Why did you become a Teaching Artist?
I began percussive dance exploration in college, became passionate about traditional old time American dance, and found my way into a performing dance company in my early twenties. Touring and honing my dance skills, both as a performer and a dance caller, gave me the experience and confidence to teach. Yet it was having my own children that helped me realize how many teachable moments occurred through movement. My daughter could never sit still, so we counted with sticks and pebbles outside, wrote letters in the sandbox, sang songs when she was swinging. We walked in the garden or in the woods and smelled flowers, compared their scents to food and described their colors in terms of other things we encountered outside (yellow like the sun, etc.) This evolving understanding—that for many people, sitting still to learn is a challenge, and that kinesthetic learners need to have physical ways to explore ideas—became a catalyst for me to move my dance work from stage to school.
Where did your interest in music and dance come from?
I grew up in a musical family with a father who taught high school Spanish and German, using folk dance and folk songs to make learning more fun and relevant. The love of music and movement was instilled in me before I finished grade school. My father played a small piano accordion, and at night, he would serenade my sisters and me before we fell asleep. We would often wake to music playing on the record player: opera, German hunting songs, American cowboy songs, spirituals. He had eclectic tastes.
What do you enjoy most about your art?
My body responds to rhythm and movement and being able to use it percussively. Sharing that with others is a special kind of joy. I have always been interested in history; not the kind that tells us what year this battle happened or the year that product was invented, but the kind that allows us to hear or feel what a person might have experienced a century ago or two centuries ago. That kind of history can come through a good novel or a traditional food and also, I’ve discovered, through traditional dance and music.
There is a ton of room for improvisation in the modern forms of flatfooting and square dancing, which I explore to great lengths, but there is also a rich history of where it began and how it changed as it moved through time that fascinates me. This mix of invention and tradition are the core of the pleasure I experience when doing or sharing my art.
Can you tell us more about that history, about the role music played in community life a century or two ago?
In the past two centuries, traditional dance was an important way for folks in farming communities to gather and socialize. Dance provided a vehicle for getting to know one’s neighbors, and changing partners between dances removed the discomfort of making too great a social commitment to one person. Persons with musical ability or dancers with especially fine moves garnered appreciation and attention from the rest of their community, making those desirable skills to develop.
Square dances were held at community halls, school socials, and at weddings and church functions. Contests in flatfooting or fiddling or banjo playing were held at festivals and municipal celebrations. Styles differed from region to region, but traveling callers helped popularize a body of dances with more similarities than differences.
What is your favorite thing about being a Teaching Artist?
What I love about being a teaching artist is helping students discover their feet using age old traditions to get grounded, and then taking off. Many children dance when they are in preschool and then lose touch with it as a form of expression when they enter grade school. Traditional dance has easy entry points for the complete beginner that allow dancers to feel capable and engaged with the music on their first attempt. There is a joy, described by many dancers, in the fluidity of the motion.
Traditional dance has just enough instruction to make the “rules” clear at the outset, but few enough guidelines to allow students to experiment with force and time and space. In many movement-oriented activities, particularly sports, there are so many rules at the outset that there isn’t much room for exploration. In contrast, the minimal guidelines I offer, with opportunities for broad interpretation, allow learners to laugh and work with a partner—to pull, tug, swing, jump—in collaborative ways that improve the social cohesion of the classroom. For instance, “swing your partner” can be done in at least five different ways, more with variances in descriptive characteristics. The way you give weight with your partner, the eye contact you have with your partner, the length of time you swing with your partner, the kind of step you use in the swing—all these aspects can be played with, making it different for each person/pair, even as it works for the whole.
Learners can be creative in a hundred different ways. A student taking the lead in creating a complex rhythm and sharing it within the classroom may not be a child who excels in academics. By providing opportunities to practice sequencing, patterning, repetition, and eye-hand coordination, I give students alternative ways to develop a sense of competency, which is so important in building self-esteem.
Tamara Loewenthal has been performing and teaching various styles of American and Celtic step dance for over 30 years. A founding member of the nationally acclaimed dance company Rhythm in Shoes, she has toured across the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Japan. She has produced a Square Dance booklet entitled Square ‘Em Up! and a CD and booklet set, Dance Together Children! Together with fiddler Jamie Gans, Tamara formed Fiddle ‘n’ Feet and offers a variety of programs through Arts for Learning Indiana.