Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Be careful where you sit!

By the time I walked into the studio at Gibney 890 for last evening's Movement Research Studies Project--What is The Role of Class?--there were few chairs to be had, and I am not one for sitting on the floor. I found an unclaimed chair and plopped down with my bulky winter coat, backpack and little bag of grocery shopping.

There was Jodi Melnick to the left of me, John Jasperse and a new friend, Barbara Forbes, to my right. The wondrous Beth Gill rushed up for hellos and a hug, and noted that I had sat with the group that would be talking about the economics of class--not "class" as in social status, but "class" as in where dancers go to explore and hone their craft. Taken aback by this sudden requirement, I looked about to see what the other group topics were, and Jasperse handed me his sheet of notes. Fine, I said, but I'm basically here to listen and learn. Still a bit confused about the evening's game plan, I told Gill and Jasperse I'd probably float around, listening from group to group. Then everything started, and no one had time to correct me.

Gill (and everyone else) didn't realize that the event's other organizers had not invited me to be a panelist. I didn't realize that several small groups of panelists--maybe "discussants" would be a more apt word, given the intended casual format--were arranged along my half of the misshapen circle, invisibly embedded, for the moment, in what would appear to be an ordinary gathering of people.

In other words, I'd landed in a hot seat.

When I finally realized this error, it was too late to move elsewhere. And so, at a livestreamed event, I was seen to be curiously reluctant to open my mouth and contribute remarks along with everyone else arranged around me.

Afterward, people kept coming up to tell me they were disappointed that they hadn't had a chance to hear what I might have to say. In fact, I have just received an email from someone expressing the same disappointment.


Okay, I survived.

Far be it from Movement Research to do a panel discussion like anyone else would do a panel discussion. With, like, a clearly, spatially-identified panel.

The main drawback, here, was near-inaudibility in that big studio. Panelists at a far remove from nearly everyone else came to realize the need to turn not to one another in discussion but, as individuals, to face the room and project their voices.

So. A group of panels after all.

Once past this initial awkwardness, the discussions took off in many directions. Must a dancer go to class on a regular basis, or can that dancer's physical practice take other forms? What are the factors--cost chief among them, certainly--that keep dancers from attending class regularly or at all? How is teaching a form of continuous learning for the dance teacher? How do you work with students who come to class solely for physical technique when your interests bend more towards social justice? What is revealed and challenged when a US-based dance artist teaches in another country and culture? How can this community make dance training sustainable for teachers and students? How can teachers take what they know so well and market it beyond the professional dance field, helping to subsidize professional dance classes for more students?

All of these, and more, are valuable questions and ones not easily addressed in less than two hours. The issues raised at What is The Role of Class? call out for further discussion, organizing and action. They call out for commitment.

I woke up this morning, thinking about Janet Panetta's remarks about "hobby dance classes." She said, "That's what we used to call them," and she meant the classes that studios would offer for non-professionals who wanted to exercise to lose weight or just have some fun after the work day. The money from these classes made it possible to keep studios open for the serious students and pros. Now, though, people go to health clubs and yoga studios. They get their Zumba on. The discussion turned, briefly, to the challenge of recapturing that civilian market to keep studios and teachers alive.

I was thinking, You know what? If it were not for so-called "hobby classes," I might not be involved in this community where I've witnessed and written about dance for decades. I came up in a family and at a time when I probably could never have found my way into the field as as professional, but dance classes of all kinds were where I took myself, seriously, to get healed the way others might go to church or visit the local shaman.

So, you can never tell about this "hobby dance class" thing because you can never tell who's out there and what dance really means to them--or could come to mean to them. I think we need to get more curious about this. And we need to take some care with the way we identify and view the outside world and put more interest and effort into the way we communicate with it.

And we need to turn and face outward and project.

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