When I was young, I created dances constantly. At around eight years old, I of course had no dancers, but I did have my little sister, who was my principal dancer, whether or not she wanted to be. By the time I was thirteen, my pieces had progressed, or so at least I thought, ranging from hip-hop to jazz, incorporating lots of leaps and pivot turns. When I was young, I never gave a second thought to whether my pieces were any good. I just knew that they felt good to dance, no matter the stage or the audience. I also could have cared less that my bathing suit costumes were a little uncomfortable and rode up our butts. As the choreographer, looks were more important than comfort, and with my limited resources, bathing suits were the perfect solution. And, in my mind, they looked somewhat like leotards, so I did not think anyone would know the difference.
I was a constant performer, looking for any audience, even though my family became the frequent ticket buyers to these local events. My grandparents cooed over my sister and I, while my parents applauded graciously every time we came out on the stage that was our living room, our grandparent’s dining room and our front lawn. Each stage was different, yet each performance was the same, as by the end, I was ecstatic, smiling from head to toe and ready to move on to my next masterpiece. When I was young, I felt no inhibitions in terms of the creative process. I just created, freely, openly and often. When does this feeling of carefree creativity stop and stifled self-doubt begin? And, how can we, as educators, mentors and parents empower our children with the tools to be creative, every day, for life?
This is a question to which I do not have a direct and clear answer. I do know though that the arts are a pathway leading to creativity. Creative problem solving, critical thinking and decision-making are all skills needed in art class more than any other type of class as students are constantly facing choices and decisions that must be made in order for them to move forward with their art making. For example, in creative dance, when students are in teams designing pathways to get from one side of the room to the other, they must actively problem solve and then dance this solution in front of others. And, as there are no right or wrong answers to this activity, students are allowed to try new things and discover new skills in themselves that no other forty-five minute class, confined to textbooks and state testing, can ever provide for them.
Recently, I finished a residency in which I worked with 1st-6th graders at a school in Daly City, California. This school did not offer any daytime art classes. When I heard this news, I was shocked. “None?” I asked. “None,” confirmed the after-school Program Director. With so many students at all different levels and ages, I knew that traditional studio dance class was not going to work. So, I called my former colleague, Paula Perlman, an amazingly gifted creative dance teacher, and she made some recommendations, including the purchase of Patricia Reedy’s book, Body, Mind & Spirit IN ACTION. This book has become my creative dance bible, filled with age appropriate activities, games and advice on teaching and standards integration. As the founder of Luna Dance Institute in Oakland, CA, Patricia’s philosophy and pedagogy in working in this field are ground breaking, and truly do work.
For the next 10 weeks, I delved into this book and tried everything, from partner work with swimming noodles to the creation of different shape lands with cones. Through this work, I learned a great deal about myself, my role as a creative dance teacher and about children. When I met my students, many of them had preconceived ideas about dance, what it was and who could participate in this art form. I even had students tell me that they didn’t like to dance, which of course was very disheartening. However, by the end of my two 5-week residencies, I had a classroom full of 4th grade boys moving, creating and smiling from limb to limb. I had groups of adolescents creating group dances, not wanting to leave a two-hour class before a three-day weekend! Creative dance had inspired these students to move in ways that they were never before able to as this form of dance class gave them the freedom, the structure and the support to do so. I was amazed, awe-struck and ecstatic.
As the new school year has begun, I begin a new residency, with new tools, ideas and inspiration from a summer of dancing and creating. And, I always ask, “How can I pass on my love for this art form to students, of all different backgrounds, levels and ages, so that they too can experience the joy I feel in my body every day?” That is the challenge, but that is also the excitement for me as an artist-in-residence. I enjoy the fact that there are no simple answers or formula for the work I do in the schools. I enjoy acting as a coach for students to find movement and patterns that enable them to create dances out of simple, every day movement. In today’s school systems that are so overwhelmed with mandates, testing and an emphasis on rote memorization, creative dance allows our future generations to think and solve problems creatively. This process is how students learn to think and is inherently present with every art form.
As I look back on my childhood, in which I spent so many hours daydreaming and making dances, I can thank my parents for allowing me the freedom to create freely, to play with movement and to simply have fun. As adults, many of us have become inhibited, by cultural norms or a bad experience moving in front of others, and tend to pass on these hesitations to our students. Many of us have forgotten how to have fun. We must remember though that children have a natural tendency to create freely when in a supportive situation, and this skill, just like addition and subtraction, has lifelong benefits.
Thus, as I enter a new school year, I think of the child in me, who no longer performs in a bathing suit, but still experiences that same joy when creating. Dance has made me a better thinker and problem solver, the exact same skills our nation is supposedly trying to teach our students in the classroom, but is miserably failing to do well. Just like my bathing suit costumes from my first explorations as a choreographer, the creative process is oftentimes frustrating and irritating, as it has no right and wrong answers. But, once one experiences it, and all it has to offer, one will gladly endure some discomfort for the gifts of the creative process. After all, life would not be exciting without some surprises. So, put on your bathing suit and see where it takes you! You never know, you may soon be creating dances in your living room.