After uncovering the need to have surgery from a long term knee injury - I found out that recovery, time where I cannot be weight bearing on my leg, was 6 weeks. Even with job flexibility, or having crutches/wheel chair, that's quite the challenge for any job where "must be able to stand for long periods of time" is listed. Which in my mind, definitely read Dance Teacher. This blog is a journal for what steps I took for maintaining my movement classes, techniques when working with students as a means of understanding "accessibility and movement" not only as a dancer, but as an educator, and the response and growth from the students themselves.
Photo: Dave Moore Photography
Preparation before Surgery
In the anxiety prepping for these days recovering from surgery - I knew I had to keep working and teaching, which is what I love to do. I checked in with my dance studios well ahead of time and all the studios were gracious enough to ask around for a demonstrator (an advanced student) who can help model while I taught. I knew that even in a wheel chair I could be a little mobile and make observations and critique. I forewarned all of my classes that the surgery was taking place and made sure the students were "book marking" in their heads our routine so I could focus on corrections and the call out more than demonstration.
Day of First Class Post Surgery
Lesson: Sr. (15-18) Beg. Musical Theater - 1 1/2 Hour Class
16 count across the floor variations
Bonus: Waltz Turns, side leaps
Combination: “Thoroughly Modern Mille”
The idea behind the combination was to teach a combination using a time period, the 20’s that has a series of moves most have some kind of familiarity with (the Charleston, sugars..) that are usually repetitive and not high on skill but takes time cleaning. That way I am not totally inventing movement. I researched videos to get an idea of phrases and moves to string together. Resulting in about 45 seconds of choreo based on how things flowed in my head. I prepped some details on across the floor movement but the rest I trusted my instincts on my routine warm-up and communication skills as an educator.
I confirmed that I was still teaching, confirmed that I could use the front door of a multi business building instead of the back which is where you normally entered the studio, but there was 5 steps, so I wanted to avoid those. I got all packed up, put on some sweat pants to cover the brace, and loaded up into my fathers truck. Since I am still working with pain medication it is unwise of me to drive, even though my right leg is fine. I had found out after surgery that part of the recovery means I have to keep the leg extended. There is no hiding it just sitting in a chair.
After arriving at the studio with my father as the driver, I informed him it was embarrassing for me to be escorted around. One, because I personally hate being depended on. And two, being treated differently by others makes me even more self-aware about an injury I am currently spending all my time with and trying to escape from.
So when we got there and discovered they actually do not have a key to the alternative door, I then to be driven around to the front by my dad, walked up the stairs by the studio owner and my father, to then walk through a dress rehearsal where they had to “clear the way" - made me beyond anxious. But I had a job I came here to do and needed to swallow my pride. Although helpful and grateful I am to them….I had to take a deep breath and swallow my self awareness. Not only to avoid negative self awareness to myself with hurt ego remarks. I let them help me with a smile on my face. I have found when in recovery, as much as you want to work back your independence, other people still want to help, and you have to let them.
In the Studio:
To prepare these specific students, I explained my knee situation.. How the class would still operate as normal, with the same goals in mind: a warm up, across the floor, working technique, and a combination.
I then noted because of my absence up front, I cannot be there for you to match and copy my energy, that it would be up to them to discover and build their own energy. Understanding that my role as Lead Demonstrator also meant I was the lead Hype Person whom they could mirror and flow through class. This I now discovered, wouldn’t happen anymore.
At the start of class we do a repetitive cardio warm up. They have done this one before but it been a while. I broke it down using descriptive words and made small corrections during the breakdown of what I was looking for and what muscles should be engaging before jumping in and running it with music. You could still feel the eyes of the lost walking into the unknown stuck to me at this point, even though I was posted up sitting facing them at the front right corner of the room, unable to be that security blanket to hide behind. They followed...okay, and missed the ending which we drilled before moving on. Energy was lacking behind the music, and lack of confidence in the movement even from a repetitive simple /silly movement stand point.
Warm Up into Stretching:
Moving into a mix of Cardio and Stretching, you could still feel the hesitation between the listening AND then making the mind-body connection. Once on the floor, I observed that they started focusing on the stretch and less about following....me, even beyond making the proper shapes. They started to understand that in order to gain the information they needed to do the movement personally , they needed to make a strong choice, and began to trust my feedback as an observer - and then relate it back to which body parts should be engaging or stretching.
- During a drink break, I checked in on what technique things they wanted to work on thinking also as a safety if the combination failed we could drill those. They said Pirouettes.
Across the Floor:
Now these exercises I regularly do in my normal classes - I now focused working with each dancer and how to relate to the movement in a Musical Theater context. Asking questions like "If I were to do a Jazz Walk, what does that look like or mean?" Seeing if they can demonstrate and build from there. What do they already know?
Jazz Walks Exercise
1) Break down step
2) Add Rhythm, 2 slow, 4 fast
3) Add Character
4) Make bigger
5) 4 counts to get to center, 4 counts improvise, 4 counts walk out
16 counts moving across the floor
Across the Floor
1) Speaking through terms they knew (Grapevine, kick ball change, pivot, pony)
2) Add Music
3) Clean Technique (spent a lot of time working – smaller, less work, clarity of movement, owning the movement
4) Reversing. (what questions you need to ask, and what is implied
Turns/pirouettes. This I feel was the most enlightening because everyone freaks out when reversing, so working strategies to overcome this in invaluable and will pay off tremendously in the long run.
1) Pada boo Ray, break down
2) What muscles are engaging or relaxing/the breath
3) Quarter, half, full
5) Moving across the floor using these tools.
Feedback and Revelations:
Once we got into moving across the floor you could tell their minds shifted. I became less of a dependent, and more as a tool. They started making choices on their own. Through encouragement I lead them to ask more articulate questions as they solved the movement I presented to them. By the end of class, energy was high.
We didn’t even make it to the combination I had prepared. They were thrilled with the corrections I was giving to moves they thought they already knew, and were taking notes a lot more wholeheartedly and applying them because they had no one to hide behind. And they couldn’t hide behind their friends because I was watching the whole time. There was a sense of stepping up to the plate, dare I say leadership within themselves, to what they could do – and didn’t get defeated by a lack of understanding or by how class is normally run. It was very empowering. Not only of their own bodies, but confidence and learning agility.
I wanted to start this blog because I knew surgery and the recovery needed to happen one way or another in order to keep up with the physical demands of my daily life. Two, I knew I needed to keep working, primarily because of financial reasons, but also teaching is something I love to do and brings me joy - and out of the reclining chair I'm currently living from. Three, having made friends who are leading inspiring and creative lives AND have physical limitations meant I could really use this time to discover a new point of view.
That taking 5 steps are hard, that making cereal on crutches is hard, but people want to help and you are strong and more collaborative asking for it. Four, I hope this blog inspires others who may be working through recovery or have physical challenges and that THEY CAN still work, THEY CAN still be creative, and make an impact beyond physical limitation. I hope this brings some comfort and confidence through recovery for dancers and studio owners who feel anxious about how to run a class during times where we have to stop and let heal. You got this.
- Jordan Woods