Walk the Line: How do you represent the dance and give the people what they want?
When I started teaching, my students wanted choreographies, something they could take home and show off. So I made them. Because the students were beginners, I needed simple, repetitious music. Do you know how hard this was to find? These days, there is a plethora of Egyptian pop (plenty of which is horribly boring, synth, repetition), but back in the 80s it was almost impossible to find a song that kept the same structure all the way through.
But that’s what I looked for, because, being self-taught, as everyone was, I didn’t know any better. And I made some fairly charming dances for my students. Even back then, I tended to have a lot of emotional and narrative elements, but most folks do not have this component. Additionally, I had the benefit of a superlative dance education through several years with Ibrahim Farrah, one of the most highly-regarded teachers of his day.
As I became a better teacher, my choreographies got more interesting and fun, and I encouraged my students’ creativity as well. It was important to me that their own voices come through, that they be creators in their own right. I encourage and make space for a lot of creativity and personal style in my classes. We free dance regularly, there are new combinations, and very little drilling.
But the minute I started teaching a choreography, the students’ creativity dropped like mercury in a polar vortex. Suddenly, they were anxious, careful, and narrowly focused, where the week before, they had been open, graceful, and free. They couldn’t remember, they were overly focused on symmetry, and they argued about their spacing. Their own dances suffered, as did the overall easygoing atmosphere I treasured in the classroom. Hmmm….
Why can’t the students make the group dances? Already, when my students traveled to events, other students were amazed that my folks made their own dances. Even my beginners are trained and encouraged to make their own dances. So this is what I set out to do.
I began by having each student present a move that went with the music, which they then taught to the other dancers. I merely sequenced the steps with the music, usually in the same order as the students presented them. We let the music tell us how many times to do the move and what floor patterns we would take.
SHAZAM! Suddenly I had fully engaged students who remembered the moves, counts, and transitions, came up with floor patterns, and filled in any blanks without even being asked. Our focus was on feeling and expression rather than stylization. We had far more elaborate and complex interactions than before. Cooperation soared. The dances were great. And rather than passively accepting material, everyone was learning and doing.
Don’t get me wrong, I love making dances. It is a great, great, pleasure to craft something just so. It is a great way to present new material in a concise way. But I love happy, productive, creative, engaged students even more.
My college classes–absolute beginners– now create, remember, and execute a beautifully, engaging dance, all within their final two weeks. A group of experienced dancers can do this in one hour.