It’s bustling on Saturday morning at the Haller Lake Social Club, home to the Creative Dance Center for the last 15 years. The 1920’s wood frame structure, with its creaky stairs and broken up spaces is alive with a “Cheaper by the Dozen” kind of feel (I mean the 1948 book, not the cheesy Steve Martin film). There’s a sense of family among the multiple generations coming to dance with their babies or to drop their grandchildren off for class. And there’s Anne Green Gilbert, the nationally and internationally recognized visionary in the field of dance education, unassumingly weaving herself through the crowds to join a group of first graders for class.
This year Anne celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Creative Dance Center where she has served as Artistic Director, teacher, intellectual and philosophical guru, mother and grandmother to the more than 10,000 dance students who’ve entered her doors.
On this morning, she brings an excited group to gather around her on the floor. Unfazed when an apologetic grandfather interrupts to explain that his granddaughter is reluctant to come in, Anne is quickly on her feet to help locate an extra leotard (though clearly there is no dress code for this class). With a graceful yet businesslike bearing, Anne quickly returns. The purpose in her steps, the ease of her posture, the effortlessness with which she re-seats herself on the floor -- it’s clear that this 63 year-old grandmother of four is a dancer.
Unlike my own daughter’s ballet experience, which lasted approximately four minutes -- the time it took for her to break down in tears when the teacher insisted I leave the room -- Anne’s class is suffused with an aura of acceptance. I’m sitting in the back of the room with my 9 year-old while another mother watches nearby. The door opens periodically when a curious person peers in. Anne’s attention is on the kids and their attention is on her.
“We are very flexible. I don’t know why people can’t have more of that feeling. Many of these traditional dance schools can be so harmful. Dance should be joyful!”
I recognize elements of the Anne’s BrainDance in the warm-up she leads, though rather than using scientific terms such as “core-distal” or “vestibular” she encourages her students to express different emotions like a puppy, wagging its tail or shaking its head. Each of these she does as if for the first time, the emotion in her movement as convincing as it must have been more than 40 years ago when she first started teaching.
(photo credit: John Lok, Seattle TImes)
Every class Anne teaches will be similar to this one and every one unique. They will be based on the 5 - part lesson plan that she developed, “always moving back and forth between technique and improvisation, to really create a whole dancer. It’s a very multiple intelligence, very holistic approach to dance.”
From the parents dancing downstairs with infants in their arms, to the adult and senior classes, the summer institute for teachers and Kaleidoscope Dance Company, Anne’s presence is indelibly evident. The approach to dance is one that Anne developed, in part a reaction to what was wrong with her early dance experience (“I hated my dance studio when I was young. I had a ballet teacher who hit me with a stick, who yelled and screamed”), but developed and constantly refined in response to need, experience, experimentation, science, and movement. Always movement, in a forward direction.
“I’m a Thrust. When you’re a Thrust you don’t look at things as a challenge. Because you just do it, there’s something inside you, a passion, a fire, where you don’t have a choice. And you don’t really think too clearly about what you do,” she says laughing.
“Like my books, I never should have written each book. I didn’t know what I was talking about, but I needed textbooks.” What she needed didn’t exist, so she created. Three of them.
The first in 1977 was Teaching the Three Rs Through Movement Experiences, born from her frustration teaching third grade students who were chained to their desks all day, expected to regurgitate facts rather than solve problems. Photos of children moving joyfully as they gallop their letter P through space and arrange their bodies together to make an asymmetrical shape illustrate the very clear lesson plan suggestions.
Her second book, Creative Dance for All Ages, first printed in 1992, receives only 5-star reviews on Amazon with comments such as: “Her methods are generous and joyful, reflecting her passion for giving children (and adults) the experience of dance without fear or feeling threatened.”
Anne’s third book printed in 2006, Brain Compatible Dance Education, starts with a section for Understanding the Brain and outlining the four stages of brain development from conception to adult. With the basic science explained, she moves on to describe the BrainDance.
“The BrainDance is an exercise I developed in 2000 comprised of eight fundamental movement patterns that we move through in the first year of life,” from touching and squeezing to creeping and crawling. “These movement patterns wire the central nervous system by laying the foundation for appropriate behavior and attention, eye convergence necessary for reading, sensory-motor development and more.”
As Anne taught children over the years, she was seeing an alarming increase in motor learning development problems. The culprit? Hours spent sedentary before a computer screen or strapped into a car seat, families under stress, high-stakes testing in schools. “Movement is the key to learning, but people today spend hours simply sitting. When we watch television, we go into ocular lock, staring with no movement in our brains. In the critical years as their brains develop, children should move, dance, play and interact with peers rather than stare at screens.”
Anne launches in on new negative forces creeping into children’s lives. “I read this awful article about toddlers on the iPhone -- it’s like a drug. They have these special apps. They can just do this,” she says swiping her hand through the air, “and wild animals come on, and these kids are hooked. But they don’t know what the thought process is, so we’re just creating more stupid people. They just see flashing lights, but there’s no tactile, no three dimensionality -- their brains are not really wiring the way ours were. And some of the research says, so what? This is evolution. These people don’t need the hunter gatherer brain anymore.
“And I say, ok but the kids I’m seeing are obese, they’re nervous if they sweat, they can’t relate to people, they can’t read, they can’t write. And what really kills me is the whole social relationship -- when we lose that, the violence is right here. If we don’t have a moral compass, if we don’t know empathy, than we’re just going to keep killing. To me, that’s not evolution, world peace is evolution,” she sighs.
BrainDance was born from the need she saw to prepare her students for learning, “I just started trying it out in the schools, it made kids focus, and over the long term it made children behave better and in certain cases, it made them learn better.”
Not just BrainDance, but all aspects of Anne’s methodology and philosophy come from perceiving then addressing a need, starting with her first days teaching at the University of Washington in the early 1970’s. “I was asked to teach dance for children and I knew nothing about that. But I said yeah, I can teach dance for children, I can teach dance for the P.E. majors, I can teach folk dance, I can teach ballroom. I had never done any of these things, so that’s when I became an autodidact.
“I just started to read. I read every book on creative dance there was. I got Arthur Murray dance records and I would teach myself the tango at night and go teach it to the students the next day. And the next night I’d learn the fox trot. And then I thought, here I am teaching these college kids how to teach children, I better teach some children dance. So, it was like a laboratory. I started organizing classes for preschoolers while I was teaching at the University and dancing in a dance company. I would see what worked and then I would tell my students the next day. I began to just make up my own ideas and own philosophy and own methodology. See, most of the time I don’t know what I’m doing,” she says laughing at herself.
Anne’s assiduous study of the brain introduced her to another concept that guides not just her teaching but the way she manages the Center and even how she understands her husband. It came from Betsy Wetzig, Coordination Pattern theorist (explaining the impact of movement on learning, communication and creativity by making movement a window to the mind’s work) who developed terminology that resonated with Anne.
By this theory, Anne is a self-described “Thrust/Swing -- I get things done and I love to play. I’m not so much a Shape, which is about what’s correct.” She goes on to explain.
Swing: “This person is always giggling, bouncing, one leg on one side, shifting legs,” says Anne, demonstrating all of those movements from her dining room chair. “They are the networkers, they love social groups, they love talk, they’re the playful people, they love to add color, they’re good nurturers, hostesses.”
Shape : “Is about being correct. Their movement is sitting still, they’re much more about what is correct, and usually it’s their own point of view. They like to edit; they put things in a box, they make lists, they’re analytical. My husband is very analytical but rarely gets things done because he’s afraid that it might be the wrong thing.”
Hang: “Falls off the chair,” says Anne, sliding from one edge of hers to the other. “They have meandering pathways, they are the ones that have the big ideas, constantly conceptualizing, big idea, big idea, they can’t edit, can’t get it done, They kind of take on other people’s personalities, they get pulled in, so, they’re kind of messy. Sometimes you can’t be quite sure what they’re saying because they’ll start in the middle of a thought that they’ve been thinking so hard.”
Thrust: “Is a doer; often sits forward, they move in a forward, diagonal direction,” says Anne, while gesturing with her right then left hands. “They get things done, they’re activators, they like to reorganize data, they don’t have the big ideas themselves. That’s basically what my books are -- I’ve taken all these things I’ve read, reorganized it, made it very accessible. I’m really a translator.
“I’m so attuned to movement I can see someone come through the door and think, Hang, and I can be prepared for a certain communication style. And you really need every single type in a committee.” Anne attributes the success and longevity of her non-profit’s Board of Directors to carrying a balance of the four types. “You want to encourage the Swing person to be the hostess at your auction, encourage the Shape to do your budget and encourage your Thrust to get things done. If you have all Shapers, or all Swingers on a committee, you’re in trouble.”
In case you haven’t yet caught on, I’m not writing about a ballerina here with an equal amount of sawdust in her head as in her toe shoes. This woman, so generously sharing her time and her dining room with me is mindful, purposeful, bursting with energy, inspiration, and evangelism for movement.
Anne and Dionne Kamara, teaching partners at CDC's Summer Dance Institute for Teachers
Anne shares the BrainDance widely. You can read about it in her book, on her web site, or purchase a dvd or video to watch it in action. She shares it with classroom teachers and through her Summer Dance Institute for Teachers (“designed for educators, dance teachers, arts specialists, and therapists who wish to understand the vital link between movement and cognition”). But she has no desire to trademark or register it. “People say I should own BrainDance, but I don’t want to, I don’t own these patterns. Whoever created us created these patterns. I just translated it and made it accessible.” That’s the Thrust talking.
And she sees the application of the BrainDance reach far wider than young children. “Because BrainDance goes through these patterns it really does rewire the brain. It reboots the computer. It’s not just random movement. It’s specific neuro-developmental movements that created our central nervous system. And if you do it everyday, you really do change. Your memory is better.
“As I get older, I’m moving into older populations and doing a lot of workshops on BrainDance for adults and seniors. It’s exercise, but it’s also expression -- much more interesting than going to 24-Hour fitness and looking at a screen because it’s about emotion, and feeling and community and connections. We do these improvisations and I say, ok, this is going to delay Alzheimer’s; this is better than crosswords because we’re using our whole body, we’re thinking of solutions.”
And what would she to say to somebody who hasn’t danced at all or hasn’t danced in a really long time? “Come, come! We see people who haven’t danced for 30 years and are re-finding that voice, and we have people who have never danced. It’s very open, very flexible. That’s what this method is.” The age range of her weekly adult class is 39 – 69 years. “I wish there were more opportunities for creative dance for adults. There is wonderful contra dancing, and senior dancing, but it doesn’t have the community. In my class, we’re always touching, weight sharing, talking, observing. It’s much more in-depth than just exercising – it has that emotional, expressive component.”
Anne is all about movement – movement of ideas, movement of bodies, of spirit, moving on to new projects, to the next class, the next workshop, the next performance. She suggests that really she is quite shy, that she would prefer to be reading her classic English novels in a quiet corner of the living room, but within moments she betrays herself yet other new ideas. “I want to write an alphabet book, do more dvd’s,” her expressive hands in movement to illustrate a point as if the energy can’t be contained.
“Everyday is a lab -- I’ve been teaching 40 years but I’m still trying new things and trying to be better. I’m, excited about planning the next lesson, I like thinking of new ideas, I like creating so much. And this gives me such an opportunity to be using my brain, solving problems, and playing! That’s what it is, it’s not work, it’s play.”
To re-energize, every summer Anne retreats to the old 1916 stone schoolhouse in the grazing land of rural Colorado. It’s the place where her father, a true cowboy reluctantly turned lawyer, went as a boy each summer to work as a ranch hand. Reachable only in the warm months, the schoolhouse is now shared by Anne and her three sisters, each of whom an artist in her respective discipline. But it is Anne, the dancer of the four, who finds a special history there. “This is where Agnes De Mille went to her first cowboy dances and got the ideas for the choreography for Rodeo and ultimately, for the Broadway musical Oklahoma. These were all-night dances with fiddlers and she danced on the same floor! Whenever I go to this schoolhouse, I always dance on this floor – it’s very romantic. Agnes De Mille is one of my total heroines because she never had a dancer’s body and I never did either.”
Anne with grandchildren Pryor, Emerson and Finn and daughter-in-law Tindley dancing on the old schoolhouse floor
Over the years Anne has brought her three children, all dancers themselves, and now her four grandchildren to join her, handing down the ritual and joy of dance through the generations. And soon, she’ll see her daughter Bronwen back at the Creative Dance Center, this time to dance with Anne’s new granddaughter Kaija Isadora (named for Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance).
There are a lot more people to move. “I see changes in these kids everyday and it’s not me that’s changing them, it’s the dance. I’m just allowing that to happen.”
Happy Birthday Anne.
- Janet Pelz
Anne Green Gilbert’s not-so secrets for how she does it:
- “I’m doing what I love to do -- it’s this passion I’ve had since I was little. And it doesn’t mean that everyday is great. It’s difficult sometimes, difficult parents to deal with, difficult grant issues, fundraising, costumes. But I think a lot of it is that Thrust personality.
- “My husband is very supportive of what I do. He has always worked long hours – he’s an excellent physician very dedicated to his patients just as I am dedicated to my dance students.
- “I didn’t have the time to stop. I had 3 kids in 5 years, I was teaching, traveling, organizing, creating. I took the kids to class when they were sick; I’d teach my class and then come home. Now I’m sitting back a little and wondering, how did I do that? It all went so fast. I can’t even remember it.
- “I just kept going.”
What books has Anne read recently?
- Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope, an 1894 classic of swashbuckling romance she read with her book group;
- The Barsetshire Novels, by Angela Thirkell published in the 1940’s, Anne is re-reading these well-written classics. “I’m a person who rereads novels that I love because I don’t want to waste time on a bad novel.”
- Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey . “I read a bunch of neuroscience books.”
Whom does Anne want me to interview next?
- My neighbor works for the Seattle Police as a Community outreach officer. She’s so passionate about what she does, and I think her job is so needed, and she just got a pink slip. She’s the most empathetic, sympathetic, loving person, and she has to work with these old boys. She’s living in a world that I can’t fathom and trying to change that world like I’m trying to change mine.