The class – an almost belated zoom experience.
So I have done it. I have taught my very first online dance class as part of FORM’s Dance Bites Masterclass program. Big sigh of relief for me, big headache for the gang on the other end of my gallery view who took part.
Because, even though I did not have musical accompaniment to compete with, I was still virtually screaming my directions via dodgy counts and rhythms to the dancers on the other end as if I did have (music). Of course my dancing compatriots were too polite to ask if I could please turn down my shouty commentary.
I also realise I have more than a passing penchant for dominating conversations, although if there is no one actually vocally responding, or filling the silence with the sound of incidental activity, one does feel weirdly alone in spite of the action in unison within the identical matchbox squares in gallery view. As if talking into a void, I found myself begging the participants to keep their microphones on to thwart the pall of uneasy quietness.
I experienced very little by way of visual distraction, or more accurately visual interaction, either. Sadly this is due to the fact that I am not in possession of the latest home theatre system, complete with a ginormous flat-screen, enabled with all the bells and whistles that comes with the latest smartypants interactive technology. No, the pathetic little outdated TV perched on my kitchen bench is only slightly bigger than the laptop that was imperfectly balanced atop a milk crate, which was sitting on a collapsible chair, placed just so for that class, also in the kitchen. In a word- useless. In turn a lot of necessary palava went down so those on the other end of my dodgy screen were only privy to a space devoid of the superfluous junk that was hastily crammed just outside of the camera’s line of vision.
Believe it or not, for more than half my life I have been teaching classes to an array of bodies in a plethora of contexts. From school workshops to the department of housing, you name it, I have probably had a go. Over the years I have also learned a lesson or two and this experience was not any different. The biggest lesson to date: to enable the participants a feeling of investment, of agency with the material they are engaging with. This may be a slightly contentious statement but it is one I vehemently stand behind nonetheless.
For what is a movement if not an expression of communication? And if dance is an embodied vehicle of communication shouldn’t we all have a right to access the words, to become literate, acquire literacy? Therefore, as teacher, if I speak to you in my hybrid urban Australian indigenous dance vernacular doesn’t it stand to reason that you, as a participant will want to enter into a dialogue with me in that language despite the possibility your body will speak with the accent of your first embodied voice?
This is why I have increasingly added a task-based component to my class, to encourage the implementation of the vocabularies I have introduced. So I was doubly bummed I didn’t do my homework and teach myself how to create break-out rooms for the guys taking class to really experience my oft times awkward embodied utterances by crafting their own to me in return.
In regard to Australian contemporary indigenous dance in particular I pose this question, ‘How can we have critics who are literate in Aboriginal performance if the level of engagement is always at arms’ length?’ Dancers, like sports people and other specialists have an advantage because they are equipped with insider knowledge. If our audiences are predominantly non-indigenous, don’t those audiences deserve a more meaningful agency with the material they are watching than as mere spectators? Although I will stipulate that this should not mean that only Indigenous people reserve the right to critique indigenous performance.
We are partly complicit for the dominance of the European cultural hegemony in dance because it is just so readily accessible in contrast to grassroots Indigenous cross-cultural pedagogical events, which are relatively non-existent. I can rarely move forward past an introductory level class because there are so many prohibitive caveats involved when teaching. Many organisations are too nervous to hire me to teach for more than a single experience because they are fearful of real or imagined complications, and possible litigation, should any rules surrounding Australian indigenous dance be unwittingly breached. In an aim to combat this predicament I have resorted to inadvertently follow the pathway of the classical ballet form by integrating western elements in the guise of an amalgamated interruption in order to both satisfy the ubiquitous need to address western virtuosity while endeavouring to maintain an identifiable Indigenous aesthetic. This also has the unexpected advantage of elevating or legitimising the contemporary indigenous form. But at what price?
At any rate I am grateful for the opportunity to teach amongst the diverse skill and cultural representation on offer through this Dance Bites initiative which included Raghav Handa, Pepa Molina, Omer Backley-Astrachan, Cloé Fournier, Anton, Craig Bary, Lucky Lartey and Sara Black. It is not often that we are invited to continue to develop and share our working ethos on our own terms.
’til next month.
Vicki Van Hout
FORM Blogger in Residence
P.S. Conveniently this class would turn out to be a rehearsal of sorts for another class I would teach. So that’s two on the board for what we all hope is the downhill run of this pandemic. Believe it or not, not only did I manage to sidestep quarantine isolation because of my relative hermit behavioural patterns, I have also managed to evade the dreaded nostril invasion that is the COVID test. Like not having seen one installment of the once ubiquitous Star Wars I have not been initiated with said swab-on-a-stick. Let’s hope I haven’t inadvertently jinxed myself.
Image: Vicki Van Hout and Dance Bites Masterclass participants