Saturday, September 29, 2012

teaching "cultural" dance forms (part 2)

Another BIG question in this for me, of course, is that label itself: "cultural dance," "ethnic dance," "world dance," "folk dance"… If hula, Haitian, Kathak, and kolos are defined as "cultural" dance, then does that leave ballet and modern dance, the western "concert dance" forms, as the norm? Do we look upon ballet and modern as "high art" and relegate "ethnic dance" to lesser performance status because of the label? What criteria do we use to define ethnic or cultural dance?

I might start with one distinction within what we usually think of as ethnic dance — folk versus classical. On the one hand are the true folk dances: dances that do not demand a lifetime of study, but were traditionally performed by anyone in the community, or the community as a whole — like those Bulgarian dances I am so fond of, and including social dances from many cultures.

On the other hand, among the forms commonly labeled and presented as world or ethnic dance are classical, studied traditions such as the classical dance forms of India (among them Kathak, Bharata Natyam, and Odissi) and the court dances of Java and Cambodia — all of which demand many years of rigorous training to learn and perfect. Likewise, though not often spoken of as a "classical" form, Hawai'ian hula is a dance tradition handed down over the centuries from kumu to haumana, with a gestural language recognizable to all students of the form — much as any ballet dancer would recognize a frappĂ© or grand battement. Many of these forms developed in royal courts, just as ballet originated in the royal courts of France… so why is ballet not usually considered to be a "cultural" dance form? (In my own teaching, I do treat it that way — I first introduce ballet to my beginning dance classes in the Spring semester, when we explore forms from various cultures). It is not presented in "world dance" venues like San Francisco's Ethnic Dance Festival or Cal Performances' "world stage' series — is that simply because ballet companies already have copious opportunities for performance, or does it have to do with its culture being European and not "other"?

As we talked about this, I realized that there may be another distinction I had not thought of: between dance forms that originated from certain cultures (whether classical forms such as Kathak, ballet, or hula, or folk dances such as Balkan kolos or Appalachian clogging), and dance techniques that were developed by one person, often as a means of personal expression. This may be the distinction between what we call cultural forms and modern dance techniques, as most (all?) of those were the vision of one person — often as a reaction against previous dance forms, or at least breaking away from a mentor to begin a new style. What we call cultural forms are generally a result of years or decades of tradition — whether formally taught (as in classical forms) or passed along informally (as in folk dances). There are social dances — such as Charleston or Lindy hop — that seem to be a radical departure from what came before… but even those, if viewed in the context of dances of the African diaspora rather than American social dance, fit into a tradition.

There are so many issues tangled up in this — I pull one strand, and so many more questions come tumbling out! I will have to stop, but I would love to know what any of you out there think...

Monday, September 24, 2012

teaching cultural dance forms (part 1)

Another subject we explored in some depth during Luna's Advanced Summer Institute was teaching cultural dance forms in schools. This is a topic which poses a lot of dilemmas for me... but also about which I am fairly passionate, since much of my performance experience has been in forms that tend to be labeled "cultural" or "world" or "ethnic" dance. My longest-running performing experience was 20 years with Westwind International Folk Ensemble, which focused on Eastern European, Central Asian, and historical American dance forms; I also had the chance to dance with a local Polynesian halau for a couple of years, before my teaching schedule got too hectic.

One of the big issues for me is teaching with authenticity. Perhaps this comes from my performance background — Westwind's focus was always on the "preservation of folk traditions" — presenting dances as they would have been done in real life (as much as possible, when adapted for stage) rather than in flashy theatrical presentations. And the kumu of the hula halau I studied in just happened to be a cultural anthropologist, very concerned with the true origins of the dances in that ancient form. So…

The California state content standards, within the "historical and cultural content" strand, strongly suggest learning "folk/traditional" and social dances from the US and other countries (starting right from kindergarten). And, at least in my work with teens, I have found students to be very interested in learning various cultural forms — whenever beginning a new class, I always get the questions: Can we learn belly dance? Can we learn salsa? Bollywood? Merengue? Charleston…? This goes right along with teens' predilection for learning steps and styles, of course (although beginners can tend to get pretty impatient with learning about the cultural backgrounds in depth).

At the same time, it is important to teach what you are expert in — so the question is, how much of an expert do you need to be? For example, I personally would feel very comfortable teaching various Bulgarian dances, or a Charleston, or certain kahiko or 'auana hulas, as they are among dances that I performed for years, and the preparation for performing included becoming well-steeped in their backgrounds and histories… However, although I have studied forms such as Dunahm African-Haitian technique or Middle Eastern beledi, I don't feel I know nearly enough about those forms and their backgrounds to do justice to the cultures behind them. At EOSA, we were fortunate to have had a free residency from a local company specializing in African and African-diaspora dance forms for a few years, so my students were able to learn Congolese and African-Haitian from true experts; but that is (obviously) not always possible… so what to do???

In my own teaching, I compromise, of course… I would love to be able to teach only those forms that I am most expert at — but I'm afraid most teenagers don't exactly share my passion for Bulgarian or Croatian dance (what a surprise!), and to some extent I feel I need to at least give them some exposure to the forms of their own cultural backgrounds. So over the years I have revisited (with my beginning classes only) a few of the Congolese dances that were brought to EOSA by our Congolese expert in the years we had her residency, as well as a couple of dances from Michoacan that were taught in EOSA's first year, when we also had a residency in Baile Folklorico. I always try to focus on the cultural backgrounds that I absorbed from the experts; and I also stress to my students that I am not an expert in these forms, that this is just a tiny taste of the breadth and depth of these dance traditions, and that they should seek out further training from real experts. Even at that, I still feel a little out of my depth when teaching those dances… fortunately, my students have usually been pretty receptive to some of the forms that I do feel pretty confident in, such as Hawai'ian or Charleston — although I haven't tried teaching much in the way of Bulgarian to teens yet!

Well, there's a lot more to this — but this is getting kind of long already, so I think I'll leave the rest for another post soon.

Monday, September 17, 2012

new class — Aspire Golden State Prep

Oh, dear — here it is more than two weeks into September, and I haven't posted yet this month! I hope I won't fall too far behind one this now that the school year is under way — back to prepping elementary visual art lessons (unfamiliar enough for me that I spend a lot of time at it). I've been meaning for weeks to write about another issue we had discussed at Luna's ASI — teaching "cultural" dance forms and authenticity — but that will have to wait until next time…

… because... I've got a new dance class this semester! It's at Aspire Golden State College Prep High School (or GSP for short), a charter middle- and high school in East Oakland (yay, back teaching in East Oakland, if only for one hour a day!). I'm teaching one beginning dance class, open only to juniors and seniors. So far I have nine students, some of whom are wonderfully enthusiastic and focused, and some of whom are more your typical teen beginning dance students, tending to waste a fair amount of time talking and giggling with each other... but I think a lot of that is self-consciousness and discomfort with something new, so will probably (I hope) diminish as we go along.

They have this feature in their system — a pretty excellent opportunity for the kids — where the juniors and seniors can take college classes in the afternoons (and be officially excused from their their afternoon classes on campus). So three of my students are only in my class three days a week (and in their college class on Tuesdays and Thursdays). It makes for interesting differentiated instruction, dealing with kids who are regularly gone — fortunately the ones who are gone twice a week are all in the really focused group, so they should be okay.

The main difficulty so far is… you guessed it, space! The space we are using is the lunchroom (well, actually about a third of the lunchroom), which needs to be cleared for my class every day. It's taken a few weeks to get through the channels and on the custodians' radar, so for these first few weeks I cleared as many tables and chairs as I could myself, leaving just enough space for my small class to do some (mostly axial) movement without seriously injuring each other. As I mentioned a few posts back, dance does not have anything like the ongoing need for supplies (books, art materials, whatever) of most other classes — but it is probably that big up-front investment in a dedicated space that prevents so many schools from even trying to start a program. I appreciate GSP for the desire and the will to start a dance class, even if there are some kinks in the support structure so far…

Meanwhile, we've done one week of introductory explorations and then a couple of weeks of jazz technique; in a day or two we'll move back into explorations (variations on a known phrase, now that we've got one they all know) and then on to their first choreography assignment. I can't wait to see how they do with their group work — it's kind of exciting going back to the beginning and starting a program from scratch!