By Karenne H. Koo
I have always danced. An early childhood memory was of me throwing my little body in waves of spastic movements coordinated with sounds of outraged “own language” verbiage. I didn’t know it then, but such were the humble beginnings of using movement to express thoughts and feelings which I could not put into words. When I felt joy, I skipped and twirled, turning my face towards the sky to feel the sun on my skin. When I was angry, I pounded the floors with my feet, pumping my arms in furious energy until I was panting and red-faced. When I felt sadness, I slid across the cold tile floors in the house, grasping the emptiness with outstretched fingers. As I got older, I learned to sit quietly; to fit within the social norms of being “ladylike.” Yet in my mind’s eye, I danced, even though I was as still as a statue.
At the age of 35, I finally found myself in my first technique class. What a thrill it was to be in an actual dance class, even though I was the oldest in the class and was starting from zero. I tried everything…Ballet, Modern, Jazz, Social Dance, Hula, Taiko. I took a job as a Company Manager of a dance studio, learning the intricacies of running a nonprofit dance organization. Through it all, I wondered where I fit in…what my role in the field could be. I felt that something was missing, but I didn’t know what. My heart told me that there had to be more to dance than performance or technique training. I encountered so many people who had a long list of reasons why they could not dance: (i) I’m too old; (ii) I don’t have a dancer’s body; (iii) I don’t have rhythm; (iv) I’m not flexible; and so many more. I wanted to dispel these myths; but I did not have the knowledge, tools or language to convince them otherwise. A dark cloud of doubt was my constant companion; my feelings of inadequacies echoed loudly within my head. At one point, I considered giving up trying to be in the field and almost opted to take the easy way out by conforming to expectations dictated by circumstances. BUT, a kernel of stubbornness within me kept me from completely throwing in the towel.
One day, I found myself embarking upon an incredible dance journey. I had just moved to Tucson, AZ from New York and, quite by accident, stumbled into a Mettler-based Community Dance class. The advertisement for the class stated that it was open to all ages, all abilities and prior dance experience was not required. Initially I was not interested in attending, as my limited imagination at that time did not allow me to understand how such an open class could even happen. Ultimately, my curiosity got the better of me and I found myself at the Tucson Creative Dance Center for a 90-minute introduction to an approach that propelled me onto a path where my love for dance melded so effortlessly with my passion to bring dance back to everyday life. Now I have an answer to those who have convinced themselves that dance could not be an accessible activity.
What is Mettler-based Creative Dance? It is the free approach to body movement pioneered by Barbara Mettler in her search for the “basic elements of dance that can make it immediately available to all people as a creative art activity.” A Mettler-based approach utilizes improvisation to give objective, open-ended tasks that can be solved in many ways, giving individuals the freedom to have their own subjective responses to the experiences. When we improvise, we are creating something new, and in turn, we are renewed. An improvised dance captures unique moments in time that expresses the feelings of that moment. When the dance is over, we let go of what was created…releasing it without the need to hold onto it. The next time we dance, we create something entirely new, because we are new beings.
While improvisation is a method that is widely used across many dance disciplines, Barbara Mettler’s expansion of it into group forms and expressions makes it a unique experience. I paraphrase one of Barbara Mettler’s sayings: “Our approach is based on freedom, but our humanity demands relationship.” Students are guided through movement explorations to sense and feel kinesthetically how their own bodies move; and then how to bring in their whole selves into a dance with and within the larger group. The approach cultivates both individual and group experiences, providing a model for how people with different abilities, experiences and backgrounds can dance together. There is an inherent inclusivity built into the approach that allows for unlimited creative possibilities to happen naturally for both individuals and groups. It is an organic way of relating to each other, of dancing with each other.
With support and guidance from Mettler Studios, I am fortunate to have opportunities to share Mettler-based dance with diverse communities internationally as well as in the U.S. Through my non-profit dance company, Dancesequences Inc., which utilizes Mettler-based dance as a foundational resource, I have facilitated workshops and residencies in the United States and internationally (Vietnam, Indonesia, Peru) for vulnerable communities with little or no access to dance programming, including women rescued from trafficking and gender-based violence, children and adults with diverse abilities, LGBTQ support networks, members of memory care/assisted living facilities, students at local schools, community members at local recreational centers and more.
We live in such a fractured world, where people’s differences are magnified, categorized, marginalized. I am on a quest to find our commonalities…to find our language of being human together. When a group of people dance together, something interesting always happens. Surprising outcomes a spark of inspiration that leads to a next dance…a sudden realization that we’re not alone…a glimpse into another person’s life…or simply the acceptance that it is perfectly okay to enjoy a moment of shared movement with another human being.
I embrace the possibilities and challenges of changing perceptions through my dance practice. I dance because everyone has something to share and express. Together we weave our separate stories into a dance tapestry that has the potential to free us from society-made labels. This tapestry is never completed….it is always being woven, always changing, always evolving as we dance in community. Let’s never stop dancing…together.
Join Karenne Koo in her upcoming workshop, Finding Each Other in the Virtual World Through Dance. This workshop will take place virtually on zoom on November 6th and 7th from 11:00am until 2:00pm CT.
For more information head to our calendar.