Stanford students learn history, and also build community, through dance

Leaders from student dance groups are invited to co-teach a course on dance forms from around the globe.

Stanford students who took Inter-Style Choreography Workshop this spring explored a variety of dance styles as part of an effort to build a stronger community of dancers on campus.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

Student dancers and choreographers came together in a course that merged collaboration and culture into dance practice.

When School of Humanities and Sciences dance lecturer Aleta Hayes was developing Inter-Style for the Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS), one of her objectives was to think of a new way to teach choreography that would merge collaboration and culture into dance practice. She also wanted to strengthen the connections and collaboration between the 31 student-led dance groups – which include over 800 dancers – on campus.

Hayes achieved both goals by inviting student dance group leaders to not only enroll in the class but also co-teach it with her.

“What I wanted the students to take away from the course is the ability to use a contemporary dance lens to expand or develop within their own dance styles. This pedagogy provoked a creative tension between their familiar way of choreographing and learning dance and an experimental approach to making art,” said Hayes

During the spring course, which fulfilled the Creative Expression requirement for undergraduates, Hayes’ students learned a dozen dances taught by fellow students and guest artists. Dances ranged from classical ballet, tap and swing to Punjabi bhangra, Filipino tinikling, and Los Angeles-style salsa, with many steps, jumps and turns in between. Student co-teachers began each class with a short presentation on their dance form that included cultural and geographic context, origins and influences as well as their personal affinity with the dance style.

Artistic directors of Stanford Swingtime and fellow computer science majors Jack Swiggett, ’18, and Maya Ziv, ’20, co-taught a class based on Savoy-style Lindy hop, a style of swing born in the late-1920s in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Ziv acknowledged that prior to taking the course, her interaction with other student dance groups was limited. “This class sparked dialogue and friendships between the dance leadership as well as cultivating a much more nuanced appreciation of each other’s styles,” she said.

Shiriel King Abramson, ’20, a member of Chocolate Heads Movement Band and Stanford [email protected] majoring in American studies, agreed.

“The first step in creating any kind of community is knowing who’s a part of it, and that’s what this class did,” Abramson said. “I learned more deeply about the social and cultural context of different dance groups and that laid a foundation for deeper cross-style collaborations in the future.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of the course for Ziv was learning the cultural and historical contexts of the dances. “I had no idea how old and important – culturally, religiously and spiritually – some of these dances are.

It feels like by learning them, I got to pay my respects to their weight.”

Best moment of the course? For Ziv, it was learning the hula from members of Kaorihiva, Stanford’s Polynesian dance group. “Not only did we learn the moves, we also learned the historical and cultural context for those moves, what they meant, and the meaning of the prayer we danced to. In doing so, we also sent our energy and prayers to the volcano erupting on Hawaii right now, which was a deeply meaningful experience,” Ziv said.

At the end of the quarter, students were making connections between the hand movements in Tongan dance, Balinese dance and classical ballet, and how they each tell a story. “Tap and swing were developed during the same time period and the steps for both come from African American footwork traditions. Making these connections enabled students to feel not only a part of TAPS and the student dance community but part of a global dance community,” said Hayes.