Note: this posts contradicts itself quite a bit.
That’s because this is just a series of thoughts. I should learn to edit posts, eh?
Here are three things that’ve been rolling about in my head this week.
1. A friend told me a story about Skye Humphries. Someone in a class at Herrang asked him how he got so good at solo dance. And he said “I practice every day.”
2. I read this npr story Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning.
3. There’s quite a bit of criticism of Ken Burns’ Jazz series’ presentation of jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as isolated, musical genius rather than as parts of living, working communities of creative development.
All of these things tie into my current obsession: teaching through practice and experimentation, rather than teaching through drilling with the aim of perfect reproduction. And more implicitly, my (eternal) obsession with the fact that tying ourselves to conventional, hierarchical, institutional pedagogic practice is less useful than encouraging more fluid, mutable cultures and communities of cultural and creative practice. Basically, I think that better dancing comes from better ways of thinking about teaching and learning dance.
I’ve noticed that gifted dancers – the ones who get it first time, and really quickly – tend to struggle with teaching. They find it difficult to conceptualise, let alone articulate, what they do when they move their body. They just find learning new dance steps so easy they aren’t aware of the composite elements of the step as a whole. This is related in a way to students over-achieving academically. They’re so used to getting things right, they don’t really know how to deal with getting things wrong. And they’re so used to just doing things properly the first time, they don’t know how to learn.
The most successful artists are more often those who have to work hard on their art – their craft – to learn, and who are more willing to spend time learning and experimenting and challenging their own ideas. Skye certainly has ‘natural talent’ but he ‘got that good’ by working really hard, every day. Louis Armstrong was a musical genius, but he was part of a living, breathing community of musicians and dancers and club owners and talent managers and bands. If his wife Lil Armstrong hadn’t pushed him to leave King Oliver’s band, if hadn’t left his safe, familiar community, he’d probably never have pushed himself to those heights of achievement. And as Lipsitz points out (and I discuss in Lists and Canons in Jazz) and the trouble with linear jazz narratives + more), what about those musicians who didn’t go on to be mega famous? What about the ones who stayed in their home towns, as part of a creative community? Aren’t they still important to the history of jazz?
I think, more and more, that teaching through experimentation, where the goal is to really figure out the limits of your own body, rather than to just recreate an step without self-reflexivity makes for better learning and teaching. Teachers who’re working with students who’re learning through experimentation learn how to manage a class full of people who aren’t just getting it ‘right’. They learn to be patient with students who struggle, and reassess the goals of the class. ‘Getting through material’, or ticking boxes, isn’t as important as spending time with a concept or movement and figuring out how it works from every angle. And you can’t really quantify this sort of learning. If the goal of a dance class is creative inspiration and creative play – making shit up – then being prepared to take risks is important for teachers and students.
For me, being a teacher and a student at the same time is really important. I have to regard my own teaching a work in progress. We don’t expect our students to ‘get it perfectly right’ in one class, so we don’t expect our own teaching to be ‘perfectly right’ in one class either. We rethink our goals, and aim for continuous-learning as teachers/students ourselves. And we aim for continuous-learning for our students as well.
I am extra sure that it’s absolutely essential to consider our dancing/teaching/work/learning as a never-ending process. We must assume that we are never going to be at the point of perfect recreation. We are always going to be learning and relearning. And self-reflexive learning (ie being aware of what we do and think) is central to this. Mindfulness again, I know. But I don’t mean self-reflexivity as a process of self-assessment and self-criticism. I mean self-reflexivity as a process of mindfulness and self-awareness. What am I doing at this moment, now? Sure, it mightn’t have been what I wanted, but that’s ok. It is one step in an ongoing process.
It’s a little bit like DJing. I can stop playing swing music from the swing era when we’ve danced to every song. I can stop learning when I’ve danced every step.
To sum up, then I think it’s important that we think of classes – the struggle – as more important than the performance – the product. Or, rather, the learning process is more important than an accumulated set of skills or achievements.
Lipsitz, George. “Songs of the Unsung: The Darby Hicks History of Jazz,” Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004: 9-26.