Author Archive | Jochelle Pereña

Cultivating Freedom and Power in the Dance Classroom

I’m watching my two year old dance. He’s spinning fast, letting the full skirt of his dancing dress ripple around him, arms splayed, eyes closed. He sometimes spirals into the floor, momentum never stopping as he rolls and jumps up to spin again. Something about him tells me he’s in his zone, his flow – the repetition, concentration and intention, the fact that he can’t be interrupted, his internal focus. He only looks at me when the song ends and he exclaims, “Again!”

I ask him later about dancing. What does he like about it? He answers emphatically: “I like dancing, dress-up, running really fast!” It’s true, high speed is characteristic of his dancing because it is relatively new. Half his life he was dependent on me to move him from place to place. So now that he can go on his own, and has built up strength and confidence, he’s going fast, and it thrills him.

I watch him and imagine – or perhaps I remember – this must be what new found freedom feels like. Running through fields, rolling down hills, spinning and swirling so fast you can’t keep from smiling. Feeling the blood pulsing through your body, skin tingling as the wind rushes all over you. Nothing to stop you. He runs over to me when he’s done, wrapping his arms and legs around me in a big squeeze. I feel his heart racing against my chest; his exhilaration is palpable. I wonder, do I feel like this when I’m dancing?

It seems silly to ask. I mean, I’ve been dancing for most of my life and have chosen dance for my career, shouldn’t I feel this thrill all the time? Or have I been doing it so long that I’ve forgotten why?

two toddlers dancing in long skirts

I ask another expert in dance – my five year old – about why she does it. “I just like it,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “I feel like anything when I dance. I feel like everything.” I think about how I’ve sneaked glimpses of her dancing alone, brows furrowed and lips pursed, hands carving powerfully through space, spine snaking. Or how she creates endless stage names and personas for our family dance parties. I’m often asked to introduce her with something like: “Welcome to the stage Aurora, Queen of the Moon and Stars. She’s really, really tall and powerful and has a kitten and a baby.” In her dancing, she seems to be embodying choice and identity, and a kind of omnipotence that she’s discovered in herself, in her body.

I observe kids discovering their freedom and power through dance in my teaching too. A colleague and I recently watched a video together of a creative dance class I had taught at Luna Dance Institute. After exploring lots of locomotors and shapes, I asked my students to dance however they liked. In the video they moved without hesitation – they knew exactly how they wanted to dance and just went for it. Something happened in that moment of free dance that felt substantial. We rewound the video to watch again. It wasn’t so much what they were doing, but how they were doing it. The dancers were fully embodied and smiling, internally focused and tuning into themselves, each doing their own thing so intently, and claiming their dances as their own. “Wow, they’re really in it. They’re really gettin’ it. Look at them go!” we remarked.

A student has said: “When I’m taking dance class, I just feel so able. I feel like my body can do anything; like I’m Wonder Woman or something.”

I remember saying things like that too. I feel like my best self while dancing. I come home to myself when I dance. And I remember the sensation of finding my flow, of my body channeling the message of my heart. For me it is electric, all cells listening and tingling and responding, riding a surging wave that may send me spiraling, tipping, scooping, suspending through time and space. And it may feel like . . . nothing, or everything. Emptiness and fullness simultaneously.

Why does any of this matter? Is dancing, to express my soul’s truth, just an indulgent self-serving act? Does it contribute anything to the world, the greater good? I don’t know, maybe it brings me closer to nirvana. But as I listen to the news and contemplate systems of injustice and oppression playing out in stories of #BlackLivesMatter, #metoo, school shootings, deportation, child abuse, human trafficking, I feel less and less interested in my own personal transcendence. Instead I wonder this: what if everyone could feel this free? What if everyone could feel this powerful in their bodies?

When I consider this, it shifts how I teach dance. My overarching goal now is to cultivate an environment in which students can experience freedom and express their power through their bodies. As a dance educator working in schools where children, particularly children of color, are often disciplined and controlled, I feel a sense of responsibility to nurture their freedom. I continue to wonder what does it take to do this? What do people need in order to feel the exhilaration of freedom and power in action? This is what I’ve observed so far:

  1. It requires a feeling of safety, so that dancers can allow themselves to be vulnerable, take risks, share something of themselves. Spending time building class community can assist with this, as can clarifying class flow and expectations, or creating a sacred container for class through a beginning and ending ritual. Even more essential is emphasizing individuality over right/wrong movement, and celebrating what each dancer brings to the class.
  2. It also requires a full exploration of all that the body can do, the endless possibilities of moving through space, time and energy. Plenty of chances to try again, stretch a little further, attempt it from another perspective, helps dancers trust their bodies, and their potential to express something with their bodies.
  3. Dancers need opportunities to create, to improvise and choreograph. There is power in making.
  4. And dancers need to be seen – and they need to see each other. Allowing myself time in each class to step back and witness students as they open up and claim their own power is exciting. When students witness each other in their flow, gettin’ down, and when they know that they are being seen by their peers, there is a kind of magical respect and trust established. A secret is shared, they view each other in a new way, and they can recognize and honor each other.

group of children dancing and posingThere is another critical component in cultivating freedom and power in my teaching, and I’m remembering it as I watch my children. I’ve got to cultivate this within me. When I dance now, I see myself consciously practicing my freedom, stretching my power like a muscle. Because I don’t want to forget it, or take it for granted, or slip into inertia as I just go about the motions of planning my next dance class or choreograph my next piece. When I am overwhelmed by all that is happening in the world that feels so out of my control, I can do this – I can dance, and access my force, and refuse to be silent.

Dance then becomes an act of resistance. History tells us that dance has long played this role, often being the first art form to be prohibited when a civilization was conquered. Complete control could not be achieved if civilians were accessing their innate creative power through dance. These days we seem to be dominating bodies in different ways: over-diagnosing and overprescribing for ADHD; reducing recess; limiting movement to sitting at desks, standing in lines, repetitive workouts at cubicle-like treadmills/yoga mats, and reducing it to the smallest possible tap, slide, click of our fingers as we stare, mesmerized into a world of screens. As a culture we remain fearful of bodies doing anything out of the ordinary. We deem it chaotic and suspicious, and react with restraint, discipline, violence, and police brutality to regain control.

So fellow dancers, fellow activists, dance on. Practice sharing your freedom with others, and invite your students and collaborators to join you. Witness each other get down, and celebrate our collective creative force as we embody resistance.

Create, Reflect, Advocate, Repeat

Dance teacher moving with younger student

Jochelle Perena teaching at Luna Dance Institute / photo by Michael Ertem

Dance Teaching Artist is my primary job and Professional Learning Manager, my secondary role at Luna Dance Institute. The latter may sound more distinguished, yet teaching is where my heart is and where I hold the most pride. And it is my tenure as a dance teaching artist (DTA) that allows me greater impact as a manager. I can relate to the questions that artist educators bring to me because I have grappled with many of the same issues myself. Where my first-hand experience falls short, I draw from the collective capacity of my Luna teaching team. Our goal for Luna’s Professional Learning is to support dance educators so that they continue teaching and pushing the eld of dance education forward. How do we do this? Recently I spoke on a panel during the CreateCA conference in Costa Mesa, and the notion of the needs and identity of the teaching artist came to the forefront of my mind. As I shared Luna’s history of inquiry-based teaching and learning, I realized that what we’ve developed in twenty-five years of serving dance educators is explained through four essential prongs.

Build Community. Dance teaching artists often feel incredibly isolated. They may spend more time commuting from school site to studio, or from studio to an after-school program than they do actually teaching, and thus don’t always have the opportunities to make connections with colleagues at their sites. Or, if not commuting, they may be the only dance teacher at their site and this can feel lonely,  even disempowering. Finding colleagues who truly value dance and who have wrestled with similar questions is reaffirming and inspiring to a DTA. Our eld of dance education grows stronger when practitioners can connect to the expansive network of teaching artists.

To facilitate relationship building amongst educators, Luna ensures that all of our work- shops include group and partner conversation, and collaborative dance-making. We encourage workshop participants to stay in touch with one another, sometimes through virtual discussion forums, and invite them back for follow-up Practitioner Exchanges, where they can bring lessons they’ve tried, challenges they’ve come across, or ideas they need help expanding. Our annual Launch gathers a broader community of dance educators to celebrate the beginning of the school year, and often serves as an opportunity for us to connect teachers with similar interests and inquiries. Out of these initial interactions I’ve seen DTAs orchestrate their own informal communities of practice over dinner, observe each other teach, attend the National Dance Education Organization conference together, offer job recommendations, and support each other through the highs and lows of their careers.

Creative Rigor – inspire the artist within the teacher and the teacher within the artist. I sometimes hear teaching artists exclaim that, despite their role to inspire creativity in their students, they feel like the least creative teachers at their site. Their tried and true curriculum may have grown stale or administrative duties have overshadowed their teaching, and somehow they’ve lost touch with what brought them to the profession in the first place: the love of their craft.

And really, dance teaching artists have two crafts: dance and teaching. How can we continue sparking the joy for both? Each year we design new Professional Learning workshops around the questions both artists and educators ask during coaching and consultations. Integrating dance activities into all of our offerings has helped us honor the artists within the teachers we serve, and has aided in dance educators recognizing that their artist selves and teaching selves can be one in the same. One practitioner told me that to her surprise, “taking these workshops has actually made [her] a better choreographer,” a sentiment shared by more than one participant. Luna’s choreographer showcase, 20 Points of View, was partially inspired by the desire to celebrate the dance makers within our teaching community, and we introduced our Adult Creative Dance class to support educators in (re-)discovering their artistic practice. Going to a dance concert, the museum, or an improv jam is just as critical to a DTA’s professional development as attending a webinar or reading a research article, and we encourage it all. It all promotes practitioners seeing themselves and the world in a new way, and these fresh perspectives cultivate creative teaching.

Develop a Personal Reflective Practice. Choreographers often keep journals of their visions, scores and rehearsal notes. They watch dances live and on  video, ask for feedback in various ways, and consider how to edit and revise many times to meet goals. Developing a Reflective Practice in teaching can be much the same as in the dance-making process; it is personal and will evolve with each new project or inquiry question.

Reflective Practices are incorporated into all of our Professional Learning activities at Luna, and we also present it as a separate course, with the intention of helping practitioners grow more mindful in their teaching. It’s easy to lose sight of goals and rely on teaching habits that may no longer serve teacher or student. Workshops intersperse movement and discussion with free-writing questions asking artist educators to consider their values, fears, assumptions, goals and challenges, and get at the heart of where they are now, where they want to go, how they might get there, and what’s getting in the way. Luna provides support for practitioners to design their own questions – big inquiry questions that they might explore over the year, and smaller ones they might ask themselves each time they teach. In house, these questions have helped us critically and continuously check in with Luna’s social justice mission – are we teaching with inclusion and equity so that all children can come to dance?

As Luna helps teachers shape goals and questions, we also encourage them to observe their students regularly. For me, even two minutes of actively watching my students dance in each class has pointed to what’s working, what’s not, and what might be needed next. It can also be a rare moment of ‘rest,’ when I can sit back and see my students – their joy in moving, their perseverance through something challenging, their small shifts in participation from the prior week. Tracking these observations through journal writing, or notes on a lesson plan, can inform how a teacher approaches the next class, assesses progress over the semester, and contributes to developing a personal, ongoing investigation into one’s teaching practice.

Cultivate Advocacy. With the current political climate and the constant threat of arts funding cuts, dance education needs advocates in all forms, and for all audiences. Any sort of Professional Learning must provide opportunities for educators to strengthen their advocacy voices. “My principal doesn’t understand what I’m doing in dance class. How can I show her?” “The parents at my studio want to know why I’m focusing on improvisation rather than rehearsing for a performance. What should I say?” These are questions teachers ask, and though they often know intrinsically that dance has value, they may lack the confidence or language to explain why. Dance teaching artists need to claim their expertise. Sharing a favorite story about a student’s progress allows them to practice revealing dance’s positive impact. The same story, photographs or quotations, could be used in a proposal to an administrator, a grant report, or in a parent newsletter or social media post. These acts of advocacy help make dance learning more visible. These small acts of advocacy help make dance learning more visible, and prepare practitioners to communicate in larger contexts through dance or education journals and conferences.

Several individuals in our teaching community have started blogs, which have allowed them to interact with students, parents, administrators, and fellow educators all at once, while others have become active with the California Dance Education Association, even taking on leadership roles and addressing arts issues with state representatives.

“Do I really have something to say? I feel like I’m still learning.” I wonder this all the time, even in writing this piece. But I try to remember that no one has all the answers, and in some ways it is our responsibility as dance educators to keep the conversation going, amongst ourselves and with non-dancers – because who else will? As we exchange ideas and learn from each other, we strengthen our individual teaching practices and collectively become a force not just for preservation, but also for advancing our eld in innovative ways.

What I’ve realized in my own journey as a dance teaching artist, and in supporting my fellow artist educators, is how essential it is to view Professional Learning as a constant career practice, a verb rather than a noun. The very word Learning in its gerund form implies this active-ness and ongoing-ness. At Luna, we continue to investigate and inquire and discover from our own research teaching in the eld, but also from that of our peers. It can be exciting and challenging and rewarding, and also a little daunting to approach Professional Learning at first, because we may be reminded of what we don’t know. But we’ll also reconnect to what we do – our love of dance and of teaching – and through that, ourselves.


Luna offers the first two courses of our Foundational Series this summer, Developing and Implementing Dance Curricula – A as a week-long intensive July 31-August 4, and Developing and Implementing Dance Curricula – B as a semester course beginning August 29. Join us for our Launch September 5 to meet our community of dance educators. More information at lunadanceinstitute.org or email Jochelle, jperena@lunadanceinstitute.org.

Ten Tips On How to Engage with Parents in Parent-Child Classes

I’ve been teaching dance for a while. My resumé says something like confidently creates developmentally-appropriate dance curricula for ages 0-adult. But I’ve got to say that my confidence was challenged when I started leading parent-child classes as a teaching artist at Luna Dance Institute several years ago. I could happily engage young children with imaginative and creative curriculum, or dive deep into improvisation techniques with adults, but to have both populations in one class stumped me.

I defaulted to focusing solely on the little ones, and awkwardly avoided the grown-ups. I think in my newness to parent-child classes I felt exposed as a teacher, like I was being watched by potential critics. And of course they were watching me! I didn’t give them much else to do, and at best treated them as their kids’ accessories and props to climb on, dance over, or spin around. I knew I needed to engage these parents, but how could I do it without completely interrupting the class ow or without coming off as patronizing? Certainly the strategies I used with children, like whispering “I have a secret to tell you. Shhh. Come close so you can hear it,” or dazzling them with a parachute would not work.

Things got easier when I became a parent myself. I realized that parents too struggle with what it means to be in relationship with their child, and with how they’re supposed to be taking a dance class together. They struggle with just getting to dance class. And although they’ve signed up for a parent-child dance class, they don’t really know what that means—it certainly doesn’t feel like dancing together when your kid keeps running away from you, or refuses to be out of your arms, or wants to watch while you do all the moving, or has a meltdown on the studio floor. I’ve definitely had cringing moments with my daughter when I’ve closed my eyes in exasperation and asked, “What am I doing here again?”

Our job as dance teachers is to create a class culture in which it’s okay for kids to be kids, adults to be adults, and in which we can celebrate all the different ways that this can look as we dance together. By engaging parents we are also supporting them in this dance class culture. So how do we do this? Practice, practice, practice, reflection and evaluation, and practice again. But I do think there are some tips that can help, and that I wish I had known when I first started. Here are my favorite ten, ranging from potentially obvious to more subtle and complex.

TEN TIPS FOR ENGAGING PARENTS and the theoretical reasons behind them:

1. Send a welcome email out to parents, preparing them and their child for class – how early to arrive, what to wear, what to bring/not bring, how late to stay, any expectations and studio rules. While we as dance teachers live in this world all the time, this might be the first time that a parent has stepped into a dance studio. So before you scream in horror as they walk across the dance floor in muddy boots, take a moment to orient them. Also, explain the role of parents and how it might change. I might say something like: “In our parent-child classes adults are dancers too, so come prepared to move. You may be asked to dance with your child, dance with the adults while your child watches, or be an active audience member.” Review these notes in the first few classes—chances are these busy parents may not have fully read the email, or they just need a little reminder.

2. Get to know parents as they arrive or pack up to leave. Set up props like scarves or balls for children (and adults) to play with during these transition times and while the kids are busy, initiate adult conversations with the parents. Often parents long to be seen as people other than their kid’s grown-up, so learn their names and ask them about their lives. This opens the door for parents to ask questions about the class or what their kid is doing/not doing when they come up.

3. Make every transition in class transparent and clearly tell parents what they can do to help. For example: “One more minute to dance with the scarves, show me your last dances! . . .Freeze in your last shape with your scarf in 3, 2, 1. Hold it while I clap for you. Now say goodbye to your scarf as you put it in the box, then make a circle all together for the next thing. Parents can help us make the circle together.”

4. After a few weeks of class, give parents observation homework. Ask them to watch their child during the week and come back to share what they’ve noticed in their child’s movement. They might discover that their waddler is now rolling, or that their toddler wants to play dance class at home. Parents will get to see that their children are learning and practicing something new, and kids will get to hear that they’ve been seen by their parents – very reaffirming.

Photo by Idalia Ramos

Photo by Idalia Ramos

5. Address parents throughout the dance class about what’s going on developmentally for their kids. I’m not going to lie, there is an art to this that requires a lot of practice. You are aiming for a succinct little kernel to interject that will educate a curious parent or calm a nervous one while maintaining the rhythm of the class so that you don’t lose the attention of the little ones. In a class of waddlers (16-24 months), I might say: “Can you gallop? Galloping is one foot chasing the other. Let’s try it. Parents, this is a challenge for new walkers and runners, but children can get a sense of the rhythm while in your arms. Gallop and gallop and gallop and go! [Try it for a bit]. Some kids may just want to run [I might notice some children really excited by running]. I see Sasha running. Let’s all run! Show me a running dance! Can you run and stop? Etc., etc.” Thus the child who is ‘not following directions’ is not doing anything wrong, but is providing ideas for the next dance prompt or another way to try it.

6. Provide opportunities for I, We, Us dancing. The I, We, Us concept was developed during a Luna Dance Institute research project led by Professor and Associate Dean of the Arts at UC Santa Cruz Ted Warburton as we were investigating relationship-based dance in our MPACT (Moving Parents and Children Together) program. It refers to the individual’s experience (I), the experience of parent and child in relationship (We), and that of the whole class community (Us). Engaging both children and adults in each of these kinds of dances allows them to practice healthy attachment and separation skills, and reminds them that they can be individuals, and together, and part of a group, simultaneously. Under 5s are egocentric in the best way, and they live in individualistic I moments. They will be moving however they please no matter what. Adults, on the other hand, often need permission to separate themselves from their child to indulge in a moment for themselves—it may actually be harder for them to detach from their kid than it is for the child to separate from the parent. No matter how hard they try, adults may still feel like whatever their child is doing is a reflection of their parenting. Give them the sense that you are watching their child, and keeping them safe so that they can let go. (See tip #7 for more specific ideas.) We moments allow parents to engage with their kids, and, when complementing I moments, allow children to begin to understand that this is Me dancing, that is You dancing, and now we are dancing Together. I weave these into the curriculum with prompts like these: “Make a family shape with one dancer high and one dancer low. Now switch.” “Kids dance far away from your grown-up. Wave to them from far away. Wave with your foot, elbow, etc. Now dance towards each other and give each other a high five. High five with your foot, elbow, etc.” “Try an over-under dance. Parents make tunnels for your kids to dance through, then kids make tunnels for your parents.” Gathering families in a circle for a hello/goodbye song, or to hold hands in a dance, or to play with the parachute supports community-building through Us dancing, as all movers have a chance to see each other’s faces. Parenting can be a lonely and demanding job, and adults often seek out activities like a dance class so that they can meet, connect and commiserate with other parents. They long for community, and these subtle Us moments reminds them that we’re all in this together.

7. Create a safe space for parents to practice joyful play and movement. Remember that these may be new parents—they’ve only been parents as long as their kids are old, perhaps just a few months. Or maybe they are experienced parents with multiple children and are completely knackered. Either way they may not remember, or may need practice playing and experimenting with what their body can do, and dancing with abandon could feel foreign and intimidating. When I set up a movement playtime, I often bring out a prop—hula hoops, squishy balls, ribbons, scarves—and ask, “What can you do with this? Play and find out. Adults can play, too.” I turn the music on as a buffer so it feels more fun, and less like I’m watching what’s going on, and I play too. I have no expectations about this playtime, there are no strings attached. The dance parties I insert at various points during class I treat the same way. “Let’s have a one minute dance party together! Dance anyway you like with your family or on your own while the music is playing.” Adults can tap into their I moments and develop a kind of empathy to what’s happening with their children.

8. Offer lots of different ways for parents to observe and respond to their child’s dancing. Dancing in relationship (We), as mentioned above, is one way. Other ways include parents dancing as their kid’s shadow, following each movement of the child as leader; playing a game so that every time a child kicks or turns the parent must jump or fall; letting kids dance on their own, then having their parents copy one part of their dance; kids perform for their parents and then asking them what they saw them do. Parents respond with as much detail and dance language as they can.

9. As a teacher, model the myriad of roles of the parent as playmate, observer/sportscaster, celebrator, prompter. As I am dancing with families, I am also watching and sportscasting what I see: “I see Helen rolling far away from her dad. Ricardo is rolling in his mama’s arms. Jason and Keisha are rolling side by side.” The message is I see you, I see the new thing that you’re working on – and you can celebrate this by sharing your amazement. “Wow! You are jumping and shaking at the same time! Let’s all try that. Can you jump and shake?” Then offer a new prompt: “Parents, can you see just how big your kids are making their bodies? Kids can you make your body even bigger? Even bigger? Even BIGGER? Wow! I see your huge shape! You are gigantic!” In modeling this, you are offering parents tools for interacting with their children beyond the dance class to activities at home. Parents don’t always have to be the entertainers, and in fact they shouldn’t be. Kids are already doing so much developmentally without adult direction or involvement, it’s just difficult to see it until we can step back and watch. Adults can support what is already happening with children by noticing and celebrating it, then, without putting too much pressure on it, posing a new challenge.

10. Remember that the biggest gift you can give parents is to help them see their child in a new way. After a rough hour/day/month with my daughter, I can feel weary. In these moments when I look at her I may only see a whiny and de ant, sticky hot mess, and my own shortcomings as a parent. Being able to watch her in dance class, where someone else is guiding the experience and noticing her taking risks and trying new things, shifts my perspective. “Oh, she’s traveling backwards? She’s never done that before.” I can view her as another person figuring out how to use her body and express herself, and I feel joyful in witnessing her discoveries.

I am still learning. Practicing, practicing, reflecting and evaluating and practicing again. This month I’ll be working with our Professional Learning team to articulate our progression of Early Childhood Dance at Luna Dance Institute, in part so that all faculty can continue to hone our skills. We’ll be teasing out the role of the parent and caregiver as we prepare for our 2017 Family Dance Teaching Institute. Stay tuned.

Making the Worst Dance Possible: Finding the Good in “Bad” Dances

68. The Thick Rich Ones_Photo by Weidong Yang

Jochelle Pereña & Ashley Trottier / Photo by Weidong Yang

How long can a choreographer call herself emerging? I’m currently in the process of making a new work for a show in May. My company will be performing in our biggest venue yet, our dream theatre, and the pressure is on to present a piece deserving of the space. I find myself clinging to the self-given title of emerging choreographer like a comforting blanket, hoping that audiences and critics might be more forgiving, more lax with their judgment in case it looks like I don’t have it all figured out, polished and shiny on stage. I use it to soothe my usual fears,perhaps the fears of all choreographers: What if this piece isn’t done in time? What if my vision isn’t realized? What if no one likes it or gets it? What if it is bad?

Well, what if it is bad? Even writing this word, taboo for an artist and educator, makes me cringe; I shirk from touching it or being associated with it at all. But because this article is an attempt to free myself of my artistic anxieties, I’ll say it again: what if my dance is bad? I’ve seen my fair share of dance that doesn’t knock my socks off. I’ve bitten the insides of my cheeks to stay awake, or prayed for sleep to come, or pulled my hair in exasperation as an audience member, all the while feeling so grateful to choreographers (bless you all!) for doing what I am sometimes afraid to do—for getting your work out there, for trying something new, for taking a chance; for keeping the dance conversation going and for persevering.

When leaving a show that has made me sigh or grumble, I never write the choreographers off as terrible artists, stamping them with disapproval for all eternity (which is really my deepest fear in presenting a “bad” dance). I know that they will bravely continue to create, to develop and sculpt their ideas into another dance—it’s their job, as it is my job, to try it another way, another way and another way, until we land on the best ways. Our less than-perfect dances serve that purpose; they are our sketches and studies, our experiments. It just so happens that our experiments can’t just live in our sketchbooks, our laboratories, our studios. Our art form is interactive and meant to be seen, felt and experienced. Dances change in front of observers—how they respond is part of the experience. What bursts into vibrancy in the studio may fall flat onstage, or vice versa. A dance performed for a Friday audience may be a very different dance when performed on Saturday. We present our pieces, see what happens and learn something for the next time. I remember feeling very bruised after reading a harsh review by a well-known dance critic of one of my dance works. I spent a few evenings sniffling under the covers until I realized that she was right. This piece, constructed for the intimacy of a small venue, lost its clarity on a large stage. This particular critic called me out on it, and while it hurt initially, I am indebted to her generous feedback because my piece can now evolve and improve.

When I’m not choreographing my own work, I have the pleasure of seeing dances made every day in my work at Luna Dance Institute. Our creative dance approach pushes our students to develop their own artistic voices as they explore all the different ways their bodies can move through space, time and energy. We teach them that there is more to choreographing than stringing their favorite moves together and performing to their favorite music. Instead these young artists cultivate a sense of personal aesthetics—What’s their shtick? How do they move when they’re really in their bodies? What do they like to see and why? This is balanced with the challenge of not getting stuck in their movement habits. They learn to articulate and commit to their intentions and movement choices and are held accountable to them by their peers. This last month my first grade students have been exploring different ways to rise and fall. They stretch, build and burst into balances and aerials, then melt, crumble and drop into rolls and slithers. They spiral up and down, reaching high and low, inverting and folding with so much variety. Each week these young dancers have uncovered another layer of their moving selves as they embody each option. Now when they create their final dances, they do so with confidence and commitment to their choices because they’ve tried out most of the possibilities.

Patricia Reedy founded Luna 22 years ago with the mission of bringing dance to all children, and she chose to focus on creative dance and composition because she had a vision of raising the bar for choreography as a field. Initially, I interpreted this as an intention to tuck all sub-par dances away where they could never be seen. But then I realized that in asking our students, the next generation of artists, to exercise creativity, to take risks and investigate, we have to free them from the paralysis of preciousness. We need to give them permission—and give ourselves permission as dance artists—to flail, stumble, noodle, crash, and permission to embrace those supposed bad dances. My most thrilling moments in contact improv are the falls, and the suspense before impact, when all my senses are alert, deciding how to divert the momentum into a spin, a roll, an inversion. The fall of a bad dance can offer the same kind of exciting discovery in the recovery—who knows what can happen? Pushing ourselves to create something bad, or even to the extreme of making the worst dance possible (mine would draw from the highly emotive dances I made as a 12 year old, set to Enya), allows us a certain kind of freedom in which all options are on the table, nothing is too sacred and nothing is off limits. It helps us clarify what is really important to us, the essence of our intentions. If we examine them critically, distill, edit and revise them, failed dances are the necessary steps to creating something incredible.

While I sometimes long for the assurance and confidence associated with being an established choreographer, may I always consider myself an emerging artist—one who continues to experiment and reinvent herself, one who has the freedom to fall flat on her face, one who can peel back layer upon layer to reveal new discoveries, one who is not afraid of a bad dance.

 

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