In the era of standardized assessment, there is a lot of talk about “teaching to the test”.
While this generally refers to classroom teachers catering content and delivery to what may appear on those standardized tests, there is a fair amount of that happening in the dance classroom, too. What should be an exhilarating adventure that opens eyes and doors to a world of possibility becomes stagnate, predictable, and well, boring.
If we think of the mid-year or end of the year performance as “the test” many instructors are choosing their class content based on the choreography for those performances rather than developing skills that will improve all dancing, whether it will appear on stage or not.
Often, this approach to teaching aligns with a commercial dance approach to dance-making. There is a series of steps that are trending in popularity among audiences and students will then be introduced to those steps in the months leading up to the show.
Concert dance, however, offers a very different point of view.
This perspective of dance-making tends to be about possibility and meaning. Rather than representing, concert dance reports. Rather than entertaining, concert dance provokes. While commercial dance may inspire engagement in a culture or activity, concert dance hopes to engage in dialogue.
One way to avoid the pitfall of limiting learning potential to “the steps” is to start the creative process by asking yourself and your students, “what shall we investigate?”
This opens the class experience to critical thinking about the how and why we develop the movement we do, how it progresses from one notion to a more complex or advanced version, and how we can classify or group concepts, movement, or both.
Perhaps you can research the how and why specific movements were created.
- Why do ballerinas bourree?
- What prompted Martha Graham to contract and release?
- Who was the first to use a jazz hand?
Instead of deciding content for the performing and moving backwards in time to sequence your content, think of starting narrow and moving wide or vice versa.
- What do these movements have in common?
- What do these movements have in contrast?
- How does a jazz contraction compare to a a contraction in modern dance?
- What are the technical differences?
- What are the presentational differences?
- How do the subtle changes to the body alter how the audience will “read” the meaning behind the movement?
This line of questioning opens the class experience to shared experiences and shared learning. While you are the guide to the educational and artistic journey, the sense of authority and engagement of the learning community is co-owned by each individual.
All of a sudden, you become a living resource worthy of trust and a real role model of life-long learning. You become someone that can help students mine information to find meaning rather than being just another adult that tells them what to do, when to do it, and how.
And if you are prone to burn-out after months of the tunnel vision commonly experienced during concert preparation, this may be the change you are looking for to keep things fresh and productive.
So, what will you be investigating?
Heather Vaughan-Southard MFA, is a choreographer, dance educator, and performer based in Michigan. She currently directs the dance program at the Everett High School Visual and Performing Arts Magnet in Lansing. With the philosophy of teaching dance as a liberal art, Ms. Vaughan-Southard collaborates with numerous arts and education organizations throughout the state. She has danced professionally in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York and has performed works by Mia Michaels, Lar Lubovitch, Donald McKayle, Billy Siegenfeld, Alexandra Beller, Debra Levasseur-Lottman, and Bob Fosse. As a choreographer, her work has been credited by the Los Angeles Times for “creating heat.” She has recently choreographed for the dance programs at Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University, Lansing Community College and is the former dance professor at Albion College. She is a regular guest artist and blogger for Dance in the Annex, an innovative dance community in Grand Rapids. Heather received her MFA in Dance from the University of Michigan, BFA in Dance from Western Michigan University and K-12 certification in Dance from Wayne State University. Read Heather’s posts.