The Technique of Technique


In an email conversation a year ago with my good friend and fellow choreographer Winifred Haun, I made-up a modern dance class description.  Wini and I share a love for dance real-talk and were lamenting (or, rather, mocking) the endless class descriptions we read and were unable to explain – filled with flowery language that makes dance technique sound like an out-of-body cloud floating adventure, filled with academic jargon, rainbows, and across the floor combinations.  We were at a loss.  I wrote:

“Join Lizzie Leopold for dance class, wherein she will warm you up and then make-up movements that you will learn. It will likely be sweaty. Most of the time Lizzie will demonstrate badly, although musically, as she expects you to improve upon her ideas with your own physical expertise. Although Lizzie has studied lots of different dance techniques, her class is filled with her own personal preferences for no other reason than she likes them best – big plies, quick changes of direction, fifth position, falling over, and port-de-bras reminiscent of the back stroke. She would be lying if she didn’t admit that her class directly served her own choreography.”

It was a joke.  It is a joke.  But sitting down to write an actual description of my modern dance technique class (as I prepare to teach my fall classes at Northwestern University and open company class with the Leopold Group), I am plagued by the task.  Justifying the exercises I choose and the movements I string together is daunting, and forces me to think about what I am actually trying to teach. Steps? Ideas? Ideas through steps? Ideas about steps? Embodied ideas through steps?  Ideas about bodies doing steps?  This list could go on forever.

The goal is not for you to dance a certain way. The goal is for you to take control of your moving body.  Dance technique is an exploratory language. We are practicing together in order to make our bodies more legible and versatile, not to master individual steps or poses. It is about preparedness.

I am still slaving away at an actual class description.  There is so much context, historical and biological, to account for.  But in the meantime, here’s my favorite “class description” to date.  I think I will include it in my syllabus…

Written by Sister Corita Kent, a student of John Cage

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student: Pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher: Pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined: this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything. It might come in handy later.

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