Perspectives on Pedagogy: An Interview with Alexandra Beller
By. Nicole Zee
TiLLT: Can you provide some background and context on your dance experience? What was your training like? How did you get into teaching?
AB: I went through the gamut of trainings: Graham, Joffrey, jazz dancer at Steps, went to University of Michigan and got my freak on, came back and danced for an Isadora Duncan dance company, a martial arts dance company, and after a year, Bill T. Jones, which was my real artistic playground. I started teaching just after I joined Bill, as a complete novice with zero skills and no confidence. I was just a dancer leading a class, not teaching. Over the past (shall I name the number? ugh) 20 years I have been teaching since that first class, I have learned and learned and learned from my students, as well as my failures and breakthroughs. During that time, I also went to grad school and got a CMA (Certified Movement Analyst, Laban).
TiLLT: What is your teaching philosophy? What must you teach?
AB: As a teacher, I like to take each class as a fresh start, taking in the needs and energy of the people in the room. I encourage noticing, without judgment, areas and actions that are difficult for the student, be they balance, release, control, or simplicity. I encourage risk taking, reminding myself, and others, that sometimes the greatest risk is to be still or small or quiet. I encourage people to notice their neighbors, dance with other people, use architecture as a guide for support, and free themselves from storytelling in order to be in the present moment.
I believe in releasing the mind from the constraints of past training, while harnessing the power of the body's wisdom and all that has been learned. I think we can use the information we have gleaned in our technical education as a stepping stone for more control, more release, more sensation, and greater willingness to take risks. Technique offered in class is designed to inspire the individual body towards its personal best, not towards a universal model of perfection. Task and content are stressed over shape and image. Students are encouraged to dance from the inside out, while developing a sense of relationship between the inside and outside in order to understand which internal actions create what noticeable actions.
I believe that we are each our own best teacher, but sometimes we need help clearing the path to our own knowledge and wisdom. Sometimes we need a guide to remind us of what we know, demand something we believe we cannot do, and laugh off what we are unable to do. I think it is important for a teacher to create an atmosphere that reminds students of the importance of their work, but also to be able to let go, to laugh, to bring life, and its many energies, into the classroom.
What must I teach? Forgiveness. Listening. Love: for self, movement, evolution, transformation.
TiLLT: What is a successful teaching experience with a student or class? How do you measure?
AB: Successful for me, or them? I can't control their experience, so I'll answer for myself. If I have really seen them, each one of them, responded in some way to each student, I'm happy with class. If they've gotten sweaty and, at some point at least one person has said, "ohhhhh....!" I feel positive. If the thing we created together feels like it belongs somewhere other than just in a box of a studio, like it has a relationship to art, could have been part of a piece or a film or someone's moving improvisation, that brings me a feeling of rightness. How do I measure? Energy, faces, the eyes, the eyes. What is happening in their dancing bodies? I measure by alignment, meaning, spatial relationships, narrative, engaging with music in a dynamic way, and dealing with neighbors in a profound way.
TiLLT: What is the most important thing or quality a teacher can bring to a class?
AB: Oh, I think that's different for each teacher, and none of us have ALL the skills, which is why it's great that there are so many different teachers. But, for me: true empathy, intellectual rigor, brightness, love, humor, and passion. I don't think I have to be dancing beautifully to teach a great class, or even to be in a great personal moment. But I do think I have to find a way to manifest the above, even if I'm tired, sad, anxious, or stressed in my own day or life.
TiLLT: How have your teachers influenced the way you teach or not?
AB: Jackie Villamil showed me what it's like when a teacher really sees YOU, and cares truly for you. Others have lit a fire, or made me hate them and to work hard because of that fuel. I have chosen not to follow that model. Of course everything we learn becomes part of how we teach. My most conscious teaching ideas have been born in the studio from my students, though.
TiLLT: How does your artistic practice inform your teaching practice and vice versa?
AB: Teaching is a laboratory, but I don't use it as a workshop for my own work. Class is not about me getting my work done, but I do like to bring in (and cannot help bringing in) what I am passionate about, because I think it's a good model. And many times I'll see or make something in class and be inspired to use it more artistically.
TiLLT: What do you feel you receive from your students? What keeps you returning to the studio?
AB: Oh god, they are the BEST. The joy, the openness, the resilience, the patience, sharing curiosity with me. Agreeing to research our bodies and ideas together is so profound. I feel so grateful for them. I LOVE teaching. I learn something every single class. No matter what I feel like when I enter the studio, I am always smiling when I leave.
TiLLT: Do you feel that the current political climate has informed your practice at all?
AB: Politics and the state of the world right now have changed both my content and my structure. Some days, when we have gotten bad news, someone's rights have been trampled, or some group has been threatened, we change the class structure to be more contact based: we touch each other, make duets. Some days we decide, as a group, that we need a sweaty catharsis, or a quiet reckoning. It's not necessarily politics per se, but the energy of our environment that shifts class. Lately, though, politics is part and parcel of that...
TiLLT: What exciting workshops and events do you have coming up? Share share!
AB: Lots of fun and diverse workshops are always happening through the company: http://alexandrabellerdances.org
We have Teaching Pedagogy and Choreolab right now, and coming up is a Summer Intensive (http://alexandrabellerdances.org/summer-intensive), which I both curate and teach inside, this summer June 12-16 in DUMBO.
Nicole Zee completed her MA in Dance Studies from the University of Roehampton and BA in Dance and English from Franklin and Marshall College.An emerging arts professional, she has worked experience at Gallim Dance, The Kennedy Center, and Carnegie Hall, among other arts organizations. She has published work in caa.reviews and Dance Chronicle (forthcoming).