by Andrea Thompson
For the past two summers, I have had the distinct pleasure and challenge of teaching in both Hubbard Street’s level III intensive and the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance’s summer program. This year I taught Hubbard Street 2 repertory in Chicago, aptly named “Andrea Class” in San Francisco, and ballet in both programs. Three summers ago, if anyone had asked me to teach I would have politely and very definitively declined. I didn’t feel ready. I didn’t feel that I was qualified to deliver information as if I were an expert when there was still so much for me to take in from my teachers and peers. After all, I felt, those who are designated as educators in this field should be both veterans of their subject matter and skilled orators, imparting tried-and-true wisdom to their earnest disciples. Though I had tried a lot of things, I hadn’t yet decided what my truths were. As it turns out, two years into my teaching journey I still haven’t, and every time I teach I seem to be amassing evidence that that’s not actually an essential element of it.
What is truth?
What I mean by “truth” is settling on a single approach based on years of building expertise in a particular movement vocabulary/philosophy. There’s certainly value in the long-term, deep study of one such language, just as there is value in having years of experience teaching. With experience come strategies for how to best communicate with and reach dancers of all age groups, skill levels, and dispositions. But in terms of class content and structure, I believe that there are infinite ways to go about challenging students to learn and grow and engage with dance. Personally, my relationship with it has been kept vibrant by the regular overhauling of the perspectives I’ve absorbed, since I have been lucky enough to come across new approaches to dance every few years of my career.
In the current climate of the contemporary genre it seems an urgent necessity to examine and utilize all the information I’ve engaged with, rather than decide that one system or movement language is more valid than another. It stands to reason that in order to stay relevant, delivering the multifarious ideas I like to employ requires a class structure that is fluid.
Reading the room
Needless to say this makes planning a little difficult. And as essential as planning is – more on that later – this summer I found that reading the room while teaching trumps nearly everything else in terms of importance. Depending on how the student-teacher interaction is going, handling the expectations of 30 trusting young dancers can feel like a huge responsibility – or a solo stand-up comedy show, a giant improv score, herding cats, accidentally going onstage naked, being lost in a foreign country, suddenly becoming an omnipotent wizard, a rock concert, or a psychological experiment in which the roles of subject and scientist are unclear.
It’s a constant conversation, and the same way that you would adjust your wording if you see you’re not getting your point across, or your listener is getting bored, you adjust your words or your physicality or your plan for the day in order to arrive at your point in class. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s this weird power of insistence that you have as a teacher that you might not use in polite conversation with a peer. I was surprised to find that sometimes, “try harder,” “stick with it,” and “just do it because I say so” were valid and effective demands that produced dramatic results. The beautiful simplicity of setting higher expectations in the room could be just as enabling of student improvement as wracking my brain for synonyms of the same idea and the resultant assumption that I, as a teacher, was failing to articulate what was needed.
But regardless of my ambitions for the environment I wanted to create and the growth I wanted to facilitate, this summer with Andrea Class I had to come up with the “what” of the class as well as the “how.” Most of my plans for Andrea Class began with an objective: a larger idea about dance or performance I wanted to explore, or a result I wanted to curate for the students, i.e. a feeling of freedom, the joy of digging into effort, or mastering some ubiquitous elements of floorwork. I compiled exercises that lent themselves to that end, mixing things I’d done before with new games and improv tasks. Next came playlist planning, since I have yet to find a streaming service whose musical tastes match my own. Occasionally I made a phrase to provide context for the research and highlight movement pathways I felt would be beneficial to work on.
The “plan-n-scrap method”
After all that, most of my Andrea Classes played out thusly: armed with ideas and music, I would begin, and within a few minutes of moving around together surveying my surroundings, realize the majority of my planning was useless. I had picked the wrong theme of the day, or there was something else lacking in the atmosphere that needed to be addressed. I once played an improv game called “what the room needs,” and never has there been a better time to use it than while teaching, even if I’m the only one playing. After a handful of unsuccessful-feeling classes in which I stuck rigidly to my curriculum, I started applying that idea to my teaching and consequently scrapped most of my plans. I began to trust that my own experiences as a professional dancer (and not-too-distant student) would work together with my instincts and empathy to steer the spontaneous class structure. I tried to dance as much as possible in my classes so I could feel what I was asking of my students, and I found that my physical participation was often a better indicator of what needed to happen next than what I could divine from the front of the room. My dancing was also, I found out, much more effective than words in helping people figure out unfamiliar pathways in floorwork.
This plan-n-scrap method is evidenced in the hilarious log I kept of my Andrea Class teaching. In it I wrote my idea for each class followed by what actually happened when I got in there. I always started with a plan, and what I discerned was that my brain needed to go through the steps of making it in order to kickstart itself into curious-leader mode. Inevitably by the time class began my thoughts would be miles down the road from where they started, but my cranial engine did not rev up properly unless I truly applied myself to planning. My own class-taking within the Conservatory’s summer program also sparked ideas about what does and doesn’t work in dance education, and what my optimal role might be within the existing structure of it. Some of my reflections emerged days later while teaching, having stewed subconsciously until the right opportunity presented itself. Another advantage to all the planning was that I knew if I ever choked, I had not just a plan B written down, but C, D, E, and F to choose from.
At SFCD I had the luxury of working consistently with the same group of people over the course of four weeks. We got to know each other, trust each other, sweat together, grow together. I haven’t taught any “Andrea Classes” outside of that program, but I’m now very interested in continuing to explore my teaching voice as an ongoing aspect of my development within this field.
I almost wrote “find” my teaching voice, but I have a feeling that for as long as I continue to teach, I will never fully pin down my approach to dance or dance pedagogy as an absolute. It feels like the discoveries I made about myself as a teacher this summer have already begun to influence my own dancing, and have set the course for my approach to shift once again.
I once heard the brilliant ex-Forsythe dancer Christopher Roman confide to a teaching colleague, “I’m always changing my mind. I can’t do one thing today and expect it to still feel right tomorrow, but if it was right for that moment then it was the right thing.” So it went with my Andrea Classes this summer, and so it goes with my Andrea Teaching. Having moved past the fear of unpreparedness from three years ago, I’m now looking forward to charting the unknown seas ahead.
Contributor Andrea Thompson trained at the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the Ailey School, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. Those schools and programs with Springboard Danse Montréal, Nederlands Dans Theater and Batsheva Dance Company brought opportunities to perform works by William Forsythe, Ohad Naharin, Alex Ketley, Christian Burns, Marina Mascarell Martinez, Gregory Dolbashian, Idan Sharabi, Danielle Russo, and Robyn Mineko Williams.
Professionally, Andrea has danced with the Foundry, Zhukov Dance Theatre, and LoudHoundMovement. Most recently she danced with Hubbard Street 2, where she performed works by Loni Landon, Alex Soares, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ihsan Rustem, Bryan Arias, and Victor A. Ramirez. She joined Shen Wei Dance Arts this spring.
by Todd Fox
I’m a Bunhead Surfaholic!!! That’s right, my career focus and lifelong passion has always been ballet and there’s not many things in this world I love as much as ballet, but surfing is definitely one of them. I surf every chance I get and am probably one of the only surfers in Florida who strikes ballet poses while riding a wave. Over the years I’ve surfed on all sorts of boards including long boards, short boards, foam boards, plank boards with no fins, kayaks, canoes, boogie boards, etc.– if it floats I’ve surfed it and probably tried to do some ballet on it as well.
A few years ago I began noticing more and more stand up paddleboard (SUP) surfers catching waves at the local surf breaks here where I live in Miami. I had previously paddled a SUP on our calm south Florida inter-coastal waters and it was super fun but surfing on a stand up paddleboard looked intense. I couldn’t believe surfers were dropping in on waist to chest high waves while using a paddle to maneuver these giant heavy SUP boards. It looked like an incredible workout as well as a ton of fun so I decided to give it a try and bought a used 10’6″ Surfseries SUP off Craigslist to start learning with.
I had been a traditional board surfer for many years and figured the transition to surfing on a SUP would be relatively easy, plus I’m a professional ballet dancer and have good strength/balance/coordination, right? WRONG!!! I couldn’t believe how incredibly difficult it was to balance on a SUP in choppy water and the workout was much more intense than I imagined, it gave a whole new meaning to the word exhaustion. Paddling a SUP on nice glassy calm water is an amazing full-body workout but when you add waves, rip currents, and rough surf to the equation, the physical demands become much more extreme. Complicating matters was the fact that where I surf most often, Miami Beach, rarely has “clean” easy-to-paddle surf, most of our good surf is accompanied by rough, choppy ocean conditions. Without going into too much detail, this is due to Miami’s geographic proximity to the island chain of the Bahamas located directly to our east. On my first attempts I could only manage to stand on the SUP briefly, once the board started to wobble or bob up and down as a result of the choppy surface water, I would immediately lose balance and fall off every time.
Modern Ballet Studio Melodies, The Classical Class
Christopher Hobson’s Modern Ballet Studio Melodies, The Classical Class features arrangements of classical music from Schuman to Strauss to Shostakovich.
Among familiar ballet tunes you’ll find the buoyant “First Shade Variation” from La Bayadere, the whirling finale from Paquita, Prokofiev’s charged “Dance of the Knights” from Romeo and Juliet, the “Grand Waltz” from Les Sylphides, and “Siegfried’s Variation” from Swan Lake.
Other works include the luxuriant “Flower Duet from ‘Lakmé’” by Delibes for adage at barre, Malcom Arnold’s serene, skimming “Allegretto from ‘Scottish Dances ‘” for adage in center, Schubert’s quirky “Moments Musicaux” by for petit allegro, the lilting “Skater’s Waltz” for grand allegro, and Faure’s delicate, haunting “Pavane” for port de bras.
If you’re looking to incorporate more classical music in your ballet classes or seeking to supplement popular music, this collection is a good choice.0
Modern Ballet Studio Melodies Volume 6
Christopher Hobson’s Modern Ballet Studio Melodies Volume 6 is an eclectic mix that combines “melodies from classical, contemporary, pop, jazz and musical theatre”. The album is intended for all levels of ballet and features 30 tracks. Some of my favorite selections include:
Stranger in Paradise
This song from the 1950s musical “Kismet” borrows the melody of Alexander Borodin’s “Dance of the Maidens” from the ballet scene in the opera Prince Igor. Naturally, it’s good fit for fondu.
Ludovico Einaudi’s cinematic music often brings to mind images of dancing, so I was delighted to see that Hobson included one of the composer’s best-known works in an arrangement for port de bras.
Livin’ on Prayer
Bon Jovi meets ballet? Yes, it actually works quite well. Without obscuring the melody, Hobson adapts this signature song into a piece for petit allegro.
The CD also offers arrangements of tunes like “Someone Like You” and “Happy”, as well as works like “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?”, “Autumn Leaves”, “Seventy Six Trombones”, and the World War II-era hit “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree”.0
by Janet Rothwell
As a high school dance educator I am responsible for choreographing four or five dances each year for various performances. Although choreography is my favorite aspect of dance, it can be challenging to come up with new ideas, movement, spatial designs, beginnings, endings, and themes each year. As someone who values originality and the creative process, I have realized there are certain things I do to help me stay organized and creative in my work.
Over the years I have adjusted my process to include some staple methods so as to not get burnt out with repeating the same movement or spatial pattern every time I choreograph a piece. I thought I would share these specific parts of my choreographic process that seem to aid me each year as I strive to maintain newness in my artistry.
1. Maintain a choreography journal
My choreography journal is my best friend in my creative process. Not only do I use it daily while choreographing works, but I use it year round to write down ideas that pop up at random times for future works too. I write down music I like or ideas I have for themes so that when I have to create a new dance and I feel uninspired or stuck trying to think of something, I can go to my journal and look at the running list of things I have written.
I find that my choreography journal is extremely helpful for me to remember what is happening in the dances I create with my students. When I’m juggling three or more pieces at once it’s difficult to remember what choreographic elements I have already used with other dances, and since I value being original and unique with my choreography I write everything down in my journal. I make drawings of spatial designs, describe movement ideas, brainstorm titles, take notes on my music, and write down costume ideas. I also make notes on what I want to do for the next day so that when I return to my students I can take a look at my journal and know where we are in the work and in the music.
A choreography journal does not have to be pen and paper either, although I find that’s what works for me. You could use a tablet, your phone, or whatever tool you like to work best in your process. However, I would say that staying consistent is best to keep organized. There is nothing worse than having written down great notes only to have misplaced loose papers or random receipts you wrote them on. I keep an actual journal so that all of my ideas are in one place and easy to find.
2. Pick clear themes and diverse music for each dance0
by Risa Gary Kaplowitz
Maggie Black, one of the foremost ballet teachers of a generation of dancers, died on May 11, 2015. Her death initiated a flood of Facebook posts and even a Remembering Maggie Black Facebook page, where former students can write their memories about Maggie and her infamous quotes. I was happy to relive those years, as even now, three decades after having danced in Maggie’s class, it is often that I dream of dancing in her studio–or have nightmares of not being able to find it.
I first went to Maggie’s classes in 1981 at age 20 during what became the first of many summer lay-off periods. I was just starting to get principal roles at Dayton Ballet, and Christine O’Neal, formerly of American Ballet Theatre, Broadway’s A Chorus Line, and Dayton Ballet’s reigning principal dancer at the time, had recommended that I spend the summer taking Maggie’s classes. They were held in a loft in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, which was at that time a rather decrepit part of the city filled with warehouses and, from my vantage point at the barre peering into the neighboring building, sweatshops. I found a sublet nearby in the Chelsea Hotel and took Maggie’s 2.5-hour class every day for close to a month before she must have realized that I was committed to her and so finally descended on me with my first personal correction.0
We all know the saying “if you can teach it then you know you know it.” I often have my students teach or help each other with movement they are learning in class to empower them and allow them time to know they know the material without constantly watching me demonstrate. One of my favorite assignments is when I have my students create and teach and full lesson plan to the whole class.
I put my students into pairs and they pick a theme for their lesson. Some theme examples are: movement initiated from certain body parts, extremes in timing or playing with rhythms, and moving into and out of the floor with smooth transitions. Once my students pick their theme they start to create a movement phrase that demonstrates their theme. They also have to create movement that travels across the floor and a warm up, all of which must be centered on their chosen theme.0