As a university professor I consider it a crucial part of my job to question the teacher-student relationship, and what makes for effective teaching. This questioning has grown increasingly pertinent, as my colleagues and I have been pressured to increase enrollment and to move some classes online in order to accommodate 60 – 90 students. My gut shouts “No!” every time we are asked to do this, and lately I have been directing my questioning towards my reaction. Is it important for teachers and students to be in the room together, for one-on-one interactions? What’s lost in huge classes?
I was struck recently by something master teacher Ruth Zaporah said in a workshop, and I’ll paraphrase it here: “My most important teachers taught me through their presence, through being in the room with them–not by anything in particular they did or said.” This moved me to examine my most important learning moments. I saw clearly that my memorable and influential lessons came from direct transmissions of my teachers’ living experience.
Here’s some of my salient learning memories:
- During summer intensives in the 1980’s with the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company in Southern California, there always came a day when Bella herself would teach our technique class. Watching her walk into the room, this tiny woman, 80 years old, in her dark, knitted unitard, and being nearly knocked over by the fierce presence she commanded, I saw first-hand the power and integrity that can come from a life devoted to dance. I aspire to be like Bella in my 80’s—teaching and performing with my own fierce presence.
- The days as a teenager in which I was the only one to show up to my after-school dance classes with Charles Edmondson (my foundational modern dance and ballet teacher from the Lewitzky tradition) and the honor of having 1.5 hours with him all to myself. He gave me the same amount of energy and focus that he did for a full class. It was terrifying, and at the same time so validating to have someone demonstrate their belief in my abilities so sincerely.
- Performing a piece I created in a 1996 Joe Goode workshop. The piece was about sorting through difficult issues with my dad, and I decided to lead the audience out of the studio during the piece, pick up the office phone and actually call my dad. I remember standing there, having just dialed the number, and looking back out at Joe and my fellow students. The expression on Joe’s face was burned into my heart forever. He was completely “there” with me, with intense curiosity, fear, wonder, and trust. Here was this artist I looked up to immensely, accompanying me personally on my journey into the creative unknown.
- Mel Wong, one of my college mentors would come to see work I created with Dandelion Dancetheater in the early days of the company. Every time he saw our performances his comment would be something like, “Good work. Keep going.” At first I was frustrated that he wasn’t giving us more specific, in-depth feedback—that he didn’t “gush” more. But then I saw that he was transmitting something much more vital. He was guiding us to not get too caught up in any one piece, but to see each one as part of a life-long, ultimately mysterious process, through which we have to make vast amounts of work in order to grow.
- Looking back on the years I danced in the work of my primary choreographic mentor Della Davidson, I am most struck by my memories of how she witnessed our improvisations. We would begin most rehearsals with improvisations that would sometimes last up to two hours. After giving a basic structure, she wouldn’t say much at all, but would just watch and listen. Something about the quality of her attention, evoked outpourings of our subconscious feelings, ideas and movement languages. She really loved watching. And that love came through her eyes. The energy that she generated in that room was one of the most healing landscapes I have ever traveled through. She invited authenticity through her simple and direct interest in us.
Reflecting on these potent learning moments, I’ve become curious to hear from others. Are there key aspects of teaching and learning that are universal? What does this impart about the educational process? What might be lost if students have less direct access to their teachers in real time and space? I asked a number of colleagues and collaborators which moments stand out for them in their dance journeys. I received many wonderful responses, more than I could include here. Here’s a collage of selected transmission recollections and musings from dance artists and teachers.
Debby Kajiyama, co-director of NAKA Dance Theater (Oakland/San Francisco, CA):
“It’s funny which moments stay in your memory. Some of them seem so insignificant. I was in rehearsal with Kimiko Guthrie when she was working on her MFA thesis at Mills College. We were showing in-process material to some advisors, and I remember doing a very short solo and getting comments from Molissa Fenley. She has an astonishing ability to witness, to perceive so deeply, and to convey what she perceives without a value judgment. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I do remember the feeling of being witnessed. That was over ten years ago.”
Tracey Panek, Director of Maori Mo Ake Tonu (Concord, CA):
“When I reconnected to Maori performing arts after college, working with Kaea Lorna Te Ope Martyn was a turning point. Sitting by Lorna as we made poi, responding to her powerful vocal karanga, perfecting the wiri of our hand motions together, and above all—her physical presence—reignited the love I felt as a child learning about my Maori roots from my mother. Under Lorna’s guidance, our performance together at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival was a highlight of my early career. I credit Lorna, and the personal time she spent with me, for much of the success of my work today directing my dance troupe, Maori Mo Ake Tonu.”
Christy Funsch, director of Funsch Dance Experience (San Francisco, CA):
“When I first arrived into the graduate department at Arizona State University, I admit I had only a vague sense of who Daniel Nagrin was. I registered for the only class he was teaching my first semester, a class called ‘Jazz Forms.’ So we end up working with Daniel on highly detailed precision, and it’s going okay but sometimes I think I am milking my personality to make up for my lack of ability. And one afternoon we’re all running through something and he screams for us to stop and he stops the music and approaches us, shaking in what seemed like a rage. ‘Funsch!’ he yelled, ‘Do that again!’ and I’m terrified; first because it seems he knows my name and here I thought I had been successfully hiding from him, and second, I am new in the department and not keen on making an ass out of myself. But I do as he asks and he screams again ‘You stole that from me!’ which stuns the room into complete silence—it’s like we all inhaled and are suspended mid-breath. Oh no, I’m thinking, I’m totally lost, I shouldn’t even be here, and I start spiraling down into an inner monologue of self-doubt. Daniel then breaks into a grin and lets out a huge, warm laugh ‘well done,’ he says, ‘that’s it.’ And it took me a while to figure this out, but I now realize that in dance learning we are so often in mimetic embodiment—so preoccupied with ‘getting it’ through imitation. Daniel was so demanding, but what he was asking for was not imitation. It was for us to bring ourselves – our whole, complicated, articulate selves – into our dancing.”
Jack Gray, co-founder of I Moving Lab:
“I have been contemplating that the main reason I am the way I am is because from a young age (18 years) I was a product of full-time dance training. I will never forget the collective growing, the discussions, disagreements, difficulties and breakthroughs. Dance is a measure of our human capacity to bear witness to each other and ourselves. I learnt through all my teachers about how to deal with my ego, how to see their comments as helping me become a more robust artist, and how to recognize the development that was occurring. Because of these direct experiences – good and bad – I was able to foster my own teaching pedagogy. From a mentor, Charles Koroneho, I learnt how to be truthful to what I was seeing and what was happening and how to demand clarity in terms of bringing ourselves authentically to the creative experience. So long I had been unsure about how to work with my peers in the way I wanted. His direct, strong and supportive tone, along with the uncanny knack of confronting what needed to be confronted without pulling back made me able to position my role and responsibility as a leader to facilitate the best outcome. I am still developing this skill.”
Reese Johnson, ensemble member of Bandelion and MeND Dance Theater (Hayward, CA):
“I got the great opportunity to work with singer Ysaye M. Barnwell from Sweet Honey in the Rock, and I remember… we would all just sing without books or song sheets. We would just sit, and sing. Since I was a little girl, I’ve been a singer, and I always strived to be perfect in everything that I would do, and try to fit some type of mold with my singing. I remember talking to Ysaye about it and she just said, ‘If you want to sing don’t worry about what note comes out or what it sounds, just sing.’ And she told me that she learned how to sing just by ear, and that she never used song books or learned how to read music until later. That conversation just enabled me to let go of the inner fears, the inner conflicts and the criticisms.”
From Trina Nahm-Mijo, Professor of Dance, Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Hawai’i, Hilo and Hawai’i Community College (Hilo, HI):
“The ‘direct transmission experience’ which stands out to me occurred when I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and taking modern dance classes with David and Marni Wood in the beautiful studio on Bancroft Way. David used to be Regisseur in Martha Graham?s Company and was known for his strict discipline and demanding ways as a teacher. He used to pick on me quite relentlessly in class. One day I mustered up the courage to make an appointment to see him in his office and ask him ‘Why do you keep picking on me in class?’ ‘Well, I only pick on the ones who have potential’, he roared. I was surprised by his answer which changed my life.”
Kristin Heavey, Director of Element Dance Theater and arts education consultant (Reno, Nevada):
“When I was eighteen years old I was working at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY—I had just spent a year living on the west coast and was seeking. Dancing was not on my radar until I met Angela Caponigro, Laura Dean’s long term collaborator, and a stunning dance artist in her own right. Angela taught Kundalini yoga and a dance breathing class. I was completely transfixed by her presence and teaching. She taught a meditation and improvisation class, and she told me I needed to dance. The biggest moment of transformation was when I asked her about dance training and she said to me it is being completely conscious—she demonstrated moving a teacup from the table to her lips. I have been working on that one lesson ever since.”
As I read and re-read these stories I find myself filled with exhilaration and curiosity. I am reminded that the most impactful teaching I do exists in the realm of mystery and not-knowing, in exploring my ever-changing connections with students, moment by moment. There’s a pull to get back into the studio as soon as possible, to court this living, breathing teacher-student dance. And I am re-dedicating myself to defend small classes at every stage of dance education.