I’ve wanted to interview my colleague Laura Donnelly for a long time.
She has a range of accomplishments as a ballet teacher, an Alexander teacher, and more, and I knew she’d have interesting things to say about the process of training for dance.
Here’s the first part of our interview:
Laura, tell us something about your background in dance and dance teaching.
I’ve been dancing most of my life. I’ve performed lots of different kinds of dance, including modern and ballet, all around New York City and the whole country. That puts more stress on your body than just training. I had to unlearn a lot of things in order to stay healthy.
I also studied the Alexander Technique with Mio Morales and Marjorie Barstow. She was one of the first four people trained by Alexander. I also completed a two-year training in the Helix Technique which combines psychology and touch in a healing continuum. The premise is that a single modality isn’t enough – your body functions on all these levels. If you try to do just psychology as a healing modality you’re ignoring how someone holds physical memories. And spirit has a major impact on how the whole human spirit/physicality/psyche heals itself.
My goal is to teach what I know and help my students avoid the process I had to go through – the process of having to relearn. The information in the field has changed so much in terms of training in a healthy way – as opposed to the traditional process of just copying the teacher and doing something however you can do it.
A lot of dance teachers try to teach their students what they do in class. The teacher knows what they do and how they do it. But as a teacher you have to go all the way back to the beginning. You have to remember how to talk to somebody about how you point your feet when that somebody doesn’t know how to point their feet.
It’s an amazing experience to teach in a private studio. You teach multiple levels every week. If you teach at a university you might be stuck teaching intermediate ballet and that’s all you teach – to adults – but in a private studio you teach little kids and teenagers and adults. You teach the whole continuum of classes from beginning to advanced. That was a really good experience for me.
The emphasis on my graduate degree was dance pedagogy – the oral tradition in dance – how dance is passed from one person to the other. I call it the oral/physical tradition.
How does being an Alexander teacher work with you also being a ballet teacher?
Part of my focus in graduate school was applying the Alexander technique to classical dance studies. A lot of people who do Alexander Technique do modern dance. They’ve evolved a very free technique. My challenge was to apply Alexander specifically to ballet training which has its own codification with a lot of built-in inherent tension patterns.
Some of the tension patterns are identified with ballet. But some of the tension patterns are just patterns that people copy and they only think they’re about ballet. They actually impede your ability to dance with grace and ease.
What the Alexander technique does for me is it keeps me in the process of first noticing my own “use.” Rather than starting with what the student is doing and what I want them to change, the first thing is noticing my own body. Then I might give a correction in a different way, because different words come to my mind, and I don’t hurry quite so fast.
In dance and especially in ballet people are in a hurry. Teachers might take a student’s body and move it into the shape they want it to be. They manipulate it into the final position.
But a dancer has to go from neutral to that final position, and there’s a whole lot of movement and adjustment inside the body that has to happen that you’ve skipped over when the teacher just puts the dancer’s body in the position they want it to be in.
That process might be faster, and as long as they can freeze in that shape they look great. But the next time they have to get into that shape, they can’t because they didn’t practice how to get into it.
Incorporating the Alexander technique into how I teach dance means that when I notice my own “use” I don’t get so pushy with the student’s body. I have more patience and I can teach them the entire arc of movement so they can experience the whole thing,
Another example is – if I’m making a placement correction I just get them to notice their own ease in their body and the relationship of their head to their neck. Then I get them to move a little bit towards better alignment.
For instance, if their weight is all the way back on their heels when I need them to have their weight more on the ball of their foot, instead of pushing them onto the ball of their foot (which causes them to resist and they feel unstable), if I notice my own use when I touch them, then they notice their use. They move a little bit toward a better alignment, and then I let them work in that new position.
Then in the next class (or later in the same class) I do it again and they move just a little more toward the ball of their foot. By doing it that way, they anchor each change in their body and no shift is too extreme causing them to snap back to where they used to be.
How would you say that your teaching approach differs from traditional ballet teaching? Or from the way you taught when you were first teaching?
One of the things I try to do a lot is to work with each person’s individual body instead of looking for uniformity of bodies. Instead of thinking about bodies in my class (or in my piece of choreography) that look the same or can move in very similar ways, I prefer to work with the body that the person has and help them discover how to make the correct ballet line with that particular body. That’s unique for each person.
I think that in the old Russian system they took such similar bodies (same thing that Balanchine training does) because similar bodies learn to make the shapes in a similar way. That’s a different kind of teaching from what I do.
If you just take all kinds of different bodies, they can all make those beautiful classical shapes. But what they need to do to their body is different – just like what I need to do with my knees to make a straight line with my knees is different than someone who doesn’t have a hyperextended leg.
I think really good teachers do this – I don’t think it’s unique to me.
One of the things I’m really interested in is an analytical process. Instead of teaching an exercise based on the rationale that “well, we’ve always done this exercise and that’s why we do it…” I look at how the exercise can be used to prepare the student to do certain things. So it’s about why we do certain things…
Laura Donnelly, MFA, BA is a choreographer, teacher, and dancer who also writes and creates community based public art projects involving visual and word art.
Donnelly, Assistant Professor of Dance at Kansas State University, teaches all levels of ballet and pointe, Alexander Technique, composition, and experiential anatomy. Her research interests include pedagogy, oral tradition in dance, collaborative process, music for dance, and the Alexander Technique. Her research has been presented at the Congress on Research in Dance, the International Association of Dance Science and Medicine, the National Dance Education Association, the Hawaii International Conference on Arts & Humanities, the 5th Annual International Conference on Civic Education, and the University of New Mexico Mentoring Conference. Donnelly’s essay Meditation in the Dance Studio is published in Teaching with Joy: Educational Practices for the Twenty-First Century, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.