Mark Morris Dance Group - Approaches for dance students with intellectual disability

Duration: 32:16

Explore approaches to training and creative movement generation for dance students with intellectual disability.

Teaching artists: Sam Black and Chelsea Acree
Student dancers: Learning Support Unit at James Busby High School

MMDG 3 Approaches for dance students with intellectual disability (DOCX 192.53 KB)

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Transcript – Mark Morris Dance Group - Approaches for dance students with intellectual disability

[general chatter]

[piano playing]

SAM BLACK: So my name is Sam.


SAM BLACK: And we are dancers with the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn, New York.

CHELSEA ACREE: And we're really happy that we could be here with you guys today.

SAM BLACK: So we have 2 sessions with you guys today. This first one, before our lunch break, is going to be a dance class. Of course, the first thing we need to do is warm up.

[general chatter]

[piano playing, 'Saving All My Love for You']

CHELSEA ACREE: My name is Chelsea Acree. I've been a dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group for 4 years. Before I joined, I was a freelancer in New York, dancing, teaching, personal training and having my hand on a lot of different things.

I went to SUNY Purchase for college, and before that, I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and danced there at a studio.

So right off from the beginning of the class, I found that the students were very friendly and willing to introduce themselves, wanted to know immediately who we were, and were very eager. And that is just such a blessing to have in a group of students that you've never met before, them wanting to jump right in. So that set the tone of the class in a great way. What we've learned together is that setting the tone for class is really, really important. And so that made the starting of the class really easy.

First thing we're going to do is just a series of exercises that are designed to stimulate our brain and our body in as many ways possible. All right, so the first thing we're going to do is we're going to breathe. So you're going to take your hands, you're going to inhale [breathing in] and then exhale [breathing out]. Inhale through your nose [breathing in] and exhale [breathing out]. Very good.

And now we're going to do little taps on the body like raindrops, all the way up and down your arms, little tiny taps on your arms. Imagine the rain falling down onto your body, on your head, on your neck, on your face, on your chest, on your belly, on your back, down your legs, all the way down to your feet. Good, and then from the top, from your head, all the way down to your toes.

From your head all the way down to your toes. From your head all the way down to your toes, and then back up, and then back down, and then back up and then back down, and then shake it off.

So now you're going to imagine a balloon. And we're going to start as a little deflated balloon, and then we're going to grow, inflating and getting really big, the whole body expanding, inflating. And then getting really small again, deflating. And then inhale, whole body expands, growing. And then shrinking back down.

Now use your arms and legs equally. Arms and legs reach out, and then arms and legs come back in. And now we are going to use the body, too, the spine. Arms and legs and spine reach out. Arms and legs and spine come back in.

Now you can grow and shrink in any direction you want, so forwards and back, and come in, any way you want, any direction. So now we're going to move our spine. Our spine moves in a few different directions. We're going to arch and curl first.

So arch, look up to the ceiling, and then curl the spine and look at your belly button. And arch, look at the ceiling. Open your arms, and then curl everything in. Now we're going to do upper and lower halves of the body.

So you're going to imagine your bottom half, from your hips down, are frozen in ice, and we can only move the top part of our body. Why don't we get Yuka to join us on this. So just a quick tempo, (singing) wump, bum, ba, rump, bum, ba. Yeah? All right, so we're just going to move. Whenever you're ready, you can begin Yuka.

[piano playing, 'Hallelujah']

Just the top half of our body. Good, circling. Moving the top half wherever you want, curving your spine like we just did. And remember, bottom half is frozen. So freeze your top half. That's right, keeping your arms frozen. That's good. That's right, some big kicks. Kick front and back.

So the final thing we have to do in this series of dance moves is spinning and bouncing. So the idea with this exercise is that you're going to make yourself get dizzy. Who likes to get dizzy?

[students laughing]

Okay, does anybody not like to get dizzy? At the same time? [laughs]

Okay, well, it's good for everybody because we're going to make ourselves get dizzy, and then we're going to fix it. Right? So what we're going to do, I'm going to show you. You're going to spin as fast as you can. Arms out to the sides, spin, spin, spin, spin, spin. Getting dizzy, and then you're going to stop and bounce up and down and focus your eyes on a spot in front of you.

So I like to call this the brain bounce because it feels like your brain in your head is bouncing up and down. Right? It's shaking and then bouncing. Right? So we're going to spin and then bounce.

Find a spot on the floor. Kind of by-- I'm seeing the person in front of me there, around by their feet. So I'm just going to focus my eyes and bounce up and down.

[piano playing]

And then you're no longer dizzy.

SAM BLACK: My name is Sam Black. I've been with the Mark Morris Dance Group for 9 years. Originally from Berkeley, California. Also went to SUNY Purchase with Chelsea. We were actually students there together.

I was very fortunate that they needed a guy to join the company-- well, I was graduating. So I actually joined the company right after I graduated. So I've been with the company for 9 years.

One of the most important aspects of teaching kids with any kind of disability, whether it's physical or developmental, is the ability to change your plan if it isn't working. You can set up a class until you're blue in the face, and it could just not work. One thing I learned from Chelsea is instead of saying practice makes perfect, you say practice makes progress. It's about being better from where you started. Right? You taught me that.

CHELSEA ACREE: Did I teach you that? Aww.

SAM BLACK: Yeah, I think so.

CHELSEA ACREE: [laughs] All right, so we've got 15 more minutes.


CHELSEA ACREE: Let's do some more travelling steps. That was very good, everybody.

SAM BLACK: What if we did --?

CHELSEA ACREE: I was going to add those swings to it, or--

SAM BLACK: One, 2, 3, 4.

CHELSEA ACREE: We can also do a flip. So we do one, 2, 3, flip.

SAM BLACK: Oh yeah, that's good.

CHELSEA ACREE: That way? Okay. All right, so now we're going to add some facing changes, some direction changes to our dance. All right? So we're going to do 4 of what we just learned. Right? So arms reach out to the side. We're going to do 4 chasses with the circle. One, 2, 3 and on the fourth one, you're going to hop.

Let's all do that slowly together, with no music, across the floor. So remember, when we're doing these circles, the coordination of the arms and then jump. Right? When the arms are up in the air, that's when you're off the floor. So they're working together using the momentum of the body to get you off the floor.

SAM BLACK: Down, up, down, up, down, up, hop. Down, up, down, up, down, up, hop.

CHELSEA ACREE: So the hop has to be flipped.

SAM BLACK: If your arms go like --

CHELSEA ACREE: Up into the jump.

SAM BLACK: --and if your arms are not fully extended, you're not going to make it up enough. You really have to use the reach of your arms to get you into the air. That's what gets you your full height of the jump.

CHELSEA ACREE: All right, so I think we should just try it because the most important thing in learning a step is practising it. Right? All together, slow, like we just showed you. One, 2, 3, look for your new front, hop. Freeze there.

Now your left foot should be available, ready to go on the other side. One, 2, 3, change direction, and hop. And you know what, this is part of the learning process. Right? Sometimes things are easy, sometimes things are hard, and sometimes things are just right, and it's all part of the learning process. Right? So the more that we practise this stuff, the easier it's going to get.

So let's try it again, a little bit faster. That's right.

[piano playing, 'Saving All My Love for You']

The most important thing that, I think, to remember is that it's not about the disability, it's about the ability of the people in the class. And that you're continuing to challenge, no matter what the individual challenges are.

So now we're going to do 'follow the leader'. So the person at the front of the line, we're going to travel throughout the space, and we have to stay in a line. So everybody's travelling and snaking through the space. Yep, just like a snake.

So the leader can take the group anywhere they want. And you will learn the step from the person in front of you, who's learning it from the person in front of them, and so forth until you're at the front of the line. All right? So even though you can't see the person in front of the line, you'll see the person who's in front of you, who's doing the step.

All right, we're just going to walk around the room. So follow me.


[piano playing]

[students laughing]

Stay right close.

CHELSEA ACREE: So I might be doing something specific with my walking. Right? So Justin, look at my arms. So if you do the arms, then the person behind you will do my arms, and down the line

[students laughing]

Great. Is it Emily?

EMILY: Yeah.

CHELSEA ACREE: Yes. All right, Emily, have some ideas? Here we go.

[piano playing]

Good. Keep up with Emily. Now, Emily, you can go anywhere you want in the room. Why don't you take them on a little complicated path?

[students laughing and chattering]

SAM BLACK: Keep going, keep going.



[students laughing and chattering]


SAM BLACK: Good. Very good.

CHELSEA ACREE: Good job, Emily. [clapping] All right, Felix, you're the leader now. Now remember, you can take that line anywhere you want.

[piano playing]

[students laughing and chattering]

Now, keeping your-- how you're all connected together. Now, Felix, do you think you can change the level but have everybody still have their hands on their shoulders? Let's try it. So leading by you.

SAM BLACK: It's like on a roller coaster that goes up and down, and then it goes around, and then it goes-- Yeah.

CHELSEA ACREE: Really changing those levels.

[piano trills]

Go down--


CHELSEA ACREE: Good. And up. Very good, that's right.

SAM BLACK: Keep moving.

[students laughing and chattering]

CHELSEA ACREE: That's right.

SAM BLACK: Can you come like this-- Felix, Felix.

[students laughing and chattering]

Yeah. Up and-- up and down too, up and down.

[students laughing and chattering]

Right. Very good. [claps]

[piano playing]

We were really lucky today that we were able to do everything we planned because they were so eager and so willing to try things. They were really excited and wanted to get going right away. And I think it was important that we did sort of have a little bit of discipline because it isn't just a free for all. We want them to have-- we want to treat them with the respect that they can handle, some rules, and some parameters, in addition to having fun, which is definitely the goal.

CHELSEA ACREE: So, this dance, the theme is going to be birds. But with another dance, like when you're creating a dance, you can really make anything a theme. Right? We're choosing to do a dance based on birds, but you can also do a dance based on, what else, maybe a city theme? Right? You could have that for your theme for your dance.

Any other thoughts on what kind of themes you could have for dance? Anybody?

JOAN: Friendships.

JAMIE: A reptile.

SAM BROWN: A reptile.

CHELSEA ACREE: Friendships, reptiles, yeah.

SAM BROWN: Different animals.

JOAN: Heroes, legends of heroes.

CHELSEA ACREE: Legends of heroes, that's great.

SAM BROWN: A lot of people make dances based on Greek myths, and--

STUDENT 1: Culture.


STUDENT 2: Culture.

CHELSEA ACREE: Different types of culture. It could be specifically a dance culture, or it could be your own personal family culture. Yeah, stories. Right, if there was a book you really loved, and you can make a dance about it. What was that, Jamie?

JAMIE: Rainbow serpent.

SAM BROWN: The rainbow serpent, I don't know that one.

CHELSEA ACREE: I don't know, that sounds great. [laughs]

SAM BROWN: I would love to see that dance.

CHELSEA ACREE: You could make a dance based only on jumping. Remember that jumping we did in the last class? So today, we've decided to do, since we only have a certain amount of time together, a simple theme of birds. So we're going to look for variations based on that, on our theme.

SAM BROWN: This is a few moves from one of Mark Morris' dances. It's actually an opera. It's called 'Acis and Galatea'. It's a very exciting love story with a one-eyed monster, and it's a tragedy, and it's really beautiful. The music is by Handel.

It's a Baroque opera, and this is a section that's about birds. Galatea, who is the heroine of the show, is so annoyed that all these birds are singing, and she just wants them to be quiet. So that's what this song is about.

So I'm going to teach you 4 moves. These all happen very fast. You're going to do the move, and then it's going to be over before you even saw it. So I'm going to do it, and you guys are going to repeat it like we did with the name game. All right?

So here's move 1. We'll do that one more time. Good, move 2. So it goes from one side to the other, and I'm following it with my eyes. Right?

So the first one is here. Yep. The second move is here. Third move is here. So it's a little bit different than the first one. The first one flips up, second one goes side to side, and the third one crosses in front.

Fourth move, 1, 2, 3, nothing. And you look at it with your eyes. 1, 2, 3, nothing. Fifth move, 1, 2, 3, across, 3 jabs. Yep.

CHELSEA ACREE: Okay, so we're going to add transitions between each move. So we have 5 moves. That means we have 1, 2, 3, 4 transitions. What's one way that a bird travels? The obvious one.

JAMIE: It travels anywhere, to all over the place.


CHELSEA ACREE: Flying, flying. Right? I know this is obvious. Right? Do birds walk?

JAMIE: Yes, they walk.

CHELSEA ACREE: How do they walk?

STUDENT 1: With their feet.

STUDENT 2: Bird's feet.


Yeah, actually.

SAM BROWN: That's a good answer. But what quality--

CHELSEA ACREE: Some, kind of like chicken bird.

SAM BROWN: Yeah, quality-- Right? They sort of pick their feet up very sharply.


SAM BROWN: Have you ever seen a bird hopping?

CHEYENNE: Yes, when there's one leg gone.

CHELSEA ACREE: Aww, that's so sad.

SAM BROWN: Two-to-two, remember two-to-two from earlier? Hopping around?

CHELSEA ACREE: Right, so some birds do this. Right?

SAM BROWN: Good, yeah.

CHELSEA ACREE: And then when a bird stands still, they're still very active. Remember, their eyes are on the side of their heads. Right? So we have to kind of imagine we're looking out from the sides of our head.

SAM BROWN: They look around to see if any danger is coming. Really sharp heads. Everyone practise that. So we have flying, walking, hopping and standing still looking around. Really, really show the difference. Flying is really smooth, walking is a little bit more choppy, and hopping is sort of a steady rhythm of hopping.

CHELSEA ACREE: All right, well, before we move on, I would love it if anybody would like to share their solo.

STUDENT: Like what kind of solo?

CHELSEA ACREE: Whatever you want, or whatever you just did. Anybody who would like to share? Opportunity to perform on this beautiful stage, Joan.

[piano playing, 'A Whole New World']



That was great, Joan, Thank you for sharing.

[piano playing]

[students laughing]


[students laughing]

[students laughing]

[laughter and applause]

Ah, very good. Thank you.

[piano playing, 'Born Free']

SAM BROWN: In the second half of class, we decided to do more of a choreographic workshop. So we gave them some exercises and some games where they had to do some improvisation.

Someone else is going to come in and look at my shape and make another shape that has something to do with the shape that I'm making. Right? So you see how it sort of is similar to what I'm doing, but not exactly? It sort of compliments. And then someone else will come in and add a statue until we have one giant statue garden of 16 statues. Yeah?

So tricky, do not pick the hardest move in the world. Because you have to balance for a long time. If you want to go in, you'll raise your hand and then go in. So we have one at a time. Yeah?

And you can wait. You can take a look and see what's there, and then decide to add to the statue.

CHELSEA ACREE: Whenever anybody's ready, just--

JOAN: [laughs] I look like a monkey.



[students laughing]


[students laughing]

Nice, very good. Whatever he wants, yeah. Who's next?


SAM BROWN: Anyone over here? There's so much space.

STUDENT: All right.

SAM BROWN: (whispering) Yeah, nice.

[students laughing]

Guys, hold your-- Good, hold your shape so she knows where to go. Good. There's some more room.

[students laughing]

[Sam breathes out]

[students laughing]

Good. Let's see if we can get a few more shapes in there. Beautiful. (whispering) I see a space right there. You wanna go? I see a space right there if you want to go.

STUDENT: (whispering) Down like this?

SAM BROWN: (whispering) Yeah. just something in there. It's a quiet statue.

Nice. Yeah. Let's get a few more in there. Guys, go next?

[all laughing]

You go?

(whispering) All right, there's a space right there.

STUDENT: Right there?

SAM BROWN: Yeah. Nice. Yeah, if you want to walk around to get a different view, you can also do that. Want to get in there, Haley? Haley and Emily and Cheyenne and Sam, got a few more.

I see there's a good spot right here.

CHELSEA ACREE: (whispering) Ooh, yes, it's getting hard.

[students chattering]

SAM BROWN: Beautiful. Good, now everyone come out of it.

[collective sigh]

Really good, you guys.


That was really great. So a few things that I saw that I really, really liked about that. So Joan started us off with this sort of theme. Right? Like this roundness here, this position that became a theme. We saw that theme on different levels because some people were here, some people were here. There was a lot of looking at the shape, and seeing somebody else doing it, and having the same idea to do it somewhere else. So I really liked that.

I also liked that there was-- that it was happening on different levels. So this shape was happening up here. It was also happening down here. It was happening on different angles. Right? So it was really good, sort of using-- using what was there to come up with an idea. It was really good.

Now what we're going to do is someone's going to go in, do whatever kind of shape they want. Someone else is going to come in. Joan, will you come in for an example, for a second, and do something? Nice.

And then if Chelsea were to come in, I'm actually-- when Chelsea gets here and does something--




SAM BROWN: Then I'm going to leave. I'm going to-- Actually, that was a bad example.


I going to leave by taking myself out of the shape that I'm in. But they are now, they are now a duet. When a third person comes in, Joan will leave. So there's never more than 3 people. It's always sort of bouncing around like this.

So the first person goes in--

CHELSEA ACREE: All right, you can come out of it.

SAM BROWN: Good, that was, yeah.

[Chelsea laughs]

So the first person goes in, makes a shape. Person 2 comes in, makes a shape around person 1. Person 3 comes in-- Another volunteer to show? Felix comes in. And when Felix gets here, I'm going to leave. When somebody else comes in--


SAM BROWN: Chelsea's going to leave. And I'll help by calling out the name of who's going to go. Does that make sense? So it becomes trios and duets that are constantly shifting. So it will constantly be moving around. Yeah?

Felix, come on out, that's great.

CHELSEA ACREE: You want to start, Jamie?

SAM BROWN: Jamie, you want to start? You sure? Who wants to start?

And in any group, there's going to be a natural leader who sort of steps up and is the first one to do it. And that always sets a nice pace for the rest of them to say, 'Oh, my friend is doing it, I can do it too.' It always takes a little while to get that going. There were a few that were a little bit reluctant, and you sort of expect that, and just have to keep saying, 'You know, it's okay, we're all uncomfortable sometimes and--.' But by the end, I think everyone was sort of more willing to put themselves out there and try something.

[piano playing]

Oh wait, Felix, you stay.

You'll leave when the next person comes.

CHELSEA ACREE: Wait till she comes. Good. Wow, beautiful.

SAM BROWN: Got to hold it. [laughs]

[students laughing]

[students laughing]

CHELSEA ACREE: (mumbles) This one is a hard one to hold here.

SAM BROWN: Someone else come in?

CHELSEA ACREE: Especially in a workshop setting, where you're only working with one group for one day, one afternoon, it's hard to really get to pull out those few students who don't lead, who don't-- who are a little bit more reserved. Today, I thought it went really well. I think by the end, everybody did really get involved.

SAM BROWN: What do you see? Where is a good spot to go? Yeah.

STUDENT: Can we go in twice?

SAM BROWN: Sure. Nice.

CHELSEA ACREE: I'm sure if we were working with a group over time, we would get to know them a little bit more and have those students try to push them a little bit more. But that would take time to get to know the students a little bit.


[student laughs]

SAM BROWN: It helps when the teachers are sort of-- they know their personalities more; they can sort of step in and help guide. Because we just met them today, so we don't know what they need or how they operate. Although, like I said, a few people really have come forward as being a leader, and then you have to sort of help, you have to involve them and say, 'Can you show us that again?' because it sort of gets it going a little bit more.

[students laughing]

[piano playing, 'Saving All My Love for You']

Good, all right.

CHELSEA ACREE: I found that they were-- that they have some experience with dance and the kind of set-up of a dance class. And so we didn't have to spend much time explaining, 'Okay, these are the steps that you have to do across the floor, you wait this amount of time for the group to go in front of you, we're going to spread out and face the front.' They knew of these certain parameters that come with being in a dance class. They had those skills already, so we didn't have to kind of direct them for that.

SAM BROWN: Just a review, we have move 1, move 2, move 3, move 4 and move 5. Remember how quickly they happen. Right? Then remember we have flying, walking, hopping and looking around. You, in your group, group 1, group 2, group 3, are going to make a bird dance as a group. So you need to actually choreograph in order. Choreograph a little dance using those ingredients.

Your group is going to choose a starting pose as a group. Similar to what we did with the statues, where you're all intertwined somehow. You're all connected in some way as a group. You're going to choose a starting pose.

Then when the music starts, you are going to do your dance, which is going to go: move 1, transition, move 2, transition, through 5, 3, 4, 5. And then you're going to have another tableau or another shape, it can be the same or different than the first one for your ending pose. Is that clear?

So the way that we know it starts is when everyone's still, in a pose. You do your dance, and you come back to the same pose or a different pose, and that's the end. That make sense?


SAM BROWN: So you need to decide as a group the order of the transitions and where you're going to go in the space, as a flock of birds. Each group is a flock of birds.

So we should, maybe, try it with music soon.

CHELSEA ACREE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SAM BROWN: All at the same time.

CHELSEA ACREE: All at the same time. Yeah, I think so too. Do you want to tell?


CHELSEA ACREE: Yeah, okay.

SAM BROWN: So everyone, let's be really good audience members and watch.

[piano playing]

CHELSEA ACREE: Well, I find it's really important to focus not only on the steps but also how they're approaching the steps.

SAM BROWN: And kids do respond to specific attention. You know, if you say, 'I like the way you did that, can you show us that?' They obviously love that. They also respond really well to, 'Can you show me that again? That wasn't quite right.' I think when you can give them a little bit of personal attention, I think most people rise to the occasion and feel that this is an opportunity to learn something, and I think that people respond to that pretty well.

CHELSEA ACREE: When you pull one child out and say, 'That was really great, the way you did it.' That happened in class today-- Then it brings the other kids say, 'Oh, my friend got this attention, and--

SAM BROWN: I want that attention.

CHELSEA ACREE: --I want that attention too.' Or-- And then it also brings kind of the community together because, as the teacher, you're giving positive attention to this child, and then the other ones can also give positive attention to their classmate as well. So it's not just as a competition thing, but also like everybody coming together and supporting this person for doing well.

[audience applause]

SAM BROWN: Take a bow, take a bow. Good.

[piano playing, 'Saving All My Love for You']

CHELSEA ACREE: So everybody, that's all the time we have today. Thank you so much for coming and working with us. It was really wonderful to meet you. I hope that you learned something new, you tried something you hadn't tried before today, challenged yourself a little bit, and I hope you had fun.

It's just really great to see them come out of their shells, pushing them to try something they haven't tried before, and I feel like it was a very successful class. They seemed to have a great time, laugh and be serious, and get something done which was fun and exciting.

[piano playing, 'Saving All My Love for You']

End of transcript