An Interdisciplinary Dance Class

It’s not hard for us to see now that “maritime studies” isn’t merely a discipline with facts for us to learn. It is a way to see and understand the world — including some of the most intense and scary changes the world is going through. 

By Zach Arfa (F’19). Zach is a senior at Oberlin College, where he’s studying dance and psychology. He grew up in Shelburne Falls MA, and is excited to find more interdisciplinary intersections between dance, psychology, and the environment after graduation.

picture shows a group of students and a professor crouching in marsh grass, focusing intensely

This semester, we have been doing a huge amount of learning about the world. It’s not hard for us to see now that “maritime studies” isn’t merely a discipline with facts for us to learn. It is a way to see and understand the world — including some of the most intense and scary changes the world is going through. 

This Thanksgiving, I flew out to Oberlin for the first half of our break. I went to see my friends there, but I was also invited to guest teach a dance class. I study a dance form called Contact Improvisation, a partnering form created at Oberlin College in 1972. It’s based on momentum and weight sharing. When you lean into a partner or partners, a shared center of gravity is created. The technique of the form is keeping and manipulating that point of contact throughout an improvised dance together. I absolutely love it. There are lifts and rolls and falls. It can be so fast and wild that you can’t look where you’re going, and so slow and intimate that an entire hour can go by with only your heads touching ever so lightly. I’ve been dancing this form for three years now, with fairly intensive classes every semester so far. I’ve taught beginner classes on campus, and facilitated more advanced practicing groups. A great friend of mine has been teaching a beginner class while I’ve been at Williams-Mystic, and so when I told her I was coming to campus for a few days, she asked me to guest teach an evening.

Through such immersion in interdisciplinary education this semester, it’s been impossible for me not to make connections to the disciplines I’m familiar with. I’ve been thinking of psychology and music, but connections to dance have been running through my head and my body. Through movement, we can teach embodied concepts. Think of an anatomy class where you don’t just learn what a bone/muscle/tendon is called, you also learned to feel it in your body and feel how it helps you move. Movement bypasses skepticism and abstraction. It is only concerned with the intimate. And intimacy in an educational setting is deep understanding. It brings a relevance and connection that most people don’t find in school. It’s why it’s important not just to learn the names of animals in the intertidal zone, but to actually go to the beach in Rhode Island and see, hold, and touch them. 

All semester, I’ve been inspired by what we’ve been learning and I’ve been creating scores. A score is a movement prompt. Choreography is concerned with how you move your body: an arm goes here, and then there at this point in the music. A score is a structure within which the exact movements are improvised. A score could be as simple as “take one minute, start high and end low.” It is just a structure that helps to focus an improvised dance. The scores I’ve been creating aren’t just about movement. They are about what we’ve been learning and experiencing this semester: climate change, natural disasters, environmental ecosystems. That is what I brought to this dance class at Oberlin. Four scores.

picture shows a grinning students holding a baby alligator
Zach holds a baby alligator during a swamp tour on Williams-Mystic’s Louisiana Field Seminar.

The first score was a variation on a very common score in Contact, the Earth Water Air Fire score. This score is normally a warm up, and a way to tap into different energy levels. You start on the ground, embodying the earth, feeling grounded and supported, moving and shifting so minutely, as the earth does. That transitions into water, flowing and spreading out. The speed may increase, and the resistance in your body is zero, like a gentle stream parting around the rocks. Then air, similarly low resistance but now standing, using more space in the room you’re in. Finally fire, fierce and hot. Strong, direct, movements. All the actual movements are improvised, but the score helps guide the energy through the warm-up. This score is quite common, and it inspired the first climate change score I created. 

I took that score, but I set it in Louisiana. Instead of the earth being supportive and grounding, what does it feel like in our bodies if it’s literally eroding out from underneath us, sinking away? And what if water, instead of being flexible and passive, is flooding and destroying homes and lives? The air is also gusting fiercely, throwing things around and is quite devastating. And then for fire, I brought it to the people we met in Louisiana. I thought of Mr. Chris saying that as long as there was one grain of sand on Grand Isle, he’d come back and rebuild and keep living there. The fire was the fierce love and commitment these people have for the land despite all the ways in which the elements can be hostile. These elements guided the improvisations, instead of the nurturing and peaceful versions.

The next score brought us to somewhere we love. Everyone was in pairs, and there was a supporter and a leader. The leader’s prompt was to imagine a place that they love, an outdoor place with living things. They then project that place they love onto the room, and guide their partner through it with their dance together. The leader can’t tell their partner where they are thinking of, but instead must convey what the place is and how they feel about it through the dance. The supporter does just that: supports their dance. Then they switch.

The third score was one that I created last year with a few friends of mine. It’s an animal embodiment wrestling score. I created it because I was watching a lot of Steve Irwin videos (he’s not just my absolute hero — I first started watching his videos because he’s an unbelievable mover) of him rescuing crocodiles by wrestling them. So in this score we bring out a bunch of mats, and we embody crocodiles or lions or any animal you want, and we wrestle. But instead of the goal being to pin your partner (as in normal wrestling) the goal is to keep them moving. I added prompts about connecting with the animals and really thinking about how they would move: not mechanically, but energetically. What does it feel like to become these animals?

picture shows students clambering on a rocky shore, posing and grinning in front of a pristine bay with evergreen forests and mountains in the background

This led us into the last score, a kind of environmental education score. I broke the class up into levels on the food chain in the Alaskan coastal ecosystem. One person was an orca, the apex predator. Two were sea otters, two were sea urchins and abalone and the rest were kelp, the foundational species of the ecosystem. As in the last score, we moved throughout the room as our animals. First, we simply embodied them — not mechanically (we didn’t flop like an orca would) but energetically, with the power and fearlessness that an apex predator would have. Then we had short dances with each other, between five and ten seconds, as our animals. The orca might be direct and forceful, where the shellfish might be slower but very purposeful, the otter would be quick and light, and the kelp wouldn’t move a lot through the room, but move a lot through their upper bodies. We put the ecosystem into the room, and felt the relationships between all these animals that share space. After that we ran out of time, so we stopped there. My idea had been to then go through the history of that ecosystem. What happens when the Russian hunters arrive and kill basically all the sea otters? The shellfish have no predators so their populations rise, so the dancers embodying otters would become shellfish. But then, they would eat all the kelp, their populations would crash, and then the kelp would rebound. And the orca would also go without the otters to eat. And so on. I’ll have to test that part out in a future class.

I left that class feeling like each score could be its own semester’s worth. The first score was an investigation of the changing climate and natural disasters, and a reckoning with the fear and grief that evokes. The second connected us to the world, and might inspire more love for it, and perhaps more of a drive to help it. The third helps connect with other animals, letting their movement really inspire and unlock the animal in us (for we are wild animals!). And the fourth was environmental education, an embodied way to teach people how the natural systems of the world work. There are so many scores that could do each of those things. I feel like I’ve just opened up a whole storm of possibilities for this work! I’m planning on leading a class and exploring it with a lot of intention next semester.

For me, this was just another lesson that the world is interdisciplinary. It’s not enough to only do things one way. An environmental education class or a normal dance class would not have been able to create what happened that evening. We must be able to translate concepts, and create hybrid models (of learning and of cars) if we want to make a difference in the world. This is exactly what we’ve been learning to do this semester. We are able to go and work with people in ways that I certainly didn’t think I could do before. I’m not bold enough to say that this class, or this approach, will “change the world”. But I’ve heard that big change, like the change we need around the environment, is like an overflowing bucket. It may only be a few drops of water that tip it over the edge, but they accumulate atop thousands and thousands of other drops. We can be those drops.

Author: Williams-Mystic

An interdisciplinary ocean and coastal studies program integrating marine science, maritime history, environmental policy, and literature of the sea. All majors welcome and 100% of financial need met!

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