Everyone can dance no matter what they look like
I was recently asked to photograph U.S. dance teacher Karenne Koo’s trip to Indonesia. Karenne came to Yogyakarta to introduce dance methods based on the teachings of Barbara Mettler (1907-2002).
After accepting the job, I thought about how I would convey the movement and the improvisational qualities of the dance, which I knew a bit about already. I decided to use some double exposures to show the surroundings and the natural light, and also the movement of the dancers interspersed with more traditional photographs.
Mettler-based dance teaches that anyone can dance
So what is Mettler-based dance? Barbara Mettler stressed that dance is a natural human activity. Her approach encourages participants to get in touch with their body and express themselves freely, without following a specific routine. It isn’t a certain style of dance, rather, practitioners operate with the understanding that dance is a basic need, and people should have opportunities to dance together.
Barbara Mettler also believed that people of all different ages and abilities should be able to dance. By dancing together, dancers could learn new ways of expressing themselves and dance relationships could be formed.
Mettler had very inclusive ideas about what dance should be. She said,
“I could not bear to hear anyone say, ‘I can’t dance.’ When I would ask, ‘Why not?’ the answer was usually, ‘I don’t have a good body’ or ‘I am not creative’ or ‘I am not graceful’ or ‘I am too old.’ These answers did not make any sense to me. My thinking was that you do not have to be graceful, all bodies are good, everyone is creative and no one is ever too old to dance.” (Mettler 1985, p. 14)
I can relate to this. I really don’t like it when people say, “I’m not creative.” I think it all depends on whether your creativity is something that you nurture, not that creativity is some type of magical gift that only some of us possess.
Visiting diverse communities
Throughout the week that Karenne was in Yogyakarta, I visited different communities with her. While observing (and moving a bit myself), I noticed that Karenne kept these basic principles in mind while working with diverse communities in Yogyakarta. She never told people they were doing things wrong, or not following her lead. Instead, she offered exercises with loose parameters so participants would have enough structure to feel comfortable, but didn’t place limitations on them. And they weren’t given routines or steps to follow. She gave them the opportunity to experiment and express their inner feelings
Tia Setiyani, a local activist, also trained in Mettler-based dance techniques, led the classes with Karenne. She translated from English to Indonesian and helped the participants get loose and get down. Tia has been working with Karenne for years and even visited Tucson, Arizona for dance training before.
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Inclusive dance and being comfortable moving your body
Karenne said her mission is making dance inclusive because of her strong belief that it’s for everyone and every body. One of the groups Karenne visited in Yogya was Nalitari. They are an inclusive dance group and are very active with many opportunities for dance and performances. I enjoyed photographing them, and they have a great Instagram account where they share a lot of their news, which I recommend following.
At the end of each dance session with a different community, Karenne and Tia spent time gauging the reactions of the participants. Some of them mentioned that they felt this approach to dance was liberating. Many had danced before, but usually, dance included routines and rules. This type of dance was different and a welcome change.
Aside from making photographs, I also experimented with isolating interesting movements the dancers made by creating Boomerang animations. (Boomerangs are little short animations made with 2-3 second video clips.)
The vulnerable interactions of dancers affirmed my mission as a photographer
As I was photographing the dancers, I found myself thinking about how well this work aligned with my mission of practicing vulnerable photography. Part of vulnerability is being open and honest about my feelings. I work to remain truthful with my subjects. It was heartwarming to see the dancers affording each other the same vulnerable interactions as they explored movement together.
Are you planning an event or workshop? Get in touch if you need a photographer, I’d love to be there!