Teacher's Wisdom: Dan Wagoner

July 31, 2007

Dan Wagoner doesn’t just teach dance. He introduces his students to a lifestyle: the fusion of mind, body, and spirit that is rooted in a strong pelvis. He inspires students to understand why they must dance, and encourages them to bring art into a society that he believes needs it more than ever. A true Renaissance man, Wagoner is an army veteran and pharmacist as well as a professional dancer and choreographer. He performed with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Taylor. For 25 years he led Dan Wagoner’s Dancers and choreographed more than 50 works for them. He has been on the faculty of Connecticut College, University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Bates and Harvard Summer School dance festivals, just to name a few. Julie Freese talked with Wagoner as he prepared to begin the fall semester at Florida State University.

How do you structure your class and why?

I took bits of things from all three people I danced with and evolved a way that warms up my own body. Much of the actual structure came from Merce—the isolation of the lower, middle, and upper back. Being aware of that gave preciseness to the movement that I found exciting. The quick footwork and legwork came from Paul’s idea of a tremendous energy in movement. Martha believed that deep-seated feelings spring from the pelvis, and that you must exercise it. I believe in that, and incorporate it into my class.

There are basic exercises that I repeat, but I vary them each day a little bit. When too much new material is thrown at dancers, they can’t fully do it through their muscles because they are thinking and grabbing for movement. By doing the same basic warm-up, the person can get the exercise right away but is still a bit challenged. Repetition is important in getting alignment and length into the body.

You place emphasis on proper pelvic alignment and strength. What are the benefits of having a strong pelvis?

I do believe that if we could all align our pelvises, wars would stop and everything would take its right place. A generous teacher, Maggie Black, taught me the alignment that I try to teach now. Trying to stack the bones up straight—the leg bones, then the pelvis on top of the leg bones, the spine, and the head—gives you a wonderful core to start from. You can throw off that center, but you have to start by aligning the body. By dropping energy down the back of the leg, and letting the pelvic bone sit balanced on the leg bone, you free the body to move in any direction, and to move really well. Moving through space by instigating with the pelvis, whether in a contraction or release, propels the body with a physical and also emotional strength. Through the loins passes the metaphysical energy up into the intellectual energy. If you want to do really balanced, strong, skillful jumping, spinning, and falling, you must be able to stand on one leg and feel the center up through the body.

Why do you incorporate improvisation into your class?

The work in class is so precise; I choreograph every inch of it. When you have done 24 counts of precise shifting-weight movement, to be able to open up is important. The first group does the phrase and, when they finish, the second group comes in. Then I give both groups a set time of improvised movement before the second group begins the phrase. To see movement and to feel it, you need a guidepost. Like when you eat sushi, there is pickled ginger, and between each different kind of fish, you eat a piece of ginger to clear the palatte. The dancer builds up tension during the phrase. That tension and then the release work as guideposts. This helps both the dancers and the observers take a bit of a rest, and then their eye is refreshed and they can see again.

What should dancers do outside the studio to inform their art?

When I came to New York in the 1950s, I began to meet compelling artists, and I realized that in trying to design something or make something you looked at form and shape. Whether you did it with paint, music, words, or movement, the basic problems were the same. All of these people were acute observers; they looked at everything around them—form, shape, sound, and taste—and they immersed themselves in their own lives in an exciting way. When you go look at other work, there is a chance for inspiration, for the muse to strike—you keep open to this energy that informs.

How can the skills learned in your class be applied to other types of dance?

If you know how to center the body up through the joints with a sense of release, that gives you a wonderful kind of clean slate from which to start. In order to learn the movement you have to look at shape, you have to look at form. That’s the way that you would approach hip-hop or tap dancing, jazz, or anything. What I teach deals with the universals of the human body—the bone socket joints, the hinge joints, balancing the muscle groups, and balancing the bones—that set you up to try anything.

How do you correct students without discouraging them?

I hope to inspire people in a culture that does not champion the arts. I think that the more dancers we have, the more healing can take place. I can sense when they are ready to take the criticism. Once I start, I am relentless in pointing out when they have done it and when they haven’t. Most students seem to want that, and to go with it—it empowers them.

I hate the word teaching. I would like to think that once I have given the movement, the students put it on, as if they have made it up, and they wear it like clothing—it becomes theirs. I always try to teach with generosity. I love dancers and I love dancing, and I try to make that quality very present in the classroom.