Each year on October 5th, we celebrate World Teacher’s Day. Launched by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1994, WTD “has become the occasion to mark progress and reflect on ways to counter the remaining challenges for the promotion of the teaching profession”. This year, World Teacher’s Day will celebrate teachers of 2020 with the theme “Teachers: Leading in crisis, reimagining the future” (read the full concept note here). For dance teachers specifically, as creatives and cultural ambassadors, the art of reimagining is an everyday practice, but this year has presented particular challenges for a form designed to be taught through live social exchange. Dance teachers across the world have had to take a hard look at the ways we teach and the ways we learn, both through the technologies that allow healthy distancing as well as through the content we deliver, as we engage with the largest call for racial justice since the 1960’s.
“leading in crisis” has forced us not only to engage new formats, platforms, and technologies, but to question the bedrock of our values and the purpose of our calling.
Being an educator myself, as well as an artistic contributor to dance and theater, I feel deeply connected to this celebration. It makes me reflect on my own teachers - the many men and women who modeled what it means to be a good dance educator and bestowed upon me the honor of carrying on their lineage through my own teaching. Particularly, I want to recognize Loretta Livingston. Loretta taught my very first dance class in college and continued to groom me into the artist and educator I am today. Through her mentorship in both technique and choreography courses, I not only learned the skills that would be needed for a career as a performing artist, but was provided a foundation for what would become my own pedagogical practice. This foundation, of course, was handed down from Loretta’s mentor Bella Lewitzky, whom Loretta met as a student at California Institute of the Arts, where Bella was the inaugural Dean of Dance. Loretta went on to enjoy a ten-year performance career with the Lewitzky company before receiving Bella’s blessing to start her own company. Though I took class from Loretta each of my four years in college and was even privileged to dance in one of her pieces, it wasn’t until 2019, when I attended a reconstructed performance of one of Bella’s works (performed by Luminario Ballet and re-staged by John Pennington) that I fully understood the educational lineage I was part of. After the performance, during a talk-back moderated by Jeff Slayton, three former Lewitzky dancers, Sean Greene, Diana MacNeil, and John Pennington, agreed that Bella not only taught them how to dance, but also taught them how to teach.
While this sharing of knowledge, exchange of culture, and passing down of bodily experience from one generation of artists to the next is a ritual that predates Marley floors and mirrored walls, it’s a ritual that has always fundamentally been the same: move together, breath together, be together. For dance teachers in 2020, “leading in crisis” has forced us not only to engage new formats, platforms, and technologies, but to question the bedrock of our values and the purpose of our calling. From the moment schools began closing, dance instructors flocked to social media to post combos, live stream classes, and exchange resources for this new world of remote learning. Seemingly overnight, Facebook spawned the Dance Professors Online Transition Group, a forum for 3,000 dance instructors from across the country to connect, question, commiserate, and persevere. Within a week, Heather Castillo, Assistant Professor of Dance at California State University Channel Islands and her colleague MiRi Park, Lecturer in Dance, used this forum to promote their free webinar based on their own previous experiences translating studio classes to the virtual space. Another incredibly swift response was seen in the way Instagram Live became filled with dance classes. Many of these classes began in mid-March, almost immediately after stay-at-home orders began circulating. Though the platform doesn’t allow teachers to see their students on the other side of the screen, it does allow far more attendance than any dance studio ever could in addition to reaching participants across the globe - giving a whole new meaning to World Teacher’s Day. The anonymity created from this method also allowed both experienced and novice movers to find comfort in trying new classes and to dance with teachers they’d never have met otherwise. One shining example is Ryan Heffington who began teaching cardio dance classes nearly every day. Designed to be accessible to every body, Ryan’s Instagram Live classes allowed class sizes to reach upwards of 8,000 people at a time and attracted the attention of celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Emma Stone.
While these platforms are great examples of “reimagining the future”, they are just two of the several innovative ways dance teachers have taken on the challenges of the coronavirus. Beyond the plethora of online technique classes, live streamed dialogues have provided an equally important opportunity to educate, connect, and heal, proving teaching dance isn’t just about showing the steps, but engaging whole artists in mind, body, and spirit. Organizations such as DanceNYC and Jacob’s Pillow have hosted regular events for dance educators to virtually convene in order to address how they are “leading in crisis” and “reimagining the future.” This sort of communal education in which conversation, rather than lecture, is the driving modality for learning is an important reminder that dancers have a voice. By speaking aloud our thoughts, opinions, and lived experiences, we are helping to educate each other and our communities, thus shaping the dance landscape. One timely and impactful example is The Dance Union’s implementation of the virtual Town Hall for Collective Action. In June of 2020, the theme of this town hall was Dismantling White Supremacy within Dance Institutions in which, among many important conversations, Sydnie Mosley offers 8 questions and actions for decolonization in dance pedagogy (view her segment at 1-hour 18-minutes, then, as requested, compensate her for sharing her knowledge through her Venmo @Sydnie-Mosley). This call to action among educators is awakening a deep dive into curriculum, standards, and systems, affirming that if dance teachers truly want to promote equitable ways of learning for all students, we’ll have to continue to show up for tough conversations, engage a willingness to step into the role of perpetual student, and build reciprocity between student and teacher.
By speaking aloud our thoughts, opinions, and lived experiences, we are helping to educate each other and our communities, thus shaping the dance landscape.
This all barely scratches the surface of what it would mean to truly honor the world’s dance teachers of 2020. It fails to pay homage to the loss of several cherished dance studios, spaces where dance teachers have honed their skills and built their communities, such as Movement Lifestyle and The Edge Performing Arts Center (read the studio’s New Start statement here). It fails to celebrate the many organizations leading the way in online dance learning such as DancePlug’s own dance tutorials. It fails to mention what can’t be learned from anything but physical touch but also fails to mention the rise of TikTok as a platform for the self-teaching of viral choreography. It fails to mention the resiliency of dance teachers leading outdoor and socially distanced classes (with masks!) as more and more regions in the country begin to reopen. Most importantly, it fails to mention the countless teachers who have laid the groundwork for racial justice to be practiced in classrooms today.
So, on this World Teacher’s Day, let’s acknowledge our failures as part of the learning process. Let’s embrace our colleagues and students as our fellow teachers. Let’s honor our own teaching practice as a conduit for past knowledge and be fastidious in how and what we choose to share. It’s with this in mind that I must acknowledge that by honoring my own teacher, Loretta Livingtson, by way of Bella Lewitzky, I must also honor Bella’s mentor Lester Horton, and as such honor the Native Americans who first introduced Horton to movement, greatly influencing the development of what would become known as Horton Technique. With our reach transcending boundaries like never before, this recognition of cultural interconnectivity, both past and present, may be a crucial tenant to “leading in crisis.” As we work to “reimagine the future,” it serves as a reminder that even before smartphones, tablets, and laptop screens, dance lived beyond studio walls. Teaching may never again look as it did when we were young students and while the challenges of 2020 are undeniable, this year has also provided numerous learning opportunities. If we can bring these lessons with us as we begin to return to in-person teaching, perhaps dance teachers can be a catalyst for long-lasting, industry-wide improvement.
After all, today’s students are tomorrow’s teachers.