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River, How Do You Feel?

March 31, 2011

Part One.

I don’t think the sky could be any bigger here in Cochise County. Just below the giant blue dome sits Ash Creek School, a little collection of white buildings with purple trim, not far from the barely-a-town of Pearce, AZ. The campus is separated from the highway by a line of cottonwood trees.

The last time I was here, in winter over a year ago, the leaves were yellow and I was tickled to see the school marquee announced my presence: “Welcome Artist Kimi.” This time the marquee announces a track meet, so the cottonwoods, in their full green-of-spring glory, do the job.

On the first day of my residency I show the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders (all in once class) a map of the Colorado River watershed. I trace the thick blue line of the Colorado River and then the tributaries that feed it, explaining to them that a watershed is the area of land that drains water to a single stream. Or, as John Wesley Powell, put it: “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”

We look closely and identify where Ash Creek School would be, and the miniscule “town” of Pearce, if it were big enough to be shown on the map. Their teacher, Vicki Marvick, indicates a patch of map brown beyond the red line that delineates the watershed.

“We’re just outside of that watershed,” she says. “I’m not sure which watershed we’re in. It’s a captive basin, this area.”

A captive basin? What is that, exactly?

Well, it’s the Willcox basin, a 1,911-square mile basin bounded by mountains—the Pinaleños to the northeast, the Dos Cabezas and Chiricahuas to the east, the Pedregosas to the south, the Swisshelms, Dragoons, and Winchesters to the west. The lowest point in the basin is the Willcox Playa, where thousands of sandhill cranes winter every year. All water in the basin—from surface runoff, snowbelt, and just four perennial streams–flows toward the playa, which was historically the only outlet for water to leave the basin. Today most water infiltrates the ground before reaching it. Occasional ponds form in the playa after rain or snow, but most of the time it is a dry, vast expanse of white silt and clay. A captive basin, indeed.

The reason we’re looking at a map of the Colorado River Watershed and not the Willcox basin is because the students are scheduled to travel north to visit the Grand Canyon next month. So I’ve focused my residency with them on the Colorado River, which works well given that in my other life I’m co-directing a dance project about water–how it moves, where it comes from, what’s happening to it, what we can do to enhance the cycle of it—and can bring some of those activities here along with some creative writing.

The irony is that in my own body I seem to have activated into the form of ice, given a 4-month (and counting) bout with sciatica. Which means that I’m something of a captive basin, too.

I can’t walk far and can’t dance but with my hands. Fortunately, my particular condition allows me to sit relatively comfortably in a chair. I feel a little bit like a wrinkled and washed up ballet teacher, leaning on her cane, barking orders. Except I have no cane and I gave up leotards years ago. And actually I’m not really all that wrinkled yet, nor do I bark at the children. But anyway, this isn’t really about me and my immobility. It’s about children and how readily they move. Like water, uncontained.

I ease into the week. My task over the next 10 days is to assemble something for the students to perform. At the end of my residency, parents and community members will come to see what the students have learned. Then, at the end of April, they’ll perform it in Phoenix at the culminating event of this whole project, three years running now and about to end. Maybe there will be funding to extend the program. If not, we’ll be like water racing toward the dam.

I mix up the days with writing and dance activities. We write about our most recent experience with water in the desert; we take turns moving as rocks and water, each one shaping the other; we read a variety of accounts of the Colorado River and identify actions and images; we list all the things a river does and create movements for those actions.

Then we do some improv. I never quite know how students will respond to the wide open, but I do know that the younger they are, the easier it is for them to feel free. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders take to it swimmingly, shall we say.  I ask them to go in pairs, from one corner of the room to another. Each crossing is a different movement quality. I imagine they are the Grand Canyon forming. Heavy like rock. Light like wind. Layers and layers. Cutting and carving. Tumbling. Twisting. Curving and turning. Their interpretations are curious. For “layers” some of them stack their hands together, keep them moving higher. For cutting and carving, some of them turn to their partners to shape them into poses or twirl them. Some make scissor hands.

And then we get to dying. The dying river. Earlier in the week we wrote down the word “trickle.” I mentioned that by the time the Colorado reaches the delta it is merely a trickle. So many dams and diversions, so much human dependency—the river barely makes it.

The children begin across the room. Some of them droop their jaws and eyes. Their arms hang limp. They fall to their knees, then to their chests and bellies, they drag themselves across the floor. I watch one boy lie flat on the ground and try to pull the weight of his body by his fingertips.

It’s not complicated movement. In fact, it’s rather literal. But with the music I have going—lots of slow violin and cellos—it’s unbelievably moving. In fact, what’s most moving of all is when all the kids have stopped altogether, their bodies splayed across the floor, completely still. I look at their teacher. She looks at me. We nod. Chills.

These students have never seen the Colorado River, but they’ve seen some of the region’s perennial streams in nearby mountains, so they know something about how rivers move. But, what else do they want to know about the river? If the river were a person, and you could ask it anything, what would you ask it?

The questions are delightful:

River, how were you created?
What are you made of?
How did you get so strong?
Why are you so cold?
River, what is your favorite song?
What do you do for fun?
What is your secret?
Who do you work for?
What do you worship?
River, what stories do you have for me?
What makes you angry?
Have you ever loved someone?
What are you afraid of?
How do you feel?
River, what do you want us to do better?

I have each of them choose a question to answer. Become the river, I tell them. You just danced the river. Now speak the river.

Here are their answers, edited to single sentences:

I was born in a cloud that was blue.
I was made by rain, blue as the sky.
I got strong by carving rocks. My heart will be in the sky soon.
My secret is that I hate soggy green frogs with rainbow teeth.
I work for the people. I keep them cool.
I work for the rocks who I give a home to, and the seeds who I transport.
I am cold because the warmth of the sun isn’t mine.
I would rather flow than die. I’m blue.
I bury my head in the deep blue sea.
I’m afraid of dying.
I feel intoxicated. I feel soaked. I want to be purple!
I will die for the people. They are like trees to me. I hear their music in the birds. I see their green leaves.

A few days later, back in Tucson, I am speaking on a panel about art practice and sustainability for the Tucson Water Project. I talk about how the body offers a good place to explore our connection to water. I share the story of the students dancing the dying river. I mention the boy and his fingertip crawl. When I’m done speaking, a woman in the audience raises her hand. She references the story and asks, “What about hope? What are you doing to teach the children hope?”

Hmm. I can’t tell if I like her question or if it annoys me. Part of me wants to be sassy. “Hope? What hope is there for the Colorado River?” But of course, that’s not how a nice teaching artist should respond. So, I tell her the truth: that I’m not finished with my residency yet, that I go back for another week on Monday. I tell her we’ll continue to explore our relationship with water through the body and that maybe some solutions will bubble to the surface.

The truth is, I don’t know what I’ll do to “teach the children hope.” That seems like a tall order. And anyway, I don’t think it’s really my job to do that.

My job, or at least what I think my job is, is to make them feel.

This week it was to make them feel the river—to imagine what it would be like to move as the river, to imagine what the river would say if it could speak, to feel something all their own in the body and in the throat.

Maybe there, inside all those feelings, is where hope begins its flow.


On the Cusp of Inhibition

December 15, 2010

The 20-minute drive to Willcox Middle School from my temporary home begins just before sunrise. I watch the sky go from black to grey to blue to pink, orange, yellow. I am fixating on the sky when I notice the long gray ribbon undulating moving across it. Birds? Yes, birds! I see another ribbon then another, and another. Sandhill cranes!

The sandhill cranes winter by the thousands at the Willcox Playa, traveling from Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, Canada and northeastern Siberia. At sunrise they set off for nearby fields to feed. I look for them every morning—thin, gray, moving ribbons in the sky. Their formations are elegant and varied. Not strict Vs, but looser and shifting—sometimes a single rippling line, sometimes two curved lines that join at a cusp.

How inherently beautiful their flying is. How lucky I am, as a human, to witness. Their formations are purposeful, no doubt, but they’re not dancing for my sake. They probably don’t even know I’m watching. And even if they did, I don’t think they’d care.

The Willcox Middle School sits directly adjacent to the high school just south of I-10. It is a series of squat red brick buildings separated by concrete. There is a barely a tree on the grounds, which makes everything feel parched and frozen. In early December, the morning is frigid. I can see my breath.

I have five classes, four 6th grade science classes and one 7th grade art class full of kids who, I’m told ahead of time, don’t really want to be there. Linda Rothschiller teaches all five classes. She’s a small-framed woman with a big supply of hospitality. She greets me in the parking lot every day, escorts me to my classroom, and each day gifts me something—a croissant, a fruit smoothie, chocolate bar, hard candy.

My room is an art room at the far end of the campus. There is no heat and the floor is cold concrete. I keep my jacket on.

Willcox schools adopted a 4-day school week this year, which limits the time I have with the students. I decide to focus on movement basics with them and pull in some of their science content on natural disasters by week’s end. The sixth graders are eager to arrive and eager to participate. They do the warm-up with me easily, happily following along, laughing and enjoying themselves. They readily make movements to go with their names and are joyous about rolling and sliding on the floor and genuinely enthusiastic about making shapes with partners. Yay, I think. This is going to be fun.

And then the 7th graders come. They’re less eager. To put it mildly. Most of them are too cool to move. Too embarrassed, too shy, too full of a certain kind of attitude that doesn’t allow for rolling shoulders and hips and certainly not rolling on the floor.

A month or so ago, at Double Adobe Elementary, I marveled at the developmental differences between kindergartners and first and second graders. Kindergarteners cannot make a shoulder-to-shoulder line, much less three of them in a row, without adult assistance. Nor can they make varied shapes and poses with their bodies on their own—they need to copy an adult. But by first grade they can line up in formation relatively quickly, find their own poses and hold them, and even memorize steps to a dance. In less than a year they gain spatial awareness, physical motor skills, and muscle memory.

Here I marvel at the developmental differences between 6th and 7th graders. But it’s not a progressive development. It’s more like a regression. The 7th graders have not forgotten how to move, they simply refuse to. Arms fold on the chest. Legs cross. Heads turn down. Eyes avert. Faces wince.

I know better than to make them do the same activities as 6th graders, so I opt for a basic warm up and then go for simply teaching them social dances I know. Salsa? Merengue? Samba? The Charleston? I start with Samba Reggae, which is relatively fresh in my mind and has some easy steps. Of the 30 students in this particular 7th grade class (!), I end up with about 12 who are willing to move. Half of these are cool girls who probably have taken dance class before. The other half are dorky boys. Hallelujah for dorks. All the rest sit out, too cool for school.

A handful of brave 7th graders dance. The too-cool ones sit out.

I manage to teach a short combination of samba reggae and the willing seem to enjoy it, though it can’t be all that easy with the too-coolers in the back laughing. I commend their effort and promise them that later in life all the cool people become losers and all the dorks become cool. Their teacher backs me up. It’s true, is it not?

Against the apathy of the 7th graders, I put more attention on the 6th graders. I notice how they come into the room with enthusiasm, how they pay attention to me, listening for directions. I watch them spin and slide. During one class, I lose myself for a moment watching a girl in pink slacks awkwardly spin herself around in an arabesque. It’s not necessarily a move filled with grace, but it overflows with effort and earnestness.

That’s it. Earnestness. The 6th graders have it. They go for it. They don’t hold back. There is no filter, there is no shame.

So what is it that happens between 6th and 7th grade? Why does the body close up and the mind take over? Why do we become so self-conscious? And why do so many stay that way forever?

I should add that while I’m willing to roll on the floor now as adult, I wasn’t exempt from the self-consciousness as a teenager. I remember my mortification when the apprentice dance company I was part of came to perform at my high school. I was 14. I didn’t want to perform. But I had to. I hated every minute of it. And I was a girl who loved dancing. But I was embarrassed in front of my peers.

Is there some evolutionary purpose for this adolescent body shut down? How does it benefit us to no longer be willing to dance, be silly, run, jump, play? Or is this purely an acculturated response?

Surely hormones have something to do with it. The biology of attraction. It’s suddenly important to appear sensible and presentable, the body thinks, in order to attract a mate. If we do the steps—or the jump or turn or slide—wrong, we risk appearing undesirable. Rationally, this doesn’t make all that much sense to me. Personally, I’m 100 times more drawn to someone who’s willing to slide across the floor than the one cowering in the corner. But I suppose the biology of attraction isn’t all that rational.

But if sex is the reason, why are teenagers so afraid to move their pelvises? When I introduce the crumping step (a quick bootie thrusting move), not one of the students is willing to do it. Again, is it the fear of doing it wrong? Or is it the overall discomfort with being seen as a sexual being, even if some part of the brain wants that? Or is it that our bodies are undergoing a massive change and have become utterly unfamiliar, even frightening, to us?

Or is it less about the body and more about the brain? During adolescence our thoughts become more sophisticated (believe it or not). We gain a greater capacity to reason and more control and coordination over our thoughts. That might explain why we’re more self-conscious. Instead of instinctively running or sliding or spinning across the floor, we now stop to think about it first, which allows plenty of time for the censors to turn on.

Those censors, of course, have everything to do with how we’ll be perceived by others. Friends are very important for adolescents. And which friends we have tends to influence what we’ll do or won’t do, be that studying drinking, smoking pot, or dancing. And because we’re so desperate to belong, most of us will pretend we like being drunk or pretend we don’t like dancing just to be accepted.

We want to join the flock. It’s safer to fly that way.

So maybe that’s the secret. If all the 7th graders danced, in one big flock, then no single one of them would have to worry about standing out.

I wish it were true. But people and birds are different. Sadly. Beyond just the flying thing, birds don’t care if they’re being watched. They don’t worry what others will think of them. They just do their thing.

This week the birds and 6th graders teach me about abandon. They dance like no one is watching.

Each day with them, my heart aches more for the unfortunate truth of that. One afternoon, as I watch the 6th graders move so freely, I think, “This is it. They’re right on the cusp.” I even cry a little.

Watching the 7th graders, self-conscious and too cool and missing out, I wonder, “Will they ever get it back?”

I hear often from people older 65 that the self-consciousness eventually drops away. We stop caring so much about what we look like, what we wear, what we say. We return to that child-like sense of earnestness.

I’m so glad to hear that. But does that mean we might spend the 50 years in between 14 and 65 missing out on joy because we’re too afraid what others will think?

Please say it isn’t so.

Lest we run that risk, here’s some advice given by my friend Jen Hoefle a few weeks ago. She was sending well wishes for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Don’t forget the pelvic circle!” she said, moving her hips in a giant circle to demonstrate. “Cooking, setting the table, talking, pouring wine. It’s all more fun with a pelvic circle.”

She’s right.

Try it. Right now. Don’t worry, no one is watching. And even if they are, why not take a risk?

Do it for your 6th-grade self. For your 65-year-old self. For the birds. For Santa. For joy.

Souls that Leap, Souls that Rest

November 19, 2010

Bisbee, Arizona glows in early November. The walnut leaves have turned yellow, and the copper hills catch the light once the sun reaches the valley of sky overhead. There is a good feeling in this town, the kind that fosters kindness and creativity. The floating ghosts of old miners and old hippies have done well to keep those things flowing amidst the inevitable decay that happens when “progress” comes to a halt.

I arrive on All Hallow’s Eve. There’s a raging party down in the Gulch, I’m sure. But I tuck quietly for the night into little downstairs apartment I rent from a retired art teacher and her husband far from the ghouls. Something about this time of year begs for rest.

In the morning, I drive to Double Adobe Elementary, a small school 20 miles east of Bisbee and less than 15 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border. This is my third year at this school. The students know me and are delighted to see me. We work in the “old school,” with its big, wide, open, wooden floor—perfect for dancing.

I do the favorite warm-up activities—the name game, the famous six treasures, some yoga. I remember quickly how easy it is to please them.

The school unit is the “Roaring ’20s” and my plan is to teach dances of that era—Charleston, Black Bottom, the Shimmy. Beforehand, I spend a good amount of time on YouTube researching the dances and can see so clearly how the movement has its origins in West African dance, which I have studied for years. (Here’s a great YouTube video of the Charleston.) My mind goes quickly to Eno Washington, the teacher who first introduced me to West African rhythms more than a decade ago. I recall a class he once taught in which he traced the long history of black American social dances. Moving through the steps, he showed how one dance gave birth to the next, and how all of them had their roots in Africa. Eno is one of the most expressive dancers I know. He was ill during many of those years, infected with HIV, but somehow he’d get himself to the studio to teach us, and the drums would revive him, send him careening across the floor, rolling, leaping, flying.

As fate would have it, I run into Eno at a dance performance the weekend before my teaching begins. Given that I only ever see him once or twice a year now, this is rather remarkable. Or perhaps the spirits are simply conspiring. It is always a delight to see him. He has aged–his hair and beard are white now, and he does not stand to greet me. He is too frail. I sit beside him and talk to him about my teaching plan. I remind him of his smooth moves. I thank him for passing on his knowledge so many years ago. It continues to inspire, I assure him. I’m wishing he’ll get up and do a quick shim-sham for old times’ sake, but I can see he’s content to sit for the evening. In my memory, I pull up a clear vision of his capstone move, the one he always pulled out during performances—a high-flying dive roll across the stage! The memory pleases me, as always.

As I kiss Eno goodbye, I wonder, as I always do, if I will see him again.

I show the students old footage of the Charleston and the Black Bottom on YouTube, along with some more modern clips of traditional West African dances. We talk about how the slaves kept their rhythms inside them and how, in time, those movements evolved into social dances that so often inspired popular dance crazes in mainstream America. The Charleston, for instance, is believed to have been danced by African Americans living on an island of the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. It was danced often in the early 1900s in black communities, but didn’t become popular in mainstream America until 1923 in the Broadway musical “Runnin’ with the Wild.”

We talk about why the “Roaring ’20s” were named that, how after World War I people were ready for joy. Women gained new freedom, cut their hair, shortened their skirts or put on pants, and began to sow their oats. People had things to celebrate. The dance reflected that.

I teach the older students the basic steps of the Charleston and then a sampling of steps from a celebratory West African rhythm called “Kuku,” from Guinea. They follow along pretty well, but after two days of that, one of them asks, politely, “Miss Kimi? Are we going to get to make up our own dances like we did last time?”

This is a meaningful moment. It’s the kind of question those of us who teach art in any form celebrate. Of course mimicking and learning someone else’s steps is a useful, perhaps necessary, way to understand rhythm and technique. But if we merely copy all the time, we miss out on the deeper kind of experimentation that is essential to the creative process.

Of course you can make up your own moves! I say. That has been my plan from the beginning. To learn the history and the basic steps and then morph it, change it, break free and create new dances with the same celebratory spirit. This is what the ‘20s are all about. This is what creative expression any old time is about.

So that is what we do. We work from concepts—freedom, happiness, celebration, captivity, slavery, bondage. The students work in duets and trios to create movements and string them together into phrases.

I hold such admiration for their willingness to play, to experiment, to express. It’s a willingness I worry they’ll lose in the future, once puberty sets in, and society starts sending them messages that moving the body is dangerous, or ugly, or stupid, or foolish. But for the moment, I stand and watch their joy.

I am particularly moved by the dancing of two special education students. One is a boy with Down’s syndrome I know from last year, now a first grader. I’ll call him Kevin. Another is a severely autistic girl in kindergarten I’ll call Kelly. What’s beautiful about the presence Kevin and Kelly is simply that—their presence. Dance time in the big room is perfect for them. Kevin follows along, grinning the whole time. He strays to roll across the floor on his own time or to hug and kiss the aide or his teacher. His classmates know him and are deeply tolerant of him. No one objects to being his partner. Kelly’s autism disorder is a little more serious. She cannot follow along in any visible way, but it’s clear her time in the big dance room is meaningful for her. Not because she’s learning anything about dance that I’m offering, but because she has time and space to run around and express her own self, which she does, freely and loudly. Here, again, her classmates are endlessly tolerant. While they stay (mostly) focused on my lead, they let her run and spin and cheer.

The aliveness that Kevin and Kelly express during the 30 minutes or hour they pass in the big dance room epitomizes what all of the students at this school express in the big dance room. The young ones delight in making shapes and crossing the floor. The 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders delight in the Charleston, or a wobbly version of it. And in the movements from Guinea. And especially in their own movements to express freedom. In any given moment of warm-up, or a particular group activity, or the time I give them to create their own movements, the room is humming with cheers, whirling limbs, fast footsteps, and laughter.

One afternoon with the 3rd and 4th graders, I finish the planned activity early. “Can we do the 6 treasures, Kimi?” They know this activity by heart. No need for explanation. I put on the music and call out the treasures. Ten whole minutes of pure joy, which you can view here.

But this joy of aliveness doesn’t only come out while running and screaming. It also comes during the gentle warm-up stretches. Or when the children are sitting still to watch each others’ dances. Or during “that one-minute nap thing.”

“The one-minute nap thing” is something I introduce on the first day, at the end of a loud and squirmy session with the kindergarteners. A strategy I use to calm them down.

“Lie still, close your eyes, and pretend your dead,” I say. “For one whole minute.”

Savasana. Corpse pose. The final pose of any good yoga practice. A way to integrate all the learning, and settle into silence and breath.

One whole minute of corpse pose. How about it, kindergartners? No way, you’re thinking.

But they do it! The kindergartners and the 1st and 2nd graders and the 3rd and 4th graders, too. They lie still for one whole minute with no murmurs and no giggles (well, almost none). And then they ask to do it again the next day. And the next. And the next.

I’m astonished by this. Is it the novelty of the nap? Do they just like pretending they’re dead? Or does it just feel good to lie still after so much movement, to integrate the learning and settle into silence and breath?

I do my own research. I lie down with them and close my eyes, let my bones sink into the floor, corpse like. Yes, I think. Silence and breath.

I lift my head to eye the clock and see all the little bodies lying still but for the rise and fall of their ribs and bellies. At rest.

It is hard to believe, here, now, with the echo of squeals and laughter still swirling above us, the breath giving move to our lungs, the blood coursing through our veins. But it will happen. Someday. Our hair will turn white and our bones will get brittle and we will prefer to sit still than to stand and to leap and to roll across the floor. And then we will go silent.

It will be okay. Because someone somewhere will remember that we once ran and leapt and spun and laughed, and fully expressed our aliveness in the great big dance room.

Our corpses will wriggle with the memory.

Lessons in Softness

November 3, 2010

It’s late October near Safford and the air has begun to find its chill. I’ve never been to this part of the country at this time of year. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that the fields are white. Every other time I’ve been here, the fields are empty and brown, and the slightest of winds can lift up layers of dust and billow them across the highway. That dust carries a feeling of barrenness, of waiting. But now, glory glory, the fields are white!

Cotton. It’s what these towns live from, in part. So that’s how cotton grows? Glory glory, indeed.

I delight in the full fields not for the same reason the farmers do, or the businessmen, or even the artists who weave and sew the eventual cotton threads into things to be worn or spread over beds or hung on the wall. I delight in the fields full of cotton simply because of softness. Softness. A necessary thing, so quiet and gentle, and somehow fortifying.

I’m working this week with the 4th graders, two classrooms—one with an experienced teacher and one with a teacher who is new to the program. The kids are writing stories, animal legends again. This time instead of coming at the end and nudging the kids to add more details, I’m starting out the process (at my request). That doesn’t mean I don’t have to stick around for the ending. I do. The goal, as set by their teachers, is for each student to finish an animal story by week’s end. Whoa.

An animal legend traditionally teaches a lesson or reveals an animal’s particular trait and perhaps explains how that trait was acquired. These children have heard legends before. Their culture, the San Carlos Apache, like most native cultures, is full of them. These will be their own variations, reflections of their own imagination.

A week or two before my arrival, I happily discover some YouTube video clips from the BBC series, “Walk on the Wild Side,” in which members of the animal kingdom are given voiceovers and personalities. I watch until I cry laughing.

I show the kids a few clips. They laugh, too. Talking animals! On video, it’s called silly,  and quite hilarious. In writing, it’s called personification. What does Gray Fox say? How does Hummingbird sound? What does Tortoise want us to know?

The students have already selected the animals they want to write about—king snake, canyon wren, mountain lion, coyote, Gila monster, hummingbird, jackrabbit, cottontail, black widow, elk, and so on. All animals in Arizona. I read aloud other animal stories, and together we trace their structures. I give the students a chart to help them organize ideas before they begin writing. I emphasize visual details, sounds, character traits, plot sequencing, and the importance of a “problem” or a conflict. Something to resolve. A lesson the animal learns for himself or teaches to us, the readers.

Things go okay. Writing is hard. Some kids do the work. But others are up and out of their seats, or just staring at their paper, or pretending to write, but actually making little circles all over the page. Some of them get caught up in real life, forget that their stories can be wild and fictitious. They just want their animal, say, the Two-tailed Swallowtail Butterfly, to be friends with, say, the Gila monster, which happens to be the animal their real-life best friend chose to write about. Okay. So the story proceeds to tell how the two of them played in the desert, but doesn’t reveal anything about what’s special about the butterfly. Or the Gila monster. You’ve forgotten about your animal, I say. What can your story teach us about the butterfly, specifically? Or what can the butterfly teach us? Or what can the butterfly learn? Hey, why does the Two-tailed Swallowtail Butterfly have two tails anyway? Hey, Gila monster, how did you get your colors?

It starts to catch on for some of them, but by the end of day two the writing is slow. They don’t seem to be having a lot of fun. And I’m not having that much fun, either. I feel insistent and goal-oriented. I’m supposed to help them get the stories done.  But I’m missing the movement. What to do? Abandon my charge and just dance? Am I saying dancing is more fun than writing? That feels like some kind of betrayal. Aren’t I supposed to be showing them that writing can be fun? Yes. But maybe that means bringing something else into the mix. Integrating, as it’s called. Ahem.

By the way, teaching artists are not supposed to be rigid. I know this in the core of my soul. We can float and flutter and waltz and break the rules a little bit. It’s our job to do those things, to be spontaneous and supple. Thankfully, Susan Corl, the visual artist who’s also here this week, teaching the third graders in the next classroom over, reminds me of this one evening on a walk. “If you’re not having fun, they’re not having fun. Our job is to give them a meaningful experience.” Yup. Thank you, Susan. Soften up, Kimi. Play.

On Wednesday, I come with a new plan. We’re gonna add movement. It’s gonna help their writing. It’s gonna be fun. We push the desks to the corners of the room and quickly sweep the floor. I plug in my speakers. I modify a favorite introductory movement activity called “Six Treasures,” which I learned from Dance Exchange and use all the time. We turn the treasures into animals. A snake slithering, an otter rolling, a jackrabbit sitting, a coyote on all fours, a bear standing, a road runner running. The kids do the movements. The music is playing. They are smiling and laughing.

Then we do some simple walking. Find a partner. Stand opposite your partner on one side of the room. Two lines facing each other. First you’re a coyote, passing another coyote. Walk toward the center of the room and pass each other, without bumping. Next you’re an eagle, walk toward each other, keeping your eyes locked. When you get to the middle turn around and walk backwards, keeping your eyes locked. If you keep pace with your partner, you’ll arrive at the same time and won’t have to look behind you. Eagle eyes. Do that again, faster.  Next, you’re a mountain lion. How does a mountain lion move? “Fast.” “Quick.” “Sneaky.” Yes, sneaky. How about “stealthy”? You know that word? Now you do. Walk toward your partner.  Very slowly. Very stealthily. Keep your eyes locked. Don’t make a sound.

Fourth graders. Walking toward one another. In slow motion. In absolute silence. Can you imagine? That’s what happens. It’s not me. It’s mountain lion. Stealthy. Silent. Soft.

The moment stays with me for the rest of the week, which is helpful. Because the writing is still something of a struggle for some of the kids, and we most certainly come into more times when it’s not raging with “fun.”

To complicate matters, the new teacher seems a wee bit confused by my presence. Every time I go into the classroom, I feel a little like I’m interrupting scheduled plans. I don’t hold it against him. Teachers are over-worked. I understand that. He’s new. I do my thing. I stay soft.

On Friday, the classroom fills with candy. It’s two days before Halloween. The kids will have classroom parties at the end of the day. I’m impressed by the way children really do become feral around sugar. They can’t concentrate. They’re hungry and the prey has arrived. They are all but drooling, but they lack the grace of the true wild ones. They’re not so furtive.

Their stories are done. Pushed through thanks to “eagle eye” focus and the hovering teacher hawks. And they’re good, actually. In most of them, problems are presented and solved. How Hummingbird Made the Animals Happy (with her fast wings and flying tricks). How King Snake Got its Colors (by sliding up a rainbow). How Coyote Learned to Howl (when his friends got together and scared him). There are a few outliers, like How Elk and Bear Became Friends (no apparent reason, they just stopped fighting). Oh well, whatever.

I bid farewell to the students before the sugar frenzy starts. I drive past the cotton fields. When I squint it looks like snow in the afternoon light.

That evening, back in Tucson, I happen to watch a spirited presentation by the (locally) famous desert storyteller Petey Mesquitey of KXCI’s “Growing Native.” Listening to him makes anyone fall in love with the desert. He is passionate about the wild and ecstatic about wildlife sightings. He shows photos of the desert grasslands. Coyote. Jackrabbit. Ringtail cat. Tortoise. Rattlesnake. King snake. All the animals I’ve just been with all week! I feel like I know them all.

Petey sings a song about two animals he says help each other hunt out on the grasslands. Coyote and Badger. Badger digs while the Coyote scouts. One day Coyote gets shot by some yahoos. Badger is so so sad. He’s lost his best friend. It’s a dear story. About two animals being friends. No moral, no lesson. Just friendship. What could be better? Yes! Of course. Furry friends. How nice. How soft.

Significant Events or How We Signify Fun

September 30, 2010

My first school of the season is Fort Thomas Elementary School in the little town of Ft. Thomas, 22 miles west of Safford and about 11 miles west of where the San Carlos Apache Reservation officially begins. About 93% of the students here are Apache.  That last fact is significant as context, but it’s not necessarily relevant to the events I’m about to share.

Minutes after I arrive on Monday, three 5th graders spot me from 15 feet down the hallway. They run to greet me, repeating my name. I am happy to see them, too. I was just here last spring, five months ago, teaching them how to use their body to communicate something through movement and helping them make the animal legends they’d written come to life with more detail and action. Hopeful, they ask, Am I there to work with them again?

No, I say. “Third graders.”

Visibly disappointed, they let me continue on down the hallway, waving the whole time.

I reassure them. “I’ll be here all week. I’ll see you.”

I don’t relay this scene to make myself seem special. Elementary-aged students often flock to whatever new and out of the ordinary thing comes walking down the hallway. But it is true that we created some fun learning experiences together during my last residency here. What I find significant is that they remember me at all. Because if they remember me, then they must remember something of what we did together. And that’s what all teachers want, right?

I wrote about what we did together and what I learned from them here, in this blog. That’s also significant. Because, as writers and readers both know, not every event is worthy of the page.

The 3rd graders are small and wiggly and also very excited about my arrival. Their teachers, one of whom I know already, have prepared them well. I’m guessing, too, that the 5th graders’ enthusiasm has rubbed off on them. The continuity of this program is significant. I am no longer a stranger here. Nor are my art forms.

I spend two days introducing the 3rd graders to basic movement concepts. I use a variety of tried-and-true exercises to teach them the five elements of dance—Movement, Body, Energy, Space, and Time—and how to remember them: “My BEST.” They are eager to move, and everyone plays along nicely. I could easily spend the whole week dancing with them and they’d all be happy. But the teachers have asked again that I help the students with their stories about significant events in their lives, offering one-on-one mentoring to help strengthen them.

The Significant Event essay is a curious assignment for a third grader. I can’t demand the kind of reflection I’ve asked of high school students, or even of myself, when writing personal essays. “What did it mean that your dad let go of the bike seat and you were riding by yourself? What did that say about your freedom?” and “Why, besides the cotton candy and the rides, do you think the county fair is so special?” and What did that castle entrance to Disneyland symbolize for you?” These questions don’t have quite the traction for a 3rd grader that they might for me, or you.

When you’re 8, carnivals and county fairs are about Ferris wheels and soda pop and some ride called Spaceship2000. Not about the power of the temporary or the decline of rural America or the way we numb out and eat sugar to make us forget our woes. They’re about having fun.

Just like learning to ride a bike is … fun. Just like Disneyland is … fun. When you’re 8, fun is what you’re after and fun is usually what you remember. Period.

(What a lovely lesson for us all.)

Significance comes later, of course. Years later. When we’re old enough to look back and remember an event and make sense of it. In the moment, it’s just … fun.

So their essays aren’t necessarily about any life-altering events. Sometimes they’re not even about any singular event at all. Or maybe they start off being about a main event, say, going to the Grand Canyon, and end up being about the secondary or even tertiary event—swimming in the hotel pool, or the pick-up basketball game that happened in the gym once the bus got home and everyone was waiting to be picked up, or going into the store on the way there to get Twizzlers and a Coke.

Significance is subjective, I guess. So I go for detail. Let’s make the stories more vivid. Let’s learn the basics of descriptive writing.

This, of course, requires that they remember the event.

One girl looks at me blankly when I ask her what she saw upon arriving at Disneyland. I let her think for a long time and then I ask, “What do you remember? What’s the first thing you saw? Anything new and different?”

Nothing. Then, “People walking around.”

Wait, no castle? No Mickey? No Minnie? “How old were you when you went there?”

“Six,” she says.

Fair enough.

Another boy has written about when he first learned to walk. Um, really? You remember that? He nods. Okay. So we add the details. “What do you remember about the room?” I ask.


“The floor?”

“A brown carpet.”

Finally there’s a story about a trip to an apple orchard. Just last year and fresh in the memory. By the time the writer comes to sit with me the essay is already full of specific details. She’s named the apples and described their color and relayed in detail the orchard owner’s instructions about what to do if snakes should appear (Slowly take three steps back and run away screaming, “Snake!”).

My favorite part of the story is when the writer describes what happens when one of her classmates does actually see a snake and starts to scream. “I got scared and started running around. I slipped on an apple and fell on a squished apple. I got squished apple on my bum. I had to go home with squished apple on my bum.”

I love this story not just for its attention to detail but also for how the author structures its main event. From her telling, more significant than picking apples and more significant than seeing the snake was the squished apple on the bum. Which seems fair and true for life at age 8.

I’ve always thought that for an event to make it to the page it has to mean something, mark some kind of change in the author. I think it’s true that readers expect that. It’s usually in the “making sense of” that we, the reader, the distanced one, get to enter someone else’s story. We all want to be changed by the Ferris wheel, by the bike ride, by the squished apple, even if it wasn’t our experience. Especially if it wasn’t our experience.

But what I learn from these students and their essays is that all at once nothing is an event and everything is an event and how an event is shared and perceived and deemed significant or not has everything to do with how we remember it, how well we replay it on paper, and how we frame the story.

In my own story of the week, there is the arriving at school and being greeted by the 5th graders. The relative ease of return to a school where I am known. The trying out of new dance activities. The sitting down and editing the stories with the students. The watching of a new teacher take to the residency beautifully, motivating her students to take chances and participating vigorously herself. There is also the stepping into a nearby thrift store one day on my drive home and finding a perfectly-good and much-needed used toaster oven. And the sneaking onto private land after school the next day where I soak in a natural hot spring and sing out loud under dark thunderhead clouds.

All of these events are significant. Or none of them are. Or some will become more signficant over time. Because often we don’t even know just how meaningful any event is until many years later, when we see how it led to the next event, and the one after that, or how it opened us up, or changed us, or signified a turning point, or marked a particular moment—the first or last of its kind.

I like to think that some of the students will save their essays in a file folder  and discover them someday when they’re older and have stopped dancing or have tired of the county fair and think Disneyland is over-commercialized and too expensive, or when they’re teaching their own children to ride a bicycle for the first time. Maybe these events they wrote about in the 3rd grade will signify something for them, something profound, illuminating. Maybe the details within will help them access their memory, relive the fun for just a moment.

In the meantime, I can hope that the lessons I give these children in sensory detail and in moving their body will inspire them to pay attention more deeply in their lives now. So that when they’re out riding their bicycles or making new friends or taking that trip to the water park or the county fair, perhaps they’ll notice the way the autumn light casts crisp shadows or how from high up on the Ferris wheel the carnival below looks like a dying fire or how the new friend’s eyes seem to say “Yes, I’m interested in knowing you,” or how the view of the Grand Canyon for the first, or even second and third time can steal your breath into its immensity and make you forget that the hotel even has a swimming pool. And that because of this kind of deep noticing they’ll keep knowing joy.

On the last day of the residency I finally arrange to eat lunch with the 5th graders. They’ve continued to greet me enthusiastically all week long, and the other teachers agree it would be nice for them to have some time to re-connect with me. So I go to the cafeteria and watch them eat hamburgers and fish sticks and baked beans, and then I invite them back to the library to dance, if they wish.

They wish.

As we are dancing and they are each taking turns leading the movement and I’m noticing their smiling and their laughing and the freedom in their bodies, I consider that that is also an event. This moving and this circle and this laughter and this overcoming of shyness and this hop and this butt shake and this roll across the carpet–all of these are all little events that string together to create something significant. Joy, most certainly. And maybe something else, something yet unnameable but felt nonetheless. Something significant enough to remember for a long time. Significant enough, maybe, to write about someday.

Get Along Lil Dogies

May 9, 2010

Double Adobe appears as a dot on a map, which means it’s something of a town. But in reality it’s more an intersection. Here, about 17 miles northwest of Bisbee, where Double Adobe Road meets Central Highway, there’s a small store and a school. Double Adobe Elementary School. There’s ranch land in every direction. Cowboys, too.

The children here know me from my two previous visits, and I work with the whole school—fewer than 60 kids total, Kindergarteners through 6th grade, divided into four classes. They are eager to spend time in the “old building” where I set up the dance studio. And they are eager to dance. The magic will have to happen fast, though, as I only have three days with them this time.

The students have been studying Westward Expansion. When I was here in the fall, the 3rd and 4th graders made a dance about the wagon trains. It was probably one of the best examples of arts integration I’ve ever achieved. I stay with that theme this week, though only the 1st and 2nd graders have a concrete goal for what they want to accomplish. Their teacher asks if I can help them prepare a dance to go along with the song they’ll sing at the school play next week.

No problem. What song?

Get Along Lil Dogies.

Well, yee-haw! I vaguely know this song. Yippee tie yi yay, get along lil dogies. It’s fitting. This is ranch country and this week I’m the one getting schooled.

It’s appropriate then that I spend the night as a guest of Dennis and Deb Moroney, who run 47 Ranch some 15 miles down the road. I’ve met them through another project (Sabores Sin Fronteras) and I’m scheduled to be documenting their solar-powered, grass-fed beef operation in the next few months.

Dennis and Deb are kind, hospitable and active. The afternoon I arrive, Deb has to go into Bisbee to attend a weavers’ guild. (In addition to cattle, they also raise sheep and Deb uses their wool in her weaving work.) But she starts dinner before she leaves and shows me my sleeping quarters in the upstairs loft where I can see the whole world from the windows.

I go for a long, long walk across the land, falling in love with the green and the sky and the way the dirt road makes me want to keep walking forever, into Mexico, and beyond. When I get back it’s almost dark. I help Dennis and Deb’s 15-year-old daughter Allie with dinner. Dennis, his son Gordon, and a new ranch-hand named Megan are still at work rebuilding the dog pen for the shepherds.

At dinnertime, we sit down at the table like an old family. The conversation focuses on what I imagine most dinner conversations in this region focus on, or at least what they focus on lately. The border. There is big news. A few weeks ago a rancher nearby was shot and killed by drug traffickers. And just a few days ago governor Jan Brewer signed SB1070, a highly controversial law permitting police officers to detain anyone they suspect of being undocumented and to charge anyone without papers as well as anyone transporting them.

There’s a lot to say about all of this and it doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with my teaching, except that it has everything to do with my teaching.

Dennis has plenty of opinions about the border and the legislation, and those opinions tend not to match those of his fellow ranchers in the region. He sees the issue as one that extends way beyond the border to U.S trade and agricultural policies, to the war in Iraq, to the fact that at this point the border “issue” is a multi-million dollar industry employing thousands of people and doesn’t really want to be solved. Like most people I know, he knows fear has a lot to do with why people down here are mad. White people not liking brown people. White people being scared of losing their culture. White people linking the violence of a few to the desperation of the many.

But Dennis understands his fellow ranchers to a certain extent. He admits that his operation loses money every year because of where it is. If he were 50 miles north, he says, he probably would not lose as much. Mostly it’s the trash that interferes. They find cattle choked on backpacks and plastic bottles.

So, it’s fear. And it’s economics.

There are miles and miles of plastic water bottles strewn across the desert here. There are blue jeans and backpacks and tuna cans. There are bones. Cattle bones. Migrant bones.

No one argues about whether or not a problem exists. What they argue about is how to solve it.

We could talk all night about this and arrive at nothing. Allie is yawning. We are repeating ourselves, and no one at the table is in disagreement and we are getting more and more bitter about the state of affairs.

Finally, Gordon, the 16-year-old, says, “The United States reminds me of a teenager who can’t look inward.”

I decide it’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever heard.

Allie goes to bed, and Dennis and Gordon enlighten me with a discussion of boots and hats. Work boots, town boots, over-100-dollars-a-pair-boots, custom-made boots, calf-high boots. Work hats, town hats, hats you can soak in water then give whatever form you want, hats you don’t tie on your head because you could choke yourself on an ocotillo. Who knew? I’m riveted.

Most of the students at Double Adobe Elementary are white. Nineteen percent are Hispanic (which means Mexican or Mexican-American). Seventy four percent receive free or reduced lunch. Some of their parents are ranchers. Others work for Homeland Security or for the State of Arizona at the Douglas Prison. Others are Mormons and homemakers.

Mostly these kids want to dance. So after a day of review, the first and second graders and I get to work.  Mary McDonald furnishes me a copy of the song lyrics. I ask the kids to sing for me first, which they do with high-pitched, warbled, out of tune voices. It’s dear.

As I was out walking one morning for pleasure

I spied a cowpuncher a-riding along

His hat was throwed back and his spurs were a-jingling

And as he approached he was singing this song

Whoopie-ti-yi-yay, get along little dogies

It’s your misfortune and none of my own

Whoopie-ti-yi-yay, get along little dogies

You know that Wyoming will be your new home

Early in spring we round up all the dogies

Mark them and brand them and bob off their tails

Round up the horses and load the chuck wagon

And throw all them dogies right out on the trail

I divide the students into groups and we choose themes for each line. I assign them to come up with movements for each theme, which they do quickly and easily. They know what I’m asking. They’re skilled. And they take their assignment very seriously. So there is walking and throwing back a hat and a little bootie jingle for the spurs. There’s the lasso twirl and a sweeping side to side of the arms and a choking move to show the cow being roped and a very elaborate packing of the chuck wagon and labeling all the containers.

“Do they really cut off their tails?” one of the kids asks. I look at Mary, their teacher, whose husband was a rancher for many years.

“The hair at the end of the tail. So when the cows are walking away, you can tell quickly which ones have been branded, which ones are yours.”

Thank you.

“Do you know what dogies are?” she asks.

I’m thinking working dogs, the kind Dennis and Deb have on the ranch.

“Calves,” she says. “Dogies are the calves.”

Ah. The little ones that get thrown onto the trail at the end of the song. This gets interpreted in movement with a bending down, picking something off the ground and throwing it.   Not exactly how you’d throw a calf. When the kids do it, it looks like they’re throwing stones. But they’re smiling. It’s earnest. It’s okay. We’re working with concepts. Dance can abstract, suggest an idea.

We weave together the steps and the kids have it memorized in 30 minutes.  I give them gentle critiques: Bend your knees, get your whole body into it. No cowboy just swings a rope with his arm (how would I know?). Use your weight.

Eventually the kids do the dance and sing the song at the same time. It’s adorable. Their hips swing around like lassos. They turn and stop and throw back their heads. They know nothing except the dance they’re doing. They are completely absorbed. In this instant, right now, at their age, they know nothing much at all except what they’re doing. They don’t know about drug smuggling and desperation and new legislation and what it must feel like to be pulled over and asked for papers. They don’t know much about what ranchers think about the border or about Governor Jan Brewer or about fear and hatred or the runaway train of their country’s military industrial complex that spends billions of dollars on nonsensical conflicts in the Middle East and fails to recognize its nearest neighbor as a friend, an ally, even an equal business partner.

Again, this has nothing to do with my teaching and somehow it has everything to do with my teaching.

Whoopie-ti-yi-yay, get along little dogies, indeed.

I watch the kids dance it again. Such devotion. Such joy. I am wishing we had real ropes and real hats and real boots. I am wishing I were a real cowgirl. I’m wishing there was no barbed wire or high-tech surveillance equipment between here and the next country over. This is grassland. This is cowboy country. This is big sky territory. This where we roam.

But too many things have gotten in the way. Big ugly things. Like money and politics and fear and too many years of misunderstanding. Maybe we should be making a dance about those things.

Indeed, what should I doing in the classroom, little dogies, to give you the power to change these ugly things? To see it differently? To stop marking and branding human beings? To do your dance freely with anyone who wants to stand next to you, regardless whether or not they look like a cowboy, or a gardener, or a scientist, or a Mexican?

Whoopie-ti-yi-yay, lil dogies. I hate to say it, but it is your misfortune. It’s my misfortune. It’s everybody’s misfortune.

So get along, little dogies. Dance, dance while you still can. And remember what this feels like, what it feels like to get along.

And then…

March 26, 2010

Mt. Graham, March 2010

And then there are the days when this work feels like a privilege. This driving across the desert and stepping into schools where I know no one but have somehow been deemed trustworthy and knowledgeable enough to sit next to a child, or 30, and watch how imagination happens.

I’ve decided that most of what’s necessary to ignite an imagination is a good assignment and some probing questions. And then some more questions. And a few more.  And then some quiet time to let the images take shape and the sounds to emerge and the textures to be felt. Oh, and animals help, too.

I come to Ft. Thomas Elementary School this week with one main mandate—to help enliven the animal legends the fourth-grade students here wrote before my arrival. At first I’m thinking it will be difficult to teach imagery and strong verbs and the craft of story after the fact, once the stories are already written. But I’m wrong. Because having the students come ready with a rough draft means that I can work as a mentor, an editor. Which is the kind of teaching I came to love during my years editing 110 Degrees at Voices, Inc. It’s one-on-one. It’s immediate. It’s rare. It’s right.

Their assignment has been to write a legend about an animal that lives in the Arizona desert—a story explaining how the animal acquired its signature characteristic—how the jackrabbit got long ears, how the ocelot got its spots, why coyote howls at the moon, etc.  It’s a good solid assignment. Which isn’t surprising, given that the two fourth grade teachers here are some of the most organized and consistent teachers I’ve ever met. That means the lessons are well-planned and detailed and the students know what’s expected of them. It also means the students have done their homework. They have folders full of information about their animals they’ve collected from newspapers, online sources, storybooks, picture encyclopedias.

The day I arrive, their objective is written on the white board “I will revise my animal legend with Miss Kimi.” A mandate, indeed.

I spend the first day familiarizing the students with images and strong actions, my butter and salt of good writing. Necessary ingredients. We read Gary Soto’s “Ode to Los Raspados”—not because it has anything to do with animal legends, but because it is one of my favorite story-poems for its collection of images and actions. “The sun is bright/As a hot dime” … “Grapes that stain/ The mouth with laughter” … “tee-shirts/ That end at / The cyclone knot / Of belly buttons” … And, because it’s about snow cones on a summer day and an ice cream truck that announces its arrival with music, kids tend to connect to it.

After we pick out the sensory details and action in Soto’s ode, I have them list sensory details and actions for their animal. What does it look like? What does it see? What does it smell, taste, hear? What does it feel like? This is basic stuff, but I never seem to tire of it. I like what happens to my brain when I try to imagine the sights I would see if I suddenly became a collared lizard, the sounds I would hear if I were a jackrabbit, what I’d smell if I were a ridge-nosed rattlesnake.  I like what happens to my body when I try to imagine the actions of a coyote, an armadillo, a hummingbird. (And of course, this will prove to be doubly useful when I move into some dance work with them later in the week.)

The next day I am given a small round table in the hallway. The students are sent to me one at a time, first drafts in hand. They also bring their lists of details and actions. I read the stories aloud and we start to think about what the story “looks” like.  What pictures does it bring to mind? If you didn’t know what Gila Monster or Wolf or Golden Eagle looked like, would you after reading the story?  Can we create a “picture” of this animal to open the legend, seeing it in its habitat eating, scratching, hopping, slithering? If the story is about how Mule Deer’s ears grow longer, then don’t we need to show him first with short stubby ears?  Yes.

This an oral interview that is then transcribed. This is a certain kind of writing. Maybe it’s cheating, I don’t know.

Sometimes, I ask leading questions. “Does your animal see other animals? Which ones?  Does he hear water, the wind, footsteps?” Is that too much prodding?  Too much suggestion? I don’t know.

Maybe I just open a window on to the words. “How would you say that?” I ask.

Sometimes their words come out reluctantly, like rain stuck in the clouds in June. I have to reframe the questions over and over. Can you say that in a sentence?

But then—and I love these moments!—the clouds split and the words rain down. One girl tells the story of why Coyote howls at the moon. He goes to a Valentine’s Day party in a cave. What does it look like in the cave, how it is decorated? “With lots of candles and lights, heart-shaped balloons and a cake with four layers of hearts from big to small.” And what does it sound like? “Bear was there, playing music on the drums.” And what does Coyote do? “Coyote started dancing to the rhythm of the drumbeats.” How does he dance? “He started dancing crazy and his arms went everywhere and he was slapping the other animals in the face.”

And then no more questions are needed, because Coyote is now fully visible inside this girl’s head. He’s dancing wildly and the other animals think he is “crazy on the cake.” They throw him out of the cave and then he keeps dancing outside and then he sees the moon, only half-full, and then he says, “Please, please give me more light!” and then the moon goes full and Coyote keeps dancing and then he passes out and then Hummingbird comes and pokes him with her beak but she can’t wake him up and then the cops come and see that Coyote is drunk and then they put him in jail and then … and then … and then …

And then I realize that all we need to do, really, to create stories is to see the story. I mean really see it. I am thinking about this little girl as she brings Coyote to life. Where are these images coming from? Has she ever seen Coyote? Has she seen someone dancing wildly? Has she seen someone drunk? Has she seen the cops come for someone? On TV? In real life?  It doesn’t matter really, because the point is that she’s seeing Coyote now, in three dimensions, and hearing him and feeling him and becoming him. And then…and then….and then.

And then I realize how brilliant it is. Because it’s all just black and white words on the computer screen and the two of us sitting quietly on small blue chairs in an empty hallway. And then, it’s also so much more. It’s Coyote. Dancing. Howling. Not drunk on cake or alcohol but drunk on the moon and on Valentine’s Day and on love and how wonderful is it that he is conceived of in this way by a 9-year-old girl and that she can sit next to a stranger and see this and say it and write it and because she does that the story becomes a story, alive, full, rich, with a kooky character and images and actions and textures and colors and humor and real-life applications and associations.

And her words keep spilling out. And then Coyote gets out of jail and goes to Hummingbird’s house and stays there until the next moon and then he goes out and does his dance and song again. And then I’m sitting there quietly listening and typing and nodding. And then I am swinging and dancing and howling at the glowing orb of imagination expanding inside this girl’s brain.

And I haven’t even told you yet about how Rattlesnake got his rattle.

The Silence of Poetry

March 14, 2010

Another late winter storm brings inches rain and snow to Graham County. Which means that the day I arrive in Safford, Mt. Graham is white down to its skirts. I stay at my usual place, the Olney House, the only independent, non-chain hotel in town. It’s a giant, old, two-story Victorian house on a quiet block. The week I’m here its owner wins the mayoral election. So, now I know the mayor of Safford.

My commute to Ft. Thomas High School is a 30-minute drive to the west, past cotton fields and Wal-Mart and clouds of blackbirds and a handful of tiny highway strip towns and the hills, all delightfully snow-covered.

As with Mt. Turnbull Academy, the majority of the students at Ft. Thomas are Apache. It’s a middle school and a high school with some 200 students. This school is rather conventional. There are 7 classes per day, 50 minutes each, brick walls, a monotone bell and long shiny hallways lined with lockers, samples of student work, stern teachers, and shuffling teenagers in hoodies with backpacks and ipods and cellphones.

I’m teaching with Raychell Rohrwasser, the high school art teacher. The only one in the whole district. She’s young and organized and has a strong rapport with the students, who seem to like the art room for its unconventionality—larger tables, paper birds hanging from the ceiling, music playing the speakers—and her for her casual, laid-back youthful attitude. She is attentive and patient and helpful and working with her reveals the highest level of team-teaching I’ve experienced so far in this program.

My plan is to offer the students some text-based exercises, a way to incorporate language and poetry into the visual arts.

I spend the first day showing them examples of how text can work with images or as an image itself—broadsides, collages, and altered books. I give them a “letter study,” asking them to play with a one letter from the alphabet, writing about its characteristics, what it might “do,” what words it begins, what it sounds like—“K” could cartwheel and kick; “K” is for kite, knot, and know; “k-k-k-k-k-k” sounds like a helicopter.  It’s not the easiest assignment, but they surprise me by trying at least. At Ft. Thomas, as in high schools everywhere, effort counts as accomplishment.

Some of the students know me from my residency here in September. This helps. But there is still a kind of reluctance, a stiffness, a bewilderment in the way they look at me, in the way they listen (or don’t listen). The mix of adolescent apathy with cultural reserve makes teaching any art form here difficult. What it feels like sometimes is how I imagine it would be to perform in front of an audience that’s completely asleep. From where do I bring the energy? How much do I hold in my reserve tank? How do I access that? And for how long do I have to do the naked tap-dance in effort to get teenagers excited about words?

I know better know than to take anything personally. And by now I know to read the subtleties and reinterpret. A distant look doesn’t mean he’s not listening—it’s that he has no idea what I’m asking. A huff and a curse doesn’t mean she hates poetry—she’s just pissed off about the drama in her life. So I just keep on, doing my dance, staying upbeat, hoping someone will open an eye, wake up a little, see something, respond.

But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to just quit sometimes. Sit down on the stage. Or just walk off entirely.

I give them William Carlos Williams’ “Primrose,” one of my favorite poems to teach. It’s a metaphor for the color yellow, jam-packed with images, and a perfect model for students to then write their own poems about a color. Which is what I have them do. I give them a template (a la Mad Libs) which mitigates the terror of the blank page. It works. It always works. The students use words and phrases and combinations they wouldn’t otherwise use. They describe blue as “redundant,” pink as “fingertips tapping,” purple as “a dripping popsicle,” green as “a girl rolling in the grass.” I don’t sense that they are in love with these poems, but I find some sort of pleasure in the fact that they completed something and participated in a process of brain stretching.

The next day we do “erasures,” which involves erasing or obscuring pieces of a given text to create a second text or poem. The text I give them is a document about the Apaches written by a traveler named John Cremony who passed through Apache territories in 1862 and observed and documented their culture. I liked the idea of having the students erase an outsider’s interpretation of their culture and re-invent.

But this kind of assignment isn’t exactly easy, especially when the text is full of vocabulary that students might not understand. Plus, I forget sometimes how hard it is for students (of any age) to be loose with their thinking, to just let something emerge and to trust their choices. It requires something I think of as “blurry focus”—the ability to look at the text and see it clearly, but also to squint and see it selectively, to let certain words jump out, to look beyond the original meaning and find something else. It means being open to what comes and trusting that it means something. This not exactly how we’re taught to learn in school. There’s no right or wrong. And that makes a lot of students tentative.

And yet, somehow, words are circled. Statements are made. Poetry emerges.

American Indians
purely nomadic
Apache spirits chase the dead
and remain temporary fire

-Anferny Stanley

Apache warriors
flattening wonderful powers
from drowning desperate struggle
lost from pursuing party

-Nicholas N.

Then they add color or collage to block out the text they don’t want and make the words they’ve chosen pop. This idea comes from “altered books,” which was my original idea, but was too ambitious for a one-week residency. I watch them color with colored pencils and cut images out of magazine. I watch them enjoying themselves. For a moment, at least.

Pockets of response. Tiny victories.

And then it all falls down. On the last day, the third-hour class comes in—only six students. No one says a word. For the whole 50 minutes. No way to get anyone to say anything to me or to Raychell. It’s as if they’ve all taken an oath. An oath of apathy. An oath of silence. An oath of defiance.  I imagine them out in the hallway before class, passing around a bottle of potion, something potent that renders them capable of this. But realistically someone probably just came in defiant and the rest of them picked it up. Like a disease.

It’s impressive, this performance. Beneath my irritation, I can’t help but applaud it. Just a little. In silence, of course.


Sure, I can celebrate the micro-successes. The one-minute of metaphor, the one student who stuck her nose in a book and found a poem on every page, or the fact that I got one class to actually move a little bit to some live drumming by their classmates (who were working with Carrie Starr, another artist in this program also here this week). I can rub a little bit of shine on this program, this school, these students, the teachers, and myself by putting it all in a larger context. Well, considering the circumstances…

Considering the odds. Considering the suicide rate. Considering the community. Considering the restrictions set by the state standards. Considering it’s the week before spring break. Considering, considering, considering.

Consider everything. Consider nothing. Consider anger. Consider boredom. Consider manipulation. Consider power. Consider that silence can be a good way to exercise it. The most powerful way, perhaps.

Consider that maybe this form of learning—institutional education with bells and minutes and state standards—isn’t right for this place. Isn’t right for any place. Consider that maybe the obstacles beyond the classroom here are too distracting. Consider that maybe this is normal for teenagers. Consider that there are no consequences. Consider that when there is so much apathy, consequences have no weight or meaning anyway.

Consider that sometimes poetry and art just don’t work. That art and poetry can’t actually nudge someone out of their misery or indifference and push them into joy and involvement, can’t really open any doors, can’t change a thing.

Consider that the system is entirely fucked. Consider that the students within it are pissed off and bored and tired.

Consider that the teachers are, too.

And so are the visiting artists.

It’s Friday. Show’s over. Lights out, curtain closes. No one applauds. No glow.

But for the snow.

Glory, glory. On the mountain. Still.

Dancing on the Border

February 28, 2010

Hungry seems like an appropriate word to describe Naco, Arizona and its only elementary school, a terracotta-colored building less than 100 meters from the international border.

Naco Elementary School. Feb. 2010

I wonder, too, if hunger is a word that speaks to the U.S-Mexico border in general. Not so much in the literal sense, though there is plenty of poverty in this region (on both sides), but in a broader sense. Hungry for attention, hungry for policy-change, hungry for autonomy, hungry for freedom, hungry for jobs, hungry for drugs, hungry for open borders, hungry for border security, hungry for something else.

This is my perception, at least, as someone who doesn’t live on the border and doesn’t know it as well as I once did. But it’s how it feels to me, at least here, in this dry dusty town with no grocery store and no taco shop and only a crusty old pink nightclub oddly called “Gay 90s,” though it is not a gay bar.

Almost all of the students here are Mexican or Mexican American. Fifty percent are English language learners. While they all have U.S. addresses, many travel freely across the border after school to be with aunts, uncles, and grandparents. That means that they carry passports, now, since a new policy dictates it.

I’ve been here two weeks, or almost two weeks, minus the two days I was home sick with the worst cold I’ve had in years. I’ve been too spent to write a word until now, the last day of the residency. Most of my time here has been chaotic and frustrating and exhausting. But there have been moments of beauty and necessity.

The border fence stretches for hundreds and hundreds of yards, east and west of Naco.

The room I’m given is a spare room off the library. I push all the tables and chairs to the side of the room to create space. For the next two weeks, the tables and chairs lean against the walls precariously, and even though I’m on the U.S. side, the word “Mexicanazo” comes to mind. It’s a pejorative term and cruelly stereotypical, but well, sometimes it’s the word that comes to mind. The way I understand the word is something like, “a total Mexicanism,” meaning completely chaotic, precarious, disastrous or potentially so. For the next two weeks I worry about those tables and chairs, that they’ll come crashing down and crush someone. I never move them though, and no one else does either (the other part of the Mexicanazo). But no one gets crushed, gracias a Dios.

Anyway, this is not about wobbly tables and chairs but wobbly bodies—first, second, fourth and fifth graders’ bodies.

I know the second graders from last year. They are adorable but unruly. The more I dance them, the better. The first graders are somehow more attentive. The fourth and fifth graders, forget it. They are impossible. I’ve never seen anything like it. They’re completely unable to pay attention. They are like second graders on speed. It’s not entirely their fault. Their teacher, the one I was supposed to plan with ahead of time, has been out since the end of last year. Knee surgery, but she never returned and hasn’t called in. So they’ve been divvied up and sent to new teachers. They’ve been abandoned. It shows.

In fact, there’s been no real plan at all for this residency. I don’t get any of the materials I’m supposed to get from teachers. I know they’re focusing on desert ecosystems, but that’s it. I’m supposed to integrate the arts learning into the curriculum. But since I don’t really know the curriculum, how can I do that? So, in a sense, we start on the wrong foot.  Or on no foot at all, really.

But I’m a dancer. I can find my way. I can do the left side. I can reverse it. I can decide that more than integrating and more than planning and more than sticking with the program, these kids need to move.

We spend the first few days on my tried-and-trues—some yoga, some warm-ups, and the famous “6 Treasures” and “One to Ten,” both of which I learned from the Dance Exchange (you can find these and more DE activities in their online toolbox). I’ve varied the exercises over the years, but they still offer basic structures to learn basic movement concepts—lie down, roll, sit, crawl, stand, walk, make shapes, relate to another, use up space, connect with out speaking, etc.

The first and second graders love these activities and at every turn ask if we can do them again. On some days, I indulge their requests. But they’re capable of more. How about poetry? We read poems with lots of repeating words. We pick out the verbs. They write their own short (one-sentence poems) about the desert animal of their choice using actions and repetitions.

The rattlesnake wiggles, wiggles, wiggles.
The scorpion curls, curls, curls its tail, tail, tail.
The cardinal is red, red, red and flies, flies, flies.

You get the idea.

From here we work with the verbs to make moves. I put the kids in stations—each station comes up with a move for the word. We all learn the moves then weave a dance together. I’m amazed. The first graders create and memorize a dance in one hour! It’s something close to arts integration. Wiggle, slide, fly, eat, sting, scratch, howl. These are animal actions and they’re good words for movement. And the kids are screaming with joy.

The fourth and fifth graders are screaming, too. Sort of. But it’s not about joy. It’s about socializing. I can’t read their enthusiasm. I get flashes of attitude–eyes rolling, shoulders shrugging–mixed with, “Miss, can we dance today?” They seem caught somehow, suspended between wanting and not wanting. An early adolescence? I’ve seen this attitude with 6th graders and definitely with middle schoolers. But 4th and 5th graders? They’re usually completely willing to crawl and giggle and bounce. It could have something to do with the fact that in one of the classes there are 30 kids. Too many. I can’t even get them quiet long enough to explain the activities.

I’m raising my voice way too much. I’m starting to sound like a robot-teacher. I’m making all the robot teacher statements. “If you don’t quiet down, I’m going to ask you to leave.” “5-4-3-2-1.” “LISTEN!” “Do you want to go back to your classroom and do math?” And so on. Ugh. I am hating this. I don’t have the support I need from their teachers, who also sound like robots. I remind myself that they aren’t really a part of this program. It’s been hoisted on them in the other teacher’s absence. They might appreciate the arts, but they don’t really get how or why the arts should be used to strengthen they’re curriculum. Why? No one’s ever showed them, perhaps? They’ve got standards to follow? They just never thought of it?  All I know is that they didn’t sign up for arts integration but now they have to play along. Or pretend to.

But beneath all of this–the student’s rowdiness, the lack of teacher support, the impossibility of getting anyone to pay attention–I can sense something else. It’s the hunger.

5th graders from Naco Elementary School learn samba-reggae. Feb. 2010

The 4th and 5th graders crowd around me. “Are we dancing today, Miss?” “Put Michael Jackson on, Miss!” “Look, Miss, look at what I can do.”

Okay, then. They’re simply malnourished.

Never mind integrating with some invisible curriculum, never mind asking them to make up moves. Feed them. Simply feed them.

I’m going old school. I’m just going to teach a dance.

The trick I pull from the bag is Samba-reggae, a dance I’ve been learning both for the NEW ARTiculations show in April and for the ZaBoomBa show in May. Samba-reggae is a blend of Brazilian samba and reggae. It’s a parade dance for Carnaval. It’s bouncy and catchy and easy to learn.

I don’t have Samba-reggae music, so I use the trusted Michael Jackson. They love him. Eight moves, that’s it. And the students are rapt (mostly), following along, moving, focusing, enjoying.

Black or White…to Beat it…to Jam, MJ provides the backdrop, and the kids dance. They clap and they march and they bounce and they crump, and they laugh, and they say, “Can we do it again? Can we do it again?”

Yes you can do it again.  And you can keep doing it for as long as you want. Go on, eat it up. Sustain yourselves. It’s Brazil, It’s Michael. It’s Mexico. It’s America. It’s mine. It’s yours.

Dancing samba-reggae to Michael Jackson. Naco, AZ. Feb. 20101

The Posters

February 6, 2010

Here are the posters, celebrating members of the San Carlos Apache tribe and other community members in and around Bylas, AZ. These are in draft form. More are still to come…