Douglas Nielsen came to dance late, at the age of 23. But he moved rapidly into the professional world, dancing with Gus Solomons, Pearl Lang, and Paul Sanasardo in New York, and Batsheva Dance Company in Israel. He created Douglas Nielsen Dances in 1982. He has been teaching modern dance around the world since 1973, and under the auspices of the American Dance Festival since 1987. Now a professor at the University of Arizona School of Dance, ADF honors him this June with the Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Chair for Distinguished Teaching. Margaret Regan spoke to Nielsen about his approach to teaching.
How would you sum up your teaching philosophy?
The most important part of my methodology is to get people to relax, trust the atmosphere, and make huge mistakes. Seriousness is balanced by playfulness. I’m older than the dancers’ dads, and they can’t imagine their dads doing a handstand and falling on the floor. Hierarchy has always bothered me. I want to be part of what they do. I learn with them. Teaching is so wonderful because you learn by doing it. And they teach me something back. I’ll tell you Steve Reich, you tell me Puff Daddy.
Who influenced your teaching style?
I’m the beneficiary of all my teachers. My first teachers were Bella Lewitzky and Donald McKayle at CalArts, and Mia Slavenska. What a trio. The
methodology of those three was very different. I gravitated toward McKayle because I didn’t like to do a set warm-up and then move. I liked to move. He moved. Good parents push you to find your own voice, and all good teachers do that. I never felt my teachers were dictating to me to do exactly what they did. It’s important to me to do that as a teacher too. My way is not the way.
How do you structure your classes?
My classes move right away. We warm up by dancing, rather than by preparing to dance. I start class differently every time. My challenge to myself every day is to make up three new phrases for each class. I work in the morning for about 90 minutes on my own. I don’t demonstrate the combination too many times. I expect them to pick it up. So what they learn is what I call conversational dance: They learn to dance by
dancing. I won’t remember the combinations. I just make another one and let it go. I want to keep it alive and fresh.
How do you encourage musicality?
I want dancers to learn how to phrase, not count. I say A-B-C instead of 1-2-3. I don’t want them to lose the motivation of just moving through space. Sometimes I have dancers sing while they do an exercise, or hum what the accompanist is playing. You hum along, you find it. Sometimes I have them do the phrase in silence, just to hear the rhythm of the feet. I try to make class spontaneous, rather than self-conscious.
Your university classes are large. How can a student make the most of a big class?
When I first meet a class and I have to learn their names, there’s a point where if I don’t know their name it’s their fault. You have to come to the teacher as much as the teacher comes to you. I like to travel around the space. I establish right at the start when I give a correction to somebody that it’s for everybody. Oftentimes I have somebody demonstrate when they’re doing it really well. That’s a successful way of giving a correction, demonstrating the success of the step, rather than what’s wrong with the step.
What’s the best way for dancers to deal with mistakes?
A good response to a correction is to say thank you, because you’re good enough to see that you can be better. I embrace mistakes. Once they get over that fear of being wrong, they learn. If I go to Mongolia, I’m not going to learn how to speak their language unless I really mess it up. If I’m afraid to say hello, I’ll never say hello.
How do you encourage dancers to dance full out while being conscious of injury prevention?
Most injuries happen out of fatigue or fear. There’s a mind-body relationship. But recognize when you can’t work, and then don’t. Try to take inventory and figure out what the problem is. I have had good luck with pushing through. I’ve seen kids snap an Achilles tendon. When they go through therapy, do everything to get back on their feet, they come back better because of it.
Why do you encourage dancers to learn about all the arts?
I always went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, saw the opera, the ballet, the Broadway shows, went downtown to see somebody sit in a chair with a glass of water. I never felt I should shut something out. I like to tell the dancers to rent a Peter Greenaway movie, rent a Sally Potter movie. I took my grad students to a Richard Avedon photography show. We went to see the Sankai Juku butoh group. In class, I refer to Zaha Hadid, the architect. She said, “There are 360 degrees. Why not use all of them?” One of the dancers researched her and wrote a paper. That’s learning. That’s crossing over.
Why do you encourage your students to study all dance genres?
By taking modern, you’re a better ballet dancer. And by taking ballet, you’re a better modern dancer. If you get too stuck in one patterning of your body, you lose the expression of it. I’m not an evangelist for modern. ADF sent me to Russia at a period when they had ballet and no modern. So when I was teaching, they thought, “Oh, ballet is out and modern is in.” I told them, “No, I want to go to the Bolshoi. I like
ballet.” You don’t have to hate one thing to be another. In my advanced modern class, we lose the genres completely. It’s all there: the ballet, the jazz, and the modern. Go out and take as many classes from other teachers as possible. Find out who you are.