Focus on Faculty
Dance In Your Living Room
Beginners wanting to experience dance and interpret this elusive art form need to listen to their bodies and break out of their comfort zone, says Assistant Professor of Dance Renée Archibald.
Whitman Magazine: You're Whitman's first tenure-track dance professor. What does that mean to you?
Renée Archibald: It's interesting that, in a time when it seems like arts spending keeps getting cut and cut in so many different directions, Whitman is seeking to expand its arts education. There's value in studying dance, whether you want to pursue it professionally in the doing of the dance [or] in viewing dance and understanding what this form-which can sometimes be ambiguous or elusive-can mean.
WM: So how do you approach this elusive art as a teacher?
RA: It's not like there's a text that you can interpret. You have to actually experience something and interpret that physical experience. Watching a dance performance isn't just watching something-you have more sensorial experiences than just visual. Interpreting that experience-I think there's value in that. There are other ways of exploring ideas that are not the written or spoken word.
WM: What do you hope a biology major or first-year student, for example, would get out of your classes?
RA: For anyone who would just want to take a dance class for the first time, [it's that] they'd kind of break out of their comfort zone. A lot of times I have them do things where they're going to feel really silly-like I say, "Oh we're going to stretch our face"-to maybe take themselves less seriously and to not be afraid of what their body already has in it and wants to say.
WM: How is a dance class different from other classes at Whitman?
RA: [Dance] exercises a very different part of the brain which [students] might not be used to. Dance classes tend to be communal. They promote sociability and collaboration from day one. One example: students have one choreography/creative assignment in Beginning Modern Dance, and a lot of times I'll say, "Think about some kind of system that you're studying or a phenomenon that you might be studying somewhere else. Would it benefit you in any way to model it with people and to explore qualities of that in movement?"
WM: What's the most fun part of the job?
RA: I love the students; I really do. I think the most fun part is being open to the group at the beginning of class and changing my whole lesson plan according to the energy in the room. Then navigating back to the lesson plan. Encouraging them to make fools of themselves and seeing them supporting that being-a-fool for their other classmates, that's great; to see them supporting their fellow classmates taking risks.
WM: What should a non-dancer do to get into dancing?
RA: The first class you should take is going to happen in your living room. You should put on music that you like and you should move the way you want. Feel the beat and not be afraid to be silly in your own living room.
WM: What would be your dream piece to perform?
RA: I really enjoy performing improvisation. Something where I have a puzzle without any answer, where there's a score of sorts that is difficult, so I'm simultaneously engaged mentally and physically. That's just the most fun for me.
WM: And the process of improvising is actually more important, in a way, than the end result?
RA: That's how making a dance is for me. There's an investment in a process but you don't know what it's going to produce, and I think that is one of the values of dance. In so many areas of education and elsewhere you do something for a specific reason-sometimes in dance there isn't a reason, and so you engage in a process and something happens out of that process-you birth something.
-Daniel F. Le Ray