An interview with Anne Green Gilbert, founder of the Creative Dance Center, Kaleidoscope Dance Company, and the Summer Dance Institute for Teachers
Agnes de Mille’s autobiographical story, Dance to the Piper, encouraged Anne Green Gilbert, author of Brain-Compatible Dance Education 2nd Edition and Creative Dance for All Ages 2nd Edition, to persevere as a child in her dance classes. Later in college, an opportunity given by a professor to teach dance led her to pursue dance education over a career in performance.
A champion of creativity in dance classes, Anne values the positive movement experiences of brain-compatible dance education.
How did your interest in dance begin and what kept you interested?
I started dancing around my living room at age two, so my mother put me in traditional dance classes. I discovered modern dance at New Trier High School, where we studied Humphrey-Weidman technique and Limón technique. We were also taught composition and given the opportunity to choreograph our own dances. I continued dancing and choreographing in college, at University of Wisconsin and Sweet Briar College. I love choreographing. For me, planning an engaging, meaningful, safe, and positive dance class is choreography. I never get tired of creating new plans. I am always excited to dance with my students, even on Zoom!
You have taught in a variety of academic settings, founded your own dance company, and created a summer institute for teachers. What (or who) influenced you to pursue these opportunities and follow your passion for dance? How were you encouraged to follow your passion for dance?
Agnes de Mille’s autobiographical story, Dance to the Piper, was very influential in my path as a dancer. I read it as a child when I was struggling in my ballet classes; it was a genre that did not inspire me, and I did not have the body type my teachers were requiring. I resonated with de Mille’s rebelliousness and her determination to keep dancing despite her own teachers’ criticisms. De Mille felt passionately about dance, and so did I. I was determined to make my own way in the dance world. I also grew up watching Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Shirley MacLaine, Bill Robinson, and the Nicholas Brothers on television and lots of live musical theater in Chicago. All the dancers, whether they were stars or in the chorus, inspired me to keep dancing. My New Trier High School dance teacher, Suzanne Keating Wente, encouraged me to choreograph and take extra dance classes in and around Chicago from Gus Giordano and Edna McRae. My mother and father encouraged me to go to college before going to New York to pursue a career in dance. At Sweet Briar, my professor Sandra Robertson Norton gave me the opportunity to teach dance to the freshman and sophomore classes, choreograph dances for festivals, and take a leadership role as president of the college dance organization. She also encouraged me to teach dance in the community. This led me to a career in teaching, as well as advocating for dance education, rather than pursuing a career in performance.
As you work with students ranging from toddlers to adults, what have you discovered or learned as an instructor or educator? As you teach the different generations, what surprisingly remains the same, and what are some differences that you have to adapt to as a teacher?
Positive movement experiences, what I call brain-compatible dance education, are beneficial for all ages. Infants develop their brains through movement. Elders delay dementia through movement. Engaging in expressive movement experiences while relating to others keeps our brains and bodies healthy and strong and develops valuable social and emotional skills. I have learned that everyone, no matter what age, wants to feel safe and satisfied. This means providing appropriately challenging and engaging activities while giving frequent and positive feedback to every student in class. All dancers, infants through elders, want to be recognized as they experience a meaningful and joyful class.
The five-part lesson plan I describe in my books can be used for all ages. The explorations and structured improvisations can be made easier or more challenging by changing relationships. Use simple improvisations for individuals when teaching young or novice dancers. Combine two or more familiar explorations for partners, trios, and quartets when teaching older or more experienced dancers. The greatest differentiation between age groups and levels of experience occurs when teaching skills and steps. Knowing what movement skills are appropriate for the levels you are teaching is important for the safety and satisfaction of your students.
What do you see dance and the arts offering students during all the disruptions caused by COVID-19?
Activities that encourage self-expression and emotional release are extremely important during these difficult times. Full-body movement, even in a small space, keeps the brain neurons firing and wiring. Despite all the research about the myriad benefits of the arts and arts education, artists and educators in this country have to constantly validate why the arts are of value. We need the arts now more than ever!
What’s a question you often get asked by others as it relates to dance, and how do you answer it? What’s a memorable question you’ve been asked when someone has discovered your career is in dance, and how did you answer it?
After people have studied with me or read my books, they ask, “Why don’t more dance studios include a creative component in their classes since creativity and problem-solving are so valued by colleges, dance companies, and corporations?” Many dance teachers learn dance as young children in dance studios. We often teach what we have been taught and in the way we have been taught. If we learn only dance technique, steps, and routines, we are more likely to replicate this education when we become teachers. I am excited that more workshops and courses on brain-based dance education are becoming accessible through online platforms during this pandemic. There is so much dance content available to everyone now. I think we will begin to see a change in how people view dance and how people teach dance. These are difficult but interesting times.
Anne Green Gilbert has taught toddlers through adults at the Creative Dance Center, which she founded, as well as at elementary schools, universities, and at her Summer Dance Institute. She developed BrainDance in 2008 and this focusing warm-up exercise has been used around the world. She is the author of both Brain-Compatible Dance Education, Second Edition, and Creative Dance for All Ages, Second Edition. When Anne isn’t writing books or teaching others about BrainDance, she enjoys spending time with her family, including six dancing grandchildren.