The idea for this article came to me in a dream. I kid you not. I dreamt I was being taught a routine for a huge performance. I was part of a duet with a male partner - I think it was my brother, it might have been my friend - and I was struggling. He was picking it up really fast.
The teacher did not speak much English, and I remember saying something like, 'it is one thing to try and learn this, but another to learn it with instructions in a foreign language. I can't do both; it just keeps falling out of my head. It's not sinking in.' And it was particularly humiliating, as I was the only student in the performance who was a dancer.
So when I woke, I got to thinking: how would I cope with this in reality? Surely there are plenty of teachers who do not share the native tongue of their pupils. It is the wonderful, international nature of art, of dance; we are a small selection of people and often have to travel far to find work and achieve our dreams. And dance is an international language of sorts, right?
I say 'of sorts' because, as research from my article back in December concluded, dance is undeniably flexible to interpretation. Thus, we see speech being incorporated into choreography more and more, producing hard-hitting political messages that perhaps may have been misinterpreted in movement alone. I digress. The question here is one of dance teaching methods.
Looking back to the videos of Merce Cunningham teaching classes in his late 80s, in those online documentaries entitled 'Mondays with Merce', there is no doubt that his classes depended heavily on his language. He would describe exactly how the movement was to be performed, demonstrating the movement in its simplest form on a small scale, with the bar to support him. It is mesmerising to watch; his class erupt into elegantly crafted sequences with technical brilliance. They literally appear to translate his words into dance.
Even so, in one demo episode, Cunningham himself mentions that one class member kept asking questions. And to her, he answered, the best solution is to just try it out. To move. And I remember several, if not all, of my former dance teachers offering the same advice when I constantly pestered them to 'explain'. Understandable I suppose, when a dance class is all about, well, dancing.
But is there not a vicious cycle at play here? The dancer needs to know how the movement feels in order to perform it accurately. The teacher can only express their physical feeling through describing it (unless of course it shows on their face... which, if being performed accurately, it should not)! Ergo, if the verbal description is unclear, the required movement may be also.
So what about those teachers who use very few words at all? Who express largely through demonstration? I have experienced such classes, and personally find it a real challenge, repeatedly making the same mistakes. But perhaps it is just my nature. I've heard we all learn best in different ways, and this is reflected beyond the dance studio; in the art classes, where some pupils relish getting messy while others stay inside the lines; in the maths classes, where some yawn at the textbook while others engage.
It could be argued, then, that it is a healthy balance of both show and tell that make a great teacher. That is, of course, the best method for communicating with a class of dancers with a range of learning styles. Seems obvious.
Then again, who wouldn't agree that Cunningham was one of the best - if not the best - dance teachers of our time?