Saturday, December 9, 2017

Beyond the Steps


When I was young and just coming up, I briefly got excited about an approach to folk dancing developed by Phyliss Weikart. Ms. Weikart was a P.E. teacher who abstracted some of the archetypal steps found in European folk dances and developed a simple vocabulary to teach them—things like side-close-side step, side-touch-side-lift, in- 2-3- and out-2-3, etc. She developed a systematic way to teach where you said all the steps in the dance, then said them while you danced and then later, just danced. I thought it was a much-improved model from the way I first learned folk dancing at Antioch College—jumping in on the Friday night folk dance and trying to figure out what everyone was doing. Or rather, jumping out and dancing behind them until I was ready.

Ms. Weikart’s approach had its merits. But soon I realized that the method began as described above and then at the end, they put on the music. As if the actual phrasing of the melodies and timbre of the voices and instruments and feeling in the rhythms was incidental to the steps. I remember watching one of the teaching videos, all mid-Western white folks (mostly women) in some bizarre generic uniforms circling while intoning “side-behind-side-touch…etc.” and thinking, “These could be the Stepford Folk Dancers” (Check out the movie “The Stepford Wives”)— so robotic and homogenous and no sense of style or energy. Because while it’s true that “side-close-side-touch” exists in dances from quite diverse traditions, the HOW of how that’s done is essential to the dance. Is there a subtle bounce? Body straight or bent? What is the handhold? What is the relationship to gravity? How are the inner rhythms of the music expressed in other parts of the body? It’s fine to say “side-close-side-touch,” but can you do it with the music on and feel the music in the way you say it? At least that?

The turning point for me was offering a folk dance class at a summer music camp and going through my little vocabulary shtick. Two young African-American girls came up and were standing on the side watching. “Come join us!” I said enthusiastically. “No, thanks,” they said. I persisted, “Why not? Come on, don’t be shy.” And they let me know in no uncertain terms, “We’re not shy. We just thought you were going to dance!” Bam!!!

In short, they were rightfully not impressed with my little dog-and-pony show and made clear that whatever it was we were doing, it was not dance. And they were right. Since that time, I used Ms. Weikart’s vocabulary very sparingly and always teach the steps in connection with the music, singing the melody as we dance. And doing the best I can to model the difference between a Bulgarian style and a Ghanaian one and a Renaissance one.

This story came to mind again after the recent National Orff Conference where I saw so many workshops with clever steps to eventually arrive at something like music, but never feeling music at the center. "Music" meaning like the way my colleague Sofia belted out a Brazilian song Mae Praeta and our Middle School kids jumped right into the center of it, feeling how the melody and its phrasing and its rhythm and its drive and its energy and its style evoked a certain dance in their bodies and a certain energy in their voice and from that raw, direct, powerful impulse, the precise steps would emerge organically. The problem I’m seeing with so many American teachers is the lack of foundation, of being brought up in a vibrant, living musical tradition in the family and neighborhood where the music is not learned through deciphering dots on paper or pressing fingers in the right places on strings as the first step or 20 minutes of conversation about time signatures followed by one-minute of music-making or some clever Orff teacher  walking the students through a series of steps, now often posted on Powerpoint, with a “now do this” and “now do that” and “now listen to the 4-bars of music we made” and then “now add some dance” approach. In these classes taught by university-trained music education students, one is hard-pressed to feel the beauty and power of the family sing or neighborhood barn dance or juke-joint jam session. There is no charge in the air, the students’ bodies are slumped and faces unexpressive, the talking about or preparing the music takes more time than the music itself.

Well, not at my school. Not in my workshops. Not in my elder sings (see yesterday’s post), Not in my world. Live, kinetic, vibrant, dynamic music is at the center and yes, I have my steps to help prepare it and shape it and refine it, but I know that the steps are not the music, the steps are not the dance. They’re just steps.

As those two girls suggested, “Come on. Let’s dance!

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