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.

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