Around, Over, Through – Together

By Erica Rose Jeffrey

September 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Summer was almost half over when I finally paused to take stock. Last school year was filled with challenges, opportunities, and success for me as a dance educator, yet I was hounded by internal questions. Can I do this for another year? Will communities continue to support dance education? The children are wonderful—they thrive with this curriculum—but how do I teach and simultaneously maintain my own artistic voice and integrity? Luckily, at the last minute a spot opened for me in the one-week Luna Kids Advanced Summer Institute.

I first participated in Luna Kids Summer Institute in 2004, and I was thrilled to find a resource for dance teaching artists, based in both research and practice. The pursuit of survival as an artist in the San Francisco Bay Area—running here, there, and everywhere—is often a bit lonely. Even if there are connections with other teachers, trying to match schedules is a challenge, so it was a relief to find a sense of community among teachers. My first Summer Institute was difficult and wonderful. I felt my own boundaries around artistic creation being challenged. At that point I was also choreographing for a dance company and very comfortable in a teaching scenario, so I was surprised when I got stuck or frustrated trying to follow a teaching exercise. Simultaneously I felt my understanding of dance expanding in all directions and I was thoroughly enjoying myself—but I was skeptical. Do I really understand the concepts? How will these ideas work with my students?

After the SI, I began to cautiously inject aspects of what I learned into my classes, eventually attempting to replicate whole lessons from the Institute. The range of communities and organizations I work with continued to expand, including students from pre-K to adult, in studios and public schools from Novato to San Francisco. Similar to many teaching artists, I cover a lot of ground; in one day I might teach the same exercise in the Tenderloin of San Francisco in the morning, and Mill Valley in the afternoon. Wherever I taught, as I watched the positive results of students exploring and improvising, I realized that a new facet of my own curiosity was evolving.

Several years later I have my own proof of the value of the lessons I learned at my first Summer Institute. Whenever I teach the exercises or aspects of ideas we explored during that initial workshop, I see them generate the joy and active freedom of creativity. No matter what the setting—a ballet class at a dance studio, a residency at a public school, or a group of adults at a conference—the ideas and exercises I gathered during my first Summer Institute work.

Over the 2008–2009 school year I brought dance to over 2,100 children and adults. No wonder I was worn out and needed a break! The week I spent dancing, debating, and discovering at the Advanced Summer Institute, housed this year at Mills College, could not have happened at a better time. Patricia Reedy, Director of Teaching and Learning at Luna Kids Dance, had purposefully prepared a dense curriculum with resources and dance activities to be unwrapped throughout the coming year. The other participants were a diverse group of both veteran and new classroom teachers and dance educators, coming from Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and working with children from pre-K through high school. Our conversations jumped from dance curriculum standards, to deepening our students’ learning, concerns about increased numbers in classrooms, and the roles we have in our communities. The time and space to have ongoing conversations with my colleagues provided stimuli and perspectives that I have already started to implement. By the end of the ASI, I was reinvigorated and excited about the possibility of new approaches and of taking on more leadership in the dance community.

One highlight was guest speaker Ted Warburton, an accomplished dancer and now dance researcher and professor at UC Santa Cruz. He discussed action-based research in relation to dance. It is an ongoing frustration for me that those of us who are passionate about dance understand its value and power but struggle with how to communicate its importance to others. Ted advocates that we, as enthusiastic and dedicated dance teachers and advocates, should be leading the research because it makes us better educators; by marking our own successes, he says, we can stimulate an intrinsic motivation for both continuing to teach and continuing to learn.

During the week we also explored movement. One lesson about energy focused on the ideas resist, repel, and attract. We imagined giant elastic bands stretching from imaginary points in the room, then repelling ourselves from invented walls, the floor, and the ceiling. For trained dancers, so much work is about the steps—but our Rubber Band Dance became a visceral understanding of energy, not about the steps at all. A simple idea, yet so vivid that I felt abounding freedom in my own creativity. I had reached the moment that I work so hard to provide for my students, and also felt fully equipped to adapt the experience for my classroom.

Educators in all disciplines are being asked to do more and more with fewer resources. When I came to the ASI, I was feeling frustrated with outside opinions of why dance is important or who deserves good dance education. I was wondering: What is the next step? How do I maintain my enthusiasm in the face of so much negativity about arts and education funding? How do we help others to see the value of dance education? The ASI tuned me into finding my own successes and with the connections I made I now feel more confident. I believe what’s needed is not so much a retooling of our current practices, but a continuation of finding new ways to look at our own work, our field, and our ideas of dance. Yes, I am becoming a seasoned educator, and now I have glimpsed the tools to back up my expertise. All of this year’s participants came away more self-assured about our own practices, about the future of our work with students, and about the strength and value of the connections within our community and the influence of our voices.

This article appeared in the September 2009 issue of In Dance.

Originally from Montana, Erica Rose Jeffrey studied dance at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, before joining Ballet Internationale. After dancing professionally she attended Indiana University on full scholarships and graduated with degrees in Ballet and Mediation & Conflict Resolution. She is currently teaching, choreographing and performing in the Bay area. She recently performed in China as part of a cultural exchange.