Tuesday, April 7, 2009

C'mon, Take a Risk

I've used this phrase with my students repeatedly over the last eleven years. Inevitably, I get to a point in my curriculum when I ask students to perform a dance step that seems impossible -- or one that will really hurt. Students look at me wide-eyed, slowly backing away from the dance space, ready to bolt out of the classroom to a "safer" place. Before I lose them to the worst-case scenarios they create in their heads, I say, "c'mon, take a risk." 

As a teacher, I work very hard to create an environment in my classroom that supports risk-taking. I use humor to lighten the tension when presenting challenging new material in class. I share my own experiences of taking a risk as a dance student, and I don't hide the dirty details; I share my embarrassing classroom moments in a brutal play-by-play fashion. I want students to know that it is okay to venture outside of their comfort zone.   

But last winter, saying the phrase didn't seem to be working.  As I meticulously discussed the assignments for Beginning Improvisation and Choreography at the beginning of the quarter, including the five dances each student would have to create, I could sense this subtle shift occur in my students. They were scared. I wasn't asking them to get up in front of the class to show the moves they do in their bedrooms at night while listening to their ipods. No, I was asking them to create real dances. Not just any jumbled series of movement, but pieces that reflected who they were as teenagers, artists and individuals. I was asking a lot of them. I was asking them to be vulnerable. And as I quickly assessed their fear, I also realized instantly what I must do. I also had to take a risk, to be vulnerable, and to share who I was as a person. So I finished explaining the choreography assignments and I began quickly talking about my fears as a writer. I even told them why I hide my writing from the world: because I fear being told that my work is not that good. I told them that while they created dances, I would write poetry for them and post it online for the world to see. I would take a risk.

I'll never forget the panic I felt when I was about to publish my first poem online. My palms began to sweat, my stomach was tight... I had a dry mouth. Classic signs of anxiety. I read and re-read my poem to make sure that it sounded right. I didn't want to be embarrassed the next day. My anxiety about publishing the poem seemed all too familiar. As my hand hovered over the mouse, just one step away from uploading my poem, I had a sudden flashback to my first choreography class in college.  And then I remembered the point of the exercise: to take a risk and to feel what my students feel when they are about to share their choreography with the world for the very first time. I had accomplished what I set out to do: to empathize with my students.  

Interestingly, I got a lot of great support from my students after I posted my first poem online, but after I posted two poems, they suddenly forgot about my obligation to the class. They stopped asking me about my writing, and none of them noticed when I stopped writing poems for them all together. Perhaps they reached a level of comfort in class where they didn't need to see me taking a risk in order to take one of their own. By the end of the quarter, I quietly sat back and watched them push themselves -- take risks -- at every possible juncture. I was proud of them for growing as artists... and me for taking a risk.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your risk philosophy. Challenges and new experiences are what allow us to grow. I read once that biologists put trees in a biodome to see how they grew in an enclosed,controlled system. What happened is all the trees broke off at the main trunk after they reached a certain height. The baffled biologists couldn't understand what was happening. When they analyzed what was missing, they were astonished to find that trees are designed to sway in the breeze. They actually need the air current as a force as they grow. Without that force to push up against they cannot develop the right cellular structure to grow robustly, and therefore, grow tall.
    I have learned that the scarier something seems, that is a sure indicator that I must investigate it. Once I do, a sense of joy, competence and independence greets me at the other side of that scary event/idea/physical challenge/barrier. Students who succeed have learned to balance growth with risk. It tempers our character and our strengths!