One of the pretty successful projects that I set for my Dance Production classes at EOSA was the year-long dance history project, or the Dance Ancestors project as we called it later. The first time I tried this was in 2006-07, in EOSA's third year. The assignment was to choose a contributor to dance history and research their lives, how they contributed to the history of the form, and their actual dance styles; and the end product of the research would be a research paper (of course), and a final choreography in that choreographer's style. I had to define “contributor to dance history” as someone who had at least been around long enough to have influenced later dancers and choreographers in some way — knocking out a lot of favorite video artists (“Can I do Chris Brown?” “No — he’s not even old enough!”). Along the way, I also added a preliminary paper on the specific points of the research subject’s style, just to be sure the kids were making informed choreographic choices and not just copying steps off a video. I supported the project with a small in-class dance history library (I had spent the summer browsing the used bookstores), my slightly more extensive home dance video library... and lots of individual consultation.
This first year, it had all started as a suggestion from Patricia from Luna to focus the whole school year — the theory was that students would pick their research subjects in the first six weeks, and I could spend the whole Fall semester teaching technique classes in all those different dance styles... Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way — with a few exceptions, getting the kids to settle on a research subject was like pulling teeth, until they absolutely had to because the Spring concert was getting way too close. So the whole focusing-the-year thing didn’t really work out the way I thought…
What did happen, though, was that the project completely jolted the kids out of their ordinary hip hop or Cumbia comfort zones. Suddenly, I was seeing kids who, just the year before, had been doing the old fitting-favorite-steps-to-mixes-of-favorite-songs thing — now really researching new dance styles and coming up with movements I had never seen from them before… In the spring concert, we had dances in the styles of Alvin Ailey, Garth Fagan, Katherine Dunham, Bob Fosse, Josephine Baker, Amalia Hernandez, Jamila Salimpour, Michael Jackson, and Mr. Wiggles (my personal favorite was Josephine Baker) — with differing levels of success, of course, but almost everyone tried something they had never done before.
Three years later (after devoting the intervening years to dance as a response to history and social issues, then dance as a response to words or text) I decided to try it again. This time, I did learn from the first time — instead of waiting for them to choose research subjects, I jump-started the year by teaching them some snippets of classic dance works in the fall semester, when the class usually focused on technique. With each snippet we learned, of course we also learned about the choreographer, their contribution to dance history, and their technical style, through readings as well as video observations.
We focused on modern, but I wanted to start with ballet, so that they could feel in their bodies what modern rebelled against. So we began by learning a tiny bit of Balanchine's Serenade… that fall was also when we did a lot of lecture-dems for 8th-graders at all our feeder middle schools, and we showed what they had learned of Serenade at the first few — seeing my EOSA dancers moving in unison, with that lovely slow beginning, was a moving experience for me!
I felt we needed to start our modern dance history work at the beginning, with Isadora, even though that is one technique I was relatively unfamiliar with. Fortunately, over the summer I had been able to take a workshop on Duncan technique at the NDEO conference, so I was able to share what I learned… Next we moved into Weidman and then Hawkins, both techniques where I felt on very solid ground (Humphrey-Weidman was the technique I first studied in college — had I known how hard it was to come by in the greater dance world, I would have taken more careful notes!— and Hawkins is the technique I have studied for decades with Ruth Botchan). We began by learning both sections of Dramatic Falls from Charles Weidman's Brahms Waltzes. This is a piece I had learned in college, from a teacher who had been a dancer in Weidman's company, so it was truly a thrill to be able to share a couple of sections with my students and see them perform it. We then reconstructed a little bit of Erick Hawkins' Classic Kite Tails, and then finished the fall semester with Alvin Ailey's I Been 'Buked, the opening section of Revelations.
When it came time for the class to begin their own choreography finals, this time the students were a little more prepared to pick a choreographer to study and get started. Again we had a wide range of styles — from classic modern dance (Graham, Hawkins, Weidman) to traditional and classic jazz (Josephine Baker, Frankie Manning, Bob Fosse), to choreographers of traditional cultural forms (Katherine Dunham, Madeline Mou'a), to seminal street-dance forms (Tommy the Clown).The two students who chose Hawkins and Weidman began with tiny snippets of the movement we had learned and created their own variations on them, then worried about their dances being "too much copying" — I had to remind them that "Variations on a Theme by…" is a venerable dance and music form! My favorite statement of the project was from I____, one of the two boys in the class — he chose Martha Graham as his subject; and when I asked him why he chose her in particular (since her style was extremely different from his own accustomed style), he said "I researched a lot of choreographers and she seemed to be really important, so I wanted to learn about her." His choreography turned out to be one of the highlights of the final concert.