Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Holistic Dance Instruction - An Interview with Between the Bones Founder, Mary Lynn Lewark

Nationally recognized for her solo choreography and performances by age 18, Mary Lynn Lewark's passion for dance, creativity and education fueled her desire to build a dance school. Since founding Between the Bones in 1996, she has produced and directed 11 original productions. Today, Mary Lynn continues to generate new and innovative dance experiences for her students and faculty. Her life experiences as a dance artist and educator – as well as mother to Sydney, Ellery and Lucy - bring a joyous “break the mold” dance curriculum to Between the Bones.

How did you get into dance instruction?

I have been a dancer most of my life. By the age of 18 I had my share of dance injuries. I had been teaching dance and got my degree in education. My first teaching job was at an Expeditionary Learning School, where I taught Kindergarten through 2nd grade for three years. I was struck at how the way the school is set up so that everyone wins and everyone learns. It is very collaborative rather than competitive. Yet, typically in dance it is very competitive and is designed to ensure that only the best participate. When I opened up my dance school I wanted to build on the idea formed in Expeditionary Learning that dancing, too, could be collaborative and inclusive and yet still competitive with other programs. I like the idea of working thematically and then building backwards; thinking about what you want a dancer to be in the end– expressive, graceful, talented and skilled, athletic, healthy and working backwards to put elements in place to allow them to achieve just that.

I understand you take an unconventional approach to dance instruction in that you teach in a holistic way? Can you describe that?

What is unique about our school is the somatic nature of it using the Feldenkrais philosophy. Somatic education has many forms but they lend themselves to teaching people how to use their bodies well. The Feldenkrais Method teaches possibilities of movement, through experience rather than imitation. Over the last ten years I have worked with Feldenkrais Practitioner Bethany Cobb applying the Method to our dance education. Typically you get to Feldenkrais only after an injury or as you get older. That is how I found it! But I thought, why wait for that? Including Feldenkrais in our dance curriculum builds a foundation along the way for knowing and understanding our bodies, when to push, when to listen and how to reduce the risk of injury.

What is Feldenkrais and how does it benefit people?

Moshe Feldenkrais is the man who originated it as a form of rehabilitating his self. I look at it as a constructivist model for learning. Its philosophy is to set up a situation for learning without telling the students what they will learn. Dancing is usually about imitation and this is the opposite. It is designed to encourage an internal knowing. It helps to make people to become more aware of their bodies and helps to reduce the risk of injury by breaking down movement so that learning can occur. These days we see a lot of people who are much less coordinated and less flexible. It is likely a result of our way of living, where we don’t climb trees or run, our play is restricted. No one comes in perfect. We all have missed developmental milestones, like crossing over the mid-line, right and left coordination, etc. Dance and Feldenkrais help to achieve these.

What is the mission of Between the Bones?

It is to provide a balanced dance education. What I mean by that is we want to balance strength with softness; technique with expression; skills with self-awareness. By balancing each aspect of dance with its opposite the kids become whole people, whole dancers.

How does Between the Bones help students grow, learn and succeed outside of the studio or off the stage?

Dance in general gives body awareness and confidence. You are the ultimate multi-tasker as a dancer – you have to be present yet think ahead. You have to do a difficult move with great concentration yet express a sense of ease or something else. It takes tremendous self-control and elegance. You have to be able to learn quickly. Dance students make great problem solvers. When you make a mistake on stage you have to be able to deal with that and move on. You don’t know exactly what is going to happen next, so you have to be open to it. Dancing in a performance will help build skills in any field. It helps with both process and product and encourages intellectual curiosity and interest.

The way you integrate dance with other related topics, like nutrition, classic literature, and history brings these lessons alive for your students. Describe how dance can make other subjects meaningful.

I am biased but I believe you could learn everything through dance! When you are researching before a dance performance, you look into the time periods and observe why they are wearing what they are wearing. You get a look at the politics and religious values of that time while preparing for the dance. When we did Alice in Wonderland we explored that period of time and talked a lot about the author, the historical time frame, and did a lot of critical thinking and questioning in preparation for the performance to really understand what we were going to be doing and telling.

I appreciate that you encourage students of all body types to dance. Please tell me about your philosophy in that regard.

Modern dance and jazz are particularly more accepting of bodies of all types. The goal is to be healthy and in shape and it is a challenge to balance healthy with rigorous. The dancing we do requires skill and discipline. We’ve had body types of all kinds and many on the too thin side. It is helpful if they get caught up in dance and find it in themselves to improve for their own benefit rather than through the external pressure imposed on them. Feldenkrais is good with providing a balanced approach and a sense of self.

How can dance help us tap into the Age of Creativity?

At Between the Bones we use the story to drive our work and our performances. When the dancers are a part of the creative process like they are at Between the Bones, they become part of a collaborative team involving teachers, costume makers, and students to take a leap and solve problems that haven’t been solved before. It is not just imitative or just a recital. The story gives boundaries and rules and allows us to think creatively. It is constructivist: you throw all of the pieces together that you can work with, knowing that those are the only things you can use to create. Let’s see what happens.

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