November 2013 | Classroom Connection

Connect to the Past, Prepare for the Future

In my classes these days, the first time I mention a name like Bob Fosse or Agnes de Mille to a young teenager, I am met with a blank stare. And hardly anyone knows the music or can tell me the storyline of more than one or two major ballets.

I remember watching musicals in English and drama class when I was in high school in the late ’80s and early ’90s, everything from The King and I to A Chorus Line. As a young dancer, I studied with many master teachers in New York City and later danced in several small companies; consequently, I was exposed to many types of dance.

Today’s kids are missing out. Many students don’t have the opportunity to see, for example, the work of Alvin Ailey. They may never understand the magic of a professional full-length ballet and how it relates to what they are learning. Today’s students, it seems, want to take ballet, tap, and jazz classes, go to a few competitions, and call it a day. They may never make that “connection” to important artists in the field, both past and present, who once were kids who took dance classes.

One of the best ways to make dance students feel connected, to their fellow students and the dance community, is to introduce them to the works of master choreographers. For instance, after master tapper Harold Cromer passed away, our advanced tap dancers spent several weeks learning part of his piece Opus One. Many videos of it are available online. It was a great lesson for the students, many of whom became intrigued with Cromer’s work.

I introduced my dancers to the work of Agnes de Mille by teaching them some of the choreography from Oklahoma! which they performed to “Many a New Day.” We also re-created the tap dance performed by Gene Kelly and Van Johnson to “I’ll Go Home With Bonnie Jean” in the movie version of Brigadoon.

I have taught what is commonly considered the “original” choreography of the Esmeralda variation from La Esmeralda to my advanced ballet students as a center floor combination. Variation videos can be purchased for teaching purposes, and choreography is readily available on the internet in the form of rehearsals and performances.

When I taught a modified version of Alvin Ailey’s “Rocka my Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” to my modern class, this learning process did amazing things for my students’ self-esteem. They watched the dance online, spent a portion of each class for three months working on it, and performed it as a tribute to Ailey. They felt so accomplished—and part of something bigger than the studio.

It’s true that nuances of these dances can be lost when we learn them through this process. But what students gain is an important and lasting connection to choreographers who shaped our current dance culture. It’s important for them to learn as much about dance history as about their own creative process. Not only do my students know who Ailey is, but they have become intimately familiar with one of his masterpieces in a way that’s possible only by learning it.

Teachers ask, “What do you expect your students to gain from this process?” I hope they develop a deep-rooted love for dance and are inspired to learn more about it in all its forms, begin to appreciate choreographic styles besides those of their teachers, and become well-rounded dancers who can pick up choreography quickly.

Also, learning master choreography helps students understand the need for rigorous technical training. And by gaining an understanding of classic techniques, as well as a mastery of current ones, they will be better prepared to succeed in the “working world” of dance.

I hope my students, after being exposed to one or two classic pieces, will become a little dance obsessed. There is a beautiful body of work out there and it would be a shame if it were forgotten. Teaching students works that are simple to learn yet deeply important can forge an unbreakable connection to dance.

—Michelle Knell