“Make Mistakes Beautifully”

By Tori Sexsmith,

When I came to Temple in 2017, I was 25 and knew that it was the right time for me to continue an education that I had started in 2011 at a different university. Temple spoke to me as a program for their value of both the academic side of dance as well as the techniques, opportunities for choreography, and the fact that within one department there are BFA, MA, MFA and PhD students all there to continue their studies and build on their passion of dance. Coming to Temple as a nontraditional student as well as a transfer student was one of the best choices I made. I was able to diversify my knowledge of different techniques, while working with teachers who were prominent in the Philadelphia dance community. The staff at Temple are willing to work with you, provide excellent feedback and help ensure that you are getting what you want out of your dance education.

What I learned at Temple…It is okay to start again, to say “I don’t know” and build yourself up from there. As dancers and artists, it is easy to feel like you need to know everything all of the time to justify and back up the choices you are making and the techniques you study. Not realizing that through study, hours of rehearsals, talking with your peers and teachers, attending guest workshops and performances that all of this will inform your answers and build character. I can say with certainty that I am not the same dancer I was before starting at Temple and I am glad. During my time, my main technical focus was in African Diasporic techniques, most of which I had not heard of nor studied before attending Temple. I started off uncomfortable with being new, with not understanding how to get my body to achieve the actions and spent much of my class time moving slow to figure it out. Through this experience of relearning my body and asking it change and unlearn prior habits I grew, not just physically but mentally. Dance once again became a broad and sweeping term that was more than I had known before.

 

Tori Sexsmith

I had the good fortune of being able to work with the late Dr. Teresa Benzwie before her passing and study Early Childhood Dance Education. My studies with Dr. B further affirmed my passion for education, and through her kindness and compassion she helped nourish the teacher in me. Her guidance and expertise in the field was a priceless gift from my time at Temple.

 

What I took away from Temple, was that it is important to take every opportunity that comes your way with the awareness that it might not be exactly what was expected or planned for…because there is something for you to learn. The teachers, your peers, the guests, and the administration all want you to succeed but success is not something that is easy or simply built. I hope to pass this information on to my students. There is a lot of value in being a lifelong learner, to take chances, and to make mistakes beautifully.

This fall, I started a new position as the dance teacher for the Capital Area School for the Arts Charter School (CASA) in Harrisburg, PA. CASA was a school that I attended in high school. I am living one of my dreams to teach in this school and continue to build a program that trains intelligent, well rounded dancers, and artistic collaborators. As I move forward, I would like to continue to explore dance by taking classes when possible and enjoying every opportunity I have to dance and do what I love.

Tori Sexsmith BFA in Dance 2019 Alumnus and Dance Teacher for CASA

Dancing into Identity

by CUDJOE EMMANUEL

I grew up asking myself a question that would evolve in different shades throughout my life until now. I asked my mom at the village dance square…what are you doing moving like that? Her response, you will grow up to meet this! Boom! That was my first critical encounter with dance by observing my mother’s body moving to traditional music.

Now the question I asked and the answer that came were not new. On the contrary it has been asked by many curious kids since our first ancestors danced. It is a deep question with an equally deep answer. Unknown to me, I was asking the body I came out from how it came to know itself enough and be confident enough to move like that among a people who did likewise to the same music. I would later come to understand that movement systems, embodied, loved, respected over years of evolution, would be my very IDENTITY!

I analyse my personal dance experience from childhood in such a reflective manner that it helped me conceptualize the transient body in varied social cultural, and political positions among my ethnic group in my beloved home country Ghana. My father was a sub-chief of that rural town and during ascension to his stool/throne, I was required, by virtue of my father’s political and genealogical position what I term as my “transition into a status and validation as a royal, through dance movement”. I recount how the selected dance and its movements transformed and influenced my understanding of the Akan linguistic patterning and its power in affirming individual identity creation. I started receiving my official training as a dancer at the age of 6 and I was taught specific movement patterns which were different in execution from some other movement patterns I had seen outside my father’s palace. In my training process I was instructed to walk as a royal in the dance arena, taught a specific salutation concept and then eventually when to start performing on a specific drum rhythmical cue. Prior to that, my training in other things like sitting, eating, drinking from a cup, posture, gait was similar to my fathers who, from time to time before his enstoolment would join me in dance practice and perform the same movement patterns with me. He would often shout phrases like “a royal does not sweat on the dance floor”, “you are the son of great ancestors”, “wisdom and dancing abilities are in your blood”, “you will dance with me, your father, in glory”, “go on my son, the stool and the music are yours alone to take after I am gone”. These statements in addition to specific hand and feet movement patterns validated my understanding of who I was at the time and it came through dancing.

Reflecting on my childhood learning process and my political affiliation leads me to conclude that I was ‘curated’ and subsequently put on ‘display’ to the outside world through dancing.

Prior to my PhD at Temple dance department, I was exposed to dance studies/scholarship beginning from my undergraduate studies at the school of performing Arts University of Ghana focusing on Dance studies and Theatre arts. As my passion in dance intensified, I proceeded to pursue a masters at the Institute of African studies-University of Ghana with concentration on African dance and music analysis. My thesis was on Dance Aesthetics and Performance Contexts of a royal dance among the Asantes of Ghana known as KETE.

My exposure within African studies re-invigorated my interest to pursue more knowledge in dance scholarship due to the rate at which the proliferation of our dance forms offered research possibilities to ascertain the evolution of dancing as human requirement within contemporary African settings. As such I applied to pursue second masters in Europe which led me to pursuing the Erasmus-Mundus Choreomundus International Masters in Dance Knowledge, practice and heritage degree  from a consortium of four universities namely; University of Roehampton-London, Université Blaise Pascal-France, Norwegian University of Science and Technology- Norway, and the University of Szeged, Hungary. The aim was to learn about emerging concepts in safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. My journey to Temple University began when I first met Dr. Sherril Dodds who was a visiting lecture at University Blaise Pascal in France 2017. She encouraged all of us to pursue high education and offered to help if any of us were interested. I was not initially interested as my immediate goal after my 2nd master was to go back home to my Alma mater to support dance research and scholarship. However, the opportunity to study at the prestigious Temple University was too alluring to ignore. Here I am!

 

……the journey continues…..

Emmanuel Cudjoe, PhD in Dance student

MFA Thesis Concert I-Victorious

By Princess Tanagna Payne

My piece for my Thesis Concert on September 27th and 28th 2019, was about sexual abuse and the traumas that can occur after an attack. Often times, victims are afraid to speak up not because the abuser may get punished, but because there nothing seems to be in it for them. I wanted to focus on healing and where that could possibly begin for someone, which led me to group therapy, one-on-one therapy with a licensed therapist or simply sharing with a loved one. In the piece, I chose to focus on group therapy and the idea of how abusers can also be victims too. In the beginning of the piece, there is a small visual to give an idea of the aftermath of the rape that leads into the first group therapy section where victims are invited to share their stories, but it can be difficult. Following therapy, the abuser knew that his actions were wrong and was tormenting himself. In the next group section, the victims are working to move from victim to victor where they are learning to build confidence and rely on their group members for support. The duet follows, and this is where the abusers and his victim are communicating about their tragedies, the last scene is where they invite the abuser to come to therapy, although his actions are not excused, they understand that he too needs help.

There were many changes to my piece last minute due to cast members leaving and the challenge was to present the same idea with a new framework. The challenge was a scary one, having to alter things four weeks before the show, but it was something that brought the cast members together and it made our relationship stronger. We trusted that each person would commit to their role and come in each day ready to work. We kept an open line of communication and shared things that worked and did not work. No one took anything personal and there was always positivity in the room.

For anyone presenting work soon, I say to stay committed to your idea and use your advisor to the best of your ability. Trust that your dancers will bring your vision to life and allow them to feel like they are also a part of the creative process. There will be things that you love one day, that you may not like the following week and that is okay. Scrap it and move on. Do not be afraid to be vulnerable with your cast members, it will only make the process easier. They can offer insight that you may not have thought about. Remember to take a break every now and then, sometimes your mind just needs a moment to shut down for a few hours. Do not be afraid to go for what you want, the only way you will know if it is achievable, is if you try.

Princess Tanagna Payne MFA in Dance

Ziying Cui’s Ballet Journey

By Ziying Cui

When I was a child, I remember I begged my mother to take me to every Swan Lake performance in my hometown. I was fascinated by the dancers’ virtuosity, the orderliness of the corps de ballet, the romantic love story, and the gorgeous costumes and stage settings. My early experience of watching ballet motivated me to study this Western dance genre. Within more than twenty years’ ballet training in China and the US, my curiosity of ballet expanded beyond idealizing my body alignment and mastering dance movements. I was intrigued by the rapid development of Chinese ballet and how this Western art found avid audiences and practitioners in China.

Ziying Cui

 

In 2016, I began to study a PhD in dance at Temple University. This allowed me to shift my position from a dance practitioner to a dance researcher. The first two-year’s course works not only broadened my view of the English dance scholarship, but also provided me a large amount of theoretical and methodological knowledge of conducting doctoral research in dance. I have had the honor to learn with some of the most celebrated scholars around the world, and observed diverse research projects. Beyond the coursework, my endeavors out of class in the past three years, including exams preparation, attending dance colloquiums, and dance conference presentations, helped to prepare my own research in Chinese ballet. In addition, adequate ballet classes and teachers at Temple allow me to keep practicing ballet while doing research.

As a non-native English speaker, I had to work harder in and out of class to catch up the academic works. While the first year was the most challenging, my professors and colleagues helped me through the difficult time. At Temple, faculty members are always there to help students, but most importantly we have to work hard to make progress through our own efforts.

Ziying Cui, PhD in Dance Student

Capturing CADD

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From February 16-19, 2018, the third bi-annual Collegium for African Diaspora Dance (CADD) conference will convene at Duke University in Durham, NC. This year’s conference, themed Dance Black Joy: Global Affirmations and Defiance, will feature Drs. Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Melissa Blanco Borelli and Marianna Francisca Martins Monteiro as keynote speakers and a variety of breakout sessions, movement workshops and film screenings. There will also be a remembrance of the late Baba Chuck Davis and a performance of CANE, a responsive environment dancework by Thomas DeFrantz, SLIPPAGE: Performance/Culture/Technology and Wideman/Davis Dance (DeFrantz 2018).

 

Founded by a powerhouse of artist-scholars in the field of African diaspora dance studies, the conference is committed to “exploring, promoting and engaging African diaspora dance as a resource and method of aesthetic identity” (Duke University  2016). Since its inception in 2012 as the African Diaspora Dance Research Group at Duke University, the conference aims to facilitate interdisciplinary inquiry that challenges and expands the field of Black Dance Studies.  

 

I attended CADD in 2016, where I presented a lecture-demonstration on corporeal memory and Germaine Acogny’s Modern African Dance Technique. I enjoyed the networking and stimulating academic discourse one would typically expect at an academic conference. Even the dance workshops in which I participated blended an unusually high level of theoretical discourse with kinesthetic engagement. However, there was one aspect of the experience that I found unique to CADD. Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin, one of the founding members of CADD, summed it up during her opening speech:

 

Welcome back home.

 

As Dr. Amin explained to the room of rapt listeners, who nodded and clapped in agreement, CADD is more than place of ideological exchange. It is a meeting ground for a unique group of thinkers and movers—those of us whose research centers on the methods, aestheticism and theories of African and diaspora dance practices. As a first-year PhD Dance student, I found myself in a safe space where my ideas had room to stretch and breathe. Before offering my theories on Acogny Technique, I did not feel the need to first qualify WHY Acogny Technique should be taken seriously as a contemporary dance practice “despite” its African aesthetics. There was a shared acknowledgement in the room that movement forms of Africa run the gamut from traditional-based social dances to urban dances to neotraditional and contemporary dance forms (that’s what makes them so cool). The idea that a dance practice can be simultaneously of African origin and expressed within a Euro-American paradigm is a common understanding we have here at Temple (we have Umfundalai, after all). But, as many CADD attendees could surely tell you, our work is sometimes met with resistance by well-intentioned (and sometimes not) but misinformed academics who believe otherwise.

 

This is not the case at CADD.

 

I was at home, amongst pioneering scholars and scholars-to-be who supported my work. The questions my audience proposed and suggestions they offered me were critical but not antagonistic—they were seemingly interested not only in the success of my work but with our collective forward movement as African Diaspora (and Black) dance scholars.

 

This year I’ll attend the conference, not as a presenter, but as a lowly, overwhelmed (and possibly underwhelming?) third-year PhD student who desperately hopes she won’t mess up her elevator pitch while donning a thinly veiled facade of nonchalance to hide her newbie excitement at being in the room with some of the most groundbreaking scholars in the field but worried that she will talk too fast or say too much like she always does when discussing her research that unfortunately spins her around in circles that never produce enough AH-HA! moments.

 

So back to CADD I go. Because in the process of babbling nonstop with kindly indulgent artist-scholar-strangers and sharing war stories with other Dance PhD students, somehow clarity descends and I realize that I’m on the right track after all.

 

 

Omi Davis, M.F.A.

Third Year PhD Dance Student
Boyer College of Music and Dance
Temple University

 

“Collegium for African Diaspora Dance (CADD) Conference, February 19-21, 2016: Call for Proposals.” Duke University. Last modified 2016. Accessed February 2, 2018. https://danceprogram.duke.edu/news/collegium-african-diaspora-dance-cadd-conference-february-19-21-2016-call-proposals

 

“Dance Black Joy: Global Affirmations and Defiance.” Collegium for African Diaspora Dance. Accessed February 2, 2018. https://www.cadd-online.org/2018-conference.html

 

DeFrantz, Thomas F. “African Diaspora Dance conference focuses on themes of joy and defiance.” (press release) Facebook. Accessed February 2, 2018. https://www.facebook.com/thomas.defrantz/posts/2014733948767498

Institute of Dance Scholarship Launch Party

The Institute of Dance Scholarship (IDS) is devoted to locate the brilliance of dance at the center of academic disciplines as well as local and global communities. IDS includes the Dance Studies Colloquium, Reflection: Response Choreographic Commission and the Scholar-in-Residence Program, and is planning on developing five more programs including a fellowship program, conferences and workshops, an awards program, and a journal and book series publication program. Earlier this month, Dr. Sherill Dodds hosted a launch party for the IDS.

Title: Dancing with Ishmael Houston-Jones

I recently performed in the Temple University faculty concert.  I was performing an improv piece that noted New York artist, Ishmael Houston-Jones created on a group of Temple students during his January residency at the school (the group included BFA’s, MFA’s, and a PhD).  During the week that we worked together we did our best to understand his vision, but because it was an improv piece the vision remained nebulous.  When reflecting on the performances there was no yard-stick against which the performance could be compared.  A successful performance wasn’t measured against mistakes.  The difference between good and great wasn’t an accounting of mistakes but whether we had embodied his vision and created magic in the process.

 

Unlike with set choreography where I had a better sense of the piece when I was on stage, I had a better sense of the piece when I was off-stage.  Standing in the wings was no longer a passive act, waiting for the proper time for one’s next entrance.  Standing in the wings was instead an active act of watching and thinking.

 

I had the freedom to be onstage or off.  This meant that while watching from the wings I was constantly asking myself the question of whether my presence would add to the piece.  I was constantly asking myself the questions of composition.  Questions regarding positive/negative space, dynamics of energy, diversity of movement.  I asked these questions of myself continuously, whether onstage or off, but was able to get a better sense of the whole piece, and therefore make a more informed answer when I was watching from the wings.

 

Watching in the wings is a different experience from watching from the audience, because of the different perspective; from the wings I am usually watching at an angle perpendicular to that of the audience.  This means I only have an approximation of what it looks like from the audience, but my dance and choreography training means that I can fairly accurately transform the side view into the front view in my head.  Even still, standing in the wings gives me the distance to allow that transformation to occur.  That meant that when a friend asked me how the performance went my answer was “all I can tell you is that the parts I wasn’t in went really well”.  There was a reason I had decided to stay in the wings, and that’s because magic was already being made.

 

All in all I learned a lot from this special opportunity to work with an established New York choreographer.  The piece itself was co-created during a one-week residency at Temple during the winter break.  Temple dance students of all levels were invited to audition for the residency.  The opportunity was then provided for free.  We had the opportunity to taking the residency for credit, but it wasn’t required.

-Alissa Elegant

M.F.A. student

Ishmael Houston-Jones Residency at Temple

New York City-based choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones was present in several ways on Temple’s campus this year: as guest artist, educator, and the subject of scholarly research. Dance students from all degree tracks were invited to participate in his creative process and learn about the numerous contributions this Bessie-award winning artist has made to the field of concert dance over the span of his thirty-plus year career. I personally had the pleasure of participating in and reflecting on Houston-Jones’ work from several angles.

As an invited guest artist, Houston-Jones spent an intensive week over winter break creating a new work with fifteen students. Beginning with the late November audition and continuing through the first half of the intensive week of 9am-5pm rehearsals, Houston-Jones offered improvisational structures and somatically-driven performance exercises. These practices were intended to deepen our skills as compelling performers and spontaneous dance-makers. Like the majority of Houston-Jones’ work, the spoken text and choreographic material in the dance was developed from the cast’s personal contributions and shared collaboration: as individuals, we responded to the prompt “In a perfect world…” and created movement phrases as a group. Houston-Jones’s emphasis on process over product meant that even after the structure of the dance was “set” the cast practiced techniques that would assist us in seeing compositional opportunities and react as a group in accord with a set of rules. In a Perfect World was performed February 3rd and 4th in the Faculty Concert in Conwell Theater.

Houston-Jones is also a subject of dance and critical improvisation scholar Danielle Goldman’s current research project. Goldman, author of the book I Want To Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom (2010), is a professor at The New School in New York City. Her January 24th Dance Studies Colloquium lecture focused on several artists featured in the Danspace Program Platform 2016: Lost & Found that Houston-Jones co-curated. The following day in the Directed Study in Dance Research doctoral seminar, Goldman presented her research about Houston-Jones’s THEM, a 2012 reprisal of a 1985 work on the AIDS crisis. Akin to her Colloquium address, Goldman’s engagement with THEM centers on themes of community, lineage and history, and intergenerational mentoring in the New York City postmodern/contemporary performance dance scene.

The multiple opportunities afforded by Temple University’s Department of Dance to engage with the work of Houston-Jones is a reminder about how interconnected the professional worlds of dance-making and performance, dance education, and dance scholarship are —and that studying dance and dancing are critical practices that call for on-going curiosity, attentive contemplation, and responsive action.

Read about M.F.A. student Alissa Elegant’s experience participating in the residency here!

–Elizabeth June Bergman is a second year doctoral student with a research focus on the dance work of Michael Jackson. She holds a MFA in Dance Performance from The University of Iowa and a BA in Dance from DeSales University. Elizabeth’s improvisation-based performance work incorporates her training in hatha yoga, ballet, modern dance, and somatic techniques and her interest in history, cultural memory, and critical theory.

Professor Merían Soto Awarded 2016 Leeway Transformation Award

Congratulations to Professor Merìan Soto for being awarded the 2016 Leeway Transformation Award and for her feature in Contact Quarterly! Read about Soto’s commitment to the Philadelphia dance community and her recent artistic explorations HERE!

Soto’s work Todos Mis Muertos (1996) is inspired by life, death, and memories of her treasured Mamita. The piece was recently reconstructed and performed for the Fleisher Art Memorial. Read more about Soto’s choreographic process and spiritual endeavors HERE!

 

Photo Credit: Bill H

Dr. Dodds’ Trip to France

I was lucky enough to spend the past two weeks at Blaise-Pascal University in Clermont-Ferrand, France. I was invited to teach on the Choreomundus MA Program in Dance Knowledge, Practice and Heritage. This distinctive program is delivered across four European universities and attracts a diverse array of international students. I had the pleasure of meeting a cohort from Italy, Columbia, South Africa, Uzbekistan, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, China, Finland and the US. The international breadth made for lively discussion and I enjoyed working with them specifically in the areas of popular dance, screen dance, and dance ethnography. In addition to my teaching, I had the opportunity to work on some of my own research, and this included participating in a wonderful breaking class led by Dimitri Manebard. Although I worked hard during the day, I could not resist sampling some of the wonderful French food, and have eaten enough croissants, bread and cheese to see me through until the new year. choreomundusClermont-Ferrand is one of the oldest cities in France and I loved wandering through its intricate network of narrow streets sparkling with Christmas lights and the dramatic sight of its gothic cathedral. I feel incredibly fortunate that dance has been a passport both for international travel and for meeting students from across the world who share this mutual passion.

 

-Dr. Sherril Dodds

Professor of Dance