How unique and refreshing to be in connection with another human being who is a listener as a teacher, a student as a director, and curious as an expert. These are all consistent qualities that I had the utmost pleasure interacting with in JoAnna Mendl Shaw in Buffalo, Ithaca, and New York, New York in June and July of 2018. The dancing, teaching labs, work with humans and horses, and research conversations we shared have impacted my own work as a qualitative educational researcher and dancer/choreographer, which I am glad to share with you, the reader, in a bit more detail.
I was invited to stay in JoAnna’s home in NYC for her Dance Differently Lab for four days in July
2018. I would participate in the lab for two days, and for the remainder of the time, would discuss my dissertation on somatics, pedagogy, and early childhood education with JoAnna. When I arrived, I found that JoAnna had read through my entire 252-page book, had written notes and questions in it, and had the entire printed tome available to read through, in my presence, so we could have an active dialogue with and about what I had written. What a way to make me feel immediately welcomed and valued!
What organically transpired from these active dialogues was that the content of the Dance Differently Lab became an embodied laboratory to further explore my dissertation and its intersection with JoAnna’s Physical Listening. The main objective of day one of the lab became an exploration of the significance of human touch in listening and movement. We began the lab with hand and body shaping with a partner, one of us making a shape with our hands or body while our partner, with eyes closed, used their sense of touch to re-create the shape themselves. This opening exploration led us to realize the innate significance and distinction of embodied listening, noticing, and logging through the hair, skin, muscle, and bone.
Day one blended smoothly into day two whereby, after another evening-length discussion about somatics (felt-sensing experience) and composing (through Physical Listening), back to the dialogic Dance Differently Lab we went! Rather than JoAnna leading the lab, we engaged in a back and forth teaching lab. I initiated a felt-sense, mindfulness experience to begin. We took three minutes in silent, mindful stillness to attend to the present moment happenings of our inner and outer experience. In the next three minutes, we used that same mindful awareness to begin making micro-movements through that awareness. This led to macro-movements through awareness for the final three minutes of this exercise. JoAnna then took her turn to lead us through a felt-sense composition experience based on my exercise. Day Two continued as a back and forth facilitation of both somatic and composition movement experiences by myself and JoAnna, with periodic de-briefs. Each of us shared, explored, and blended how we design teaching and composing dance practices, scores, and activities for the various populations we each work with.
The lab in the studio ended with JoAnna’s paper folding activity, which she had just presented at
the Creative Problem Solving Institute in Buffalo, NY. Each of us had 5 pieces of paper (I had red, JoAnna, yellow) and we alternated turns co-building, silently collaborating through the
medium of paper (folding, ripping, crumpling, shaping) to create a something. My frontal lobe was burning, as designing spatially with physical shapes is a known challenge to me, however, I was inspired by the potential of this process for early childhood educators who are considering how to integrate the arts into their curricula. The exercise also seemed relevant to social-emotional development and learning.
Openness to the yet unknown potentials of collaboration was a common theme throughout my four days in NYC with JoAnna. This was demonstrated through verbal and print-based dialogues, embodied dialogues (dance, somatics, Physical Listening), and dialogues through teaching. I left NYC with a strong sense that these collaborative dialogues with JoAnna will continue and spread rhizomatically inside our work, continuing to inspire those we touch.