michael j. morris

thinking about training dancing


I’ve recently made some time to get back into a studio and dance. I am choreographing a new dance with four dancers—Phil Brown Dupont, Justin Fitch, Eve Hermann, and Sharon Udo. I am also returning to dance training: when I first came to grad school, I taught yoga, ballet, and modern dance. However, while I continue to teach a weekly yoga class, it has been several years since I have taught ballet or modern/contemporary dance; in 2013, I had the opportunity to teach Butoh as a visiting artist at Virginia Commonwealth University, but even that feels like ages ago. Since then, my teaching has primarily been in the areas of writing about dance and dance history. This year, I was awarded a Presidential Fellowship, which has given me a leave from teaching in the university in order to focus more on my research. Alongside my scholarly research and finishing my dissertation, I have prioritized returning to the studio, reinvesting in choreography—which has and always will be my first love—and re-discovering what it means for me to teach technique.

Before getting into the studio, I wrote a bit about what I considered to be my priorities for teaching technique:

-Training bodies: I am very interested in the ways that a technique class can be distinct from a repertory experience. I am interested in how a technique class is primarily invested in developing and expanding the capacities of a dancer’s body—hopefully in ways that are translatable across different dances and contexts—rather than providing more repertory for the dancer to have danced. These two functions overlap of course: learning a dance often requires developing new skills, and there is always so kind of choreography to any exercise. However, I am interested in how developing/cultivating particular capacities of bodies can be prioritized rather than technique class functioning as a space for proliferating my own choreography.

-Sustained movement dynamics: my investment in sustainment is multi-layered. First, in a global sense, the 21st century—in both daily life and on the concert dance stage—increasingly demands acceleration and rapidity as the pace of attention, thinking, moving, and responding. I am interested in my technique class challenging the totality of this norm towards speed, cultivating corporeal potentialities that might otherwise remain underdeveloped. I am interested in how deceleration and sustainment require modes of durable engagement that are both physical and mental. Second, coming from my experiences training in Butoh, I believe that sustainment provides opportunities for expansive awareness and care—of the body as a whole, all of its parts, and each moment—that can be neglected at a more rapid pace of moving and living. In this sense, I believe there is an ethics to practicing moving slowly: what else might we notice? For what else might we become responsible? How might an increased capacity for sustainment translate into greater sustainability for bodies and dancers, and how might that sense of kinesthetic sustainability become a resource towards what is and is not sustainable in our world today? Further, drawing from my research on ecological relations with the nonhuman and the inhuman forces and factors that move in and through human bodies, how might slowness and sustainment provide opportunities for accessing some degree of sensitivity to “deep time,” the duration of the world that exceeds human life before our advent and after our inevitable departure? While my technique class moves across multiple movement dynamics, it is with an emphasis on developing a capacity for sustainment, and the ability to find and return to this state in the midst of other dynamic intensities.

-Coordination: whether movement in sustained or quick frequencies, I prioritize coordination—of movement with the breath, of one part of the body with another, and of multiple bodies within an ensemble. Coordination is ultimately a practice balancing multiple concerns, taking responsibility for multiple parts within a larger aggregate or milieu. I consider this skill to be necessary for precise dancing and applicable to how we might approach the world beyond the dance studio.

-Balance: I define balance as the ability to respond effectively to/within a multiplicity of changing dynamic forces. Practically, we refine balance by practicing precarity—dancing and moving through physical configurations in which stability is more challenging.
While prioritizing balance and the responsivity it requires, I also recognize that there is immense potential in being off-balance, in being disoriented. Disorientation and imbalance are generative experiences; they require invention and perhaps reinvention. There is also something potentially queer about imbalance and disorientation. To the degree that orientation can be shaped by normative forces that make it easier to be oriented in specific ways, and to the degree that being balanced might result from a world that conditions particular responses to the range of force in which we live, to be disoriented or imbalanced perhaps requires us to develop abilities to respond that the dominant norms of our world have not taught/trained us.

-Horizontality: I am invested in training bodies to increase their movement potential off of the vertical axis. Verticality is not only the dominant orientation of our bodies to the world in our daily lives: as such, it is implicated in any number of other norms that traverse our bodies while they occupy that dimension of space. Verticality also has a strong legacy within the history of Western concert dance, as well as my own training in ballet and modern dance. By emphasizing floorwork in and out of the horizontal plane, we increase the capacity of our bodies to occupy less familiar circumstances, ask parts of our bodies to take on supportive/weight-bearing roles that they may not in daily life—reterritorializing our bodies and their parts to take on new potential functions and meanings—and develop the strength and flexibility necessary to support those horizontal functions. In a developmental movement perspective, horizontality might be seen as a space of potential, the space we occupy before our bodies learned to move and function as they do. By working in that space, it is possible that we access the generative potential for how else our bodies might become.

-Modes of consciousness: Moving in any particular style or dynamic range directly affects how we perceive and how we respond to perceptions. Moving and perceiving are intimately tied to the nervous system, the overall state of the body, and thus to modes of consciousness. In turn, I believe that inasmuch as moving constitutes modes of consciousness, such modes also condition how we move and how we are prepared to move. Sustainment, coordination, balance, imbalance, horizontality, and so on, all generate specific ways of experiencing the body, time, and space, and the terrain of those shifting experiences create various modes of performance.

Alongside these training priorities, I have also developed precise language around my teaching philosophies and pedagogy. As they relate to teaching technique, this includes:

“At the core of my pedagogical approach is the fervent belief that to live in this world is to live fully entangled with others who are invariably different from ourselves, and that to live well in this world of difference requires that we strive to see our world from the perspective of such differences. Sharing this world—and it must indeed be shared—requires striving to see from innumerable points of view, and from such views, working together to create a world that is more livable for more forms of life. I believe that in the university—through our research, in our classrooms, within our distinct disciplines, and between and beyond our disciplinary boundaries—we have the responsibility to inspire and guide our students towards such ethical engagements with a world that emerges from our differences. In whatever courses I teach, I emphasize the importance of engaging and examining perspectives other than our own through the study of critical theories and artistic productions in various media, and through privileging discussion as a practice of listening, distributing authority, and co-creating knowledge. My hope, to quote Judith Butler, is that through these processes of engaging with others we might all ‘become dislocated from our own cultural and historical perspectives only to return to them enriched by an understanding of other lives.’[1] Through such departures and returns, we make the familiar strange, practice seeing from other points of view from which we might recognize even ourselves as more and other than that for which we could previously account. In doing so, we expand the possibilities for who and how we might become, for how we can understand or imagine this world we share, and thus for how we might take action in order to care for our world and the multitude of others with whom we share it.

My experiences teaching physical practice courses—such as yoga, modern dance, ballet, and Butoh—have given me opportunities to develop strategies for facilitating encounters with difference as central to learning. First, in whatever technique I am teaching, I emphasize that each and every body is unique. We all come to study these techniques with different strengths and weaknesses, different backgrounds in training and injury, different proportions, shapes, and sizes. In my teaching, I honor these fundamental differences, emphasizing the kinesthetic and aesthetic principles of each technique and helping students discover how such principles work for their individual bodies rather than imposing singular ideals to which all students must conform.

At another scale, when teaching studio courses, I am introducing students to physical practices that originated in other parts of the world, other historical periods, other ways of thinking, and other systems of value. These techniques have disseminated from body to body—teacher to student, teacher to student—up until the present when students are learning these practices from me. Through these genealogies, these techniques have accumulated rich and complicated histories of aesthetic tendencies, social and cultural conventions, political circumstances, and personal kinesthetic knowledge. In learning any of these techniques, students are encountering this collective of others with whom these practices originated and through which they have been developed, preserved, and passed along. Importantly, this learning takes place in and through their own bodies, which is one of the profound opportunities that studying dance provides: students engage with a collective history of other times, places, and bodies in their own bodies, coming to know this world of others in themselves, and in turn coming to know and develop themselves—their own bodies—through this world of others.

It is not only the origins and histories of these techniques through which difference becomes appreciable: as these techniques become familiar to students, they begin to experience themselves as unfamiliar. Literally, physically, at the levels of muscle development, flexibility, coordination, and cognition, students actualize their own potential, embodying different versions of themselves. As they grow in their abilities, I encourage them to recognize that there is never only one body or self that they always are or will be. I often say in my yoga classes: we are all always already so much more than that for which we can consciously account. Rather than a fixed, static perspective of oneself—or, in turn, of others—these practices offer physical experiences of the mutability and conditionality of who we are. Students can come to appreciate that difference is not only an experience of others but also an experience of who we once were, who we are now, and who we might become. I believe that as students learn to embrace and cultivate such differences within themselves through these physical practices, they are learning to value and appreciate the diversity of others as well and to affirm and contribute to practices in which difference might flourish.”

[1] McGill University, “Judith Butler, DLitt – McGill 2013 Honorary Doctorate Address,” May 31, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFlGS56iOAg.

These were my thoughts going into the studio. Alongside these priorities, other foci have emerged from my work developing phrases. These thoughts/realizations are less verbally articulate, more kinesthetic, but worth attempting to include here:

-Bartenieff Fundamentals and the techniques of José Limón and Doris Humphrey are deeply embedded in my body, and these seem to be the primary methodologies available to me for investigating/pursuing coordination, balance, off-balance, and moving between vertical and horizontal.

-While I never choreograph dances to music/counts anymore, there is something deeply gratifying about figuring out how specific movements translate across different meters and rhythms. Timing, or at least various physical approaches to time, seems to be important to me.

-I have a strong instinct towards simplicity and repetition, as opposed to complex phrases that go on endlessly. This is both an aesthetic value—indicative of my strong inclination towards minimalism—but also a tendency towards an efficient pedagogy: I am interested in carefully training bodies/muscles/thinking to be able to execute particular movements and particular kinds of movement that are then translatable across different choreographies. I do not want technique class to be a repertory experience. [I am indebted to Susan Hadley for this realization.]

-The spine seems to be central to all the movement I create.

-I seem to be extremely interested in the relationship between stability and mobility, specifically: what are the fixed points or parts around which movement orbits? What must remain still or held or placed in order to enable the movement of other parts of the body? How might shifting what parts are fixed and what parts are mobile not only cultivate a greater awareness of the body but also a flexibility/fluidity in how the body’s mutability/conditionality might be perceived?

-The ways in which the limbs move between “parallel” and “rotation” fascinates me. As much as I want to train dancers to have access to mobility and stability in both, I am most interested in how bodies move between these degrees of rotation, and developing control/sensitivity within those transitions.

-As I move around in the studio and imagine teaching this material to a group of students, I am reminded that we are always teaching and learning more than just course/class content. In any class, we are also teaching/training power dynamics, social relations, ideologies about bodies and how we think and talk about them, attentiveness to difference, and so on. Here is where critical pedagogy—from the perspective of bell hooks—always shapes how I am considering what I am teaching. Inasmuch as the body organizes one’s experience of the world, training how we organize the body has the potential to re-invent possibilities for experiencing the world. And inasmuch as teaching and learning are social experiences, as in the dance studio, whatever else we are training, we are always teaching ways of approaching others, modeling modes of sociality in how we teach.

These are still mostly starting points. I’ve developed a full class of phrase work that trains these various priorities (I think), but I will be continuing to investigate both the material I’ve developed and what other ways of moving can accomplish my pedagogical interests.