Ava LaVonne Vinesett, who received the 2002 Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award, is an assistant professor of the practice of dance. She shares her thoughts on dance as transformation and information.
Here is not the story of a "typical" dancer. I did not take dance lessons as a child, nor did I have dreams of one day performing on a concert stage as the audience applauded my pirouettes and threw roses at my feet. In fact, there was nothing about dance in particular that held my interest as a child. In high school, I participated in the school dance group because it provided a social outlet. In college, my serious pursuit was linguistics. From the time I was very young, my fascination with various cultures prompted my desire to see the world. Languages would be my passage, and I was well on my way to becoming a translator and traveling the world.
At that time, attending a dance performance was a lot like going to the movies: It was entertaining and offered a brief escape from my studies, but it usually just washed over me. At least that was the case until my first experience with African drumming. At the sound of the drums, I could feel my entire body ignite. My heart pounded in my chest, and I could actually feel the rhythm of the drums in my body. The sound rumbled through my soul, unlocked a well of emotions, and set me on a path I have felt driven to follow. My "serious" pursuit took on an entirely new meaning. I would still travel the world, still translate--only now dance would be my primary language. I would use it to communicate visually the language of life.
I believe it is necessary for my students and for me to bring our experiences into the classroom--whether it is a studio or a lecture setting--and to feel confident about doing so. My experiences inform every aspect of my life and help me develop not only as a performer, but also as a thinking artist equipped with a personal aesthetic and philosophical sense of what dance means in my life. I view dance as the embodiment and transmitter of traditions. I view dance as an expression of perseverance, a creative continuation of cultural mores, a symbol of survival, a merging of life's principles and spiritual beliefs. Dance is about transformation, about passion for life, and about the power of self-awareness. Dance is my identity. It is what I do, and it is who I am.
When students enter the studio, I want them to understand why I dance--and why African dance in particular. It's not just something I teach. I am consumed by this art. I try to encourage students to see dance as an intellectual and spiritual pursuit. Teaching is concerned with facilitating learning and thinking in students. There is no set way that that works for every student, but, without question, self-awareness is a fundamental principle in my approach to teaching. Self-awareness concerns balance and total presence of mind--being in the moment, with the recognition that life is happening now.
My students engage in a continuous process of self-analysis, and often their way of moving is a manifestation of how they understand or have been trained to understand who they are. I make an effort to create a setting that fosters introspection, personal development, and community building. Certainly, as an educational activity, dance involves individuals with learning skills and mastering techniques in order to produce a body of work.
Some skills are about specific ways of moving and organizing material (movement composition); other skills address how to develop an aesthetic sensibility as it relates to traditional dance forms. Still other skills require students to find, develop, and express their voices, so that they learn to venture beyond technique--they learn to "dance the dance." In my classes, "dancing the dance" is an accomplishment that I take very seriously. "Dancing the dance" is a complex process that involves a heightened sense of awareness, technical proficiency, spatial clarity, rhythmic patterning, and total engagement. However, it is through innovative expression, perception, artistry, and intuition that the spirit of the movement vocabulary is realized.
Dance is a creative and innovative way of exchanging information about the world in which we live. In part, the ability of dance to have an impact on culture stems from its ability to educate, transform, challenge, bring awareness to, and enhance communities throughout the world. Often I remind students how unique this experience is. How likely are they to ever have this opportunity again in life?
Learn the language of dance and, without speaking a word, communicate something about who you are. Learn for the beauty of learning and for enhancing one's understanding of life.