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Modern Dance History In Today’s Classroom

Loie_Fuller

Portrait of Loïe Fuller, by Frederick Glasier, 1902

by Janet Neidhardt

Every year I teach my students about the history of modern dance. Each student researches and presents to the class the story of a modern dance pioneer. During this process of research and presentation I see various light bulbs pop on in my students’ minds as they come to the realization that movement has origins in history. They say things like “We do this movement in class!” and “This dancer had similar concepts about dance as we do in here.”

It’s so wonderful that videos of pioneer dancers like Loie Fuller, Ted Shawn, and Mary Wigman (just to name a few) are available on the internet for free and with such easy access. Watching videos of old dances and dancers is eye opening and creates great discussion among students about how dance has changed and how it has remained the same.

I find that my students appreciate learning and studying dance movement as an art form with greater depth after they learn about the history involved in the evolution of modern dance.  Part of their assignment is to reflect on how their pioneer dancer connects or relates to our class. This often starts a conversation about the various dance forms I’ve studied that I am now passing on as well as what and how dancers study movement today.

I ask my students, what does it mean to research movement in the body and devote your life to it as opposed to learning movement from others? Can you do both at the same time?

It is difficult for them to understand the idea of researching movement in the body because they are so used to learning movement from others. This is one of the many reasons I value teaching movement improvisation and choreography in high school. I love to see students discover that they can make up and create movement that is their own. They start to understand that if they really want to be original they need to evolve from what they already know and ask questions about what they don’t know. It is this curiosity that leads them to great creations of authentic work.

We also discuss studying one technique of dance verses studying them all and how that can change a dancers’ understanding of movement.

When talking about studying one technique verses studying many we can see that as dance has evolved there is more of a trend to be able to do it all. This is clearly a huge topic all on its own, but within the context of modern dance history my students always seem surprised that dancers would study with one teacher for many years and then branch out on their own after only learning one way of moving. They are impressed with the commitment and passion for dance that the pioneers had and they realize that is what they need to have to fully embody all movement they learn and create.

I encourage all dance educators to teach their students about modern dance pioneers and relate them back to their own classroom work. Students’ appreciation for dance and movement is expanded and their perspective about what it means to study dance is altered in profound ways.

dancer posing upside down

Janet Neidhardt

Contributor Janet Neidhardt has been a dance educator for 10 years. She has taught modern, ballet, and jazz at various studios and schools on Chicago’s North Shore. She received her MA in Dance with an emphasis in Choreography from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and her BA in Communications with a Dance Minor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Throughout her time in graduate school, Janet performed with Sidelong Dance Company based in Winston-Salem, NC.

Currently, Janet teaches dance at Loyola Academy High School in Wilmette, IL. She is the Director of Loyola Academy Dance Company B and the Brother Small Arts Guild, and choreographs for the Spring Dance Concert and school musical each year. Janet is very active within the Loyola Academy community leading student retreats and summer service trips. She regularly seeks out professional development opportunities to continue her own artistic growth. Recently, Janet performed with Keigwin and Company in the Chicago Dancing Festival 2012 and attended the Bates Dance Festival.

When she isn’t dancing, Janet enjoys teaching Pilates, practicing yoga, and running races around the city of Chicago.

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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: A Dance Teacher’s Perspective

Happy March! I hope spring is making a welcome appearance in your part of the country / world!

We recently had an article on Mirrors in the Classroom, by Sally Radell, of Emory University in Atlanta, GA. The first
article was written more for the dancer — Sally has now written one for us which focuses on mirror use from
the teacher’s perspective.  

It’s so important for teachers to understand the effect mirrors can have – both positive and negative – and how to best integrate them into classroom teaching, for the students’ best interests. As I mentioned in my intro for Sally’s
first article, I always remember the great Betty Jones (Jose Limon Company dancer and world-famous Limon teacher) saying, “mirrors put you outside your body, not in it” — good words to take to heart, and now we have recent research, such as Sally Radell’s, to give scientific support to them!

Happy Spring :)

Jan

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137_3791by Sally A. Radell, MFA, MA

It’s easy to develop a “mirror addiction” when teaching dance. This is particularly evident when teaching beginning level technique classes. I primarily use the mirror as a classroom management tool to visually “bring all of us together” in the learning of new phrases. I usually have the whole class face the mirror. I stand in front, also facing the mirror, as I demonstrate the new material with the dancers behind me following along. This enables me to watch the students as I guide them through the phrase while simultaneously calling out movement cues to help them through the challenging portions of the material. This can be a particularly efficient use of time in short dance classes where I am always pushing myself to make it through my lesson. However, I have noticed a certain level of dependence on using the mirror in my teaching; too much reliance on the mirror can create problems that are detrimental to students’ technical development and body image.

What are the drawbacks of mirror use in the dance classroom?

  • Especially when I work with beginning dancers, I see that the visual reflection of their bodies in the mirror is a more powerful experience than the proprioceptive muscular sensation of performing a movement. Under these circumstances, a dancer “removes herself from her body” to the point where she cannot learn to fully trust her proprioceptive self. Yet without full access to this movement information, a dancer’s growth can be impeded.
  • Research shows that mirrors in dance classes can contribute to the development of a poor body image for dancers.  Often more advanced students will be more critical of their body in the mirror because they have a more highly developed eye for identifying technical weaknesses. They struggle to negotiate between the two-dimensional reflection of their body in the mirror and their three-dimensional body in motion.  This heightened self-consciousness may cause a dancer to see her body as an object to compare to others in the room. This whole dehumanizing process can cause stress, negative self-evaluation, and ultimately a poor body image.
  • Teaching with mirrors can slow down the development of a dancer’s technical skills, especially in the slower adagio phrase where students find plenty of time for mirror-gazing. The more they focus on individual positions, the less likely they are to learn the flow of movement and the muscular connections a dancer needs for smooth technical advancement.
  • Remember that not all students have the maturity and objectivity to use the mirror constructively. Dance counselor Julia Buckroyd, who is an emeritus professor from the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, reports that most teenage students are unable to see an accurate image of themselves in the mirror. They cannot detach themselves from their reflection in order to benefit fully from the information the mirror provides.

So what’s a dance teacher to do?

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“Studio Thinking” In Dance

brain_largeby Janet Neidhardt

Throughout the school year I teach my students how to choreograph dances as works of art. We work on movement invention and manipulation, creating phrases, and finding form in movement. We discuss the elements of space, time, and energy, and how they facilitate the creation of climactic moments and communication within movement.

No matter how much we practice exploration and play as a class, when it comes time for small group choreography projects, it always seems that my students are so eager to get to the product that they pass by the process in the blink of an eye. I feel like a broken record sometimes when I say “explore, play, try it one way and then try it five more different ways to make sure you discovered what you feel to be the strongest way to dance it.” Placing greater emphasis on process verses product is something that I am constantly reinforcing with my students and the assignments given to them.

I try to create rubrics that are more open to interpretation however I find that if I do not give some specific instructions/structure then the students get confused. I recently assigned a small group choreography project to my students and while the rubric requires the use of various choreographic elements, it also said it had to be two minutes long. After one week of working in groups (they have three weeks to get this done) almost every group had close to two minutes of choreography done and they looked around at each other like “Wow we are almost done!”

This is when I stopped them and said “Now you need to explore, play, edit, and layer your movements with variety.” I told them week two needs to be about exploration and discussed what it meant to be in the process of dance making. I have started to discuss the studio thinking approach with my students in order to help them enter a fresh mindset of expectations.

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Dancing to Feed the Body…Not Starve It

modern dancer

Lucy Vurusic Riner

by Lucy Vurusic Riner

As a high school dance educator you can’t really avoid the issue of body image in your dance class.  There are ways to skirt around the issue, maybe even make light of it at times when things are tense, and there is always the batch of us that quite honestly, make it worse.

So I’m suggesting we face it head on.  Some thoughts on how we as dance educators can start turning this horrible phenomenon around:

1.  This point is number one for a reasonDance Educators need to check their own personal opinions of body image at the door.

We all, at some point in our careers, have bought into the stereotype of what the dancer body looks like no matter how hard we try not to.  Our own images of our bodies may have even prevented some of us from following a dream we had in dance because we assumed our bodies needed to look a certain way.  We also all know a teacher that said something mean or inappropriate to us (and we remember it don’t we?); those teachers that said it in our best interest right?

Being a woman in this world is hard enough; being a dancer can add a whole other layer to our insecurities if we aren’t taught in an environment that is safe and nurturing.  How do we address body image in our classes to let young girls, especially many at the middle and high school level that are experiencing puberty, know that they have to love and respect the bodies they are in?  How do we talk to our students about being healthy without looking like we are passing judgment in one way or another?

I try to emphasize that we have different bodies and that they benefit us all in different ways.  I want my students to focus on their strengths.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t want them to work on the things that are challenging for them but I want them to be able to look at their bodies and point out the things that they love about them.

I do an ice breaker exercise early in the year where everyone has to share one thing about themselves as a dancer that they love.  You would have thought I asked them to help raise the debt ceiling.  Blank stares.  But if I asked the opposite question, “If you could fix one thing about yourself as a dancer…” we could spend an entire semester in group therapy.  I actually think some of the girls in my classes do like themselves more than they let on–they just think it’s taboo to let anyone know they like themselves…..Geesh.

I always try to point out the benefits of how each of my dancers is built and how that is special to who they are as movers.  That doesn’t mean I don’t give corrections or feedback, it just means that talking about their physical bodies is irrelevant.  Sadly, there are plenty of places in our society that try to keep us down as women by focusing solely on our bodies and how they SHOULD look.  My job is to continue building my students up regardless of that.

2.  Use your body as a way to show young girls how to appreciate who THEY are.

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Competition In Dance Class

dancer posing upside down

Janet Neidhardt

by Janet Neidhardt

I recently read the research article entitled “So We Think You Can Learn: How Student Perceptions Affect Learning” by Susan Haines, MFA and Talani Torres, MFA.  I should first point out, since I am addressing competition, that the research article won Top Paper Citation 2012 from NDEO. Haines and Torres spent time researching how their students’ perspectives on a rehearsal process affected their learning of choreography for performance. They found that their students’ competitiveness with their peers stopped their learning process. I found this research so interesting and applicable to my own students and teaching that I had my Honors Dance class read the article and discuss their own thoughts and questions about it. (The article is attached below)

My students had a lot to say when it came to feelings of competition in dance.  Although some of them dance on competitive teams and others dance within studios that are non-competitive, they all felt some sort of frustration when being placed in the back or not getting solos when it came time to learn dances which would be performed for an audience. They said things like “it just hurts my self-confidence when I feel like I have worked so hard but I keep getting placed in the back.” They clearly identified with the sentiments expressed by students in the research article.

The competitive environment becomes a problem if student learning is halted because they no longer feel competent or confident in their own dancing.

Only one student said that she wants to become a better dancer for herself not to be better than anyone else. She explained that she loves the challenge she feels within herself when dancing and trying to master movement. She even quoted Mikhail Baryshnikov saying “I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.”

During this somewhat heated discussion I talked with my students about the goals of my class specifically and explained that no one should feel competitive and unable to learn in my classroom. I want to create an environment in which my students feel internally motivated to improve their skills as artists. I want my students to feel able to take risks and push themselves and learn from one another in a safe and caring environment. My goals in teaching movement and choreography skills, dance history, and development of aesthetics are for the individuals to learn about themselves within the process of learning about dance.

I said to them, “What if your grade depended on the success of the person next to you?” The students quickly responded that they would be helping each other to learn movement and remind each other about details and performance. It was interesting how quickly they began to realize how their focus could shift if their goals were changed from the individual success to the group success.

This is clearly an ongoing conversation and evaluation to have with my students. I hope to instill in them a sense of internal motivation while caring for the development of those around them. Our theme for the year, dancing from the inside out, directly ties into this conversation and will hopefully guide the students to new perspectives about how they approach dance.

Contributor Janet Neidhardt has been a dance educator for 10 years. She has taught modern, ballet, and jazz at various studios and schools on Chicago’s North Shore. She received her MA in Dance with an emphasis in Choreography from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and her BA in Communications with a Dance Minor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Throughout her time in graduate school, Janet performed with Sidelong Dance Company based in Winston-Salem, NC.

Currently, Janet teaches dance at Loyola Academy High School in Wilmette, IL. She is the Director of Loyola Academy Dance Company B and the Brother Small Arts Guild, and choreographs for the Spring Dance Concert and school musical each year. Janet is very active within the Loyola Academy community leading student retreats and summer service trips. She regularly seeks out professional development opportunities to continue her own artistic growth. Recently, Janet performed with Keigwin and Company in the Chicago Dancing Festival 2012 and attended the Bates Dance Festival.

When she isn’t dancing, Janet enjoys teaching Pilates, practicing yoga, and running races around the city of Chicago.

 

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