Education Matters: Four Artists’ Methods for Teaching College-aged Dancers

By Kate Mattingly


WHEN UNDERGRADUATES FACE the decision of majoring in dance or another discipline, they are often confronted with questions about the usefulness of their degree or the chances of pursuing a career as a choreographer or performer. Today there a number of teachers who are turning these questions around and showing how a dance education transforms students into engaged citizens and potent spokespersons for the arts.

Four teachers who were selected for this article are challenging outdated approaches, and each one—Nina Haft, Molly Rogers, Dawn Stoppiello, and Amara Tabor-Smith—demonstrates the deep and varied connections educators are making between movement, politics, and life skills. Although they have different approaches and methodologies, they show how lessons learned in studios and lecture halls have direct application to the worlds outside of university walls.

They are also challenging images of dancers seen on professional stages as well as in pop culture. On television shows like “Dance Academy” or competitions like “So You Think You Can Dance,” instructors and coaches prioritize technical perfection or athletic display. The teachers here foreground opportunities for students to become advocates for embodied knowledge. While dismantling canons that perpetuate ethnocentric notions of artistry, they are also expanding frameworks for noticing how movement generates knowledge and social change. Conversations with these teachers left lasting impressions and their perspectives encourage us to rethink conventional approaches as well as to honor the ways in which life experiences inform pedagogical tools.

For Nina Haft, Associate Professor at California State University, East Bay, teaching means drawing from decades of experience in dance and martial arts. When she learned kajukenbo, a hybrid martial art, it was “taught in a feminist school, with a woman head instructor. Having a woman teacher does not in and of itself make training empowering, but in this case, I believe it was a direct and purposeful effort on the part of my teacher to engender peer leadership and also practicality (i.e. does this movement work for you? if not, change it so that it does). That last thing is unusual in martial arts.”  This dialogic ethos pervades Haft’s teaching today, and her experiences with AXIS Dance Company contributed to her inquiry-based approach. She emphasizes that the goal of technique is not physical feats: “the movement material is not the thing; it’s what you discover about your body, mind and spirit. The dance is a bigger thing than what a dance looks like.”

By focusing less on what students execute and more on how dancers learn, Haft is able to effectively engage and inspire classes composed of varied levels and interests. She says, “Often there are 2 or 3 groups working on material. Some students who are more confident and resourceful are also the students who are interested in teaching. I give them some responsibility in working with others and this cultivates multiple leaders in a classroom.” This also shifts a traditional dance class format where a teacher instructs students to reiterate her material: in Haft’s classroom, like the world outside the studio, there are networks of teachers and learners in constantly shifting patterns.

Haft builds peer feedback practices into her teaching: “I do give students feedback, and they do want it. But they learn to assess their own work, and to help each other, in ways that go far beyond the classroom.” Haft’s courses are not only about movement and creativity, but also foster communication skills and interpersonal intelligence. “In technique class we do some improvisation such as a kind of short compositional exercise that has students use movement as a springboard for their own choreography. Frankly, I do this because what they do with the movement is really interesting to me. It points to all the ways an idea can be developed. There is no ideal form.”

Molly Rogers, who developed the curriculum for Critical Perspectives in Dance as part of the Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program says, “I’ve been so fortunate to enjoy steady support from the forward-thinking directors of the LINES educational programs. They understand my goal of preparing students to serve as ambassadors to the art form—a role that requires more than simply dancing well. Because even if these young artists’ first professional contracts lie imminently on the horizon, why shouldn’t they be equipped with the tools to participate in critical discourse and defend their art against perpetual accusations of its frivolity? Why shouldn’t they gain practice writing and public speaking, articulating opinions and ideas in front of their peers? If the basic tenets of a liberal arts education ensure that dancers in college programs have at least some exposure to interdisciplinary modalities, I fear that an antiquated perception of a dancer’s role in society still governs much of their education in the studio.”

Rogers adds, “Letting go of the cannon, ill-defined as it was, has allowed me to contextualize class material in the fabric of students’ daily lives. It’s now a media studies class as much as it is about dance: we’ve discussed Pussy Riot and Miley Cyrus, Jér?ome Bel and Beyoncé, #bringbackourgirls, #blacklivesmatter, and #crimingwhilewhite. We analyze choreography both as a mirror to the culture that created it, and an instigator of cultural change, utilizing the dance stage as a microcosm in which societal norms are enacted, rejected, and/or reformed. We centralize issues of gender, race, and disability in dance, considering basic questions about power, agency, and representation both on and off-stage. Because ultimately these are the questions that matter: who tells the stories, who arranges the bodies, who moves and who is moved, who watches and who is seen. With this kind of material, I see my job as a teacher not to clarify and simplify, but rather to complicate my students’ ways of seeing, adding more layers of information to their experience of watching dance that they must reconcile before arriving at a conclusion about what it is they’ve witnessed.”

It takes time and dedication to build a curriculum that doesn’t prioritize consistency over creativity, and to design teaching philosophies that don’t merely replicate what other teachers have told their classes. Dawn Stoppiello, a choreographer and teacher based in Portland, says she often asks herself, “What is technique? What is practice? What does a contemporary dancer need today? There is a foundational system to what we call contemporary dance. It’s not a specific ‘technique’ but more of an evolving approach. I hope that undergraduates are getting that now.” She says she hopes more graduate and undergraduate curricula for dancers will address ways of writing about dance as well as how to promote work, how to archive work, how to navigate the field, and, most importantly, explore how to make a sustainable life as a dancer and choreographer. She says it’s imperative that professors discard “the now dysfunctional model of becoming a non-profit, writing grants, and seeking patrons or waiting tables while dancing until you can’t move anymore.”

Asked if she values her undergraduate degree in dance, she says, “When Mark Coniglio and I made a project in 1989 at CalArts we had 25 people in the production as well as lighting and video equipment. After it was done I calculated that the production would have cost roughly $50,000, but we were in an academic environment and had these resources available.” This project points to the ways a dance education can catalyze new explorations, as it became the impetus for Stoppiello and Coniglio’s Troika Ranch, an organization that creates hybrid works, often fusing movement and technology.

In contrast, Stoppiello finds that universities where she works as a resident artist can be reluctant to embrace new approaches to dance. “The field and the academy can, and should, complement each other in an approach to preparing dancers and choreographers for various elements of a career… I’d make a recommendation to graduate programs not to accept students without a minimum of 5 years of experience in the world, time spent doing their work outside the academy.”

Amara Tabor-Smith, a lecturer at U.C. Berkeley, advocates for students to recognize the political significance of their actions and creations: “we are citizens of this planet and the phrase, ‘I’m just a dancer,’ doesn’t make sense as an excuse not to study feminisms and critical race theory. Dance, almost like no other art form, is politicized. As a dancer you need to understand political landscapes that engage and surround us. Straight up: the body is political. What I’m saying is that even if you don’t choose, directly or indirectly, to make political work, you need to understand that art has the ability to make cultural shifts. That which we forget we will repeat, especially when we haven’t resolved an issue or struggle. The empire is insidious. Structures that are based on colonialist and imperialist ideology historically under value the arts. As artists we have to change our mindset from the past about what political work looked like. That prior work is not the only model of resistance.”

She encourages dance departments to consider seven questions, “What is our identity?” “What does it encompass?” “Whose voices will be heard?” “What priorities are essential?” “How can we engage a larger university community?” “Are we training dancers to exist in this ever-changing landscape of the arts?” and “How do we educate our students on the economic realities they will face as working artists?”

By emphasizing process and inquiry, these teachers call attention to decision-making and the dominance of certain value systems. Haft says her students “perform a lot but not always in a fully produced event. Everything is a work in progress.” Her observation echoes Tabor-Smith’s statement that the product-driven model of many university dance programs that encourage students to perform showcase-like events can neglect the significance of process. Rogers adds that her dedication to rethinking history is “a conscious effort to avoid some of the ineffective teaching strategies I’ve observed in my own education: dogmatic emphasis on names and dates, lack of connection to present-day issues, and insinuation that the material is important simply because it is… I wanted to demonstrate a different way of being in the world as a dancer that required knowledge of history not as an end unto itself, but as a foundation from which to explore big, complex questions about culture and society playing out in myriad ways all around us.”

Kate Mattingly is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.