"Dance is intrinsic"

Interviewer and Living Arts' Detroit Wolf Trap Specialist Roberta Lucas. 

Interviewer and Living Arts' Detroit Wolf Trap Specialist Roberta Lucas. 

This month, Detroit Wolf Trap Specialist and dancer Roberta Lucas sat down with our Dance Program Director Marianne Brass to share Marianne's art story and her reflections of our Out-of-School Arts dance program with our readers.

Marianne Brass is a native of Warren, Michigan and is a 2011 graduate of the prestigious Maggie Allesee Department of Dance at Wayne State University. Upon earning her degree, Marianne has worked professionally in Detroit as an independent artist and educator. 

Roberta Lucas has been a Living Arts teaching artist since 2008 and led El Arte Early Learning and then became the Affiliate Director for Detroit Wolf Trap from its inception through 2016. Her contributions to Living Arts include; the creation and implementation of ACT I: A PK-3rd grade drama program to support sustained reading growth, language acquisition and social emotional development, professional development for educators, coaching for teaching artists, and choreography for showcase performances.  Lucas maintains a Michigan L.L.P. and completed a MA in clinical and humanistic psychology at MiSPP. She is a 2015 graduate of Tamalpa Institute, Kentfield, CA.—Expressive Arts and Movement Therapy.

On Sunday, June 11th Living Arts presented its 18th Annual Showcase of student works and performances. Family, friends, and supporters of our Out-of-School Arts' youth gathered for this annual spectacular.  This event is a culmination of hours of commitment by Living Arts students, teaching artists, staff and many volunteers. Aside from exploring dance and art, these year-long programs provide safe places for young people to spend time while parents work, to improve academic achievement, and support social emotional competencies.  There is much research that supports these assertions. Our efforts also include maintaining high quality arts education experiences and opportunities that connect youth and families to the world of the arts in Detroit and beyond.
From the very start, under the direction of Living Arts Co-Founder, Christine Allen-Carlson, dance has been at the heart of Living Arts and the annual showcase.  Since 2013 our Out-of-School Arts program features visual art, animation, media, and youth driven studio work in this annual event.  At Living Arts, dance is also an integral part of our In-School Arts and Detroit Wolf Trap programming where teaching artists may integrate dance with math, science, social studies and offer opportunities for school communities to prepare and present their own choreography. The professional and emerging Detroit artists and instructors who bring their expertise and passion to our programs are the connectors who guide and illuminate the developing success of our students.  
Dance Program Director Marianne Brass.

Dance Program Director Marianne Brass.

Roberta: How long have you been choreographing and working as a dance specialist with Living Arts and what different roles have you had within the organization?  How is this programming unique and important?  

Marianne: I’ve been choreographing and working as a dance specialist with Living Arts since 2007. In this time I’ve worked mainly as a teaching artist and mentor. I’ve had the opportunity to lead both Junior Company and Dance Collage, which are two of our youth dance ensembles. Most recently,  I’ve been promoted to Dance Program Director for our Out-of-School Arts program.  In the fall of 2017 I’ll begin my third year as Dance Director.

Our programming at Out-of-School Arts is unique because we present art in all of its forms - as a way of life. We are lucky to have a staff of professional artists from in, and around the community who cultivate their students’ full creative potential while inspiring them to continue in their growth as young artists.  This is important because our culture has a tendency to inhibit a child’s creative side in favor of the status quo. If it’s not nurtured and supported at a young age, you take the chance of suppressing something great.

R: Tell us about your dance experiences as a youth and what drove you to continue to study and pursue dance as a profession. What excites you about the dance community in Detroit?  

M: I started dancing by chance back in 1989 when I was just 3. Two sisters in the neighborhood, Lisa and Sherri Gelardi, were teaching dance classes in their parents’ basement. My mom had always wanted to dance growing up but never had the opportunity, so she took the chance with her daughters. The fact that there were affordable, local classes made this a possibility for my family. As the program grew, I grew with it ; and Encore the Dance Centre eventually moved into a studio where I continued to train with Sherri Dettloff (Gelardi) and Janet Clayton-Reid until I was 18. I’ll admit that there were many times that I wanted to quit but the persistence from my mom and my teachers kept me going. It wasn’t until about the age of 14 that I realized how passionate I was about dancing. It was also at this time that Ms. Janet informed me that I could make a career out of dance. This was the first time that I was introduced to this concept - and it changed everything. From then on, I was even more focused on my training and development as an artist and athlete because that’s what I was going to be. That is until reality set in and I felt the pressure to pursue a career that was more “realistic/normal/economical” and I did make one failed attempt at that. In the end, I couldn’t imagine a life without dance - or even just having it on the side as a hobby. I wanted to make dance my career in order to keep it as a major part of my daily life and I was willing to make certain sacrifices. I couldn’t see myself succeeding at something that I was NOT passionate about and I wanted to share my love for dance with others. I can say now that I made the right decision.

Since I’ve been working as a dance/movement artist in Detroit I’ve come to know all sorts of magnificent individuals and fellow artists. What I love best about the dance community in Detroit is our desire and persistence to create and share work even if there isn’t a ton of funding, or sold out audiences to perform to. There is also a great deal of collaboration that takes place involving multiple disciplines of art. Myself and other dancers have formed a kinship with musicians and other performing artists through our collaborative efforts and it’s made us stronger as a niche of the larger community at hand.

R: What experiences and opportunities do youth have that participate in Living Arts' dance programming?

M: The experiences and opportunities that youth have in our dance program are congruent with the development of their social, cultural, and artistic skills. We are able to provide them with a foundation in dance and the access to more intense training if they wish to take that path. We try to have many options, so that there is enough freedom for students to try out various forms and disciplines. Our Youth Dance Ensembles provide opportunities for youth to engage in the community through performance and in recent years has given them the chance to compete on a local and national level. There are also opportunities to work as a peer mentor or classroom assistant where students gain experience leading a classroom. Other experiences that our youth engage in are classes and workshops with guest artists, field trips to performances, exhibits, community events and the opportunity to perform or present work at the annual student showcase each year.

R: There is research that supports youth who are involved in dance and movement arts are developing physical skills and confidence but also social and cognitive skills.  Can you tell us how this happens or give us a story about seeing this growth through the children and youth that participate in Living Arts’ programs?

M: Dance is intrinsic but also social in nature. If you read the definition of social skills you’ll notice that there isn’t much variation between social interaction and dance. When you dance with a group of people in any setting you are automatically interacting with one another on a visceral and cognitive level. You have to let yourself be vulnerable and in turn trust those you are sharing the space with. I can’t exactly say what it is, but dancers share a rare and special connection. I believe that this happens because you are sharing breath, weight, sweat, frustrations, joy, etc. and you’re doing it simply because you love it. You have to learn to understand your body’s limitations but also find a way to overcome them.

Communication occurs verbally but more commonly through non-verbal interactions. Dancers learn through observation, replication and repetition using their bodies and movement as the main conduit. It is unique because we are so commonly using our eyes, ears and mouths to learn and process information while the rest of our body remains still. Dance eliminates the vocal cues in many cases so one must learn to process and retain information through muscle memory.

In my years as a teaching artist with Living Arts I’ve witnessed many students, if not all, grow in one way or another. As participants in the dance program, youth have the opportunity to learn vital problem solving and critical thinking skills as well as social and cognitive skills that will travel with them into adult life.

R: You head up several instructors in the dance and movement programs. Tell us about these people. What do these instructors bring that is unique and what special skills do instructors in a community arts program need?  

M: Where do I begin? Our 2017 Showcase dance, movement and guest artists included Rachael Harbert, Christine Allen-Carlson, Cathy Taister, Karilu Forshee, Sensei Robert Nearon, Jeron Howie, Miryam Johnson, Aaron Smith,  Bailey Alshouse, Jontae McCrory- a former Living Arts student and myself. As a team we cover many styles including,  Ballet, Contemporary, Modern, Karate, Hip-Hop, Salsa, Tap, and Creative Dance. It is a diverse group of dance professionals who are as equally talented educators and mentors as they are in their respective disciplines. Everyone is currently engaged in their own work outside of Living Arts and I believe that this contributes to the high quality teaching and youth development that is taking place. They’re able to share their work with the students, which reaffirms the idea that art can be a way of life. It’s also important because the drive one has to create something out of nothing translates into the classroom. The teaching methods that I’ve witnessed have been inventive and compassionate. Our teachers are all open minded and understanding of individual needs and they inspire their students while encouraging individuality and diversity. Our young artists are safe to fully let go here. Individual quirks that may take someone “out of the box” and result in repercussion elsewhere are welcomed and nurtured. It’s my opinion that all of these qualities are necessary for any community arts program to function on a genuine level along with adaptability and the desire to continually educate oneself on the needs of the community.

R: You have finished the 2017 Student Showcase.  What are somethings you want students, instructors, families and audience members to take away from this experience and performance?

M: We had yet another successful showcase this year and as always I’m a proud mama. Our dancers performed with their hearts and souls and put their skills to work to entertain the audience. Our teaching artists produced diverse and dynamic choreography that helped elevate the quality of the show. I would also like to acknowledge and congratulate our visual, multimedia, and sound student artists on an incredible presentation. This showcase highlights all of our students’ strengths and individual development that has been a culmination of hard work and dedication during the eight month session. These young artists attend regular class each week from October through May spending time investigating, creating, practicing, and perfecting the work that’s displayed at the annual student showcase.

R: What kind of growth would you like see happen for the dance and movement programming at Living Arts in next few years?

M: This program encompasses a fusion between a variety of dance genres and disciplines, which is a major component to the success of Living Arts dance. Additional resources would help to meet the demands of our growing program and would allow us additional studio space to add new forms and disciplines. In turn, this would help diversify our program and maintain the mission by providing a strong foundation of dance education and making opportunities for many levels of movers who might not otherwise have the opportunity to take a class with a professional instructor.

R: Thank you so very much Marianne.  It has been wonderful to hear your personal dance story and Living Arts' dance story.  The city of Detroit has a vibrant legacy of dance education in its public schools, universities and institutions.  Marianne and I stand on the shoulders of leaders in the Detroit dance education community.  It's exciting and important work to continue. We share many memories of watching small dancers grow and become confident youth who take that into many areas of their lives.  We are both concerned about the Michigan Department of Education suspending its commitment to a K-12 dance certification not only for our current colleagues who hold these positions in public and charter schools but also for future dance educators who choose to pursue a degree program in dance education. This loss of endorsement will diminish the opportunity for all youth to engage in quality dance education.  

However dance always perseveres and in Detroit and surrounding communities the presence of national and international dance artists, professional companies, and community outreach programs give this art form in all its varying styles and platforms a powerful presence. At Living Arts we will continue our dance classes and student companies. Our In-School Arts and Detroit Wolf Trap programs will continue to offer and introduce dance integration in schools and classrooms as a means to engage kinesthetic learners.   And we will do this with talented movement artists like Marianne who work in our programs and contribute to this dynamic Detroit dance community.  The stakes are high but there is no keeping these Living Arts dancers from moving forward in art and life.  

This blog post is dedicated to memory of Carol Decker Halsted, 1940 -2017. Professor Halsted was widely known for her lifetime of work as a dance educator and mentor, her commitment to professional dance in Detroit and her work with dance at the Michigan Opera Theatre. Carol attended Living Arts Spark the Imagination events, provided dance performance tickets for our families and always was encouraging the next generation to continue dancing.