Laura Donnelly and the Art of Teaching Dance

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.

Laura Donnelly

Laura Don­nelly

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.



One Response to “Laura Donnelly and the Art of Teaching Dance”

  1. […] The Art of Teach­ing Dance — Part 2 by Ron Lavine, D.C. on Fri­day, August 10th, 2012 | No Com­ments This is the sec­ond part of my inter­view with Laura Don­nelly, Alexan­der teacher and  pro­fes­sor of dance at Kansas State Uni­ver­sity.  If you missed part one, check it out here. […]

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