At the University of California, Berkeley, I have developed academic courses in Dance and Performance Studies and practice-based courses in dance technique and choreography. These courses have met university-wide requirements in research and composition as well as major requirements in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies. I have also choreographed original productions in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, bridging the study of practice and theory and bringing together majors and non-majors. In addition, during my ten-year career in contemporary dance, I taught dance technique and repertoire in diverse professional and educational dance environments. I have also served as a guest lecturer in Dance and Performance Studies for community-run youth programs and as a theorist and dramaturge for professional performance artists.
In teaching both scholarly and practical courses, I maintain a commitment to the question of embodiment and to the coalescence of practice and theory. Beginning with the body in performance, my courses extend to questions of individual and community, state and nation, diaspora and world. Continually framing my pedagogy are issues of culture, race, gender, sexuality, and ability. Whether analyzing ethnographic texts about culturally specific experiences of dance or developing choreography through improvisation, I urge students to gauge and disrupt the relationship between “I” and “Other” by crossing textual, empirical, and spatial boundaries. My courses in practice and theory alike are defined by rigor and versatility. Just as I help students in my technique classes develop a strong technical base (in multiple techniques) to allow them to dance in heterogeneous choreographic environments, my scholarly courses attend closely to discourse analysis and argumentative writing from multiple disciplinary vantage points in order to encourage students to shift and multiply their lenses. My work in the classroom, as in the studio, is informed by an overarching sense of collaboration. I encourage students to learn from each other, co-creating knowledge, whether textually or corporeally-based. Finally, in following the example of Trinh Minh-Ha, as opposed to thinking of knowledge as that which should be accumulated, I believe that knowledge can be actively enlivened through focus, attention, questioning, and dialogue. In mentoring students entering into a variety of fields (from professional dance careers to Engineering), I begin with the premise of ability, allowing students to recognize their unique strengths as they set forth on a creative and challenging process. Placing emphasis on process, I encourage my students to develop a practice, one in which repetition reveals not a quest for perfection but the opportunity to seize upon unexpected variations with an ethic of critical creativity.
I. Scholarly Teaching
By introducing students to the concept of performance as (what Diana Taylor refers to as) both an object of analysis and methodological lens, my classroom is a place where students interrogate the socio-cultural implications of performances while developing the ability to apply theories of performance to questions of the co-constitutive cultural paradigms of race, class, and gender. Performances analyzed include onstage and onscreen performances as well as performances of everyday life, from the performance of gender to the performance of race. Through very close readings, my students learn to destabilize the terms race and gender themselves, never accepting them as given or universal. As understood through my experience studying with Kaja Silverman, I believe that closely reading both text and art allows students to hone their analytical and argumentative skills, as specificity enters into one’s ability to critique and write well. Writing plays a central role in all my scholarly courses and, based on my training in Anthropology and critical ethnography at Columbia University with Michael Taussig, I provide my students with the opportunity to exercise ethnographic writing techniques in which they critically engage with the question of self and other through concentrated observation. As such, I help students develop the ability to recognize the inherently fictive and colonial aspects of ethnographic writing, on the one hand, and the impossibility of objectivity, on the other. In exposing the dynamics of power imbedded in any act of writing, I provide a space for my students to lend their writing a degree of self-awareness and poetics that both recognizes and creatively refigures the contradictory impulses of ethnographic—and perhaps any—writing. My additional training in College Writing at UC Berkeley has provided me with specific pedagogical skills to encourage writers of all levels.
Through engaged interdisciplinarity, I help my students develop critical depth and intellectual agility. I draw from both the humanities and social sciences in my courses. Having trained in Anthropology, Performance Studies, Dance Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, I provide my students with various intersecting disciplinary angles from which to engage with their material, whether the study of community-based performance in Berkeley or the question of subjectivity in Congolese youth culture. In addition to reinforcing reading and writing skills, I often urge my students to create their own performances in class. Whether at the graduate or undergraduate level, I share my mentor Shannon Jackson’s interest in requiring students to create performances—as well as research papers and collaborative presentations—in class. As such, the study of culture continues to be examined from a combination of discursive, archival, and embodied perspectives. While I am attentive to students’ varying degrees of comfort, I create an atmosphere in which students feel compelled to exceed habituated levels of familiarity.
I assign projects that facilitate both individual and collaborative knowledge production. While I encourage students to become independent thinkers (through paper-writing, research projects, and close reading), I also emphasize the importance of collaboration and cooperation. Such collaborative projects include group projects and presentations based on research in the local community, in-class writing critiques, and shared performances. Ultimately, my courses ask students to question the complex politics of subjectivity, community, and performance, with a constant eye toward the social.
II. Teaching Dance Technique and Choreography
The impulse behind my teaching of dance and choreography parallels that of my scholarly teaching, in which I promote both specificity and heterogeneity. By teaching technique classes based on specific styles and techniques—such as Horton, Graham, or progressive Ballet—I help my students develop particular dance vocabularies, which they can either draw upon or depart from later during choreographic exercises. Having trained in a conservatory environment at the San Francisco Ballet School, the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, and on a full scholarship at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, I believe in sound technical training, but extend this commitment to include space for improvisation and experimentation that may or may not adhere to a particular technique. In my technique classes, as well as in my choreography classes and in staging original works, I take the time to allow students to engage in structured improvisation. During such improvisation, I create both individual and collaborative exercises focusing on aspects of performance such as musicality, dynamics, isolation, fragmentation, or deconstruction. While my students inherently learn about dance history through my technique classes (such as the types of mythological imagery privileged by Martha Graham or the somatic underpinnings of “progressive” Ballet training as taught by my own teachers Zvi Gotheiner and Christine Wright), my improvisatory exercises reveal unexpected histories of improvisation in choreography otherwise thought of as scripted. For example, drawing from my experience dancing professionally for choreographers Dwight Rhoden (Complexions Contemporary Ballet) and Mia Michaels, I bring attention to diasporic modes of improvisation informing their creative process, stemming from popping and locking to breaking and voguing. While I certainly value postmodern modes of improvisation—from contact improvisation to that of the Judson Dance Theater—I invite my students to continually probe the cultural contexts of various types of improvisation/choreography and their study. In doing so, we rewrite dance history together, in embodied form.
Drawing from my interest in contemporary prose and poetry (such as that of the Language Poets and the Oulipo writers), my choreographic classroom utilizes constraint-based exercises in developing movement phrases. I find that introducing constraint, paradoxically, stimulates the production of choreography in very generative ways. Just as I see technique as that which allows for possibility (as opposed to limiting creativity), I see choreographic constraint as a way of developing what choreographer Ralph Lemon calls a creative “container” that allows for risk within a defined space. I am able to work with students from all levels of dance training, from total beginners to pre-professionals. I believe that dance training develops sensorial—especially kinesthetic—awareness that is valuable in all facets of life. I am also committed to the inclusion of all types of ability in my studio courses. Most of all, I encourage my students of technique and choreography alike to carry a sense of embodiment into the world, always keeping in mind the question of relationality—between bodies and between bodies and society. In doing so, navigating one’s body through space becomes part of a lived practice, a practice attuned to the inevitability of change and motion.