Logical progression, context, efficiency of learning, integration of experiences, and multiple layers of discipline-specific understanding are the underlying principles that guide my teaching in both studio-based movement and technology-based design experiences. I work to develop the abilities of the mind and body simultaneously and in an inseparable manner, through the development of cognitive, locomotor, and psychomotor abilities. This approach supports the School mission of encouraging fluidity between the processes of making art, honing craft, and deepening intellectual explorations. I seek to find a balance of learning through moving (corporeal intelligence) and learning through inquiry (mental intelligence). The Quality Enhancement Plan’s Pilot Project offered an opportunity to investigate Critical Thinking in Contemporary Dance. To my surprise, my Contemporary Dance students scored highest at FSU in the Critical Thinking Assessment Test (CAT).
I experienced a pivotal period of synthesizing influences and determining priorities after leaving New York’s Nikolais Dance Company in 1992, as I prepared to teach Modern Dance at the collegiate level. Inspired by Nikolais as the “Father of Multimedia,” I later ventured into the field of dance technology. Now at FSU, I work with a highly selective student body within a liberal-arts university offering significant individualized mentoring. I distill art-making choices to the design elements that are shared by two time-based, visual, and kinetic arts—dance and video. My teaching contributes to the group efforts of the faculty to maintain the expected standards of a program accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance.
The Nikolais philosophy—a concrete framework for dance technique, theory, and composition—significantly influences my approach. The diverse dance faculties at Ohio State and UW–Madison further shape my work. As a life-long learner, I am so fortunate to grow daily through interaction with my students. I continue to revise and update based on student feedback regarding real-world needs for today’s dancer.
I avoid confusion and frustration by organizing content in a logical manner that builds progressively on skills and knowledge. I offer clear context as to why certain elements are present within a movement experience, and generate excitement about the benefits of exploring the premise at hand. I encourage opportunities for faculty and peer interaction and reflect on successes and failures to identify opportunities for improvement through the future application of discoveries. I demystify strides toward proficiency through clear communication and articulate demonstration, as achieving virtuosity as a dancer can be a very vague process with few concrete landmarks. I design unique experiences and create a detailed lesson plan (since 2002) that takes into account progress attained. I work diligently to ensure the maximum benefit for the students from each moment in class. I use pathway diagrams, concept t-shirts (60+), music notation, and most recently a self-designed, interactive Movement Analysis Game Show interface to engage students. My students seem to appreciate and recognize the care with which I prepare classes. I also emphasize educational experience for students performing in my choreography on campus and in off-site performances. I bring elements of critical thinking into the studio to develop the “thinking dancer” capable of synthesizing performance theories, historical contexts, and physical experience. Students often comment, “my brain hurts,” following my dance classes.
I teach technology from a dance-specific perspective encouraging students to apply their expertise as the “artists of motion.” Dancers embody an innate understanding of time, space, and energy, and it is this strength that may be contributed to other kinetic art forms. By pointing this out and by teaching current skills that give them a competitive edge in the job market, my students venture into the use of new tools with confidence.
I structure assignments that ensure students come face to face with the technical and artistic aspects of fulfilling an intended outcome, yet allow for individual creative expression. I often describe my detailed assignments as obstacle courses or scavenger hunts. The only way to get to the finish line is to confront the prescribed elements. Allowing students to individually interpret project parameters results in an array of creativity and produces a group collection of inspiring results. This supports shared learning. In order to support student learning, I have created a number of online resources and focused my scholarly writings on desperately needed literature on the merger of dance and technology. Performance Techniques Behind the Lens: Applying the Nikolais/Louis Philosophy of Motion to Cinematography (Cambridge Scholars, 2014) has served both dance training, as well as instruction in camerawork. My film, The Imprint of Genius, a Nikolais documentary, was created in collaboration with a student and has offered insight into the artist’s philosophy.
It is rewarding to see my students succeed in professional companies, screenings at national/international film festivals, and in university faculty positions. I conducted a Dance Technology Alumni Survey in 2014, to evaluate the real-world effectiveness of my courses since 2001. The results reflect significant benefits from technology instruction and assist me in improving future impact on student experiences.
For many years, my conservative and practical-minded parents tried to persuade me to get a “real” job that could pay the bills and to enjoy my “life” when not on the clock. I stood firm in my belief that someday I would be able to sustain an enjoyable life that included passionately working within a field that just happened to be a job. I think I have found that “real life” at FSU. I’m always on the clock!
Thoughts on Modern Dance: A Performance Technique
I believe in dance technique as a method of training mind, body, and spirit in an inseparable manner. This approach to "Performance Technique" is based on total training of the creative and expressive instrument and results in the mastery of a wide spectrum of movement potential. With an emphasis on spatial awareness and dynamic energy flow, abstract ideas are communicated using unique movement vocabulary. When teaching, I give attention to movement fundamentals, which intelligently train the body and mind, while increasing flexibility, centering, and strengthening. The musicality of motion, approached through creative imagery and diverse sensory exploration, may be used to achieve a heightened sense of kinetics and performance quality. My approach to this performance technique places a great value on the question of "How?" movement is to be executed. I help dancers to recognize the value of quantifying movement with intent, spatial clarity, and qualitative value. This process depends on the integration of all aspects of performance.
The potential of the articulate body and the process of gradual changes that lead to virtuosity are investigated through combinations of time-space-force factors. These develop the dancers' abilities to communicate a wide range of kinetic sensations. Sculptural shape awareness is addressed along with fluidity of torso and body part articulations. Purposeful, clear motion and the Nikolais concept of decentralization become the motivation for movement. The dancer works toward the ability to conduct energy beyond the boundaries of the human instrument. Once decentralized, that is, in full participation with movement, the ego is left behind and the dancer experiences a pure sense of connectedness with natural forces of gravity, momentum, suspension, and other dynamic sensations.
Along with a focus on the artistry of dance, I approach technical proficiency in my teaching through an investigation of movement sciences. Issues of anatomy, kinesiology, and physiology are included within a course of study. Dynamic alignment is approached through the application of Lulu Sweigard/Mabel Todd lines of movement, Eric Franklin's series of performance-based imagery, as well as other movement therapies. Sufficient rest and good nutrition is encouraged. Kinesthetic awareness and movement efficiency are developed through the use of various relaxation techniques. Movement memory is developed through extended movement phrases and repetition. My curricular designs integrate movement inquiry and analysis including the application of Laban Movement Analysis, Labanotation, Irmgard Bartenieff Fundamentals, and other methods of movement observation and training. I also employ foundations of the Nikolais/Louis performance technique to evaluate and clarify dance. Grounded in intentionality, a study of Nikolais' "Big 4" (Time, Space, Shape, and Motion) helps the dancer to maintain presence and commitment in performance.
When teaching a studio course, I employ conceptual learning techniques framed within a thoughtful progression that supports the development of critical thought process. My approach to teaching dance has many eclectic influences, yet centers on the Nikolais/Louis philosophy of performance, which offers a strong foundation for movement studies and has proven to be a very effective method of teaching dance technique, improvisation, composition, and theory.
Thoughts on Modern Dance Theory: Improvisation and Composition
Improvisation is a wonderful tool for inventing unique vocabulary and training for performance. The dancers' ability to instantaneously commit to a motional statement requires the development of the creative mind and an understanding of the body's potential to fulfill the kinetic idea. Expanding the dancers' creative palettes in the realm of performance nuance and vocabulary can be addressed through improvisational training that also helps them comprehend the nature of intuition. Movement discoveries are embodied and crafted into the form of compositional studies, which may be experienced and critiqued by the class. The details of movement composition and performance require a strong foundation in movement aesthetics and the understanding of movement dynamics, the use of space, temporal elements in composition and performance, sculptural form, and kinetics. Methods of this approach include clarification of movement meaning and content through studies in time, space, shape, and motion; use of imagery; movement variation through the manipulation of range, level, and duration; creating movement relations in space and time; motional musicality; sound (voice) as facilitator of movement; studies in the use of stage space and spatial awareness; techniques in movement development; and analysis of formal structures. Compositionally, the interweaving of visual design, depth of meaning, costume, set, lighting, music/sound, and any other aspects of a production must arrive at a collective whole, which allows for individual participation and response to the work. It must be the goal of the choreographer to skillfully craft the dance, utilizing unique vocabulary, while keeping intent in mind. The dancers' complete fulfillment of gestures begins in the mind of the choreographer. Thus, communicating about dance, both orally and in the written word, is essential. By investigating the elements of dance improvisation, performance, and choreography via movement exploration, writing, and discussion, students work toward the de-mystification of our ephemeral art and attempt to contextualize their own work. Integrated studies in technique and theory are supported by textual references such as The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique: A Philosophy and Method of Modern Dance (2005), and other dance resources.
In order to maximize technical dance training and compositional work, it is important to realize how closely the two go hand-in-hand. Dancers must understand the elements of composition, in order to best represent the choreographer's intent. The choreographer, on the other hand, must see that his or her dancers are trained in techniques and performance qualities, which facilitate the needs of the dance. Mastery of these skills provides an excellent foundation from which to venture into the realm of technology applications and multimedia design.
A limited number of artists have had the opportunity to work directly with world-renowned artists Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis. As one of the lucky few, I embrace the challenge of helping to pass on the legacy of these great teachers and philosophers of dance through my teaching at FSU and abroad.