Should I Really Get My Ass into Class?

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ BRENT

The hallmark of dance training is class. This holds true across almost every genre. Which is why I have a fair amount of guilt about finding less and less joy and satisfaction in taking class.

The first thing that gets me are the mirrors. After college, I had the fortune of furthering my training in San Francisco at a studio without mirrors, which was revelatory. Otherwise, I’d say more than 90 percent of dance studios I’ve been in have had that token wall of mirrors. I understand the argument: it supposedly allows dancers to self-correct, as well as gives students in the back of the room the ability to see the teacher at the front. Even at perhaps age 10 or 11 though, the correction, “Don’t stare at yourself in the mirror” became a common refrain. I find it ironic that dancers are supposed to develop a refined sense of peripheral vision and yet ignore a whole wall that is supposedly there to help us.

Even classes with curtains drawn daintily across the mirrors are most commonly frontal. It’s as if the proscenium is so embedded in our collective dance psyche that the very idea that potential viewers might be situated at more than one vantagepoint is still revolutionary. It’s 2020! Site specific dance has been around forever! Yet most training is still done with an obvious front and back, with the emphasis on the front.

Then there’s my own psychosis within class. When I moved back to New Mexico and started taking classes locally, I quickly discovered that opportunities to take class alongside colleagues were going to be few and far between. Classes are more often populated by amateur adults or up-and-coming teenagers/college students. I have no bones to pick with either of these demographics; I am very happy they are studying dance and giving business to dance teachers. But for me, at least, because I readily pick up the combinations, I often find myself slowly pushed to the front of the room. The pressure to dance “good” mounts. But class is for honing skills, not showing off. And yet, I feel so painfully visible that sucking at a combination or step feels risky.

Even more of a mind trap is when I am in a class with mostly young people. When it comes to taking class with people in their late teens and early 20s, I find myself holding so desperately to an old sense of body and skillset, even though physical virtuosity for its own sake stopped being interesting to me a long time ago. Dance, for me, has become about physical expression, not tricks. Technique is a tool, like a paint brush or instrument. I seem to forget this when I’m in a class with young dancers. I start to not want to “lose” what I had at age 20, even as I simultaneously am annoyed at myself for that desire.

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, is the thorough exclusion of people with disabilities from most dance classes. As Tobin Siebers so beautiful articulated in Disability Theory, everyone personally interfaces with disability during their lifetime, either through sickness, old age, mobility or cognitive impairment. According to a 2018 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four people in the US has a disability. Of the many dance settings I have been in, the only ones that are expressly welcoming and tolerant of bodies that are not young and/or healthy are organizations like AXIS Dance Company or DanceAbility whose missions are built around creating a culture of inclusion. As an able-bodied ally, it troubles me to knowingly walk into spaces that inherently exclude one in every four people in this country.

However, I miss class. I miss that sense of community, of mutual sweat and investment. So, despite my hang ups, I’m not just sitting around and complaining. I am a key part of an initiative in my community called the Albuquerque Dance Exchange, which holds weekly peer classes at a local studio wherein we take turns leading and taking class from one another. Though I don’t love every class, I love the chance to truly be a student of dance, instead of showing off or wishing I could still do three turns. And when it’s my turn to lead, I incorporate non-frontal and improvisational components, as well as try to make my class accessible (which isn’t always possible due to the constraints of the studio, but at least isn’t due to my class material). I also have my DanceAbility teacher certification and facilitate a class at a senior center each week. And then I go to contact improv jams and take West African dance here and there, if anything to feel the sweet communal bliss of boogying with others.

Otherwise, I mostly do my own thing, a satisfying yet arduous solo practice, and sometimes invite others to play with me. You won’t see me getting my ass into most dance classes anytime soon. And at this juncture in my life, this choice seems like the most honest way for me to be a dancer.

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Emmaly Wiederholt is a dancer, choreographer, teacher, writer, editor, and the woman behind Stance on Dance. Feel free to email her any responses to this essay at emmaly@stanceondance.com.

6 Responses to “Should I Really Get My Ass into Class?”

  1. stanceondance

    Thanks Kara! I’m so looking forward to connecting!

  2. Kara Olguin

    Emmaly,

    I was kindly placed on your website by my instructor Amanda Hamp. And while I’m late on the assigned readings, I’m glad to have made it. I, too, have entered the wilderness of solo practice. This first academic term has been strikingly terrifying diverting from the “norm” of taking class. Nonetheless, the fulfillment I’ve just now tasted in being able to study and practice autonomously has far surpassed any frustration. I’m looking forward to your guest-teaching this Wednesday (2/26). So very thankful to be lead to like-minds in this beautiful field of creativity. Kudos!

  3. Elyse Fahey

    I love dance classes. I always have. I’m a ‘dance class dancer’ through and through, not because I’ve been conditioned to feel or think that this is the only way to maintain my body, or to stay connected to the dance world, or because I feel some obligation to be there, but because taking class has always been my sanctuary. Having reached a high level of proficiency with my dancing, and living in a city where class opportunities for professionals in my preferred discipline are scarce, I’ve decided to make the act of regularly taking classes of any kind a personal practice of setting aside time to be with myself. Because my other profession can be isolating, and is emotionally and mentally demanding, dance classes provide me with an invaluable release which I believe allows me to continue to effectively do the work that I do, without reaching burnout. I also rely on classes led by others to get me out of my head and into my body, which is important for me as after a full day of work, I don’t have the mental or emotional capacity remaining to then lead myself through a self-guided practice. I’m also highly introverted, and I feel that the social and community aspects of a dance class bring an important element into my daily life that I might otherwise skip, because it’s often easier to just stay home. Dance classes are also where I test out my ideas for potential choreographic work, and where I get inspired to explore what my body is capable of at this juncture in my life as a dancer. Class never gets old for me, because ultimately it’s not about the class I’m taking; it’s about my own approach and experience within myself, within the context of what’s being offered and led. In other words, regardless of the style, level, or instructor, I am always ‘doing my own thing’, but again without having to entirely self-generate, which takes energy that I just don’t have at this point in my life.
    This balance is crucial for my continued fascination with the body, with movement, with this art form, and with where it can go creatively. I find value in every class I take, because I am always with myself, and I am always exploring, learning, and investigating. The integration of my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing is possible, and I experience great joy in my life, because I take so many dance classes. As a studio owner, I also feel strongly that classes of all varieties and levels provide a beautiful service to our community, and bring so much to many many lives, as well as provide a way for people to make an income doing something that they truly love, even if it’s secondary or tertiary to other jobs they may hold. Without dance classes, my studio would not exist, my community would not exist, and my life would look really really different.
    As a studio owner, inclusivity is important to me. I am really open to learning about ways to make my studio more accessible and inclusive, and would like to be involved in making changes where there is demand, so that fuller participation is possible. I’ve also had my own battle with mirrors. I agree that they can be pyschologically harmful, and might cling to an antiquated way of doing things in the dance classroom. However, they can also be used as a helpful teaching tool in certain contexts. While covering the mirror with curtains doesn’t eliminate their presence entirely, it at least provides options for those who want to teach classes differently, and makes one space adaptable for multiple uses. I love my dance studio, and I love the energy within it. I love the people I have met through it, and the experiences I know that is has provided for so many. Dance classes are the life force that keep the space open and alive. I hope that my studio has a long life. I hope that every studio and space for dance, movement and art in my city has a long life. Classes are undeniably the sustaining factor in the existence of these spaces that provide so much to the community and art form at large. I wouldn’t be who I am without dance classes. My personal practice of taking class has shaped much of my way of being in the world. I believe that I am a better, kinder, and more compassionate person because of the work that I have done on myself in the studio, in class, dancing.

  4. stanceondance

    Thanks Jimmy, I’m glad you could relate! I’d love to see more integrated mobility classes EVERYWHERE!!!

  5. Jimmy Burgess

    I so dug Reading this because i hear u on many Elements. Now as an Amputee i actually desire more Integrated Mobility Modern Dance Classes in New York and there really aren’t any, i actually miss Matk Rivera’s Saturday morning Classes . Im good with staying in shape on my own but really miss the Collective Energy of being in Class. Great Read this Article. Thanks.

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