I’ve had the wonderful privilege to work with some amazing choreographers and dancers throughout my dancing life, but to be truly honest, the people who have inspired me the most have always been my teachers. I remember performers I’ve seen, dances I’ve loved and choreographies I’ve learned, but what I think about everyday are the things my teachers taught me. I remember how they danced, how they spoke and how they treated their students, as much as what they taught. I remember every teacher that inspired me, and over time I’ve either forgotten or figured out how to learn from the one’s who cut me down.
I find the ability for an individual to inspire someone to move his or her body with beauty, purpose and daring to be a magical thing. I’m drawn to good teaching even more than I am to good dancing.
So, what makes a good teacher? For starters, they must possess the ability to manage a class, convey useful information clearly and inspire the creativity and physicality of his/her students. Teaching is not for the faint of heart or the shy of spirit. It is at once a communication and a performance. It is the conveyance of information and the revealing of new ideas and new choices. Teaching dance is all of this, plus the inspiration to move, create and perform.
To watch a good teacher inspire and educate a classroom of adult students—students who have experience, judgment, self-control and the basic social etiquette that comes with maturity—is very satisfying. But it is a thing of beauty to watch a teacher strike the spark of inspiration, to capture the attention and the imagination among kids while also motivating them into action.
“Teaching is not easy,” says Takami Craddock, Artistic Director of MoBu Dance and the youth program DancEsteem. “In my mind I wasn’t a teacher,” she reflects. Quiet but passionate about what she does, Craddock started teaching at a young age by assisting her teacher in Japan. Not only did she find it challenging, but at the time the studios in Japan were competitive and unwilling to share students. She was frustrated.
Her whole world changed, however, when she came to the U.S. and discovered modern teacher Aaron Osborne. “He changed me and I saw how he changed his students.” She eventually relocated permanently to the Bay Area and began establishing her own program. Craddock defines Mobu Dance as a hybrid contemporary dance style influenced by Japanese Butoh and exploring concepts of time, space and imagery. She emphasizes creativity over technique among her students.
Artistic Director of the youth dance program Nagata Dance, Corrine Nagata, recalls what it was like teaching alongside her famed mentor, Jacques D’Amboise: “He had an open door policy where parents and friends could come and watch and get happy.” Nagata assisted D’Amboise for several years while she was teaching and performing in New York City, and she recalls his infectious enthusiasm. “Teaching 200 kids with him was always thrilling and
I learned a lot.” D’Amboise is known for his integrated approach to dance teaching and his uncanny ability to derive excellence from his students. She states simply, “He is quite a genius.” Her own teaching method is infused with a sense of empowering every student, no matter the skill level or discipline issues.
Nagata also found inspiration in Reginald Ray Savage, Chair of the School of Dance at the Oakland School of the Arts; Artistic Director of Savage Jazz, for whom she danced for; and in the late Susan Cashion who hired her to do a master class at Stanford University. “Her energy and enthusiasm motivated me,” she recalls.
“At first it was just a job,” Nagata says. Throughout her career, she has taught in small neighborhood studios, public and private schools, at institutions like the Ailey School and Dance Theatre of Harlem and as part of college programs. Over time she discovered her preference. She says, “I got more good feelings teaching in public schools.”
“Teaching can make rent fast,” Nagata says. “Teaching in the environments where I taught, teachers have a certain amount of respect, whereas as a dancer you’re tearing your body apart. I was always trying to strike a balance.” After years of performing and teaching, even working bi-coastally for a time, she finally made a choice. “I knew that being with my family makes me happy and working with groups in my community makes me happy.” So in
2008 she moved home to the Bay Area and re-established Nagata Dance here. “Nagata Dance services my own community and that feels like the right thing to do,” she adds.
There is no one way to teach, of course, and those who teach dance get their pedagogy from different places. There are workshops, institutes, certificate programs and courses in higher education. Perhaps most commonly, dance teachers learn how to teach from one’s own teachers – either by observation or formal apprenticeship – and by trial and error over time.
Craddock says, “You learn from your teachers how you do it. I studied with my teacher for 18 years.” Now with her own program serving 180 students, Craddock trains her students to teach through an apprenticeship program.
“My assistants are all my students. I don’t tell them what to do. I tell them to find a way to help me and to watch the kids,” she explains. “I had hired teachers before, but they were so in and out with other performances and commitments. I realized I could have more committed teachers in my students, teachers who knew my style and my standards best.”
Craddock says that because of this apprenticeship program, not only is she able to oversee the quality of teaching in her school, but her students reap the benefits as well. “They need and want to be responsible,” she says.
Meanwhile, teaching and dancing can quickly fill one’s time and require that hard choices be made. Still very much a performer in her heart, Craddock aspires to realizing her dream of performing more further down the line while for now her commitment is to her students. “My dream is to be a performer. I think maybe that will happen later,” she says.
“To teach potential teachers is an interesting and fun challenge, and I’m getting slowly better at it,” admits Nagata. Her apprentices work through the process of observing her classes, assisting her, and then co-teaching portions of class before being turned over to their own students. She observes that a common challenge for new teachers is to keep a good flow to a class. “New teachers need to practice being concise so that students begin to learn that every word is important,” she says “I think teachers commonly use too many words, and that’s when they lose the interest of their students.”
She advises new teachers to be observant of kids’ abilities and to meet them at their developmental levels. “You have to observe kids to understand what they’re good at,” she notes. She recommends observing kids in their natural element like the playground to see what they can do. She says, “For example, everybody likes to run, so start with running.”
Craddock offers, “The hardest thing for a young teacher is management. Kids are very honest, and if they’re bored they won’t follow you. And motivation is different for different age groups. You have to learn over time.”
Craddock adds, “For kids to love dance, that’s my goal. I teach them not to compete with each other, but instead to support each other. My studio has no stars. Students have to feel treated equally. I’ve seen so many kids discouraged. In my studio, dance is not all about the technique, it’s about the expression. Everyone has a different place to shine.”
There is a legacy to good teaching, at least with Nagata and Craddock, who honor what they’ve learned from their own teachers and mentors while passing along their knowledge to their own students in the hopes that someday they will also be teachers.
“What I really want is to be able to inspire other people to teach the way my teachers inspired me,” says Nagata.