Teach-Learn Connection: Pilobolus and the Middle School

July 15, 2007

In the same jeans and sneakers they’ve been wearing all day, a group of four middle school girls in their school gym in the Bronx are choreographing a short piece that alternates between krumping, twerking, and off-balance weight distribution. They’ve got no music other than the sounds of band class coming through from next door. Their teacher, Karen Fuhrman from the Pilobolus Institute, walks over and watches their routine. “Great transitions and level changes,” she says. “Now try making the rhythm as random as a bag of popcorn popping.”

In 1991 Pilobolus Dance Theatre, the innovative dance company known for its collaborative process and its weight-bearing and sharing technique, established the Pilobolus Institute to explore the ways non-dancers express themselves through movement. They’ve done educational stints at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School for business students and at an after school program in Connecticut (where the company is based). They aim to demonstrate the Institute’s theory that groups can solve problems better than individuals. This year, they brought their utopian ideas to M.S. 118, the William W. Niles School, in the Bronx. They’re teaching dance, but they are also teaching focus, discipline, and respect.

Reality check: Teaching in the New York City schools is not for sissies. New York City kids often know—and use— foul language. They can be streetwise, and frequently try to test their teachers. Middle schools are filled with kids whose hormones are ripping and who are influenced by the media, their peers, their home lives. It’s a super-heated brew.

Yet M.S. 118’s principal, Giluia Cox, calls Pilobolus’ presence “a smashing success.” The 200 students who’ve taken the class have been “captivated by the physicality, the rigor, the seriousness, and the knowledge that you could have a life in dance,” she says. Cox, who has a king-size commitment to the arts, realized her school’s weak area was dance. The connection to Pilobolus was facilitated by Dreamyard, an organization that serves as an interface between schools and artists. Cox also hired as a full-time teacher, Meredith Sheppard, who had just gotten her MA in dance education at New York University.

Five groups of 20-30 students who signed up for the class meet with Sheppard five times a week in the school gym. A Pilobolus dancer (Matthew Thornton the first semester and Fuhrman the second) comes in twice a week to four of the classes, focusing on improvisation and dance-making. When it’s just Sheppard, she keeps the continuity going but also introduces other forms such as African dance.

Most students had no formal dance training. “Although they may know the merengue by the age of 5 and be proficient in hip hop,” Sheppard points out, “questions arise as to why warm up, what’s important about alignment. Our job is to channel and refine their talent, make it work for them”—and in the true Pilobolus tradition, to “work co-operatively to problem-solve.”

When first introduced to the Pilobolus style, many students said, “That’s cool, but that’s not dancing.” They felt awkward doing modern dance in front of their peers, so the teachers showed them that the choreographic tools Pilobolus uses can be applied to any style.

A bonus for first-semester students was a field trip to Pilobolus’ home turf in Washington Depot, Connecticut to watch the company in action. Thornton calls the day “a big experience for them,” noting that some may never have been out of the Bronx.

During her time with second-semester students, Fuhrman focused on teaching them choreographic tools like “popcorn” (random tempos with each dancer), “restaurant effect” (when everyone is talking over each other), or “sushi syndrome” (when less is more). Students learned that dance is not only about shape and rhythm, but also communication, transition, texture, and expression. “They have explored new, sometimes awkward movements,” says Furhman. “They are taking risks in a safe environment.” She found that the students were very aware of their sexuality, so she worked on slowing down the tempo and waking up other parts of their bodies like their elbows or knees. One student, Lysa Vasquez, had learned to shake her hips in belly dance classes, but now had to use her whole body while dancing. “It feels a little weird,” she says. “But it’s fun.”

Thornton says, “It’s an age group that needs a lot of directing. The students have so much energy and they love to direct it in negative ways… The biggest challenge was how to take it and channel it. There’s no lack of talent in the kids.” Using the collaborative process and choreographic devices they learned, and the hip hop vernacular they already knew, the students choreographed their own piece. The end product was similar to Pilobolus only conceptually, yet it yielded a performance for the school’s winter carnival. Now there’s talk about developing the school pieces to a level where, this summer or next, the main company can include them in Saturday matinees during their Joyce Theater season.

The students were thrilled to see Pilobolus, including Fuhrman, dance at the Oscars on TV. “They were screaming with excitement,” Sheppard says, “and thought it was cool that Karen met Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, and J.Lo.”

Thornton feels the goals that the Institute had going in were a quarter to a half reached. “You can’t get ’em all.” Yet by the end of the year, Fuhrman put the success rate at 85-90 percent. “They are bright and intellectually curious, excited, energetic, and full of moxie,” she says. “Their energy is contagious. The experience is hittin’ home. The sparks are flyin’.”