Dance teachers are the foundation of the dance world. Not only do they teach young people to enjoy movement and hone their technique, but they inspire, encourage, and for many, ignite a lifelong passion for dance. Though their work in the studio often goes unrecognized, they are the ones who give students—the performers and choreographers of tomorrow’s stages—the tools to succeed in dance. And if dance teachers are the foundation of the dance world, Anne Green Gilbert is certainly a cornerstone. A teacher of prodigious vision, she has done more than just run a successful school and dance company for the past 33 years: Gilbert has pioneered new teaching methods, established state-wide dance organizations, received national dance teaching honors, mentored dance teachers from around the world through her Summer Dance Institute for Teachers, and, perhaps most importantly, touched countless lives with her passion for dance.
After 33 years as the director of The Creative Dance Center and Kaleidoscope Dance Company, Gilbert is stepping down and handing the reins to Terry Goetz, who will lead the school, and Anna Mansbridge, who will lead the company. Though she’ll still be active as a teacher at CDC, this weekend’s program of Kaleidoscope in Concert at Broadway Performance Hall marks the company’s final performance under Gilbert’s direction. The transition is a natural progression, but it still feels like the end of an era. Gilbert speaks humbly and matter-of-factly about stepping down (and most things in life, for that matter). “I never worried about a legacy. I’m like ‘Ok, when I’m ready to quit, it’s done. It is what it is.’” Intentional or not, Gilbert has certainly left an enduring legacy in the company and the school. And since she insists on not making a fuss over her retirement, what better way to celebrate her work than by watching it in action this weekend (May 9-11, 2014) at Kaleidoscope in Concert?
Gilbert didn’t set out to be a dance teacher. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, she was immersed in a traditional dance background of ballet, tap, jazz, and later modern through the performing arts high school she attended. “I was going to be a performer,” she said in a recent interview with SeattleDances. “I was going to go to New York, I was going to be in a company.” Her plans changed after college when she got a teaching certificate and began teaching third grade as a way to support her husband, who was in medical school at the time. “I never babysat even a day in my life [and] here I was in third grade teaching 30 kids. I learned so much in those couple of years,” she says with a chuckle. It was during those few years in elementary education where Gilbert first “got excited about how much the arts can change kids. I didn’t use the traditional curriculum because I really didn’t know how to teach math.” Falling back on her own arts education, she started incorporating movement and visual arts into her lessons. “I just saw the power, they started to do math and started to spell. And then I got really excited.”
While utilizing her arts background came naturally, Gilbert also read widely, essentially teaching herself how to teach. “I’m an autodidact. I really just read every night and studied.” Later, as an instructor at the University of Washington, “I had to read tons of books on teaching methods and class management. I learned how to teach ballroom dance, and folk dance, and teaching methods.” This was all in the 1970s when there was a plethora of new research and thinking in education around the concepts of group work, student-centered teaching, and behavior modification. It was during this time that Gilbert started to formulate her own teaching methodologies by simply taking “what I thought was sensible and what I saw worked.” Over the course of the years Gilbert has written several books on her methods, and continually refines her ideas through experimenting in the studio. “Really my students have been my lab. I’ve had a research lab for 40 years. I’m not afraid to try something out and then use it or discard it.”
The two fundamentals that set Gilbert’s methods apart from traditional dance teaching approaches are the BrainDance (a series of eight exercises that engage our natural developmental pathways) and a five-part lesson plan that alternates between teacher-directed and student-centered activities. “No matter what age, style, genre, level, we’re doing a combination of technique and improv. We don’t just teach technique.” Gilbert insists that this interplay between guided instruction and improvisation is what produces such unique dancers. It’s easy to see the correlation. In a recent rehearsal, the students moved assertively, their steps imbued with the enthusiasm of their youth and a powerful confidence that extended beyond their years.
Gilbert’s focus on improvisation in class also taps directly into the student’s own choreographic potential, and the company serves as a whole fleet of choreographers-in-training. In every class, students compose their own movement studies, either individually or with others, which creates a comfort level with composition not often seen at such young ages. “They make up studies every week, [so] when it comes to making up a dance, they have all the tools, and they’ve been doing it since they were five years old. So they’re just so sophisticated.” They showcase their efforts every year in Kaleidoscope’s winter concert which consists exclusively of student choreography.
And while ideas like the BrainDance and student-centered activities might sound straightforward, they’re fairly revolutionary in the heavily teacher-directed and technique-driven world of dance. That’s part of the reason why her pioneering methodology has such appeal all over the world. Teachers from as far as South Korea and Turkey have come to her Summer Dance Institute for Teachers to study with Gilbert, and many have gone back and established companies or schools in the mold of Kaleidoscope and Creative Dance Center. “A lot of people just go on teaching [the traditional way] because that’s how they were taught, and they really don’t know how to change. [But] we’re slowly retraining teachers, we’re slowly giving them a better way of doing things in the studio.” Gilbert’s methods open doors for teachers by giving them alternatives to technique-driven instruction, while her institutions serve as a model for how these methods can play out on a larger level. “We’ve been a successful [organization] for thirty years,” she asserts. “We make money, we pay our teachers. So you can do modern dance and have a company and be successful. You don’t have to do competition dance; you don’t have to be a dance factory.”
Over the years, Gilbert has charted a subtle shift in dance education towards this more holistic approach, but her greatest frustration is that these ideas haven’t been incorporated into the school systems. Washington state in particular lags behind East coast schools in offering dance, a problem Gilbert blames on the lack of teacher certification programs, among other things. “We don’t have any universities that certify teachers, and this city is so strong on technology here. It kind of pushes the arts to the side. It’s a shame.” Gilbert has worked with multiple school district superintendents to write dance standards, all of which have yet to be enacted. What riles her the most is that children are missing out on the power of dance. “I go teach these kids, and every day they teach me something. I’m like, ‘Look! Look at this dance they’ve created! Look how they work together!’ Maybe the world won’t come to an end—these people will go on and collaborate somehow! This is the power of dance that we know about. It’s so frustrating that it’s not in the schools, that everybody doesn’t have the opportunity.”
Frustration aside, Gilbert knows that she’s had an incredibly fortunate and varied career. “I love all the branches [of my career]. I’m so lucky because I’ve been able to choreograph and have a dance company. I love that. I love training teachers, I love just teaching. I’ve been really blessed to just do what I want to do.” And while it’s hard to narrow down the highlights of such a long and fruitful career, Gilbert counted her travel experiences with Kaleidoscope and the wonderful relationships she’s forged with students, teachers, parents, and colleagues along the way at the top of the list. “Because dance is so powerful—particularly the way we teach it which is so collaborative—you make good friendships. It’s quite personal.” This is especially true with the company dancers she develops long term relationships with while watching them grow up. “If you have an adult company, they don’t change that much. These kids, they start at age 7, and then they completely change, and then they go to college and I’m still in touch with them.” The children clearly cherish the experiences and mentorship Gilbert provides as well. She still receives emails from former students now scattered across the globe who continue to develop the connections and friendships they started while in Kaleidoscope and who credit their time in the company for their lifelong passion for dance and the arts.
To watch this passion being actively ignited, go see Kaleidoscope in Concert this weekend. For her final program as the helm of the company, Gilbert has curated a diverse show featuring everything from classical modern to swing dance. The choreography incorporates visual art work, humor, and, most of all, the children’s earnest enthusiasm and charisma. Only time will tell if any of these kids will continue on in dance, but, for now, they’re dancing their hearts out with impressive professionalism and confidence. That alone is a legacy worth celebrating.