Christa Coogan: “An overarching goal in my work with children is to have them feel music in their bodies” An interview taken by Nadezhda Svetlichnaya.

  • 13.07.2018

Christa Coogan:

“An overarching goal in my work with children is to have them feel music in their bodies”
An interview taken by Nadezhda Svetlichnaya.
What does "creative dance" mean? For children... For adults...

Creative,or elemental, dance begins with an experience of physical consciousness and the exploration of dance elements through clearly structured improvisational play. The child is not taught a style or technique (as in case of ballet, jazz, hip-hop, butoh or African styles) or specific dances (from folk traditions), but rather is asked to discover individual ways of expressing ideas, thoughts and feelings through movement and thus develop a personal kinesthetic signature. The natural movements of children such as running, skipping, leaping, falling, bending, twisting; and dance parameters such as tempo, size and strength, are explored in all their expressive, communicative variety.

I see teaching movement and dance to adults in an Orff-Schulwerk context as a three-pronged process:
* I think about the movement/dance content and try to be as clear in my sequencing as I can; solid in my knowledge, yet able and eager to expand that knowledge. I strive to be a facilitator of a musical movement experience.

* I think about basic psychological needs of the adult participants and try to address them during my classes. These include a need for autonomy, for relationship, for a sense of competence and of achievement. Here my challenges are to recognize the individuals and their needs and yet be able to relate to
the group. Can I discern what is someone doing well? Can I give authentic praise?

* I think about the artistic process. An artistic process is the one in which not everything is known at the beginning. It is an evolution of discovery, surprise, uncertainty and delight. Can I relinquish control at the right places? Can I help the participants to recognize that beauty (or we might call it authenticity or honesty) has many faces and thus help stretch aesthetic perceptions? Do I offer enough opportunities to explore imaginative worlds through the body?

What is the role of parents in unlocking movement and dancing potential of a child aged 1 to 7?

I don’t have working with parents and children in dance classes. But this is what I think: the development that begins in early childhood – for instance the communication between parents and children, or between children, and then the process of relationship – so, a child leaving itself – me, me, me me, me - and connecting to her parents, her siblings, other people in the neighborhood; self-awareness and self-esteem, movement and play begin with the parents.

Is the quality of the movement of the parents important for the child?

Of course it is important, but it is not of paramount importance. The movement we are talking about is the movement of the father who throws his infant or 3 year old into the air and catches him; or a parent who swings the child around or who catches the child as she jumps off the bed. Or running faster and faster with the child. I don't think that quality is so important as the relational aspect that the parents build with their child…

However, openness of the parents to movement and to playing with their child is of paramount importance. Rhythmic play; dancing to music with the child; responding to their child’s natural appetite for movement as well as being able to ‚read’ – that is to understand and encourage - the expressive uses of their child’s body,support both the development of motor skills and coordination. Significantly, it also supports their child to sense his/her own body, to be in his/her body. And this is the beginning of the dance!

And what impact does special creative dancing and motion practice have on man's life in general?

In my experience I‘ve had handfuls of people – amateur dancers - who have said to me after a course or a workshop: dancing has changed my life. Maybe they wouldn’t have felt that after taking a traditional ballet workshop. Creative dance can quickly reach deep places within a person because technique does not stand in the forefront of the experience.

Some people, however, don’t like to dance. Some children don’t like to move,dance-wise. I always thought that everybody wants to play music, everybody wants to dance. I no longer think that this is true. I’ve seen children who would really much rather be outside climbing a tree than playing a music instrument. Everybody has things that they love; it mustn’t be a universal experience of transcendence or of being deeply touched only through the arts or specifically through music or through dance.

In terms of the last part of your question about “motion practice”: that is huge. Sensory motor learning is a part of our growth trajectory and, as I mentioned earlier, most children are kinesthetic learners. Piaget’s theory states that especially young children process the world through the information they take in with their bodies. Later on in their development this will become the basis for abstract thinking.

How is it possible to define and develop dancing individuality of every child during group lessons? ...

In the Orff Schulwerk approach, each child has his or her own part. That is, they are not always playing the same thing or dancing the same thing at the same time. Someone is playing the drone; someone is playing the color part; someone is playing the melody. Something that they create or help to create is integrated as a part of the whole idea we are developing in one class or over many units. This helps the children to understand that they are important and not replaceable. Their contribution is important and they develop a sense of commitment. Yet, at the same time, each individual is a part of a group and has the possibility to develop and grow within a group. Within a group they are challenged to transcend their own personal boundaries.

What is the role of general musical development of a child or an adult in creative dance?

An overarching goal in my work with children is to have them feel music in their bodies. Elemental dance offers broad access to realizing the relationship between movement and music – it helps to get this feeling. Children discover parallels in ideas of form and structure, be it that smallest building block, the phrase, the AB form, or the extended rondo form. They draw bridges between musical and dance parameters such as tone color and movement quality or pitch and movement levels. Music begins to be understood on an analytical level. Concepts like legato andstaccato or accents, as well as qualitative structures, are understood in their muscles. But of course children react to rhythm and to the powerful atmospheric pull of music as well. Their senses are awakened, their imaginations are stimulated and thus music becomes internalized onemotional and associative levels. Children learn to interpret music—not visualize it—in their very own personal, aesthetic and physical way.

Today we worked with an AB form in the Aquarium – an example that I have also explored with children. Through the movements that they themselves created using simple parameters – whispering, jumping and hovering, for instance – they begin to understand this in their bodies and in the music – without having you – the teacher - to write it down or to show it. The experience is in the body. They understand through dancing; they understand very sensually and very physically what form means. They draw the parallels between different musical parameters such as the ones we talked about today – high and low, strong and gently, staccato-legato.

How does the transition from improvised dance to teaching of any fixed dancing style happen?

I don't know so much..... but I think it doesn't necessarily have to be a transition. Improvisation does not have to be excluded from fixed dancing styles. And even today in ballet, in professional ballet training and in professional ballet companies, the dancers have to be able to improvise. If they can’t improvise they’ll never reach the top levels of their field. Today, choreographers who work for top companies want improvisation, they want dancers to have their own ideas and be competent in all different kinds of styles of movement and also competent in connecting and bringing these together and that often happens through improvisation. So I don't think it has to be separated.

But certainly improvisation – as a starting place; being creative in terms of structuring dance into small dance studies and into small choreographies – opens up the minds of the children, makes them question and makes them ...say, say wait a second – my tendu is not working, let me see what else can I do to make work better, let me improvise and try another way and let me see if I can – through my improvisation – get on the right track.

Does it depend on a teacher or a training situation?

Yes, it depends on a teacher, or on the course. Some improvisation classes begin with improvisation but those improvisations lead then somehow to material that either comes from the person or it leads…it is an aspect of a contemporary dance class, an improvisational aspect. You might be learning dance movement material and steps from a teacher and then you're asked to improvise on that and you're asked to improvise for a certain amount of counts or a certain amount of time. And then you come back to movement material. This is often in many classes, in professional contemporary classes. In hip-hop classes, improvisation is also needed. «Ok, let’s try to figure out this…how we could do this? Hmm, let’s try this». That’s also an improvisation. It might not be that it takes a lot of time in the class or improvisation for its own’s sake but it’s improvisation to find movement material.

How can a child naturally enter the dancing process with all its ready-made movements, forms and repetitions?

(Singing) That’s why we need people working with little children!!! And people who are qualified to working in creative movement for 1-3 year olds. What does a three year old have to learn how to do?… I mean, of course, the child is always learning something through imitation but the 3 year old wants to be this! and this! and this! (demonstrating different forms and shapes with her body)…So a teacher who is motivated and who knows, can take that and work with it, instead of saying: «Okay, now make a dance, everybody come together, hold hands». But, with the ready-made movement forms and repetition, the teacher has to be able also to improvise; the teacher has to be comfortable working with movement; the teacher has to have a vocabulary for creative dance; has to be able to see what children are offering and take it and work with it, to recognize what’s there andto say: «O, my God, look at you all! You are all making such beautiful creations! Let’s go on, I think we should work with it, it’s so lovely!“ Then you take them through your observations to the next level of motor skills, of focusing on themselves, of being aware of the children in the group. This is the way that leads into making group work and leading to ready-made forms or steps.