Saturday, December 20, 2014

End-of-semester dilemma

Planning the end of this semester turned out to be a bit of a dilemma for me. Coming from Oakland, I was used to having two weeks after winter break before finals — ample time for a few improv lessons and a final choreography project. Most of my years at EOSA, my fall semester final was a dance mapping and notation project: after leading in with the map activity then practice describing steps and movements, groups would notate their own choreography using dance vocabulary, musical beats, and pattern maps.

After attending a wonderful workshop on the Language of Dance (LOD) this fall, I got excited about trying the project in a whole new way. In the workshop, we learned a few basic LOD symbols (shape, travel, turn, spring, flexion, extension, stillness) and how to use them in a timeline; we then created solos by arranging the symbols as a starting point. It was an engaging new way of working for me, so I planned to try turning that notation part of my usual assignment upside-down — instead of first choreographing steps and then notating them with descriptions, my students would arrange the LOD symbols to build their dances, and only then fill out the movement physically. I was anxious to try out the project in a whole new way...

Unfortunately, my new district starts and finishes the school year (and fall semester) one week earlier, leaving only one week after winter break to prepare for finals. It just felt too weird to me to have a two-week vacation in the middle of a creative work / choreography project; to top it off, I would also be missing all of my sophomores (about half the students in all my dance classes) for testing during two days of this week, making it even harder to feel that we had time to do a notation and mapping project justice. So I somewhat reluctantly decided to switch gears entirely and have a performance final instead, letting students choose one or two of the dance styles we have studied this semester (basic jazz, the Thriller jazz dance, and Lindy hop / Big Apple) to perform in class — which they could easily review in the one week after break. In the meantime, we could still work on some of the mapping and LOD concepts this week.

What feels uncomfortable for me in this is that I’ve only gotten my classes through two choreography projects this semester. There are a number of reasons for that — for one, we started the school year two weeks late, then took an extra two weeks out of the curriculum to work on the Thriller dance (which was entirely worth it, both for making the program visible and for student buy-in); we also took longer on both creative work units than I have in the past, for the sake of allowing enough time to not rush the choreography — but in that “technique vs. creative work” dichotomy, the creative work seemed to be falling behind.

On the other hand, what came out of the dilemma was perhaps a new way of thinking about teaching creative dance and improvisation for me. In the past, the bulk of my creative dance lessons have been connected to a few elements, as lead-ins to group choreography projects; but this week, we were able to do four days of creative work for its own sake, not tied to a project, and that actually felt very freeing. We did dance mapping and a brief introduction to the LOD symbols and timeline (which I hope to return to in small ways throughout the year), as well as a two-day duets project for the small classes while the sophomores were out testing (more about all those lessons in the next post). I now think that this is a direction that I can and should explore further — while I surely will continue to  teach creative work units, with specific lessons leading into choreography projects, I am intrigued by the possibility of introducing more elements and more creative dance work into the “in-between” times. Perhaps this will turn out to be a new way of finding opportunities to infuse creative work into the curriculum!

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