Movement classes attract non-dancers through inclusiveness and creativity
By Rita Felciano
I am bent over with my arms swishing from side to side along the floor; the next minute I am on my toes stretching my fingers as high as I can. All because Kara Davis encouraged a group of us to wipe the floor and clean the ceiling. It may not be the most graceful sight, but it feels good.
Davis, a dancer/choreographer and a visiting assistant professor at Mills College in Oakland, California, is teaching “Gaga-inspired improvisation” to a dozen participants, few of whom look like they have ever attended a ballet or ballroom class. Two of them are in wheelchairs. But all look focused and relaxed while pushing themselves to follow Davis’ gentle suggestions. Though there is little interaction among us, slowly a pleasing sense of communal awareness develops even as I become more conscious of the workings of my own body. I can feel the space between my fingers and even get an inkling of how my skin envelops all of me.
Organized by the Oakland-based, mixed-ability Axis Dance Company, this class for non-dancers is one among many that keep popping up in studios around the country. They enlarge traditional curriculum offerings and widen a studio’s customer base—similar, perhaps, to how tap and hip-hop did so in the past.
Part of this interest in dance as a pleasurable, non-technique–driven activity may be related to an increasingly sedentary society’s need to become more physically engaged. But not everyone is comfortable in a gym’s competitive atmosphere or jogging in the park. Dance tunes the body, but it also offers something else.
“Human beings,” longtime dance observer Michael Crabbe writes in an essay for ArtsAlive.ca, a performing arts educational website of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, “probably danced even before there was a word for it. Rhythmic bodily movement is instinctive. It connects people, even if unconsciously, to the rhythms of nature. Dance springs from a human desire for personal expression and social connection, and it feels good.”
At Axis, community classes have been part of the company’s mission since its early days in the late 1980s. Artistic director Judith Smith appreciates Gaga’s potential for her mixed-ability community classes. Still, she is considering asking creator Ohad Naharin, who developed Gaga for his Batsheva Dance Company, to create a version that has more inclusive language. “Some of the spatial suggestions,” Smith says, “don’t make a lot of sense for a person in a wheelchair.”
Gaga, taught by licensed practitioners, is but one of the movement practices offered in studios around the country. What these classes seem to have in common is the emphasis on individuality, encouraging participants to become aware of and embrace the totality of who they are, in a noncompetitive and judgment-free way.
In San Francisco, James Graham teaches a weekly Gaga/people class—a modified version of Gaga/dancers, the practice Naharin developed for professionals—in rented space at San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. (See “Thinking Out Loud: Discovering Gaga,” March/April 2015, and “Through the Lens of Gaga,” November 2012.) We are guided through the hour by images and suggestions offered in Graham’s gentle voice and through his body. We try to figure out the distinctions between quaking and quivering. On two occasions we explode into fiercely churning energy. It feels like a tornado passing through the room.
Graham says Gaga enriches him as a dancer and choreographer but also as a teacher. The practice gives him extraordinary freedom. “I may start a class quietly on the floor or with walking briskly,” he says; it depends on what he sees in his drop-in students at the moment. “Sometimes I wake up not feeling that I want to teach that day,” he says. “But then I realize it’s up to me to shape the class so that it works for me as well as the students.”
Maybe the oldest anybody-can-dance class in the country is the Group Motion Friday Night Workshop, which company founders Manfred Fischbeck and Brigitta Herrmann (former Berliners associated with Mary Wigman’s studio) have offered in Philadelphia since 1972. According to Fischbeck, some of the participants have been coming to the class for 30 years—to relax at the end of the week, he says, but also to experience a sense of community in what Herrmann calls an “oasis,” a place where people can let go of the stresses in their everyday lives.
Although the two-hour class is based on improvisation, it’s highly structured, starting with an on-the-floor guided meditation. Then stretches and a gradual movement into space begin to engage the body creatively. Shaping the class is a series of game structures: mirroring, dialoguing, shadowing, partnering. The couple take turns guiding the dancers with verbal suggestions and live music: Fischbeck on keyboards and Herrmann on percussion and through vocalizations. “It’s how I can tune into the students’ breath,” Herrmann says.
The Friday workshops have helped support Group Motion financially and by creating audiences for its own creative work. “They understand what we are doing [onstage],” Fischbeck says. Twice a year, Herrmann works with a group of professional and non-professional dancers in the Group Motion Community Performance Project. Together they create a piece on a chosen theme—water, the secret lives of plants, the body’s memory—which they perform for family and friends, followed by a potluck supper.
In San Francisco, Joe Goode’s 75-minute meditative Movement for Humans classes have also become oases for ordinary people with less-than-ideal bodies. “I want them to treat their bodies gently and carefully, and accept imperfections,” Goode says. His classes start on the floor with participants trying to release their backs and open their hips. Slowly and easily they progress into space, feeling that the “energy of the space supports them,” Goode says. Partnering may involve something as tender and simple as helping somebody make an elbow feel like it’s floating.
Goode’s motivations in offering Movement for Humans classes were practical as well as personal. Leasing space for his Joe Goode Performance Group from the nonprofit Project Artaud came with a commitment to giving access to the community at large as well as to other professional performers. But Goode also needed a fresh practice for himself. “As my body ages and changes,” he explains, “I needed some new techniques. I need to take a slower approach to softening my joints. So this is something I am also doing as a personal favor to myself.”
Goode’s approach is a favor to Joanne Tilleman too. “It fills me with enough joy for the week,” she says. A former modern dancer now in her 50s, she is grateful to have found a class that embraces the no-longer-so-young body. “It’s grounded, and I love the way [Goode] guides us in a very structured way. He allows us to be messy and non-critical. He even has liberated my voice by making us sing to ourselves.”
Across town at San Francisco Academy of Ballet, D’Arcy Drollinger offers “classes for everybody.” After moving here from New York he could not find a program that integrated the many types of dance he loved. “So I started my own,” he says. “My first class had six [people], all of them my friends.”
On one Sunday morning, 42 people cram into the Academy’s largest studio, with a few curious ballet dancers looking in. The students are rotund or slender, have gray hair or shaved heads, and wear shorts, tights, Spandex, or gym pants. In the back is a man in black net stockings and a fuchsia-colored wig. One of the regulars, Drollinger points out, is in her 60s. Everyone looks happy to be here.
Drollinger calls his program SexiTude™, which he defines as a “body-positive, age-positive, sex-positive dance experience.” There is nothing overtly sexual about the combinations he puts together from jazz, hip-hop, modern, bumps and grinds, and what he calls “video dancing,” but he does want people to be “sexy” in a playfully personal manner. “I am not too serious about it,” he says. “I just think it’s fun.”
In Takoma Park, Maryland, every Saturday from September to May, a group of professional dancers, neophytes, and the merely curious gather for 75 minutes to take part in Takoma Park Moves, Dance Exchange’s community program. It’s open to anyone who cares to walk in.
For some studios, such open classes are a new experience; for Dance Exchange, they are part of its identity. Founded in 1976, Dance Exchange has always taken a broad perspective on dance and the creative process. Over the years, the company has evolved a “toolbox”—a set of principles and instructions for art making—which also inform these weekly gatherings.
The classes, says Matthew Cumbie, resident artist/education coordinator, start in a circle. “People introduce themselves and maybe talk about what’s going on in their lives.” Warm-ups transition into movement through space and partnering. Improvisations build into a communal dance.
“Some come week after week,” Cumbie says. “There are usually 10 to 20 people.” Many are alone; others bring friends or family members. One of the regulars is Bikem Ozturk, who used to dance in her native Turkey but drifted away from it until she found Dance Exchange. In the Saturday class, she says, “every person brings their own background, body, desires, and dreams and we make dances out of them. It’s very beautiful.”
Sometimes Ozturk brings her 10-year old son, Atesh Can, who loves to dance with his mom but who also feels free. He says, “I make my own choices.”
Rita Felciano was the dance critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian for 25 years. She is a contributing editor to Dance Magazine, and the Bay Area correspondent for Dance View Magazine.