The life of a teaching artist is often one of constant change and transition. It reminds me of summer camp. Close contact with a limited number of people for a specific period of time can create meaningful communities for making and sharing work. And then you move on. It is bittersweet.
These timelines with certain obligations to fulfill by an end date can often encourage intense connection, growth, and understanding. I am finishing another season with another group of high school dancers on dance team (although being involved in competitive dance is still somewhat of a dream) and find myself reminiscing on all that happens in the three short months we spend together. The lessons are many. Let me share a few.
Pair high expectations with compassion.
My dancers know from the first week we are together that I expect them not only to be present but to bring their best selves with them during our time together.
I know what a challenge this is to them all.
This season I watched kids grapple with intense family issues, bodies rebelling, challenges at school, overwhelming work schedules, and the intensity of being a teenager. Our time with each other served as a community for them during these challenges, but it is also a gift to be reminded that we can be present to our current moment. We can’t solve all their problems within the time frame that we have but we can power through a practice to make our canon more precise and this feels good. We all deeply need moments that remind us how to feel good.
Allow your students to be leaders.
I think so many lessons from dance come from showing up and putting our best selves out there. This is how I desperately live my life and what I try to inspire in my students. This is perhaps why I connect so easily to kids like Laurana, my captain this year, who innately bring their best selves to class and practice.
My earnestness is not the way many people live their lives and this is a hard lesson for me to keep learning. There is beauty in letting life happen, however, I encourage these kids to claim something. I want them to rise to meet the challenge! Don’t be less than your best self! It sounds so cliche and yet it is impossibly important! The world needs your best self! I often see adults give up on these kids before having pushing them to the point of discomfort.
This year I have been amazed to see many of those kids I’ve fought that fight with be the leaders in this effort. They are the ones challenging each other to show up through the grit and grime of hard work. It is amazing to sit back and watch.
Winning comes in many forms.
A high point in our season this year came from our first competition, held in our hometown where my dancers acted as gracious hosts to people traveling from all over the state. The kids managed to place first with an unusual pom routine. Their explosive happiness was contagious. My team has always been a mix of well trained dancers paired with high school students completely new to dance because my desire to encourage participation and commitment far outweighs my need to be the best. Having kids win on spunk and joy was a thrill.
However, the team did not place throughout the rest of the season. The technical prowess of many of the other teams in Vermont rightfully earned them top rankings. My dancers managed not to take this to heart, setting personal and team goals for themselves for every competition while still reveling in the glory of others and the experience overall.
At States, the final competition of the season, a father of a dancer from a team that placed first in the hip hop category stopped me in the school hallway to tell me that he and his wife always loved watching my team because of the obvious love we all had for each other and for the form. In my moment of competitive disappointment, my whole being was lightened with the reminder that how we win is often up to us.
Practice matters. Performance matters.
I have always been a process artist. My heart is in class and rehearsal where I revel in repetition and exploration. Performance is so fleeting in dance and the bittersweet feeling that comes post-performance has always been hard for me to balance with yearning to live an experience again, to see it transform to something more.
My teaching and coaching has encouraged me to embrace performance more willingly as I see the impact an audience has on my growing students.
Dance in some ways weeds out those who quest merely for glory in the spotlight from those who are in it for the long haul due to grueling hours of exercise after exercise. But what if we viewed performance and the effort necessary to achieve greatness in a single moment as more expansive instead of limiting it to the elite?
My students regularly share their work in class or practice. These mini-performances are great motivators for kids who need that external push to find their best selves. I realize that many students do not share my internal motivation and respond better with most consistent feedback.
Let your work be a metaphor for life, but let dance be dance.
The lessons in dance are many and my season provided many opportunities to learn them again and again. But often there is nothing better than simply dancing. And my oh my, did we dance.