Back Off! Let the Music do the Work

What is the sound you welcome your students with? When they walk into the dance class, what hits their ears? Who do they see? What words land first?

We are all aware that when people come into a dance space, they bring their day with them. They bring their concerns and struggles, their fears and insecurities, and each time, we attempt to bring them into a world of dance and jazz. Some times the transition from their world to ours may not be so smooth. And honestly this transition is the hardest. The dancing doesn’t quite feel right, or the music doesn’t inspire, or their feet just aren’t working. All it really means is they haven’t arrived yet; they are still in the other world. But it may also mean, this swing dancing thing doesn’t feel worth it to them and they just don’t bother coming back.

What can we do as teachers to ease that transition. The first and most powerful tool is to begin to examine the time you have with your students as a whole experience. By experience, I mean it as though it were an ecosystem of conjoined smaller experiences, each part dependant on the others. I’m going to use my experience growing up in the church to help me explain my thoughts on this. When I arrived at my church service growing up, there was always an organist (usually my Aunt Jane) playing something quiet and meditative. You get greeted by people who’s sole job it is to say hello to you and make you feel comfortable. You walk into a room filled with this quiet music and it gives you the space to make a choice; say hello to the people around you, or begin to clear your mind of all the mental noise you brought with you.

I use this playlist to help ease this transition:

One of my most often used playlists is one called prelude/postlude. This is music that does not demand swingouts and rocksteps and tuck-turns, though if you so desired it would still fit in. It’s music that is quiet enough to talk over. Maybe you want to dance, maybe you just want to shake it out, but most importantly it’s an opportunity to chat with your fellow students. It’s Teddy Wilson, and Coleman Hawkins and some of Lester Young’s more relaxed tunes. We rarely think of this time as important, and I think it is maybe the most important. They are traveling from one world to another. This could also be a good time to say hello to your students and make them feel welcomed into the space and let them know that this is a safe space for them to be and that they belong there. You don’t have to say that with words, but your presence will clearly deliver that message.

The next stage in the service is the first anthem. No one says to the crowd “And now our service will begin, will you all stand to sing hymn 138 as we celebrate this season of Lent.” The music does the heavy lifting. The music is the announcement. A choir comes in from the back in a grand procession. Every one stands, the feeling in the air is electric. It is in this moment when the outside world truly begins to fade. They move from a secular world, into a spiritual world. The more people are familiar with this repetition, the easier it is to transition into this other place.

The studio where I teach, we normally start with a solo jazz circle. It is at this moment when you- the instructor/teacher/facilitator whatever must willingly allow yourself to act as a portal from the secular world, into the jazz world. This is not a teaching moment; this is a transformational moment. Go deeper into the movement, make the simple beautiful. Channel the music in your movement, be the feeling of the music. This first dance needs to communicate so many things to the students. It needs to say

- this is a creative space

- this is a dance space

- this is your space

- this is a living space for jazz

- this is a space for fearlessness

- we are dancing for right now!

- we are all here together and all are welcome

As the students watch you move, they will move their own bodies. It seems almost overly simplistic to say this, but as they see you move, they feel themselves move. That is a powerful relationship. If you treat this moment as a teaching moment, you are establishing a hierarchy and thus, an us vs them moment. This should be only Us/We. “We are dancing together and I am one of you, and you are one of me. Let’s explore somewhere together.”

Week after week, I take them to this place. I make a very determined effort to start without any words. The prelude music finishes and I put on the anthemic song to announce the beginning of the lesson and I start dancing. I call this “Start with dancing.” It is a statement of purpose. It is subtle, but it is deliberate. When you start with words you are announcing that words are what we are celebrating in this space and that is what the students should expect. However, words are probably what they’ve been dealing with all day and they did not sign up to hear your magical words. They want your rock steps, they want your swivels, feed their souls with some Tacky Annies. Simple, effortless, fearless and sometimes beautiful.

These are my rituals and they suit my needs. When I realized that this was a ritual, I began to appreciate the potential impact it might have on my students’ experience of the lesson. Prior to endowing this moment with the power I felt it deserved, I think I dismissed the warm up as merely an exercise and as more of a teaching experience as in “I’m showing them some moves which they can use in their solo jazz, and we are warming up our muscles.” The newer version of that as described previously is now “I’m transporting this group of people into a world of the spirit.” That shift in my perspective began to change how I teach, and how much impact I think I can have in people’s lives.

In the next blog post I’ll be discussing how to keep the whole experience whole in “Music in Transition in Dance.”

greet humans, greet individuals, greet friends, not the class.

greet each other, greet the space, greet the feelings you arrive with, not the class.