Two for One
By Jill Randall
Heading into my 19th year of teaching, I have held many titles over the years—dance instructor, movement teacher, dance specialist, and guest artist. But when I started being called a “teaching artist” about 12 years ago, the components of my life came together. “Teaching artist” is the title that best describes me.
I love this phrase. I am these two words—teacher and artist. I love that the words are now paired. I love the equal weight for each word: Teaching. Artist.
Like many dancers around the United States, I’ve had a career that has encompassed numerous activities. This has been due to necessity but also to my passion and interests. The many hats I wear at any given time include teacher, performer, student, choreographer, mentor, arts administrator, and writer. My life is a web of interconnected activities and people.
I launched into a full-time teaching schedule immediately after college, young and ambitious at age 21. I believed in the power of dance; I wanted to be a part of community-based dance education and all of the ways that dance could be part of young people’s lives (studios, community centers, and public schools). Throughout these years, I have equally maintained my identity as an artist, performing several times a year.
I thrive on weeks when my schedule includes teaching, rehearsing, taking class, and performing. I easily and fluidly transition from performer to teacher. So many of the skills I employ as an artist come into play in my role as educator—curiosity, flexibility, creativity, collaboration, and feedback. I use my skills as an artist every day, whether in a rehearsal or while teaching teenagers.
Titles hold a lot of power and weight in the dance world. For many years, there was a strong divide in the dance community—you were an artist or you were an educator. We kept these titles separate. But the term “teaching artist” keeps both ideas at the forefront, both ideas in the conversation. The more we use this term, the more we are invited to discuss and consider what it means.
When I am in the studio with students, I am absolutely an artist. I use my artistic eye to develop dances, offer corrections, and, when we have open classes and performances, facilitate conversations. I constantly use my creativity to generate new movement and ideas for warm-ups, combinations, improvisational activities, and group projects. The concepts I explore in my rehearsals always inform my teaching work as well; they are on my mind and percolating in my body.
My teaching challenges me to put ideas into action. Teaching can sometimes be the ultimate test for artists in terms of clarity—what do you care about, what is your aesthetic, and what is your passion? How do you clearly and effectively convey this to your students?
Isolation and insularity can easily happen in dance; sometimes the scale gets tipped too far in one direction. You might be teaching so much that you have no time to make your own work or enjoy classes for yourself. Or you might be rehearsing so much that you lack a connection with the community. Choosing to be a teaching artist keeps connections strong that will directly affect your work on all levels, from developing your curriculum to building audiences for your next performance—a two-way street.
Teacher and artist—two inseparable identities, one rich experience.
Jill Randall, former program director for Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California, teaches at The Hamlin School in San Francisco. She directs the blog Life as a Modern Dancer.