I TAUGHT my first Professional Development Workshop to dance educators in 1994. Since then, along with my colleagues at Luna Dance Institute, I have worked with thousands of dance educators across the country, sustaining in-depth study with about 100 each year. One of the most frequent questions asked by dance educators (at all levels of experience) is “what about technique?” Dancers seem to have various (and sometimes mis-) conceptions about the notion of “technique” and, as a result, sometimes perceive dance teaching as an either/or proposition: curriculum must either choose creativity (process) or technique (rigor).
In a composition workshop last year, educators worked in small groups to unpack their understandings of this seeming dilemma. Each group gave their inquiry a title, such as: “Creativity and Technique: Clash or Compliment?”, “Can You Be Creative without Technique?” or “How to Incorporate Technique into a Creative Dance Class?” As I listened in on their discussions, it became increasingly clear to me that the participants were operating on some important unvoiced assumptions. First, they presumed an either/or polarity. Second, they held unexamined and undefined perceptions of the word “technique” and were proceeding without a common working definition. Thus appeared a schism, an underlying, unspoken tension—technique v. creativity. Technique was thought of as rigorous and discipline- inducing, leading to professional careers. It was also viewed as elitist, not for everyone. Creativity, on the other hand, was viewed as an ideal, process-oriented, open and free; yet, also somewhat slapdash—unstructured, undefined and lacking in accountability. In my view, this division is part of the reason that schools and society do not embrace dance education. The general public can view dance as either a skillset that only the “talented“ can attain or an inexact, playtime of moving around to music that could be time spent by the student pursuing more important skills.
California’s recent adopting of Common Core K-12 curriculum integrates what are considered 21st century skills and make a keen case for a re-examination of creativity and how it can be taught.1 Common Core emerged from conversations among key educational philosophers, business leaders and creative minds, revealing that there is tremendous discipline and rigor in developing creative thinkers and meaning-makers. This concept of developing creative thinkers within a moving body is nothing new to those of us working in dance. We know very well that the art of dance requires all 16 habits of mind2 underlying what is now seen as essential learning for all students. Choreographers and creators must commit to extreme discipline, deliberation and persistence to imagine and innovate.
The national core art standards (United States) center on Create, Perform, Respond and Connect—both rigor and openness live in each of these. Creating requires imagining, innovating and risk-taking. The dance-maker uses inquiry and problem- posing skills to determine what to explore in the creative process. The process, at first may be very free, full of discovery. The artist persists in looking for new, unchartered notions, as well as applying past knowledge and information. Eventually, the work becomes shaped and ordered as the choreographer uses the tools of their craft to make the most accurate representation possible. As the work becomes defined, the performance requires focus and attention to communicate the artistic intention accurately. Response, too, requires its own attentiveness as one strives to remain open and present to absorb the art, even while connecting what is seen to one’s own aesthetic values and experience. This process is metacognitive and allows humans to engage at the highest level of knowledge and understanding.3
The art of making dances may be one of the most rigorous, meticulous activities one can engage in. So, where does “technique” fit in? From the Latin roots to the French language, technique is dictionary-defined as “a way of carrying out a particular task; a skill or ability in a particular field; a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something.” What these definitions share is the sense of technique for something specific. Yet, the unnamed and unexamined meaning of the word among dance educators is more generalized. When dancers talk about technique classes, they are often defining a broad range of studio dance classes wherein the teacher leads a series of strength, core or flexibility exercises followed by teaching a routine she/ he choreographed. The students follow along and try to adapt their bodies to look and move like the instructor’s. From a cognitive point of view, there is less rigor in the follow-along approach than in improvising or composing. Of course, dancers seeking to perform a specific style at a professional level would need repetitive training and practice in a distinctive set of skills. They would require a course of study that would lead to a very identifiable outcome. One might find this type of training in a conservatory-type school of dance.
Many studios offer a more eclectic course of study, appealing to a diverse and varied population of dance-artists. Some teachers at these studios offer curriculum that expands beyond the follow- along approach. They provide opportunities for students to engage in problem-posing and problem-solving of conceptual content essential to contemporary dance.4 By drawing out the rigor of our students, regardless of age or place of instruction, we build more engaged and intentional dance-makers and more educated and responsive audiences. Conversations that encourage us to challenge our habitual thinking and dualism can help us find new language to describe, create and evolve the study of our enigmatic art form.
1. Reedy, P. Common Core & Dance: A Perfect Match http://blog.lunadanceinstitute.org/2014/01/27/common-core-dance-a-perfect-match/
2. Habits of Mind were key elements of Common Core and include: applying past knowledge; improvement; persistence; opening to continual learning; problem posing/inquiry; deliberation; creating, imagining, innovating; taking responsible risks; keeping a high standard; communicating clearly; metacognition; listening with empathy; flexibility; fun; working independently; humor
3. Iowa State University, Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching, A Model of Learning Objectives based on a Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. http://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching-resources/effective-practice/revised-blooms-taxonomy/
4. Anderson, K. Pedagogical Frontiers in Technique: a Fresh Look at Old Ideas. http://dancersgroup.org/2010/12/pedagogical-frontiers-in-techniquea-fresh-look-at-old-ideas/