(Archived in Ideas to Try)
About Elizabeth Walton
I’ve been taking Beginning Modern classes with Elizabeth Walton, Associate Professor at UMBC. I love taking beginners’ classes, in part because I get to observe how other teachers introduce concepts of movement to newcomers. Liz is especially skilled at that, going beyond technique to include activities that allow students to discover principles of weight, gravity, and direction, for example.
She also makes students aware of time and music in dance, calling on individuals to set the tempo for exercises and always counting correctly. That makes sense when you learn that she spent six years as a lead dancer in the original touring company of Paul Taylor, a choreographer noted for his musicianship. (Linda Hodes is quoted as saying, “I hear music differently after I’ve heard it through his eyes.” Of Bach’s “Musical Offering,” a NY Times columnist wrote, “He inhaled the music and exhaled dances.”)
Recently, Liz produced a documentary of her conversations with Taylor titled “Paul Taylor: The Man Behind the Dance.” The Washington Post has a wonderful photo montage from it. An online excerpt from the documentary begins with a chat about floor patterns, which is perfect, because it is the subject of this post.
The Floor Pattern “in 10”
In one of the first classes of the semester, Liz introduced this pattern going across the floor on the diagonal:
- 5 steps forward
- 3 steps in the opposite direction (not backwards, but pivoting to face the other way)
- 2 steps forward
Musically/physically, you can see where difficulty might occur as the phrase repeats: the last two forward steps easily merge into the first five steps, obscuring the crusis. This was a challenge for some students. As groups entered in turn to cross the floor, they were not always sure where the end of the previous phrase left off and where the new first phrase began, especially if the group before them got off time.
They class has straight percussion as accompaniment (hey, at least it’s live). A Tibetan singing bowl is tapped now and then to demarcate measures or phrases; but of course, by the time it is heard, the moment is over. It confirms that you’re in the right place at the right time, but without the dimension of tonality, the pushes and pulls of melody and harmony are absent.
(That’s probably one reason percussion is easier for unmusical dancers to grab onto, and why popular music drives heavy beats. It’s also why pianists may become frustrated as accompanists, but I digress.) In some classes, a moment of panic may arise when the music and movement begin to fight each other, and the game has no referee; but Liz knows what’s happening when it happens, and decides whether and when to jump in.
Flatly equal beats made for a more interesting experience in this case, at least for me. Probably as most musicians would, I first thought of it as a changing meter pattern:
Then a young man remarked to me that he was having difficulty with 10, because in his dance world — hip-hop — “Everything’s 8’s.” (Everything’s 8’s all over!) I suggested he think of it as 8 +2. That worked!
Just for fun, I made mental/physical calculations to moved the phrase as other metric possibilities, such as 3+3+2+2…
Then 2+3+3+2, etc…
But surprise! Liz instructed the class to do the same pattern faster, running. The goal is to travel with the same amount of space for the three steps “back” as for any steps forward. The tempo made this a physical challenge, and demonstrated the difference in energy required to change direction in walking and running. But what struck me was how running the pattern makes metric changes virtually inescapable, because of the physical force required to change directions. Running involves halting forward momentum, springing toward the opposite direction, and springing again with only one step in between. The energy is decidedly crusic.
The faster tempo also highlighted the physical tendency to mark the crusis of the phrase in some way from the last 2 into the first 5. Whether with a chin forward, an arm swinging or a knee straightening, students kept track of the “1” by adding movement.
From my perspective, what could be cooler than this? Maybe taking class with kids who could be my grandchildren… but that’s a perspective I’m still adjusting to.
Origin of the pattern
It seemed like one of those Limon phrases that starts (at least in Lenore Latimer’s teaching) as a simple pattern of legs and develops gradually into a wonderfully complicated combination. Or maybe it’s a Taylor thing I’d forgotten. I had to ask.
Liz replied: “I created that phrase for the beginners to get them away from always counting in 4’s. All their ‘radio’ music is in 4’s.” She also devised it as one of those moment of discovery I mentioned above. The phrase calls upon students to discover “what is necessary for the body to do in order to change directions quickly.”
(Embarrassingly enough, before knowing much about her, I actually asked Liz if she happened to know Sharon Kinney, who taught us Taylor technique – and sections of Aureole – at Connecticut College for a semester or so. Turns out they’ve shared stages and a friendship for decades. Here’s a photo of them together in Aureole, at Conn!
Photos of Walton with Paul Taylor and Dan Wagoner: