James Nelson takes a dance class

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Hahaha! I’ve had some pretty clever blog post titles, but that one just takes the cake! Me? In a dance class? Hahaha!

Look, I’m a bad dancer. I don’t say this in a shy, self-conscious way. No, no. What I mean is that I’m horrendously unskilled at moving my body elegantly, or coordinating what my hands and feet are doing in relation to one another. Especially when music is involved. Also, I find it about as much fun as juggling rabid starving badgers tied to sticks of dynamite (which now that I’ve typed it, sounds much more fun). I’ve had this scene play out many times in my life:

FRIEND: Hi, James. You should dance right now for some reason!

ME: Uh, no, you don’t want that to happen.

FRIEND: Whaaaaat!? C’mon, dance! Dance!

ME: No, please no. I’m a really bad dancer, and I don’t like dancing.

FRIEND: You can’t be that bad. C’mon, dance!

ME: I’m so unhappy. (dances for a second)

FORMER FRIEND: Oh god. Please, stop. That’s…. I have to go now. (leaves forever)

ME: (starts juggling rabid starving badgers tied to sticks of dynamite) Yup, this is indeed more fun than dancing.

Which is why when it was recommended that I take Styles Acting this semester because the course would heavily focus on period dance, I had to take a real hard look at my life and decide how much I was willing to put myself through for the sake of my education.

IU had the fortune of bringing in the wonderful Nira Pullin, who specializes in period movement and dance, to choreograph Dancing at Lughnasa and teach the first eight weeks of the Styles Acting course. All nine MFA actors were enrolled in the course… and so was I.

On the first day of the semester, Nira asked us all what he hoped to get out of the class. “I just don’t want to hold anybody else up,” I said sheepishly.

“Do you know which foot is your left? Your right?” she asked lightly. “Then you’ll be fine.”

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Nira Pullin in rehearsal for Dancing at Lughnasa 

Well, Nira was lying through her teeth. She knew the Charleston would haunt my dreams and destroy my life, but I’ve forgiven her for it.

The course was a whirlwind, and in the eight weeks Nira began with medieval circle dances and worked her way all the way up to the 1920s. She would periodically lecture for a bit about important context for the relevant period, including history, rulers, manners, and social customs, talking a mile a minute while we furiously scribbled notes in our journals. Then, we would learn versions of the appropriate dances, practice them briefly, and sometimes take exams over the choreography.

The course was a series of surprises for me. The first was, dancing isn’t always hard. A lot of the footwork for the early dances was manageable even for me, and the steps and moves build on each other in a logical way. When we reached later dances, it seemed like we had adequately built up the skills to piece them together, and we started moving much more quickly later in the semester.

The second surprise was that learning period dances is helpful for a lot of theatrical reasons – the posture and footwork required for these dances was informative for any stage movement in a period play, and the bows, manners, and physical contact in the dances is all very informative. After several centuries of dances with only hand contact, the first time we worked on a dance that required a hold at the waist felt almost scandalous. Also, Nira was very helpful in showing us how we could directly plug her choreography into a show from the respective period, so it should be a rich well of material to draw from in the future.

The third surprise was that it was… fun. A little. Bouncing around to music straight from a renaissance festival while trying to keep a straight face kept me looking forward to class each day, and the chance to break the ice with the nine MFA actors by sharing this class with them was a real joy.

At the end of the eight weeks, we had a showcase of what we had learned, and it was actually quite impressive to see the ground we had covered: a dozen dances spanning from the dark ages to the jazz age, along with some commedia work and a couple demonstrations of period movement with text. We also had dense journals packed with choreography, research, and resources to revisit the work.

If every class in grad school can challenge me, excite me, and make me work as much as Nira’s class did, I’ll be a much different director leaving here than I am starting out.

But don’t hold out any hopes for my dancing career. My preference still leans toward the badgers.

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About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peak behind the curtain at the Indiana University Theatre Department productions and student work.
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