Traditionally Western dance forms have been taught in a top-down, teacher-directed approach. Do as you’re told. Look like this. Move this way. It’s a way of teaching that pushes a lot of children away from dance—either because they don’t care for the restrictions or too often because they don’t “fit the mold” of what they’re taught a dancer should be. And those who stick with dance usually have some baggage from being part of dance institutions that used this model. Even in more progressive schools, technique was taught in technique class, and creative dance, improvisation, and composition were relegated to their own classes. Anne Green Gilbert envisioned a different way to teach dance to children and people of all ages, and the Seattle studio she founded, Creative Dance Center, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
Gilbert’s Brain-Compatible Dance Education is all about teaching conceptually. From Rudolf Laban’s dance theory she created 15 concepts, with each class exploring one concept. For instance, a class focused on “Energy” could explore smooth, sharp, shaky, and swingy movements. Class structure alternates between teacher-led and student-led exercises, with improvising and choreographing incorporated into every class. Gilbert is also well known for the BrainDance, a sequential exercise structure based on developmental movement patterns that is the beginning of every class.
Gilbert established Creative Dance Center (CDC) in 1981 after teaching children through Cornish College of the Arts and Bill Evans/Dance Theatre Seattle. Originally located in the Russian Center on Capitol Hill, it moved to Lake City Elementary before landing in its current location near Haller Lake in Seattle’s North end. Right from the beginning, Kaleidoscope, a children’s dance company, was an integral part of CDC.
“Anne believed passionately in children’s creativity and that they could create choreography that was sophisticated and appealing to all audiences,” says Anna Mansbridge, current director of Kaleidoscope who has continued Gilbert’s legacy since retirement in 2014. The company for ages eight through 17 is open to any student who wants to create and perform, working together to make pieces that tour local schools, retirement homes, and festivals, as well as traveling to national and international conferences, including such destinations as Australia, Jamaica, The Netherlands, Taiwan, Copenhagen, and Brazil.
Kaleidoscope also has their own concerts. The annual winter show, Gift of Dance, features the children’s choreography, for which Mansbridge is “just a facilitator.” The students are responsible for selecting music and costumes, and working together over eight weeks to create pieces on a theme. This past year the students were tasked to use props and make work inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Students are grouped together across ages, fostering a mentorship relationship between older and younger dancers.
Currently Kaleidoscope is preparing for their annual spring concert, which focuses on working with professional choreographers. “One of the goals of Kaleidoscope is to expose children to different choreographic processes and genres,” explains Mansbridge, “to give very broad educational exposure to different dance experiences.”
Over 120 local and national choreographers have set work on Kaleidoscope over the past 40 years, including local notables Pat Graney, Dani Tirrell, Wade Madsen, Nia-Amina Minor, and many, many more. In recognition of the anniversary, this year’s concert, May 12-14 at Broadway Performance Hall, also welcomes back a few alumni choreographers and includes a special alumni piece. The show will conclude with Oh Be Gentle, a work of Gilbert’s that has been part of the repertoire since premiering in 1993. Any alums, whether they’ve continued dancing in their adult life or not, are invited to join the multi-generational cast as they perform this beloved work.
Creating a space where everyone can participate in dance is at the heart of Anne Green Gilbert’s methodology. “Anne’s desire was to make dance accessible and inclusive. I know this is very current now, but she was talking about this 40 years ago,” says Mansbridge. Because the method teaches dance conceptually, it’s built to be adaptable to any body, and any set of needs. Students with physical or intellectual disabilities who might normally be excluded from a conventional dance studio are able to take classes integrated with their peers.
“It’s very important that all children come and they feel successful and their bodies are valid. Everybody can dance,” says Mansbridge, “Just respecting everybody and what they bring to the studio and not having preconceived ideas of what it should look like. It’s just really open and celebrating all movers.”
“All of our classes are open to everybody,” echoes CDC Director, Terry Goetz. But she also recognizes that having a class specifically for adaptive dance can meet even more student needs. Spearheaded by staff instructor Corina Dalzell around 2016, CDC’s adaptive dance class is now led by Bri Wilson and long-time student-turned-teacher, Joel Nyland. Nyland uses spelling to communicate. In his bio he writes, “I have danced mostly in my imagination my whole life because my brain functions differently and my body does not follow its instructions. Learning the BrainDance has increased my ability to move my body. I love helping others see the power of dance.”
Goetz also knows access also means extending classes outside the studio walls. CDC has an extensive outreach program teaching free dance classes across the city in partnership with Mary’s Place and Mercy Housing at Gardner House in South Seattle and Cedar Crossing in the Roosevelt district. They also work with kids in schools. Recently CDC was invited to join the Creative Advantage roster, which helps bring arts programs to Seattle Schools. It’s a huge commitment for schools to use class time for dance education, but Goetz has seen how transformative and important it can be.
“It allows students to be in their bodies and their minds and their emotions in a very different way than throughout their school day—kinesthetic learning, social emotional learning.” In an example she gives, students might practice moving strong and moving light. Through movement, the kids that live in strength all the time can experience lightness and children who tend towards lightness can access strength.
“Dance can provide students an inroad to self awareness, through their body, through how they’re feeling. Especially coming out of the pandemic and screens it’s incredibly valuable to remember that they are a 3D being with feelings and sensations. Awakening the sensations and feeling fully alive and sharing ideas through movement and dance.”
Anne Green Gilbert’s ideas have been incredibly influential in dance education at a local, national, and international level. That’s in large part because of the studio’s commitment to professional teacher training. Gilbert began offering workshops for dance teachers from CDC’s onset, and continues to teach regular workshops. The first in-depth summer course to learn Gilbert’s methods occurred in 1995. Every summer since, dance teachers from across the country and world flock to Seattle (or to Zoom the last few years) to learn Brain-Compatible Dance Education. Each of these teachers take these ideas back to their home studio, their university grad programs, their public schools, and that’s shifting the paradigm.
A former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer, Goetz participated in the program in 1997 and began teaching at CDC in 2000. “When I brought it into my teaching, this lens of a dance concept threading through each part of class, it gave students an opportunity to move in their own way. It changed their capacity to be expressive in their own movements. I’m always continually amazed to see the growth and artistry that comes out of students who experience this way of teaching. It gives me great joy.”
Mansbridge, with an education degree and a dance MFA, found Gilbert’s method to be a place where everything clicked together.
“I saw how the pedagogy worked and how the children were engaged. How it developed the dance but also the person. Their social skills, how they were relating to others, having to problem solve and work out group dynamics. I just took such delight in seeing children discover creativity and self-expression and creating amazing pieces of choreography through this methodology.”
Kaleidoscope’s 40th Anniversary Spring Concert runs Friday May 12 through Sunday May 14 at Broadway Performance Hall and features works by Tiffany Bierly, Shobha Blossey, Anne Green Gilbert, S. Alice Grendon, Elizabeth Heard Hodgson, Lauren Kutz, Anna Mansbridge, Nia-Amina Minor, Jay Tan, Tshedzom Tingkhye, Bri Wilson, and the Kaleidoscope Dancers. Tickets are available HERE. To learn more about Creative Dance Center and Kaleidoscope visit creativedance.org.