On improvisation in the ever-eclectic Barnard dance class.
By Molly Murch
I could have been hypnotized. With a steady drum beat interrupted only by the occasional ring of a gong and the soothing voice of an instructor telling me to fold into a fetal position, I was in a particularly vulnerable mental state. Even with the nine curled-up dancers scattered across the floor around me, I’m certain I could have been hypnotized.
On this early Friday morning, I am sitting in on Vincent McCloskey’s Modern I class. He begins class by pulling closed the floor-to-ceiling black curtain over the mirror. Vincent calls this “democratizing the space,” a move that he believes redirects the dancer’s hyperfixation from their body’s appearance to how it feels to move.
I don’t know these nine dancers. I suspect that four are first-years completing their gym requirement, and two are former dancers returning to a lost passion. Perhaps one is a future dance major. The remainder might be burnt out seniors taking advantage of Barnard’s dance department in an attempt to craft a relaxing final year. And I bet at least one is a Columbia student who wandered across Broadway for a weekly escape from the Core. Despite their varying motivations, they have all found themselves in Studio 306.
The dancers share the studio with two musicians: the class’s regular accompanist and a student following along. Both balance a pair of Congas and a mini gong, and they each grip a tambourine between their toes. The class has graciously opened up today’s session to an impromptu audience. Seated on the floor is a teacher of Afro-Cuban dance, a Ballet I student, and—desperately trying not to slip onto the floor into a slow fetal dance—me and my notepad.
I found a similar open-door philosophy in my first two modern dance classes. The department demonstrates its commitment to accessible dance by welcoming both pre-professional dancers and the self-proclaimed poorly-coordinated alike. My Modern II course once even invited a Toddler Center student who had been caught peering curiously through the studio’s open doors inside to observe warmups.
I wasn’t quite a toddler, but I remember my younger self being welcomed into my first Barnard dance class with a similar level of openness. McCloskey infuses his classroom with the same ethos that eased my nerves as a newcomer to the dance world. His patience for imperfection feels quintessentially Barnard: Dance becomes something approachable for someone entering the arena with what might be a restrictively academic disposition. Students who might fear slipping up in any other class accept the prospect that, in this class, they may fall short of immediate mastery. When dancers receive a personal correction, they take the advice in stride. When they sense Vincent in their periphery, glancing at their turnout, they respond with a cheeky giggle: a bit of endearing embarrassment tucked in between the classroom camaraderie.
It was our ability to follow directions, our quick mimicry of standards that gave us each the keys to Barnard’s campus. They unlocked both desk-lined classrooms and sunlit studios. And yet, an hour long, one credit introductory dance class can shake our supposed steadiness and leave us weary, on the floor, and questioning ourselves.
Dance improvisation is where my desire to conform is most harshly confronted. And trying to intellectualize the primarily physical exercise never serves me well. My instructors have made me realize that there is no correct approach to something so innately freeform. The task of creating with nothing but the bodies we have inhabited our whole life soon reveals itself as a challenge unique to each body. Even outside a dance studio, the mastery of our movement takes time. After a lifelong rehearsal of our own, specific walk, we might become confident: a lift of the shoulder, an extension of the leg. Transforming such ordinary, everyday maneuvers into synchronized, controlled artistry is where the crossroads between the physical and the cerebral becomes that much more difficult. If it can take a lifetime to master a walk, how long is needed to muster up what we might finally call a dance?
Vincent asks his pupils to improvise in between plié warmups. He prompts them to swim, anticipate, and hit. “How many thought of hitting?” he asks. “How many thought of being hit?” I am reminded of the many devil’s advocates I have encountered in humanities seminars. One dancer responds. She compares the practice to a fight scene. Her words match the image my own imagination had conjured: a superhero battling their archnemesis.
The group has morphed away from the disorderly oblong orientation it adopted for improvisation warm ups. They are now arranged in rows. All of their eyes are on McCloskey. I slip away just as they finish a technical exercise that asks them to cut across all planes. By now the dancers, like me, have certainly woken up.