Greek Mythology and a Beat You Can Dance To

I’ve just finished teaching this terms masters program course in Dance and Kinesthetic Learning for Lesley University.  This course brought together a group of wonderful,varied educators from the front range of Colorado. All of them share a background in art, though few of them share a similar focus in their artistic work. One is a ceramicist, one a songwriter, a few are musicians and perform in musical theatre. Several of them are writers, one is a painter. Other than frequent forays to a local country western bar that offered line dancing class, some zumba classes and a bit of show choreography none of them had studied dance for several years – or ever. We had a great time throughout the course, exploring the elements and layered expressions of dance, considering choreographic process, and the ways that dance and  movement informs our cognitive process, our perceptions and interpretations, the development and demonstration of meaning.

During the course we listened to Alvin Ailey talk about the family stories he heard growing up in Texas and saw those stories fuel his choreographic vision leading to his signature piece Revelations.  We explored the relationship of music and dance while looking at Mark Morris’s choreography and project partnerships with the cellist YoYo Ma in the piece Falling Down Stairs – Bach cello suite.  We considered  how dance and music  can stand as compatible but separate mediums ,exemplified through Merce Cunningham’s choreography and collaborations with the composer John Cage. We thought about dance as spectacle – the Olympics! as religious celebration and an expression of national heritage and pride. We considered dance as a personal expression and as a way to build community. We watched contemporary dance from Brazil,folk dance turned toward balletic form from Spain, and traditional dance transferred from its historic roots in agricultural India to contemporary wedding celebrations in England. We worked with pattern, dynamic,structure and narrative. Making improvised studies and crafted pieces, using the time-honored process of draft and revision we created,rehearsed, and presented our work.

By the end of the course we felt like we’d done it all – right along with feeling like there was so much more to explore,discover,and make. Exploring that much territory requires playlists galore. We stretched, boogied,swooped and swirled through Bach to the Scissor Sisters, from Jay Z to Cuban rhythms.

These masters students are teachers, which brings a particular flavor to the class. We thought about pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching. My challenge is to help them develop their artistic skills and alertness within the context of  dance based learning  with in  their teaching practice and curriculum. And, as the restaurant server says” all served on a a bed of…..” In this case the bed is exploration, development, research, perception, production, and reflection ( this is where the terminology of waiters and teachers differs).

So here’s what happened. We made dances that explored choreographic structure and form.We made studies about the elements of plot and music and mathematical vocabulary and form. We created dance based learning experiences to practice verb tense usage in a foreign language, to identify cause and effect in Pavlovian conditioning and to learn distinctions between bilateral, radial, gliding and rotational symmetry.

This kind of dance/topic integration is in keeping with what is going on today in the field of choreography and performance. The environmental choreographer Jennifer Monson, did a project called “Bird Brain” based on the multi-continental migration pattern of ducks, geese, osprey and gray whales. Dance your PhD is a yearly ‘contest which asks the question so, what’s your Ph.D. research about? Students, or those who have a PhD in the sciences, turn their thesis into a dance as a way of creating access and understanding of complex topics.   The alban elvĕd dance company has presented the “Turing Machine Dance,”where the dancers act out the computation of two binary numbers.  .Liz Lerman, the choreographer, performer, writer, and educator has created pieces based on a variety of topics and ideas all informed by her artistic curiosity and her research and collaborations with shipbuilders to physicists, construction workers to ballerinas.

Moving ideas – creating stories and images – and  dancing. On our last day of class the group choreographed and presented a nine phrase dance based on the gods and goddess of Greek mythology. The dances became a performance of understanding  that demonstrated content knowledge and interpretation. From Hades rule of the underworld and Poseidon’s rule of the sea, to Athena bursting full-grown from the head of Zeus,the work was fantastic – informed, inviting, thoughtful, fun!

Alison Marshall

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