Teenage stage fright

I’m not a natural performer, I’m not particularly extrovert, in fact I would describe myself as an introvert in most situations. Teaching, as many teachers would say is something of an eight hour a day forced performance where you play the role that is needed at that particular moment.  That might be angry one moment and calm and considerate the next.  After years of teaching I’m comfortable with this role and can carry it off pretty well. Put me in an unfamiliar situation and the more introvert side of my character soon surfaces. With this in mind I do have a little sympathy with the nervously shy behaviour my fourth year (15-16 year old) pupils displayed this afternoon.

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A colleague had been able to organize the visit to school from a group of dancers and rappers from Rotterdam. The afternoon was divided into two halves, first a workshop in relatively small groups followed by a show given by our guests. Due to my lesson timetable I was unable to take a look at the workshop part, but I do know that the pupils were divided into small groups and were able to get some professional instruction in an area that they had chosen such as flamenco, hip hop, rap, theatre or sung performance. However I was able to watch the performance the visiting dancers themselves gave.

My own preparation for both workshops and show in my lessons had been limited, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t know too much about what to expect.  I had had the chance to show some fragments from the excellent Wim Wenders film Piña about the German choreographer Pina Bausch. I can’t pretend to be particularly knowledgeable in the area of contemporary dance, but do enjoy watching shows when I can, and on this occasion the choice of Piña as a warm up was certainly not inappropriate.

The show that was performed mixed music, voice and an assortment of dance styles. It was performed in extremely close proximity to the pupils, with the dancers on a number of occasions almost landing on the laps of the pupils sitting in the front row.

As a teacher in such circumstances I always find myself split in my attention, I what to watch the show, but I always find myself drawn to watching my pupils to observe their reactions to what they are seeing. This dance show was no different, how engaged are the teenage public? What are they going to take away from this experience?

Dance for a teenage audience is an interesting confrontation. Often it doesn’t have a particularly easy narrative line to follow and in its way it is quite abstract. But to balance that it does have physicality and great control, both factors that most young people are able to engage with and value. The performance my pupils saw today fitted these criteria well and I found myself watching across the lines of faces to see their response.

On the whole the response was good. Two flamenco dancers were an important part of the show and many sat transfixed by the control of the flicking wrist movements and sweeps of the skirts following the dancer. For many in the audience a completely new experience I suspect, sitting watching a dance being performed for them for perhaps the very first time. For some in the audience though, they seemed to find it a little difficult, they seemed a little unsettled by it, particularly one group of boys. I shall ask them when I see them next what their thoughts were. I do have my own ideas…for teenage boys, the ones who like generally to try an assert their place in the class with their ‘street wise’ masculinity, maybe watching young women dance in close proximity was all just a little too much. It was subsequently very interesting to watch the swing in their attention when two of the young male dancers took to the stage. Male role models making the difference perhaps? Maybe, a more familiar hip hop style of dance? There are perhaps a number of factors, certainly worth a classroom discussion.

At the end of the performance the pupils were invited a group at a time to join their workshop leader on the stage to show the rest of their peer group what they and been doing during the first hour. It was at this point that the often quiet mouthy fifteen year olds that I teach seemed to become shy little rabbits diving for cover. Why the timidity, when normally in the classroom there is so little timidity?  Another reason certainly for more classroom discussion, but also something to work on in the future. We all like our comfort zones, I can relate to that. I too would certainly be nervous about making such a public step in an area of unfamiliarity. But the thrill of pushing yourself over that line is also worth experiencing and something I’ll be looking for strategies to do just that in the coming months.

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