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1. How did you hear about this opportunity in Sardinia?
I subscribe to the email list Dancing Opportunities. The Artist Residency was posted on its site.
2. When you planned for it, did it turn out as you had expected?
My original proposal was to work with the elderly community in the remote village of Nurri, Sardinia. One of two regions in the world where people live the longest, the village has retained its customs because of its remote location and the villagers’ strong desire to preserve their way of traditional life. What ended up transpiring over the three weeks was that I worked with both seniors and groups of all ages. The unexpected children's group formed first. As school was recessed for the summer, many parents and children were eager to do something productive with their day. My offering of movement and papier-mâché making for all ages was a hit. Slowly through word of mouth, the initial group grew by week’s end to include 28 children between the ages of 5 and 16. Next came the parents of some of the children and then the folk-dance group, whose ages ranged from 28 to 75. Finally, we were joined by the village “poets”—all older than 73—who were musicians, dancers, and spoken-word artists. So from the idea of doing a single-focus creation came the choreography of a whole-village story through movement.
3. How did the dancers respond to movement? Had they experienced dance before?
The community has an active children’s salsa-dance studio. The teacher is well loved, and her students compete successfully in dance competitions in the surrounding area. I attended a few rehearsals just before a competition and could see practice was understood by parents and students to be crucial if one was to do well at competition. The method of instruction, however, consisted of yelling and a call to repeat, repeat, repeat. The idea that dance could be something other than steps and steps learnt in that fashion seemed a novel concept. My method of having students express their own ideas by making choices as we jointly created the choreography took quite a bit of work, both for my interpreter and for the students. It took some time for them to understand that the particular choreography we were making was new for me too! I hadn’t brought a dance from Canada to teach them. For the village elders, seeing their grandchildren thinking and moving with such self- expression and abandon while relating to others and me—this foreigner—was, I was later told, a gift they will never forget.
4. How did you introduce the fundamentals of BrainDance to them?
I introduced the BrainDance, as I usually do, at the very beginning. First, I used the movement patterns, or exercises, in age-appropriate full-body movements that flow from one to the next. Then I showed my hand-drawn chart in which each movement in the series is represented by a picture symbol. No matter the age, people seem intrigued to see concretely something they have just done physically. The patterns are repeated at each lesson in order to allow students to feel secure in their new learning. As I was in Sardinia to create a piece of choreography, the BrainDance became my way into every group I met. Because it requires no words, everyone is able to follow and copy my movements and this series of movements done in proper sequence reorganizes our central nervous system, bringing a sense of well-being. Usually one person with a creative mind understands and soon, like magic, the ability to do the patterns spreads through the group. Not surprisingly, children were the quickest to understand that they were to follow; because teens tend to be self-conscious, they were less quick; and the folk dancers who understand dance to be a particular set of steps to a particular piece of music found the exercise hilarious at first. I had to explain briefly to them the reason and purpose behind the BrainDance.
5. What do you notice the most after dancers get comfortable with the movement?
What I noticed from asking people who were comfortable with doing the BrainDance is that different movement patterns from the series feel more joyful on different days. The flow and sequence of their movements becomes more easeful, and it expands. As it does so, the students have a sense of fulfillment. But it is not the BrainDance series alone that makes for eager students of any age; it is also the mindful use of concepts that have been purposefully created to enhance learning through a knowledge of brain science.
6. What were your favourite experiences you took away with you?
Honestly, I had so many heart-warming experiences that you will have to pick one of the following! One favourite experience occurred shortly after I arrived in Nurri. Word circulated in the village that I would be offering movement classes in the monastery. I had started making oversized papier-mâché lemons, inspired by the sight of orchards of lemon and orange trees that I encountered on my daily walks. So on the first day that children arrived for class, they were very curious about the purpose of these large shapes that I had hung in our improvised dance studio. I picked up one of my “lemons,” and started to dance, holding it in both hands. The children at first looked serious, nodding their heads; then I laughed, smiled, and made some silly moves. Now they realized it was okay to join in and enjoy the silliness of it. That night, I gathered more newspaper and flour for the glue; I also collected more balloons for the papier-mâché base from the wonderful hardware store. My favourite moment came the next day when the children arrived and realized they also would make the movement props, this time oranges. Their excitement was amazing! Who doesn’t like a tactile, problem-solving activity? Allowed to discover which way to place each strip of paper, how much glue can the paper withstand, how much water makes the perfect glue consistency, the children delighted in their orange-making project. And each was proud to have created an aesthetically pretty, fun, and playful object. What I didn’t know is that they had never done papier-mâché. A few days after returning home to Canada, I received a text photo sent from one of the mum’s: it showed her daughter making papier-mâché in the kitchen. My heart sings!
Before arriving in Nurri, I was invited to an artist symposium in the neighbouring village San Sperate. Here each year, villagers celebrate the life and work of great stone sculptor and community activist, Pinnucio Sciola. Learning of his work, walking in his steps with his now adult children, and meeting people who knew him well was something that I wish I could have bottled and given to every leader of every country. Hearing and seeing his daughter, now the head of the inspirational foundation in his honour that carries out his philosophy, stroke a stone gently on one of her father’s sound sculptures, making an eerie music, gave me goose bumps and stirred my soul for many reasons. First, it was simply other-worldly and beautiful music. Second, I marvelled at the passion of his children to make known their father’s artistry and genius. Third, I was made acutely aware of his children’s drive to share this wonder and to be ambassadors of their father’s vision so as not only to honour his art but also to bring people together through the wholesomeness of the stone garden day after day after day.
Another impression that comes to mind was the realization that the folk dancers who participated in my choreography opened up on so many levels in order to dance and learn from each other. They come from a very set tradition of folk dances that they love and have done since they were little. Theirs is a community in which every day life men sit and work in certain places and women sit and work in other settings. The way they learn a new dance is with a lot of discussion and sometimes a lot of good fun arguing. Then they have a sit-down break in which they may eat something. Only then do they actually go about learning the first set step. So for me to come in and demand they simply follow me with no discussion (and by demand, I mean I make it evident by doing and encouraging, always expecting people to follow, which they do) garners quite a number of reactions. They soon realized that what we were doing felt good, was enjoyable, and was dance. We were actually all “dancing” without being aware of it! This brought at first many shy smiles and then full-on laughter when they realized this was the reaction I completely accepted and that I myself loved to dance. I also learned one of their most traditional rhythmic foot steps in order to show that I too could learn something new and that I valued their expertise. I learned that their folk-dance tradition is to keep a straight face while the body does all the steps. I think the men in particular found it a most wonderful release to be able to laugh and smile and show that they were having fun while doing our choreography. In performance, the audience could not get over that the dance was a story and that the dancers were people expressing something and sometimes that was something funny. I loved the openness, the joy, and the acceptance of something new that all ages took on in the middle of a remote, medieval village.
7. If you could give one piece of advice to other dance educators looking for a similar experience, what would it be?
Organizers can have their own agenda for the residency, which can sometimes limit the time they allot to providing support and assistance to the visiting artists. No matter how many emails or phone calls you have with the organizer in the months leading up to the residency, once you are in place things can shift in unexpected ways. I think that no matter where you are in the world, people are people. Others can sense your passion and desire to share and will be responsive to it.