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A little story about dance class: Extract from an open letter

a dissected infested by parasites brain"Parasite Brain" by Jim Fischer (Creative Common license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

When I was a child I grow up to believe that there was such a thing as The Truth (yes, in capital letters). I believed that this Truth was complete and therefore it could be apprehended. Although I never believed that one person could hold this Truth in its entirety. However, I would see my teachers as all-knowing, or at list holding some portion of The Truth. I believed that when they were teaching they were offering their portion of The Truth, the part of it that they knew very well, and I thought that my work as a student was to gain as much as possible from that portion of The Truth. I thought learning and intelligence had to do with the ability to get the information they had on their brains and place it within mine. This may seem like I was a dumb arse who became a Dictaphone, recording everything it was told, but the truth is that it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I knew that knowing had to do less with memorising and more with understanding. Anyway, I still saw my teachers as the ones who knew and me the one who didn’t know but could get to know if I tried hard enough.

Obviously dance training wasn’t so much about knowing what but about knowing how, dance classes didn’t have to do with learning about stuff but it had to do with becoming able at doing things, but even so I felt that my teachers knew something that I didn’t know, and at this point my relationship with my dance teachers started to become almost mystical. It felt to me that what my dance teachers really knew wasn’t data that they could share with the students through spoken or written word.

They new The Way (yes, again in capital letters). The Way a student should be guided through, which things they should do and when, the step-by-step order of things in order to achieve those technical skills which are required to be a dancer. It felt like they knew a secret (or many secrets) and that they would only show you a bit of those secrets each time, like the tip of an iceberg, with the promise that if you were a good student maybe one day, when you will be ready for it, the secrets will slowly be revealed to you.

I love exaggerations and my recount of the story is obviously one of those. However, I can’t help but wonder if in a way this attitude towards dance education is tacitly implicit in the many formats it takes. On the one had I think, maybe it was just me who ended believing that learning was happening in those terms. On the other hand I can’t help but wonder: isn’t it this reinforced paradigm in which the notion of a teacher’s knowledge of a class structure and of a technique are conceived as absolutes?

Throughout the years this attitude towards education made me feel a failure as a performer, because of all the skills I seemed to never achieve. No matter how hard I worked at it, it looked like I would never manage to do those idealised versions of technical treats that were thrown to me with the message, “This, my little kid, is what Dance is.”

Although from 2006 to 2011 my approach towards dance classes started to change. I kept going to classes but my attitude towards the hierarchy between myself and the teachers was shifted at first, and ended dissolving eventually (well, more or less… you know how they say, “Old habits die hard” so let’s leave it at that, I’m still working at it). I started to listen to myself more deeply, in a way through which I allow myself to try to do things but keeping in mind the gentle the task of learning new ways of doing.

The teachers little by little became these recorded tapes, only better because they were able to see what was going on and respond to it and so they would many times add valuable information. However, “valuable information” didn’t always came at the right time for me to be able to hear it or understand it, and if I heard and understood that “valuable information” it didn’t always came  at the right time for me to do anything with it. So I started to accept that it. I started to accept that any given time was maybe the right time for any information to be processed, but then any given time could be maybe the non-right time for it and therefore I could let some information go. I started to accept that I could sort of do, more or less, what they were asking me to do but I didn’t have to be anxious or too worried about doing exactly what they were asking me to do.

Sometimes it would be obvious that I would do something else because I would allow myself to it really differently, or even stop doing altogether, just because it wasn’t the right thing for me – whether physically, mentally or emotionally – at that moment. Other times it would be less obvious, as I manage to continue doing something that didn’t look too different from what I was asked to do. I basically allowed myself to make any class to work for me (even those classes that I didn’t like much). A bit of a rebel, a pariah… but in a subtle way and always trying that what I did didn’t influenced me negatively with the process or with the other people taking the class.

However, this allowance to do whatever else didn’t mean that I always had to do something else by default. After all, if what I was explained and asked to do was possible for me to do it fully (because I was in the right place to do it, for example) then I would allow myself to simply do it. Or else I would do it (as I was told) and also add something of my own to it.

(This story is an extract of an open letter I wrote for Laura Doehler in response to her invitation to the Devising Think Tank event at TripSpace Projects on Sunday 4 October 2015. The full letter is published in the OPENLAB’s blog: https://openlabarchive.wordpress.com/2015/10/06/an-openlab-open-letter-for-devising-think-tank-at-tripspace-projects/).

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