No Shoes, No Problem
May 15, 2009

“What is modern dance and why am I required to take it?” Every semester I get at least one phone call from a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, asking this question. After rambling for a few minutes about bare feet, live percussion and rolling on the floor, it strikes me how important it is to be able to tell students what we are doing and why we are doing it. Modern technique courses figure prominently in university dance departments—even in some that are ballet-based. Still, students, who often enter college knowing little about the form, are skeptical. There are ways to encourage “bunheads” (and other reticent dancers) to become believers, however. Four educators share what works for them.

In the beginning
Before their bare feet ever touch the floor, it’s good to let new students know that ballet and modern share a similar goal. Susan Douglas Roberts, associate professor of modern dance at Texas Christian University, believes that helping students recognize that modern, like ballet, is a concert dance form, allows classically trained dancers to recognize its value. She states this up front in her syllabus because, “it’s a way in.”

But, though the genres share similarities, Toby Hankin, director of dance at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says it’s also important to remember what a huge leap dancers take when they begin a new form. “Put yourself in their place,” she says. “Remember how it feels to be a beginner, so you can approach students with empathy and respect.”

Keep on truckin’
Giving students the sense that they are, in fact, dancing can be crucial to getting them on board. Since modern dance often prizes movement flow over exact positions, David Capps, associate professor of dance at Hunter College in New York City, gives new students fast and fluid combinations to encourage them to step beyond the shape-oriented movement they’re used to. “I do things that are so unshaped that they have to follow the action contour and can’t get distracted by the position,” he says.

Roberts agrees. “I dive in,” she says. “Dancers understand dance through their bodies—even if the vocabulary is a bit different.”

Seeing is believing
Requiring students to see live performances helps them understand what they’re working toward and how modern technique factors into their performance goals. (If live performances are limited, videos can fill the gap.)

“That’s almost the most important thing,” Capps says of exposing students to live performance, “because you can pontificate in class, but until the students see the final product, they don’t really have any idea what you’re talking about.”

At TCU, Roma Flowers, who teaches dance lighting design and production, expands students’ knowledge by playing video clips of various companies in the background, while her students are working on assignments.

“There are many ways of planting seeds,” Roberts says of this strategic device to introduce first-year students to choreographic variety. TCU also requires all freshmen dance majors to take the “Topics in Dance” course, which offers students additional access to the breadth of artists in the field.
Guest artists also enhance students’ understanding. When TCU brought Susan Jaffe in to set a piece, Roberts received a flurry of e-mails from students about Jaffe’s mention of “dancing from your bones.” We all thought of you, the students told Roberts. “It was great, because here is a world-class ballerina talking to them about dancing from their bones, and they turn around and make a connection with their modern dance class and suddenly a bridge is built,” Roberts says. DT

Cari Cunningham is assistant professor of dance at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she is designing a major in dance. She is also founder and artistic director of belle- contemporary dance co.

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