Recently I got asked several times about how I approach my teaching and if that has changed over the years. So, I felt like looking at my own process of how I prepare workshops, and how my attitude and my values might have shifted.
Maybe one thought beforehand, that I discovered pretty early in my teaching career:
A crucial part of filling the teachers role is to know what I know and what I don’t know and to be honest about it with my students.
A common misunderstanding about teaching
I feel that there is a big common misunderstanding. As soon as we step into the teachers role we think we suddenly need to know everything. Some people never start teaching because they are aware that there is so much they don’t know. Others mistake a superficial understanding with ‘knowing’ and so pretend to know what they say and do. And others are aware of what they don’t know and deliver questionable information as truth hoping that no one finds out.
The danger is that we harm our students with this double bind information. If our words and actions don’t match, most students would blame themselves for the confusion, believing they are stupid, because the teacher is probably right.
As a teacher we should be excited about what we don’t know! That’s where we can learn. The desire to learn should be the under current of our teaching, because that is hopefully what we wish our students to find.
My beginnings – teaching my questions
In my first three years of teaching – I was teaching mainly one dance class per week – the material I proposed was very much based on my questions and currents interests. In order to find if or how something might work I had to come up with an ‘experiment set-up’. Especially in the beginning may questions wouldn’t lead into open exploration. I was anticipating the answer or the best possible outcome of the experiment already in my planning. I spent a lot of time preparing the ‘experiment set-up’, calculating the class almost minute by minute, building up a progression of exercises to reach a certain goal. I was very visual in my planing. I needed to imagine the studio and the number of people. I could see and feel the exercises I was making up. I wonder if screenplay writers work like this, too. Maybe I misunderstood my job, thinking I actually was a screenplay writer. I have memories that I wanted to be so good in my preparation that everything I planed worked out the way I intended it to be. I liked the flavour of perfectionism and control. And to a certain degree I really succeeded.
The pages in my notebook, where I prepared my screen-play classes were very full. The many times that I didn’t succeed in following my plans I noticed that I often planed about twice as much as I finally had done. Teaching became a painful practice in letting go. In a first step letting go off exercises that I was very excited about. I developed a certain mastership in preparing wonderful exercises without ever managing to teach them. I got lost in the preparation, because too many interesting details popped up that felt so essential that I couldn’t cut it shorter. I became very aware of the complexity of seemingly simple things. But it took me forever to understand that we can’t visit everything that is essential for an exercise before doing it. The capacity to take information in is very limited, especially if we want to use it for a following step.
Over the time I left more and more empty space on the right side of each page in my notebook. The less scared I was of not teaching a good class the more freedom I found during the class. I skipped exercises made new discoveries went on detours or even let go off the aim of the class if something better arose. The empty third or half of my notebook pages got filled after the class with comments and observations. Exercises I finally didn’t do I put in brackets. And the amount of brackets became more and more.
My class preparation also changed slowly. I was writing much less before a class but more after the class. I noted my discoveries, what didn’t work, what I could have done differently instead, but mainly which ideas came up that could be developed further. Making notes after the class became 90 % of the preparation of the next one. Before the next class I had to only look briefly through my notes and with the detachment throughout the week it was often rather easy to decide on what to do in the next class.
I became more used to the flow how classes developed and that it was usually very different to my planning. With moving to a different venue (Alte Mensa Marburg), which had a very open minded explorative spirit, I settled into a new clarity in my teaching.
As a basic approach I felt like I was sharing my questions and curiosities with the group and proposed an exercise, so we could explore rather openly into a given direction. It was very normal that we found a lot, but not the answer to my question. So, I had more of an idea for a better proposal or I would let go of my initial question and follow the new stream of curiosity.
I was already secure enough in my teachers role that I could change and let go off plans easily. But I still needed the plan in the background: Not in order to follow it – more like a safety net, or like the hand of a parent while balancing on a fence, where I could let go whenever I felt secure enough on my own.
Worldwide travelling as an inspiring and disturbing interlude
I had an interesting interlude or pedagogical regression in my teaching. After finishing my university studies of Biology and protestant Religion to become a school teacher I made one of the most important decisions of my life: I decided to spend a year with dancing before doing my two practical years at school. I was too old for becoming a proper dancer (29), but I felt so strongly driven towards dance and stage. At least I wanted to see, what happened if I spent a year dancing – in order to let it go, when I saw, that it didn’t provide a future for me.
The project kind of failed. I met many good people, learned a lot and found out that I already had developed a good set of skills. So, I continued dancing for another year waiting until my money was gone, and another year … After two years I settled back in Marburg, where I had lived and taught before travelling the dance world. I had all these exiting experiences and ideas from many workshops and productions that were chaotically moving through my mind and body.
When I taught my students after this two year brke they were happy to have me back but they were secretly shocked about what I was doing. I threw more material at them than in my very beginnings with an intense flavour of restlessness and impatience. And I didn’t even notice that they needed much, much more time for everything I proposed. I was like ‘on speed’, highly inspired (and maybe still inspiring) but painfully disconnected from my students.
I don’t remember how long it took me to re-adjust to my new/old environment. But the connection to people, who had worked with me for more than 5 years survived that phase and I somehow calmed down again. Interesting phase, though. Maybe I was in a kind of shock. For many years my learning had a rather slow pace but a strong continuity. That is the gift of little towns. There are not so many people but the ones there are, they stay. I taught one dance improv group for eight years, another one for four, teaching improv theatre for three years felt very short …
Writing this now I wonder if my own slow pace in learning was a secret of my development as a dancer. When I tasted the contemporary dance in Berlin, London or New York I thought I’d be the little inexperienced boy from german province. Remembering set material was indeed extremely challenging for me. But apart from that I did much better than expected. I had developed a very good sense for my own body in terms of movement organisation, timing and improvisation. But I remember that I was wondering why most material in this contemporary world was thrown into the space with such a quick rhythm. As if it was about how quick we can understand something and not how deeply we take it in so it becomes truly ours.
This experience might have also been a reason, why I finally slowed down a lot in my teaching.
My way into teaching Contact Improvisation
Until leaving Marburg my development as a dance teacher happened through teaching movement technique and dance improvisation, where the listening-touch was essential part of, but giving and taking weight stayed the exception. With teaching things that involved the typical weight baring situations of Contact Improvisation I just couldn’t find my way to keep a sense of lightness that was crucial for my teaching but also for my own Contact Practice. Sometimes I taught CI weekend workshops, but it felt like hard work and I suffered from the heaviness in the space.
After having been back for a while from my travel years Jörg Schlimmermann, the inspired head of Alte Mensa Marburg, asked me to teach a CI course, because there was a strong demand for it. I thought a lot about it and said finally ‘no’. I am happy that I stayed honest with myself. But this ‘no’ disturbed me quite a bit. CI had been the starting point of my dance. I felt very at home with it and it was probably the movement discipline I was the most skilled at, but I was unable to teach it. I had to learn how to teach contact.
It took me about a year to find a comfortable starting point: I had to analyse what I did in the reoccurring weight sharing situations. I wanted to understand, what made certain weight baring moments feel light and what strategies or principles gave me a sense of freedom of choice. Distilling pathways from my own dance habits became my break through. As a full hearted improviser it was very courages for me to set pathways that were repeatable. I felt like betraying my art form. And I still have my questions around using pathways to teach principles of this improvised dance form. It feels like an endless journey to use the precision from set forms while keeping the improvisational spirit alive. I am still making my steps in figuring out, which clear forms I can present in a way that people feel encourage to play around with them instead of trying to get it perfect and 100 % repeatable. After discovering the benefit of pathways, my teaching of Contact Improvisation became a constant research how to not use set material.
The other revelation I had around this phase of learning how to teach contact was related to body-tone. I basically realized that not everyone is like me. With the background of a high tone athlete and gymnast it was the best for my own development to reduce my basic body tone. Many years of shaking, rolling and other kinds of softening went through my body in order to find an intelligent fluidity and responsiveness that made me feel rather complete. The warm ups I used in my teaching were mainly focussing on softening.
Especially when teaching how to handle the weight of other people I noticed that quite a lot of people weren’t ready for what I thought I prepared them for through the warm up. I realized that some people needed to find ways to build up a healthy body tone and to find the inner desire for activity.
I think in general I became more aware of ‘what works for me might not be possible or not supportive for others’. It is a general dilemma and especially tricky for teachers who mainly learned through their own research: Understanding movements through my own body is a fantastic base for teaching how to move but it is very clearly not enough in order to support students in all their differences.
I must have found a good way, somehow. Nowadays I make my entire income from teaching CI and partly organizing CI related events. I mainly have a feeling of continuity in my teaching process, but looking back I realize that there must have been quite some shifts. It is tricky to remember my transition from teaching movement technique, improvisation, theatre improvisation, creating dance and theatre pieces to this more mono-dimensional way to work as a CI teacher.
In 2004, after 13 years, I finally left Marburg. The last half year I worked on letting go everything that I had been doing in this town. I created a lot of empty space, found new things, got horrible stomach pain the days before taking off, which finally stopped when I was on the highway outside of Marburg, heading towards Berlin.
I had made a very clear decision to stop working with acting and instead to focus on teaching CI while trying to create dance performances. Through the years the teaching grew and the performing faded out. I never really liked the working conditions of being a proper dancer and performer. The little money, the insecurity when the next job might pop up, the stress in the weeks before the premiere… The CI context felt more like my home. I met Daniel Werner and we started our CI training programme in Berlin.
From teaching classes to teaching workshops
But back to my teaching. Soon I stopped teaching classes to be free to travel for weekend workshops or longer intensives. That is easily said but felt like a big decision then. Teaching classes was a lot of effort for me in Berlin, where I never managed to establish continuous groups . Never knowing how many people would come made it hard to create any kind of progression or build up in the material. And I had to use half the time of the class to get people from their day-life into being present in their bodies and as a group, which didn’t give much time to go further. Workshops felt more satisfying in terms of depths.
I had to get used to formulate the title and content way before teaching the material. I struggled with that. How should I know what I might be interested in, that was three months ahead? I was so used to explore my current curiosities through my teaching and how they would shift in unpredictable ways. Through the years I found my way with this: Writing the workshop description was a major part of my preparation. I was setting a tone and a theme, a basic direction. After this I could easily let go off all thoughts until a few days before the actual workshop. A good workshop description helped me to reconnect to a curiosity. I learned to like this task, how to give life to a proposal that I sometimes wrote half a year beforehand. In a way I am always teaching my understanding of the moving body and the physical communication through touch with weight. But the workshop text helps me to look at this rather familiar stuff through a specific lens, which usually inspires me, draws up questions, or gives me ideas for partly new exercises …
I sometimes still made lists of possible exercises, partly as a wish list or just to wake up possibilities that I could draw from while improvising my teaching. But writing in a more prosaic way became more important: Questions of how I want to deal with myself while teaching, which atmosphere I’d like to see emerge or how the main principles of the workshop material touch habits and attitudes outside of the dance context. I noticed more and more that my main work is to set the right tone, which is underlying all the decisions about exercises and the build up of the material. So the question that got more and more weight was how to start the workshop.
I started to take more care about the space, reducing chaotic distractions, having a clean floor, setting up the sound system very early, having fresh air and a good temperature, dealing with registration issues. A core part of my preparation became to get everything that would draw my attention away from the teaching out of the way, so that I could be present in my body and for the people when we started.
And I planed the beginning of the workshop pretty well, to have a clear start and a good base for the main direction of the workshop – and whatever wanted to develop from there.
A turning point – problems to prepare workshops
A turning point occurred in 2009 In Lyon. I left my place early enough to have a longer coffee on the way to the studio to finalize how I’d like to start the workshop. It was a big one with 35 people in a space I didn’t know, only that there where problems with a partly cold and hard floor. I had a good french coffee and half an hour of inner torture. I couldn’t come up with a plan how to start. I had lots of good possibilities. But there was this inner resistance against making a final decision. As if my mind needed a plan in order to calm down, but my guts or my emotional body couldn’t relax into any pre-set plan without knowing the actual situation. My mind had to give in. So I arrived without knowing how to start. People where still rolling out some crappy carpet to cover the tiled floor. I had another coffee and started to surrender to my not knowing. It felt like praying that the right things will come up as needed but to give it out of my hands.
And that’s how it went. Once most people were in the space I felt the shift of energy in the space. I started saying a few things so that the participants could focus on their bodies, which helped me to connect better to my own body and my actual curiosities. And from there things really fell into place and it became one of my best workshops up to then.
How can we trust something that we don’t know yet? In a way we can’t. We can ‘pray’ and hope for the best, doing or undoing everything we can to become present. I guess most people who teach for a longer time have these painful brake throughs. Trust grows by trusting, trusting a bit more than we naturally would, taking the risk of failing without trusting blindly or being irresponsible. It stays a miracle to me, where those fantastic impulses come from, when they come and when not. Becoming professional means to build a good safety net so that we can take more risks to trust more. And it also means to me that we recognize how new, courages choices turn into established patterns that might loose part of their beauty and truth. With growing experience I might become better in understanding how much I can trust myself or an environment and how much I need to use well developed strategies to find my inner strength or calmness, and on the other hand when there is the possibility to overcome the tried & true options and to jump into the unknown again.
Whenever I came up with something that worked more or less perfectly and I ‘new’ that it was the best we could do, I realized over time that doing more or less the opposite would also work fine. Co-teaching teaches a lot towards that direction: Having to follow decisions that I would never have made myself and realizing that it works as well. Getting stuck in our ‘knowing’ is probably for long term teaching our biggest danger.
Worse teaching for better learning
I had a very important experience teaching a 5 day workshop in Poland in 2014. We were working on body surfing and suddenly I remembered a movement that Ray Chung uses a lot, to throw himself from lying on his back quickly and smoothly on top of the dance partner. I could demonstrate it and had some ideas, how I did it. But I couldn’t break it down quickly enough to teach it properly. So I let the people figure it out them selves from what they saw. A few got it, many others found great but different things. What impressed me was the atmosphere. Everyone was 100 % invested in trying things out, researching, questioning … After 45 minutes of watching, giving tips and trying myself I understood the movement in a way, that it would have been super easy to teach it, so that almost everyone would have been able to learn it. But the ‘honest not-knowing’ made the difference that created the deep desire and pleasure of failing and learning.
What I took from this experience is, that I partly force myself to prepare less. If I teach material that I know pretty well I consciously don’t break it down in advance. I use the teaching to re-discover, how somethings works. My guiding question is ‘How can I find & feel the inner logic of a movement or exercise?’ By preparing less I make the inner shift from knowing into researching. This approach only makes sense when I truly believe that the process of learning is more important than a pre-set result of what should be learned. And sometimes I am also more interested in quick and efficient ways to make people ‘get it’.
Even with a tendency to prepare less I still use a notebook. There are phases, where I don’t make any notes before teaching a workshop and others where I write a lot. What I try to always do is to take some time afterwards to write down my discoveries, things that worked well, or that I’d like to try out in a different way later on, deeper understandings of a basic principle or questions that I’d like to write about.
Teaching without Teaching?
I wonder where I’ll be in my teaching in 5, 10 or 20 years. All in all my journey as a teacher feels like a journey of letting go, setting a good tone and controlling less and less. ‘Teaching without teaching’ is a phrase that came up lately. I love to get things started, to create an atmosphere, where people dive into their own journey of curiosity. A core principle of my teaching, but also my own jamming and learning culture is to go to a maximum focus, diving in, obsessing about details that bring me to the edge of what I can perceive, the foggy area, where the unknown starts. And then I like to open up and let go, widening my awareness, letting go of expectations, allowing my more animalistic instincts to take over. Riding the ways of curiosities, a wave-like motion from focussing to opening to finding a new interest … and so on. In my ‘warm ups’ I offer specific foci, very concrete topics, often connected to what we can sense. And after a while I let people free to do what suits their needs and interests, which often leads them into dancing. Then I like to have moments for reflection: What was I busy with? What did I discover or struggl with? Basically, what was my learning experience? Then my job as a teacher is mainly to create common starting points, offering some kind of togetherness, setting the tone to work, research and connect. It is more about creating a frame and to facilitate the process. The work becomes more personal and self directed. As I see it an important part of teaching is to not stand in the way of our students. Easily we suffocate them with our desire to share everything we know. Are we able to notice when we become too much the center of the work, so that the work serves more our teachers ego than the process of our students?
And the expectations of our students easily pushes us into the role of being the one who must know and control.
My development towards giving more space and controlling less might also come from teaching more and more experienced groups. It is an interesting question how much self responsibility we can demand from people with less experience.
Blasts from the past – some last thoughts
It seems to be a common experience that learning happens in spirals. We re-visit and re-discover questions and material after a certain period of time. I have these moments feeling hit by a blast from the past. Something that was dear to my teaching slowly moved into the background and suddenly re-appears. That happened to the hands-on work that I did a lot in my beginnings. Lately it came back and it feels so essential to me, but with a different and potentially deeper understanding of it.
I am not sure how useful all these thoughts might be for people, who are more in the beginning of their teaching. I feel that my teaching is a continues journey of building up trust to control less. But trust doesn’t grow over night. All my detailed planing felt necessary to dare to improvise the teaching more and more. I guess we all have our individual processes and can’t jump ahead even though we might know already where we’d like to be. But I trust the power of wishes or visions: directions that we’d like to develop towards support our development.
And sometimes we are hit by a blast from the past. I wonder if I will at some point get back into preparing classes minute by minute to direct people in save ways into areas, where they otherwise would never go … who knows.
A very last note (A bad habit, I am sorry!)
Of course, what I have written is not true. As human beings we have a strong desire to create sense and we love stories. So – mainly unconsciously – we interpret and bend the past in a way that it leads more or less logically to our present. The truth is usually much more arbitrary, with gaps and random developments.
But I enjoy creating meaning and sharing my discoveries how I remember them and how they feel true to me.