This year I had the opportunity to work with my 6th grade dance club to create a piece for the Avenues spring dance concert. We decided to use the Maya Angelou’s poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me at All” as a jumping-off point. I chose the poem because it seemed like a perfect reflection of what 6th graders go through at this time in their development, as they morph into young adults dealing with both old and new fears. We first read the poem and thought about all the different fears in the poem. Things like shadows in the night to bullies in school came up. I broke the poem up into parts and assigned each part to pairs of dancers. Their job was to come up with two to three action words and a character or a fear that they could express through the movement. As a dance teacher, I like using improvisation when teaching students how to choreograph, using no music at all until the dance becomes more developed. I do this so the dancer’s movement ideas can be more flexible without the manipulation of the music. In addition to the poem, we also used dance sentences to develop the choreography. For example: run, freeze, explode. These three words could be used to start a dance through improvisation in which the dancers try these actions in different ways: fast/slow, sharp/smooth, high/middle/low levels, together/apart and so forth.
As the dancers refined their improvisations, the phrases they worked on began to take shape and eventually they set the choreography. The dancers all came up with really thoughtful dance phrases that we used to mix into the whole dance. We used some repeating movement to create a motif that was used throughout the piece. I helped the dancers develop a structure (when and how the dancers would enter and exit) as well as a story line involving one the dancers as the central hero. As a group they decided on a piece of music that worked well, and then I edited an audio recording of Maya Angelou reciting her poem and mixed it into the music.
The dancers used the idea of becoming different characters in each part of the dance. Using undulating movements they became “Dragons breathing flame,” prowling down low and rolling on the floor they morphed into “Panthers in the dark” and fluffing their hair and doing silly fancy skipping they turned into “kissy little girls with their hair in curls.” In the end the characters conquered their fears and the fears faded away into their dreams. The scared children realized they could leave some childish things behind. The hero dancer does just this at the very end of the dance when, after all the dancers surround her in a circle covering her from view, they suddenly one by one leave the stage and the hero is left alone on stage clutching the blanket she had been using the whole dance to symbolize her fear. She realizes she no longer needs it (like the feather in Dumbo!) and she can let it go. She looks at it, considers what she should do, then drops it dramatically on the floor and confidently walks away. Blackout. End of dance.
I notice when I start to teach students this technique of dance-making they are always a bit reticent at first and need time to trust that the process works. We live in a society where everyone expects fast results, but art cannot be rushed—in fact the opposite is true. Choreography is about process and working the movement and ideas like a sculptor molds clay. It is developed over time, and making lucky mistakes is something that can make an idea into a great idea. It takes more than just trust in the teacher—the students needed to trust themselves to be choreographers.
I saw the students really start to trust that the ideas were already there inside them, and they just needed to find a way to turn them into meaningful movement. My main goal in teaching dance is to create meaning makers. Teaching dance is at the core about giving students a tool to give meaning to their own lives, the experiences of those around them and to the world beyond. Dance is an art form in the purest sense, in that it takes no more than a body, imagination and passion to express the most fundamental emotions and concepts. These students successfully tapped into their deepest selves and became true meaning-makers through the art of dance.