Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the New Orleans Dance Festival, a gathering of dance in it’s 15th year (www.nodancefestival.org). Festival organizer Beverly Trask (Tulane professor) began the festival as a celebration of jazz dance, and over time, it has shifted into focusing on the vernacular forms that are at jazz’s roots. I danced 6-7.5 hours a day, learning Congolese, Brazilian, Brazilian Contemporary, Haitian and Afro-Cuban dance. In fact, the Afro-Cuban dance instruction came from La Mora, who is the artistic director of Oyu Oro, the Afro-Cuban company that just visited the Twin Cities as a part of the Flint Hills International Children’s Festival at the Ordway!
I did a lot of work there:
And a bit of play:
My experiences in New Orleans were expanding for my body, my soul, and of course, my mind. That said, I am going to focus in on one topic I sifted through my mind from a teachers perspective quite a bit while I was there; the pedagogy of cultural dance forms.
I have certainly had a fair amount of exposure to African and other ‘ethnic’ dance forms in my past, but most of it (outside of DJD) has been scattered in terms of frequency. Having a whole lot of this kind of class in a row, the first pedagogical detail I have noticed is how the almost exclusive teaching method is mimicry. This has it’s strong-suits, in terms of transferring nuance. It also has it’s drawbacks, most of which have to do with picking up detail, or correct execution. Steps are almost never broken down, you just have to pick up what you can from watching. Part of me thinks this makes me less inhibited because I am less concerned with getting it ‘perfect,’ but another part of me thinks that if I am going to take this much class, I want to be sure to be learning the steps as they are meant to be executed.
A particularly interesting example of this was Roseangela Silvestre’s Brazilian class (www.silvestretraining.com). I came upon a chance to ask a question about the actual step, which I phrased in terms of what kind of shape we are looking for. She of course came back with the suggestion that we are not looking for shape, but rather what comes out as shape from what has been initiated by a movement pattern, which started in the first place from expressive impulse. I had to coax this out a bit, but that was probably just because she is from Brazil, and speaks pretty excellent English, but needed a little help getting the thought into terms I’d and other students would catch on to.
This was an example of a perfect response to the kind of question I offered. I feel like most African and ethnic styles teachers, in pretty much refusing to give exact shape details, mean to provide the idea that Roseangela did, it just often does not come across due to language or sound barriers (ie really loud drums!). I love the idea that detail can be excess and limiting, it just needs to be communicated in a way that relates to this suggestion to come across. Maybe that is true just for dancers who have had a lot of exposure to the opposite learning method; learn the shapes, then put the expression in. So, access the expression and the shape will come (African and other ethnic forms), or access the shape and the expression will come (Western forms of modern and ballet). Either way, we are dancing and thinking, thinking and dancing, and what a wonderful thing.
Along these same lines, I realize that by breaking less of the movement down, we are actually moving a whole lot more! Most classes have us following along for a warm-up in the center for about 15 minutes, and then the remaining hour and 15 of the class is spent going across the floor, learning by doing rather than talking. While I love talking and symantics, I also love moving, and it has been such a true pleasure to be locomoting pretty much the whole of each class. Maybe it is just a personal preference, but boy do I love not getting stuck in the center!
Here is another interesting difference I have noticed; ALL of the teachers are VERY charismatic. Part of this is likely because they are living a life in dance, a life of their passion. Then again, I know many many people who are doing basically that, but very few of them communicate the kind of passion these individuals do through their teaching. Their characters are each so inviting and engaging that it is almost hard to even get tired in the middle of a VERY high energy class! As a teacher, I’d like to aspire to communicate that kind of passion to my students. Not just once awhile, but every class, like these teachers. In this, I have found dissolving my need to take each class the way I am used to (to a mirror, with details broken down, shape-based) is truly fulfilling.
So, I’ll see you soon in African class (Tuesdays at Patrick’s Cabaret), right???