Pedagogical Frontiers in Technique: A Fresh Look at Old Ideas

By Kristine Anderson

December 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Technique is a means of arriving at a statement.
— Jackson Pollock

WHAT IS A TECHNIQUE CLASS? Or, more importantly, how, do I teach a technique class? Modern technique. Ballet. Release. Jazz. Tap. Pointe. Do all of these have to be structured and rigidly guided like the technical training I experienced as a child and teen? Not to say I didn’t turn out just fine, but would my training have been fuller, had a different attitude towards teaching been present? Patricia Reedy, founder of Luna Dance Institute, has led me to question my core expectation of what composes a technique class. I presented a classroom lesson for her to give me feedback on, which I had designed with a college-level composition class in mind. She responded “why wouldn’t you use this in a technique class?” And, now for three weeks I have been racking my pedagogical mind. I have been pondering: what is the divide, imagined or real, between technique and composition class? Or technique and other core classes like history and theory? Possibly, the only difference is in the length of time devoted to each subject.

I began my ponderings by looking back at my previous “technique” teachers. Those that stand out in my mind left an impressive impact on both my mind and body’s technical abilities, and all of whom I met after I was 22 years old. Three teachers formed an everlasting impression: Cathleen McCarthy, Molissa Fenley, and Robert Moses. It is important to learn from good teachers and mentors. So, I began to look at what commonalities underlie their classes that I would like to incorporate into my personal definition of technique class?

All three of these instructors, McCarthy, Fenley, and Moses, teach a rigorous technique class. They require a high aptitude of athleticism from the dancers. The physical aspect is important in their classes; as a student of theirs from one time or another, my muscular and cardiovascular endurances were challenged.

It is more than just physicality. These three teachers are the reason why my brain can adapt to and retain choreography. All three create movement material in their class that requires long durations of dancing, and phrases that change facings, tempos, and space. McCarthy would create long phrases that small groups of students perform with different choreographic practices such as canon, different facings, change of speed, change quality, etc. Fenley would teach many phrases within a couple of class times and form them together to create up to a five minute piece that is performed with different facings. As a student, I would have to wrap my head around the material in order to perform: “Phrase A1, B1, B2 facing back, C2, A2 facing back, C1.” Moses would create three or four small dynamic phrases and then present the dancer a composition puzzle to solve; i.e. “Do phrase A, C, D, B… and, go.” He will literally give one minute for the dancers to configure their transitions, spacing, facing, etc. This requires a mental workout that was unprecedented in my training. All three of these teachers demand that the dancers step up to the presented challenge, and gain a sense of personal responsibility instilled in each person.

McCarthy, Fenley, and Moses place a high emphasis on composition, although I did not think of it this way until I stepped back and looked at the situation clearly, with the eyes of a future teacher and mentor. In addition, they each have a beginning warm-up that is consistent, and works moving from homologous to homolateral to contralateral. I had not previously recognized this sophisticated overarching theme and planning. I want to learn from these three influential teachers for my own training as a teacher. I hope that I can encourage students to move, think, and perform, all equally, like they showed me.

Previously I have been devoted solely to my personal training so that it was hard (maybe impossible) to step back and effectively teach others. I was more intrigued by my personal process and performance, than I was interested in teaching and leading students. Now, as I transition from only being a student of dance towards being a student and teacher of dance, it feels like a natural transition—not forced, but smooth. I need to experience many classrooms and varieties of students, but in time, I hope to become a valuable teacher to my community—beholding frameworks like those before me and imagining new extensions and shapes to these. In other words, learning from my past teachers while desiring and ready to break new ground too.

For my next step in pedagogical wanderings, it all boils down to: what is a technique class? It is not the rigid image I have had in my head, or the rigid classes I have taught in the past. I am finding that technique is more fluid, less bound; Jackson Pollock stated, “Technique is a means of arriving at a statement.” The dancer makes statements when movement is purely embodied and performed well, which stems from forming strong technical grounds. In my future classes, technique can be composition-based. Technique can have student involvement. I believe that the student dancers can only have a well-rounded experience by involving all aspects of the brain, the body, and the spirit. In the dance classroom, I hope to create an environment for this to cultivate. I am just arriving at my own definition of technique, and I am open to what I will learn, and open to the idea of technique’s fluid definition.

Kristine Anderson is an MFA in Dance Candidate at Mills College, and earned her BA in Dance from SFSU. She hopes to teach and perform in the Bay Area after graduation, May 2011.