Friday, November 27, 2015

The Real Safe Haven

“Surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cézanne
A little while ago I noticed a fair amount of folks throwing around the concept of "the stage as a safe place for our art."  And it really puzzled the heck out of me. In fact I am pretty sure I made this sound.

I credit my years of art school training with instilling within me the concept that the studio/classroom is a "safe" place to learn and grow, but once it goes out to the gallery, anything can happen.  You can practice your technique, charter your concept, execute your theory as much as you want, but once it goes out to the public, it's largely out of your hands how people will respond. So it's not "safe", and by the nature of it, is actually extremely risky and full of danger.

Which I think therein lies in much of the source of stage fright.  Sure, you're afraid you're going to mess up, but much of the fear has a lot more to do with doing it in front of a whole bunch of people, and not knowing how they will react: the unknown frontier. We know this to be true through our own experience as the audience - because of what we have thought when we have been exposed to other people's art on stage. (Everyone's a critic right?) 

The stage and the gallery, these are not "safe" places. You can think you're hitting your target market and sympathetic audience all you want, but you have no control over what people think. Whether you're walking out on stage or hanging your art up on a wall, you are vulnerable.  Whether it's your body as a performer, or your visual art, or the music you play - you become exposed. It is the nature of performing, of putting your art out there.  We hope that we will be treated kindly, with insight, understanding, and respect - but we should also be aware of the diversity of human nature. It's hard to control who watches and comments on your videos and photos when you're trying to promote your work and get it out there. In order to become better performers, stronger artists, we have to accept those risks, process the feedback, and do what we can to protect ourselves in ways that won't hinder our growth or harm us.

Which is why I'm a big advocate for making sure the classroom/studio IS a safe place. Because of the dangerous nature of the stage, the classroom must provide a positive environment to build better artists. It must come from a place of respect and understanding between and among teachers and students.  It is important for students to feel comfortable enough to allow themselves to be challenged. It is vital for students to learn not only how to give but also how to receive constructive critiques.

What I try to do to make my classroom a safe place, in no particular order:
-Cut back on negative talk: whether it's self-deprecation or gossip/gripes about specific people/events/situations, the classroom is not the place for this. There's no room for excuses like "I can't do" or "I didn't do that because" - instead we focus on how we can make it work.
-Address students and others respectfully: All of my students are on the same level, despite how long they have been involved or how long I know them. I may push the ones I know closely a bit more because I can see when they are not giving themselves a fair shake, but there are no "stars." I will also name folks I respect by name and why, but I'm not going name those I don't agree with like "Glitterbibi can't find a beat to safe her life." Instead, I will use what irks me to find inspiration on how to teach my students to do better. Students should treat other as well respectfully.
-Balance general and specific feedback: Everyone can use posture reminders. Telling my class to make sure their chins are up creates a meerkat experience in my classroom that is fun and effective, but I also look for gentle ways to address problems individual dancers have without them feeling targeted or interrupting the class flow too much. We work on critique exercises, including the infamous "crit sandwich cookie."
-Communication: I encourage my students to ask me questions and to come to me about issues and concerns. I also have signals for when we need to cut down on chit-chat and get to work.
-Body/Age/Gender Positivity: All sizes, all ages, all genders are welcome in my classes. I am sensitive to the fact that moves will vary visually from body to body, and seek to help each student discover how to make the most of each move on their frame with their skill level and ability.
-We all Mess Up: I acknowledge the fact that I'm a dork in other people's classes (and well, in my own as well). We all make mistakes, that's how we learn how to do it right. If we can take away the fear of "doing it wrong" in class, students have much more confidence when it comes to doing it right on stage.

We can't protect our students from everything that could possibly happen on stage, but we can prepare them, and give them to the tools to be stronger performers. Which, if you think about it, makes them better audience members as well. Both elements in turn makes for a stronger, more supportive community that continues to elevate and empower itself.

Lastly, while we understand the stage is NOT a safe place, we recognize that beyond the dangers lay the possibilities for growth, transformation, education, and inspiration. That it is a risk worth taking for the artist who wishes to surpass their ego for the sake of enriching their work, as well as those who will come in contact with it.  Together we change.

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