all the right places; tender moments in the right places. Not being too self-congratulatory. And, of course, the winners!  The New York Dance and Performance Awards -loving nicknamed “The Bessies,” after Bessie Schonberg, modern dance teacher and pioneer- returned Monday night in full force after a year’s hiatus with a dynamic ceremony October 18 at Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Those in attendance were lucky to be there for the return of this much-needed event.

The Bessies logo - New York Dance and Performance Awards Produced by Lucy Sexton (leading fundraising efforts) and DanceNYC (with newly appointed Director Lane Harwell at the helm), and in conjunction with Danspace Project, Dance Theater Workshop, and The Joyce Theater, Bessies Awards were given for two seasons (2008-2009 and 2009-2010) and in two categories, honoring “Full Productions” and “Performers Honored for Work”.  Each award was detailed with an eloquent citation describing the recipient’s contribution to the field.

How wonderful to see such a broad spectrum of participants in the house and onstage!  Dancers, choreographers, designers, funders, media reps and politicos alike came to celebrate the best of the New York dance scene.  Famed fashion legend Isaac Mizrahi was quite the charmer, his quick wit moving celebrations along at a fun, steady pace. He looks younger than ever. (I need a new tuxedo.)  Presenters included Dance Theatre of Harlem‘s Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, Ballet Hispanico Founder Tina Ramirez, S.L.A.M founder Elizabeth Streb, the ever-present, multi-talented Ishmael Houston-Jones, and Tony-Award winning lighting designer Jennifer TiptonBilly Elliot director, Academy Award nominee, and Tony winner Stephen Daldry was in attendance.

While there were no live performances this year, too-brief videos of Bessie recipients made me hungry to see more of works I had missed during their run, particularly Michelle Boulé’s performance in Last Meadow (which also received a Bessie), Keith Hennessey‘s production of Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal or trauma . . .) (both shown at Dance Theater Workshop), and Okwui Okpokwasili‘s Pent-Up: A Revenge Dance at P.S. 122.  Mr. Mizrahi joked, “The three greatest ballets ever: ‘La Sylphide’, ‘Giselle’, and ‘Crotch‘!” Very touching was Ms. Okpokwasili recognition of her mother, who had traveled from Nigeria to be in attendance.

Photo of Carmen deLavallade with Mark Panzarino at the 2010 bessies

Guest author, Mark Panzarino with legend Carmen deLavallade at the 2010 Bessies; photo by Richard Bernard

Other notable award recipients included Kyle Abraham‘s The Radio Show (no surprise there), Anne Collod, Anna Halprin, and Morton Subotnick for parades & changes, replays, Miki Orihara (of Martha Graham), and David Leventhal, who was rewarded for “projecting a keen intelligence with a twinkle in his eye while bringing to exhilarating life more than 40 of Mark Morris’ works.” Mr. Leventhal was presented his award by a very dashing Jock Soto, alongside fellow winner Heather Olson.

Undoubtedly, the most exciting moment of the evening was Ms. Sexton and Mr. Mizrahi recognizing the ensemble members of Paradigm with a Bessie for “(bringing) into vibrant focus the essence of what it means to dance.”  Honored were Artistic Director Gus Solomons Jr. (who called for the tripling of the size of the Bessie committee, to be able to include more works in the selection process!), Carmen deLavallade, Dudley Williams, Valda Setterfield, Michael Blake, Hope Clark, and Keith Sabado.

And then, as is with all great award ceremonies, the house lights are up and the young choreographers and performers are hugging their parents in the aisles and taking pictures with slightly smudged mascara, fumbling with framed certificates they will treasure the rest of their lives.  The more experienced performers exit the stage door.

Outside, in brisk, cool October wind, a British dancer hustles with a taxi driver to let him keep his cigarette in the cab, his ensemble on their way to the after-party at Colombus72, which, apparently, went for hours. “We won!” he says, “We should be allow to smoke!  We’re already smokin’!”

Dance Performance Awards The Bessies: Highlights from 2010 Awards Ceremony

Watch this video on YouTube.

The Radio Show Promotional Video from Kyle Abraham/ on Vimeo.

Cave of the Heart/Medea solo

Watch this video on YouTube.

Mark Panzarino headshotMark Panzarino was hand-selected at the age of 6 to study with Nina Youshkevich, the protégé of Bronislava Nijinska. His education continued at the School of American Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet School, and the David Howard Dance Center before joining Miami City Ballet as an apprentice in 1990. He has performed, choreographed, and taught for Broadway Dance Center, Dance Theatre of Harlem School, American Ballet Russe, Metropolitan Repertory Ballet, Renaissance Dance Ensemble, Eugene Lang College at the New School, Tampa Bay City Ballet, InMotion Dance Company, and the Choreographic Lab at Steps on Broadway. Mark’s first full-scale commission, Adam and Eve and God: a dance for two was presented by Texas Dance Theatre in April 2010 to stellar reviews. Additional projects include a sculptural work of mixed media (Touchdown) featured prominently in the lobby of the Times Square Hotel, a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A book of short poems was published in 2002. He is completing his first novel. Mark lives in Manhattan with a very spoiled 13-year-old Dalmatian named Zoey.

See his choreography on vimeo or connect with him on Facebook

The Truth About Well-Rounded Dancers

Stone Path and Leaves

Image by Steven Minns via Flickr

The Myth Of More, More, More — No Stone Unturned

There is a lot of pressure on parents to help their child get ahead, as if somewhere down the line a child’s failure to get that job, land that role, or succeed at each endeavor could somehow be traced back to that one stone left unturned in the child’s past. As a result, I see a lot of parents out there trying to turn over every stone along their child’s path. It’s exhausting to watch and even more exhausting to attempt.

In dance, this tendency translates into more money, more time, more classes, more performances, costumes, choreography, private lessons… more, more, more. Even studios feel the need to be everything to everyone, responding to demand and striving to supply. As a result, parents have some big questions on their lips…

How many hours spent at the studio is enough? How many competitions are too many? How much money should it take? How much experience should my dancer have in _____? How much is necessary to ensure that I’ve left no stone unturned?

Because the answers will be different for each family and individual, I’m going to help you answer the above questions for yourself. First, by dispelling some myths about dance training.


If my child wants to advance or get ahead he/she needs lots of experiences with different dance styles.

Experience and exposure in a variety of dance styles is important for creating versatile dancers and may even be a necessity for aspiring professionals. Being well-rounded in dance is a good thing. Exposure to different dance forms, starting at a young age, is a great thing. So where’s the myth? It lies in the misplaced emphasis on experience and omission of training. Experience and training are two different things, and I’ll add a third level… exposure. To get ahead, your dancer needs a healthy balance of all three.

Exposure = Watching a variety of dancers, styles, and performances; Making contact with other students and professionals; Reading about dance or dance artists

Experience = Getting a taste of alternative ways of moving and patterning dance; Learning a dance; Participating in a performance; Working with master teachers or choreographers;

Training = Engaging in a course of study that prepares a dancer for the physical, cognitive, and mental requirements of codified dance forms/techniques; specialized practice and instruction over a period of time

When parents see a class that incorporates ballet, tap, and jazz in a single hour class, they may think that this is three times the experience for the price of one. Exposure, yes. Experience, maybe. Training, no.

The child in this situation has less time to develop in any one of these areas and in terms of training, often ends up shortchanged. “Combo” classes, or classes that combine two dance forms are not entirely a bad thing. Young recreational students may benefit from experiencing more than one dance style before deciding where to focus their efforts later. However if, later on, their in-class effort and focus on technique is still only 20 minutes because their hour is continually spent on learning choreography and preparing for performances, the value of their experience is diminished. They are no longer moving beyond the experiencing realm, and no amount of performing, competing, or exposure will make up for this.


  • One hour of solid, well-thought training in a single dance form is better than ten hours of experience.
  • Training, whether focusing on ballet, contemporary, jazz, or tap techniques can always be built upon with the addition of other styles.
  • An experience can rock your world but it can’t substitute for consistent effort and instruction.
  • Good training roots exposure and experience, and allows versatility to flower.

What It Means To Be Well-Rounded

A well-rounded dancer has a balanced education with equal parts exposure, experience, and training.

4 Signs Your Exposure-Experience-Training Balance Is Off

  1. Preparing a single dance routine requires months of preparation. (Well-trained dancers are prepared for what is given to them, dancers who only have experience under their belt have a steeper learning curve because they must digest and acquire skills as they go.)
  2. Technique is the add-on in your regimen, while classes like ballet or jazz are spent learning choreography in that style.
  3. You have lots of exposure but within only a small range of activities. For example, maybe you devour everything about ballet but skip the article on improvisation, or watch major network dance competitions but pass on PBS, or travel every week to competitions but have never seen a live professional performance.
  4. You engage in tunnel-vision training (yes, a dancer’s balance can be overly focused on training, not allowing for diverse experiences or exposure).

Take some time to evaluate your child’s training. The time spent in additional classes should be relative to true desire and interest. It is important to build your repertoire of dance styles but look for a studio that sticks to the mission of providing an uninterrupted core of technique classes, while offering a chance to “taste” a variety of performance styles and choreography during workshops, via visiting teachers, conventions, and going to see dance performances.

When Is Too Much Not Enough?

As I’ve begun writing this series a theme has emerged. The query above may seem like a riddle but actually it’s not meant to confound and can be answered in many different ways. Through this series, I hope to continue to address this as an underlying question to your concerns about striking balance in your dancer’s study without turning over every stone.

What are other signs that a dance education is not well-rounded?

Can you think of other myths or questions you might have as a parent?

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Unifying Women and Mothers Through Dance

The following guest post is from a loyal reader, Camille. I asked her to write this account for Dance Advantage because I appreciated her passionate support of dance and its role in community. I knew also that she was employed as a dance teacher in Scotland, doing a job very much the same yet also very different from that of many dance instructors. She will tell you more about this work in her own words but I feel it speaks to the affect dance and movement can have on the soul and on a group of people. Occasionally, I like to step away from the technical, instructional, business, and material side of dance to remind myself and those reading of the unifying and universal power of dance. As Camille will reiterate, I hope this reminder will encourage those of us who hold keys to find their own unique ways of unlocking this potential in dance.

As I walk to work with my son Soren, the sky is very dark, though it’s only just before six in the evening. I’m glad I have this time to spend with him and that while I work he is nearby in a room, where childcare is provided, just down the hall from where I teach. It’s cold, like many Scottish nights, and I’m glad we’ll be indoors soon. The warmth I feel at work is doubled by the many beautiful and dedicated women I work with. Tonight I am greeted by Karen Gordon, a group member and professional photographer who does volunteer work with the women in the group (you can see her great work of the women and children dancing below). I then bring Soren to the childcare and see Saba. She preforms with the women and is dropping off her son at the creche as well. He has just arrived from Africa and Saba is very happy that they are together now. We hug and I meet and hug her son. He is beautiful and practices his English with the caregivers in the childcare. It is the perfect way to start my evening.

About mIN

Photo by Karen Gordon

I am a dancer, and teach dance at the Maryhill Integration Network (mIN). It is an organization for families (primarily women and their children) who have relocated to Glasgow due to dangers and unrest in their own countries. War, political unrest, violence towards women, and religious persecution are just a few of the reasons refugees are forced or choose to leave their homes and seek another. Their families are in danger, they fear for their lives, and they want a safer life for their children and for themselves. The women and children come to the network to make friends, participate in artistic collaborations, cook, share stories and, most importantly, integrate into their new homes. In many ways this job is a dream come true. Not only am I teaching dance and doing what I love but I can also bring my children and be a part of something even greater than (dare i say) dance: the cause for women, freedom and humanity.

Movement and dance are main ingredients for moving mIN forward as a community voice and performance group. I’ve had the opportunity to work with the women for the 16 Days of action for violence against women campaign and share my choreography with the city, as well as teach weekly classes with the children.

Leading with Love

Remzije (Rema) center

The leading woman behind this network Remzije Sheriffe is someone that I respect more than my words are able to express and I sat down to interview her to give readers some insight into her beginnings, hopes, struggles and triumphs as a artistic facilitator and coordinator for mIN. I also hope that her effort will encourage other organizations to provide such positive environments for women and children as well as unite cultures through dance.

We meet just before work and, because Remzije was a journalist in Kosova before coming to Glasgow, I’m a bit nervous, though I know this isn’t necessary given her unconditional love for all who take part in the organization.

Language of the Body

After arriving in Glasgow, Rema (as friends and coworkers call Remzije) began a project called Kelpian Castle which involved the performance of Kosavoan and Glaswegian stories, combined and enacted by children for their community. This was volunteer work yet very telling of where her life and career would unfold. From the beginning of her stay in Glasgow she knew the importance of integration and had a keen sense for how to do it. Language barriers are usually a struggle when a new refugee arrives at the network. Rema knew that, through dance and movement, those involved could make friends and support each other despite their difficulty to communicate with spoken word. She understands greatly the power of movement and body language.

Photo by Karen Gordon

When Rema began her work with the Maryhill Integration Network she was well prepared to take it to new heights because of her volunteer work and her strong public relations as a journalist. Performances have multiplied as the women involved learn the beauty of sharing their life experiences on stage through poetry, contemporary dance, music, and theatre. Dancing and its choreographed lifting, supporting and embracing – I’ve found these very themes translate into real life as deep friendships are made.

Work as a Calling

Photo by Karen Gordon

Rema faces the challenges that come head on. How the women will all arrive at rehearsals, dress rehearsals and performances, where there children will be during all of this, involving the children who are ready to perform, getting funding, costumes, choreographers (like Natasha Gilmore, deserving of her own post for sure), musicians, publicity…. this list goes on. During all of this she is also working with practical matters of English class, helping with forms, and encouraging those around her to have a public voice and feel of worth in their new surroundings. It’s lovely to see how her practical work parallels her artistic endeavors and that the women involved experience integration happening at many levels. Rema has great women to help but these are the demands of her job. She views her work as a calling in life.

On Women and Mothers and Dancing

Through all of this, Rema knows that family is first. This allows for mothers to feel the safety of coming and knowing that they are understood. This allows me, a dancer and a mother, to work there. This is why I love my job. All of it!

The editor asks: Where are the keyholes in your community and how will you use dance to unlock them?

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