Faculty Spotlight: Kristen Smiarowski, Dance

The way Professor Kristen Smiarowski describes her role as a teacher “is that I am preparing our students to go out into the world and contribute.”

The other pillars of the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm—context (October’s newsletter theme), experience (November), reflection (January), and evaluation (March)—are “critical to get them to action, to a place where they’re beginning to imagine and practice what it means to be a citizen of this world in the 21st century,” said Professor Smiarowski. “Action through their curricular and co-curricular activities sets them on that path for what’s going to happen when they’re done with college. They’re with us for a really short amount of time, so setting the foundation for what’s next has always been really central to my practice as a teacher. For young artists, in particular, it’s essential that they spend time and effort formulating their own vision of how they want to be active in the world.”

When studying dance, Professor Smiarowski said, it’s critical to consider historical and cultural context. “I could teach it without an awareness of social justice, of change, of action. What’s the added bit? It’s related to asking questions, the belief that the really great thing we get to do in college is to look at what is and ask ourselves if it could be different. What if things were different? Is this the way it has to be? Could we change it?

“This is deeply connected to the practice of noticing. Training to be an artist is about noticing, and then noticing what you notice, and then making choices based upon that. That alone is a kind of waking up to possibility. It’s so much in the fiber of what I do in thinking about social justice.

“When I first started teaching around this idea of social action and dance, I would sometimes have students say, do you really think a dance can change the world? It was really concerning for some students because they were drawing on a worldview where dance was more focused on entertainment. And I would always say, no, of course one dance can’t change the world, just like one speech or one act can’t change the world. But dance can play a part in changing the world, and so can the arts. They can be a part of an ongoing social discourse. Right now, students are very aware of this connection between dance and civic engagement.

“What I love about being an artist is that art is the place where we can hold two or three or more contradictory ideas up against each other and they can exist together in space and time. When I’m making art around political issues, thinking about social change, what I’m really concerned with is digging into this process of discovery, hoping to bring the dancers and the audience along to ask questions and maybe be awakened to something. I say this for my students: the choices we make about what we put out into the world matter. No matter how small, they influence people.

“Dance is not frivolous. It’s not trivial. I think a lot about who’s dancing, where we are dancing, why we are dancing, what we are dancing about, what we care about, what we are asking questions about, why we are gathering to move together, what’s at stake—that’s important. Moving my body on a daily basis does keep me physically and mentally healthy, yes. And also, it’s a really interesting way to understand things. I learn so much by moving and watching people move together in space. That kind of communication gets me to a level that other things don’t.”

Movement as Cultural Knowledge

“One of my favorite articles,” said Professor Smiarowski, “is called ‘Five Premises for a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Dance.’ It’s by Deidre Sklar. It’s terrific. In a nutshell, the idea is that movement knowledge is a form of cultural knowledge. For example, Sklar explains that if I go to an Episcopalian church and I go to a Baptist church, the movements and postures of prayer are different. If I watch a hula dance or I watch a ballet, I immediately recognize that they are different. And that’s a signal that, just like a local dialect, there is difference in movement across these different cultures

“Sklar’s article reveals that when we dig more deeply into the history and context of movement,  there are ideas and values embedded in that movement. So, she says, when somebody kneels in prayer in a church, we know that they’re showing respect to a divine being. In ballet, the movements and postures include idealized representations of man-ness and woman-ness and European chivalry from a particular time and place. That’s all embedded in that movement vocabulary. There are values that actually live inside of the way we communicate and move our bodies. And that information may or may not be available to us when we’re just watching.

“To really understand movement as cultural knowledge, I can’t only watch it or do it. I have to open a book, talk to people, research the culture. I must understand that it’s tied to other forms of cultural knowledge. And at the same time, there are certain things about movement I can’t understand by any other means than doing the movement. I can’t understand certain things about praying in a church just by watching someone do it. I have to do it myself in my physical body and experience it kinesthetically to understand what it’s like to do that.

“In class, we use these ideas from Sklar’s framework as a foundation when we explore dances from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. The students will find some ways of moving that are very familiar to them and some that are completely unfamiliar to them. We talk about them and read about them, and we also do them because moving, breathing, being in that physicality of the experience gives you a set of information you just can’t get by letting it be visual spectacle alone.”

Dancing in Someone Else’s Shoes

Trying on a new pattern of movement, Professor Smiarowski said, “is a path to empathy and understanding, or at least the beginning of it. That connects to some well-known ideas about education: see it, say it, do it. Experience is critical to that deeper understanding. We will talk about it, we’ll read about it, we’ll watch it, but we must also embody it.

“I also think it helps me understand that I can’t project my own experience onto someone else. I might try it on. We practice movement every day: how we drive a car, how we say hello—though even that is changing on Zoom. That’s a great example of cultural movement developing even in this new context. It’s happening all the time: in daily movement, in dance, in prayer, in ritual. The awareness that when I try something new it may be very foreign to me is okay, and actually a good thing, because it guards against the idea that there’s a universal. It guards against me projecting my own view of the world onto somebody else.

“Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is a good beginning, but we’re just kind of scratching the surface. Recently, a guest artist, Jannet Galdamez, taught my students two workshops in Afro-Cuban Orisha dance. She said, ‘I’ve been studying this for 10 years, but I still have so far to go. I’m just scratching the surface for you today.’

“I want the students to feel that it’s not a bad thing to recognize that you’re at the beginning in terms of cultural empathy and understanding. Moving toward a more just, humane society, recognizing what we don’t know and acknowledging the effort, reflection, and time required to create deep and lasting change, that’s part of our Ignatian pillars.”

Culturally Responsive Dance Pedagogy

Empathy, in turn, serves as a bridge into culturally responsive pedagogy, which Professor Smiarowski says “is so important in this idea of cultural knowledge and movement knowledge. I co-taught a workshop for K­–12 educators called ‘Engaging English Language Learners Through Theatre and Movement.’ We used some texts as source material for building performances, and I picked a text called ‘Big Turtle’ based on a Huron creation myth.

“In the story, there is a group of animals who are working to create the Earth, and Toad sacrifices herself. They have to get this very special soil from the bottom of the earth, and she dives the deepest, she gets the soil, she brings it back. It’s what they need to make the Earth, but she dies as a result. And in the story the animals honor her memory.

“So in this professional development workshop, working collaboratively with the teachers to create a dance, someone suggested, let’s have a moment of reverence honoring Toad. And almost everyone bowed their heads and prayed in this very Christian gesture. I noticed it. I paused. I had a moment of thinking, if I draw attention to this, I don’t want people to feel badly. They’re drawing on their own cultural reference for prayer and mourning. But it’s not right for this story. What does it communicate if we only do this gesture?

“So I brought it up. I said, it’s interesting, let’s all look at the gestures we chose. They’re referencing something very particular in terms of cultural practice. What do you notice? And everyone saw it. So I said, maybe this is an opportunity to ask our students, what do you do? How does your family pray? How do you mourn the dead? Let’s do a little research into the story and into our own family background. And then everyone changed their gestures, and there were these beautiful, dynamic, abstract gestures of prayer and mourning: some standing, some kneeling. Some looking up toward the sky, some down to the Earth, some gesturing and comforting the person next to them. Not all of them had specific cultural references, though some did. And it was a very beautiful transition from this kind of sameness and stereotypical gestures of mourning into something layered and multi-dimensional.

“That idea of representation shows how easy it would be as a teacher to not even intentionally lay your own cultural value system onto a lesson. It happened so subconsciously, and all it took was for us to notice what happened and ask a question about it, and then the whole approach changed. Little tweaks: knowing who your audience is, what do they need, what do they know, what do they not know, who are the experts in the room? Young students often readily accept what their teacher is telling them. We need to wield that power responsibly,” she said.

Blurred Lines

“I was part-time faculty at LMU from 2004 until 2015, when I moved into my current role as a clinical professor,” said Professor Smiarowski. “When I was an adjunct, I was very, very active in the Los Angeles community outside of the university, and that really has informed my teaching and informed the way I think about my students as future professionals. The lines between what we’re doing on campus and the larger community are fairly porous, and I have the opportunity to bring that research and the work I’m doing to my students, and hopefully bring my students to that work too.

“One of the classes I teach is called ‘Dance as Social Action.’ It is an engaged learning class as well as an artistic course, so we have classroom time as well as community-based time. One of the things the students are doing this semester is teaching in public schools through the DANCEsmart program, part of Terry Lenihan’s [Professor of Studio Arts] ARTsmart program, which supports students from all arts disciplines to do residencies in a local school. This week I’m bringing them to visit a workshop for professional teaching artists at the Music Center, an arts organization where I’ve worked for nearly 20 years. And the workshop is being taught by Deanna Cooke [Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology] and Darin Earley [Director of the LMU Family of Schools]! My worlds are merging, and I really want my students to see this in action—that what they are learning and studying at LMU is happening in the community beyond campus, and it could be a career path.

“This is the kind of thing I was talking about when I said students are preparing for action. There is so much important work to be done. I introduce my students to so many people and professionals because I’m hoping all the time, this door is going to open, you’re going to meet someone who’s going to make your light bulb go off and get some new sense of what is possible! I’m going to keep giving as much as I know, yes, but I’m also steering the ship a little and trying to identify: what energizes my students? Where’s the excitement? So it’s really special and important to me to introduce them to the professional world outside of the classroom.

“When I bring in guest artists and scholars, I’m really conscious of bringing in people who blur the lines between the functions of dance. It’s never like, here are the performers and here are the teachers and here are the people who are working in the community and here are the folks who are out in the streets doing protest dances. I am picking people who really see a very holistic role for dance in society, and they’re doing a lot of different things.

“That alone sometimes challenges the students’ perception of dance because many of us (myself included) have grown up in a culture that promotes a particularly narrow view of dance. In that view, there’s a certain group of people who get to do it, and that’s not most people. That’s what I see in our popular mainstream view of who gets to be a dancer in the United States.”

Inclusive Language, Inclusive Spaces

Professor Smiarowski rejected the idea that dance belongs to just a privileged (or perhaps gifted) few. “One of my mentors, Liz Lerman, wrote a book called Hiking the Horizontal, and she talks about looking at dance horizontally, where everything’s happening across a wide spectrum and equally valued. It’s not like dance at a major performing arts theater is way up at the top and dance in the nursing home is down at the bottom in a vertical hierarchy. It’s all part of the fabric of movement experience. Just setting that tone, that philosophy for classes, can change things.

“In one of my courses, we have an important conversation: do you identify as a dancer? Do you identify as a mover? Because we’re all movers. It’s okay to not identify as a dancer. But let’s recognize how loaded that word is for us. The associations with ‘dancer’ are very powerful. It belongs to a certain group in a lot of people’s minds. And when we say mover, sometimes even for the dancers in the room, they say, ‘That is so freeing. I think I’m going to try on mover for a day.’

“Language matters so much. Changing our language can open up access to something people don’t feel they have access to. I try to create approaches through which people can access dance and movement. And that’s a form of social justice. It might only be the 20 people in my room, but that filters out to the larger community.”

Democratizing Access

There are other ways to include people in dance outside of the classroom. “My primary identity as a dance artist,” said Professor Smiarowski, “is as a choreographer, so I see dance as a vehicle for asking questions through embodied action about the complex world in which we live. Social justice is a part of that. This manifests in a lot of different ways for different people. For me, it has manifested in commitment to and interest in making site-specific choreography, which is choreography outside of traditional theater spaces, including public spaces like the Ballona Freshwater Marsh.

“In 2006 and then again in 2011, we did a big performance in the marsh on the corner of Jefferson and Lincoln. I brought my professional dancers that I worked with and LMU students together to be in the cast. We had professional musicians. It was an interdisciplinary collaboration with Seaver College of Science and Engineering, and Jim Landry [Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry] and Eric Strauss [President’s Professor of Biology] were both involved. I would have made that piece as a professional whether I was teaching at LMU or not. But that was just a natural way to have students be part of this cast.

“By being out of the theater, it challenges some norms about access. Making free performances, making performances that people might happen upon as well as plan to attend, it’s widening who sees it. I think of site-specific dances as making the ordinary extraordinary, taking spaces that we interact with every day and transforming them.”

Guide on the Side (Even If You’re Onstage at the Time)

“I heard a term recently: ‘guide on the side, not sage on the stage,’” said Professor Smiarowski. “I don’t know how popular that is, or who coined that, but I feel that that’s my role: guide on the side. As a teacher, I’m there to provide expertise as well as a structure to facilitate inquiry.”

Too much facilitating, she said, can stifle a young artist’s developing style. To avoid that, “I ask a lot of questions. And that is a dance in and of itself: trying to find out, what do they know already? What do they want to learn? What are they trying to achieve? What’s their desire? And then being honest with myself, what’s my desire for them? We want to create a situation in which they can be stretched and pushed, but also they have to be invested and have a desire for themselves. Otherwise, I think it doesn’t go well.

“For example, sometimes I can say to a student, try this on, this new approach to dance composition and choreography. This may not feel right to you, but try it out and let me know how it goes. Because even if something doesn’t go right or get you the result you want, we may learn something from you doing it this way.

“Other times, it really is about asking questions. Today in ‘Dance as Social Action,’ they were all preparing to start teaching in DANCEsmart, and I had them seek out great examples of online teaching. I didn’t direct. I just said, start looking and tell me what you’re liking about it. What is it that you see? And they found very important attributes of great teaching: positive affirmations, using visuals, clear instructions, etc. They identified great stuff.

“That gives me information: these are the things that are clicking right now for my students, so let’s reinforce that. And then in the back of my mind, I’m going, okay, and these are the other things I want them to think about. They’ve identified this incredible work, and I can see what’s resonating for them already, and now I can add a few more things from my own toolbox that I think they can grab on to. And that’s different than me coming in and saying, do this, do this, do this. So even sending them out on a quest to curate some videos, find some things that they’re connecting with, is an important kind of agency.

“I often send them out to find and discover. This semester, I had been searching for new ways for them to share that back in the classroom environment, so this was the first time I tried this idea of curation. I thought, what if we built a collective bibliography and I’m not the sole creator of that? I think it’s a terrific way to push developing artists to discover unique features of what will ultimately become their style.

“As artists, it’s so important that they start to define their own voice. And I do think of artmaking as a place of experimentation. I try to, as best I can, create that kind of laboratory environment. I ask a lot of questions to try to set the tone in my class that this is a place of inquiry.

“Terry Lenihan was saying last week—and she is such a brilliant teacher!—to remind them when they go to teach in the schools that this is not about being perfect. It’s not about hitting it out of the park the first time they teach. We learn to teach by doing and then stepping back and reflecting: what worked? What didn’t? And then going in and trying again. I agree. Every great teacher does that. But we need to give ourselves permission to not be perfect. As a teacher, the pressure when you crash and burn is awful, but I think it happens to everybody.”

Movement, Cultural Memory, and Collective Authorship

Much of Professor Smiarowski’s work has focused on “cultural memory and memory of trauma through dance and movement. I directed a long-term project based on Holocaust memory, and it was first inspired by a short story, a fictional story by Holocaust survivor Ida Fink. What I was exploring wasn’t just a retelling of the story through dance. It was the process of mediation of memory over time.

“I made a piece in response to Fink’s story that contained my own perspective, and my own authorship was being exposed. And then I went through another iteration where I took that apart and fragmented it even further, and I brought in collaborators, so there were more people filtering the memory. Then it grew into an even larger group of collaborators. So I was just investigating that kind of trajectory of memory over time, how it changes with distance from the original source, and the way we remember things that we did not experience directly through the power of story and music and dance.

“I feel a sense of responsibility as an artist in terms of the choices I’m making because I realized through that project, wow, I have a lot of ideas about Holocaust history, and it’s all through art and movies and story. My family is part of that storytelling, and so are the stories of people I never met. That’s how that memory is getting transferred.

“Cultural memory work has been really a high priority for me, as has challenging the notion of authorship. I grew up in a dance culture that really honored the individual and the individual genius, so even to walk into a room and say, ‘I have an idea, let’s see what happens when we all work with it together,’ that can still feel a little radical.

“I remember once, I wanted to apply to a grant and somebody was coaching me on it, and they said, they’re not going to know who made this dance. Well, I said, me and my collaborator made this dance. And he said, you need to say what you did and what that person did. It didn’t feel right. It was not so clear-cut. And I think exposing that approach to the way we work, that process, the way dances come into being, being really transparent about our agency as dancers and the thinking and shared labor that goes into our work, is also something that has played out in my artistic creations.”

Dancing the Ignatian Way

As Father Rausch mentioned in the January newsletter, having a dance department connects directly to the Jesuit emphasis on cura personalis (May’s theme): caring for the whole person. That includes mind and body. And artistry doesn’t require the sacrifice of intellectual rigor.

“I could teach dance without thinking about social justice and just do the steps,” she said. “But holding it within that larger context and thinking about values, thinking about challenging norms… that excites me.

“For example, it was mind-blowing for me when I realized that, oh, unison movement, that actually holds meaning. Maybe I used it because I thought it was aesthetically pleasing or because I learned I was supposed to use it. But what will unison movement mean in the context of this dance? Does it mean conformity? Does it mean power in numbers? Is it militant? Is it about community? Every choice carries meaning. It really does.

“It was just a very natural fit for me to find a university that put action at such a central place in terms of mission because I see that as such an important part of my job as a teacher. So when I look at these Ignatian pillars of pedagogy, it’s just good teaching.”

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This article was originally published by the LMU Center for Teaching Excellence and is reprinted with permission.