Teaching What You Love

“The connection between teacher and student creates a bond,” says Jason Samuels Smith, who like most choreographers teaches locally at studios and colleges as well as on tour, “strengthening the dance tradition and building upon it with each generation’s input and style.”

There may be no better way for choreographers to perpetuate their legacies than to teach their disciplines. While performance offers the possibility of converting audience members into fans, the classroom gives them the opportunity to explain what’s behind their work and to pass on hard won knowledge of their craft. They also can use the classroom to try out new choreography. Many thrive there – and no doubt, so do their students.

“Teaching crystallizes what I feel about dance,” says Stephen Petronio “I can speak out loud what I believe in. I go back to concepts that are the basis of my choreography and reexamine my principles and often begin to see other possibilities.”

Heidi Latsky also likes to break down material and clarify concepts and ideas. “The process of sharing these ideas helps me understand them more clearly for myself,” she says, “and then incorporate them more distinctly into my choreography. I also love coaching dancers to interpret movement in their unique way, to impart skills that will train their focus, their choices, their phrasing and their emotional connections to the dance.”

Another enthusiastic choreographer/teacher, Ben Munisteri recently joined the faculty at the University of South Florida as a guest teacher. “It is thrilling to experience how college dance students learn to love dance through practice and discovery,” he says. “Guiding them and encouraging them usually brings up for me some measure of projective identification: I see my young self in them. I also think teaching has made me more articulate and patient with my dancers.”

Monica Bill Barnes believes that one of her chief obligations is to teach the development of performance skills as well as technique. “I was always stronger at performance than technique,” she says, “ but I emphasize that you must have both. Their eagerness to learn gives me a lot of energy.”

While most choreographers mainly work with college students, others like Miro Magliore take on everyone, from little kids to professional dancers. “I like finding out what moving mean to each of them,” he says, “What is it about dance that lights their fire? And every year there are new students, you start from scratch and have the chance to do everything differently. I adore finding new solutions to the same old problems.”

The process often affects the choreographers as significantly as the students.

“Teaching students one of my dances,” says Kate Weare, “or setting new work directly on them, is like holding up a magnifying lens to my value-system as a choreographer.  I really have to ask myself: What matters most? What are the qualities and issues I cannot live without in terms of preserving my artistic voice while balancing it against the needs of an educational setting?  This is a very different set of issues than those that arise in the studio with my own dancers or with other seasoned professionals.  With students, their emotional commitment and intensity of feeling ultimately matters more to me than their accuracy, fidelity to form, or technical prowess.  I am moved when they are moved, and in my mind, this fundamental truth is the most important one they can absorb and learn to reflect as emerging dance artists.”

It’s the chance to gain a new perspective that thrills them. “Basically the keenness required to see and recognize the potential of a thing that is not your own creation is a terrific intellectual exercise,” David Parker says.  “I need to be able both to look through the work I’m seeing toward its future and its potential and to be able to look past the things I am seeing, which may be in the way of that and yet remember them and point out that they may be obstacles. This is something quite different than critique.

“We who teach and give feedback are not giving critiques of artwork but are taking part in the making of it.  Therefore one must enter the energetic world of the piece being made no matter how alien its contours may seem.  My taste is present but it is not really relevant to the development of valid works that fall outside my taste.  I’ve found this extraordinarily useful in my own process as I make works, which violate my old standards of taste. I’ve learned that it’s not necessary for me to like something.  What’s necessary is for me to see it to its fullest truth.”

Sean Curran is also a truth seeker, even via the classroom. “I often ask students to answer movement questions that I am asking myself and my company when making a new dance,” he says. “When I see how my students solve and sometimes attack these problems, it often blows holes in my own results and I am inspired to solve the problem again. I am their teacher and they are mine and they teach other. It is a cliché but they say if you want to learn about something read a book. If you want to master it, teach it.”

With such wise and talented men and women choreographers willing to share their experience and knowledge with new generations of would be dance-makers, the future of dance would seem to be in excellent shape.

Kate Weare- Focus Dance perform “Weakness,” a new opera by Barbara White, Princeton University, March 30 & 31