Teaching at Denison University

It is true that artistic, and teaching abilities no less, need an  expressive vehicle. Without the vehicle, the spirit of the idea doesn’t move. Over the years I developed a kind of “method” for teaching Native American dance (via the culturally encompassing Intertribal Dance Forms) to non-natives as well.  This process came full circle in a semester residency at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Although it is still a rarity for a university dance curriculum to offer even a single course in “World Dance”, it is even more rare that a  major or minor in “World Dance” would be certified.  Such is the case at Denison University Dance Department, where I taught Native American Dance in the Fall of 2004. There was not one native person in my classes. However, these aspiring western, mainstream dancers “took to” the repetitive, aerobic, and often times technical aspects of Native American dance. I teach these dances as they have become standardized in the unique step patterns, body postures, floor patterns and regalia of  the Intertribal dance forms now practiced in the contemporary Powwow circuit.  But here any similarities to western “modern dance” ends abruptly.  No one dancing Intertribal can dance only for technique, or only for “show” or only for self. If it is anything at all, Intertribal Dance is the expression of the collective culture of the community, in its regalia, in its protocols and etiquettes, in its songs, and in the spirit present when one dances.

Yes, those thirty dance majors and minors and elective students did learn to dance Intertribal. But they learned much more. Beyond the steps and the regalia (cultural term for dance apparel), they learned traditional singing, the instances in which one would dance, or not dance and why and why not, and what one dances about. They also learned the specific tribal culture from which a dance originated, where that nation is located geographically, what its history is now and has been in the past, and what it expects as a future. The etiquettes of dancers and dancing in native communities take a lifetime to learn. In one semester, the teacher, facilitator, choreographer can only provide an entry way to learning. In turn, the student, recipient, dancer, performer can open his or her eyes to a new culture with earned confidence and a multitude of respect.

The Denison University students finished the year with a performance of Intertribal Women’s Shawl Dances, Men’s Grass Dance, the spectacular and intricate Hoop Dance, the community Round Dances, as well as contemporary choreography based on native storytelling. I have reason to believe that the experience was one they will remember for a lifetime. They had made a beginning of learning and respecting cultures from the inside out – from the body to the mind and finally, to the spirit, with respect for the dance forms, but more importantly, with respect for the people from whom the dances originated. In short, dance frequently teaches what words cannot.


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