Saturday morning I attended a collegial brunch for east bay dance teachers, organized by the California Dance Education Organization. There were four of us from public schools scattered around the east bay from Richmond to Antioch, along with two graduate students studying dance pedagogy at Mills College and a handful of undergrads from UC Berkeley who teach in various elementary schools and private programs in Berkeley.
It is always gratifying to be able to connect with other dance teachers, since — unlike math or English teachers — we are usually the only ones on our campuses. There were of course some lively conversations about our programs, upcoming events, and the like... But the most interesting discussion for me was the perpetual dilemma of how much technique instruction and improvisation/composition work we include in our classes.
I come to the subject from a long-time focus on moving student choreographers beyond the "cute steps to cool music" stage. At the high school where I did my student teaching years ago, the program had been focused almost entirely on improvisation and the principles of composition — and I could certainly see the difference in the sophistication of the student choreography. When I observed the performances at other high schools, I saw that the dancers were technically proficient, but their dances were essentially collections of their favorite steps and flashy tricks, usually performed in unison; whereas the students at my student-teaching school were using canon and antiphonal forms, varied groupings, and a wide range of moods and qualities... and more than that, their dances often had personal meaning (beyond "these are my favorite moves"). So from the very beginning of my public school career, I knew which direction I wanted to go.
But it is that mix — how much technique work? How much improvisation? — that is difficult to get just right. One of my colleagues, who originally came from a contact improvisation background, said that she has gravitated more and more towards technique over the years (even though she finds it much more difficult to teach), because her students so much want to learn steps and phrases and dances... and she wants her classes to be joyful. I certainly can't disagree — in my experience, students who begin dance as teenagers expect to be taught steps and movements, and are uncomfortable with improvisation until they have a fair amount of experience under their belts. (Although, in my work in East Oakland, I had more of a dichotomy between the boys and the girls: the boys loved improvisation, since many of them already practiced improvisational street dance forms such as TURF dance; while the girls tended to look at me as if I'd lost my mind when I asked them to improvise).
And yet and yet... as a choreographer, I can't forget the difference in the dances of students trained in the craft of choreography and the elements of dance — and helping students to create meaning will always be a priority for me. My compromise is that I work in units and I try to do about half-and-half: every technique unit is followed by a few directed improvisation lessons, leading into a choreography project. It worked for me at EOSA (although I did always get those girls complaining about explorations when "you haven't taught me how to dance yet," eventually they got the creation bug)... and so far at DeAnza, my beginners have been remarkably open to exploring the elements and working on choreography (maybe because more of them have some studio experience already?). I will be interested to see how my thinking evolves as I work in my new program...