Thoughts About Teaching Beginning, Middle, and Ending In Dance

Reposted from an earlier date.

 Blog by

Brenda Pugh McCutchen

September 10, 2015

This is written in honor of National Arts Education Week starting September 13, 2015.

dance compositionToday as I wrote teaching materials for dance composition several points of clarity emerged.  I thought they were worth sharing.

 

Today’s writing topic was beginning-middle-ending (B-M-E), which I have always thought of as the primary “structure” for dance choreography of any length. While that is true to an extent, I also realized that B-M-E is more than a structure. I now believe it is actually the “developmental framework for all dances” and not a structure at all.

 

What brought me to that conclusion was the search to find the exact words to set B-M-E apart from the dance structures posters which I had just written for dance forms such as AB, Rondo, narrative, theme and variation that will be published in a Choreographic Structures teaching kit for middle and high school.  The unintended consequences of writing instructional materials –which includes teaching posters for teachers to use in the classroom–is that what you think you’re going to say on a poster can back you into a corner. What you thought was right can show you unequivocally that it is wrong. To create coherent posters, which must explain each vital aspect of dance and how it differs from other aspects, has been the most instructive thing I have ever done.  (Incidentally, that is how “choreographic processes” and “choreographic devices” distinguished themselves in 2011 while I wrote Creating Dance: Processes for Choreographing. Initially, I thought all of them were choreographic processes because that’s what the field called them and also what the 1994 national standards called them. So what a surprise it was to realize that all of them could not possibly be “processes” because their defining characteristics were completely different.  One is universal and the other is specific. So that’s the developmental context for what follows regarding B-M-E. )

 

So, B-M-E also backed me into the corner. It certainly could not be a structure because each dance uses a different structure as its specific organizational plan.  B-M-E is more fundamental than structures are.  B-M-E transcends dance structures. Dance structures vary according to the dance work–narrative, theme and variation, AB, etc.  However, all dances are guided by the same developmental framework (beginning-middle-ending) which operates separately from the structure itself and is vital to the unity of a work no matter what structure is used.  The more poster explanations I created for the poster the clearer it became that B-M-E was a developmental framework of great magnitude. For example, lines such as these helped bring me to clarity: “B-M-E is the main organizational format for all dance works.” “B-M-E keeps dances on track to make their point and then finish.” “A well-crafted B-M-E holds a dance together for continuity and unity (in all kinds of structures, I might add).” “B-M-E is basic to all the performing and literary arts.” “B-M-E applies to the smallest as well as the longest dance structures.” “For a dance in sections, one must craft a B-M-E for each section and also a B-M-E for the entire dance.”  Maybe everyone else already knew that, but if so, why did I not?

 

It became clearer and clearer.  Therefore, I have come to define B-M-E as “the developmental framework for all dance.  B-M-E operates within each dance structure and even in the absence of a defined dance structure.”  B-M-E applies to:

 

  • the phrase (the smallest compositional structure)
  • the cluster (several phrases together)
  • the dance study (a one topic dance)
  • the foundation structures (A, AB, ABA, AB[AB], and Rondo)
  • the choreographic structures (theme-based dances, narrative, musical forms, etc. )
  • the hybrid structures (structured improv, chance dance, call and respond, canon, etc.)

 

Unless each of these completes an idea coherently and comes to a satisfactory conclusion, it is unfinished.

 

If we were to teach beginning middle and end as a “structure” we’d confuse the issue for everyone—particularly our students. 99% would never be able to reconcile why it won’t quite make sense or work as a dance structure. Worse than misinforming them and perpetuating an error, they would not be able to fully understand how crafting the beginning, middle, and end supports their dance-making efforts as well as the choreographic structures they choose to use.  So we would have robbed them of the clarity and the use of a dynamically important choreographic framework.

 

To misinform students also diminishes the power of choreographic structures for dance which are chosen according to the need of the dance idea. Structures are selective. The choreographer chooses one and goes with it (or in some cases amalgamates several). However if a beginning middle and ending is not well-crafted, whatever structure is chosen will fail to deliver the dance idea successfully. To teach beginning middle and end is vital to the understanding of how unity is developed within a dance work. Teachers who spend time emphasizing each aspect of this process enable students to grasp the importance of each one separately as well as together as a unified whole.  Ultimately these are the students who become better choreographers because they see the parts in relation to the whole. Crafting beginning-middle-end must be mastered long before choreographic structures enter the picture in order to learn the basic skills of unity and overall construction. That in effect keeps the horse before the cart where it belongs.

 

Students need to learn by observing effective beginnings and memorable endings. Dance is great works are full of them. Hundreds come to mind. They are easy to find. The best teachers know how to focus on various kinds of beginnings, for example to teach a beginning phrase and then task students with finishing the short dance study.  They also teach a beginning and an ending and task students to provide the middle segment. They create a short dance except for the ending and task small groups to create the best ending. You see, B-M-E is a process more than it is a concept. Students need to look at and discuss a well-crafted dance work and focus on the beginning, looking at it several times and talking about what makes it work. They need to put good works under a microscope and learn from them about the craft that provides unity and continuity to any and every dance they create. The vital importance of how to craft B-M-E can slip by us if we fail to take it seriously enough. And I now believe it is important to start all composition classes with that kind of emphasis.  Early critiques should talk about dance in terms of how it holds together from the first move to the last and to point up where those of us in the audience start to lose the trail of the dance, its clarity.  Point it out. That is incredibly instructive to the young choreographer.  (It’s a favor, not a fault.)

 

Novelists learn how to start with a powerful first paragraph.  Music composers learn how to capture the ears of the audience with the first few notes of a work.  Concert choreographers know how to start a dance to set the tone of the dance and to make an opening statement.

 

We also should demonstrate the power of memorable openings.  Show the opening of Ailey’s Revelations/“ I Been ‘Buked”, listen to the iconic opening lines of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and his 1st Symphony and how they set the stage for what follows, hear the opening lines of a fabulous novel which set the stage for the story to unfold, read together the opening lines of poetry and evaluate how it connects to the middle and the end.  Look at how each part contributes to the whole in a well-crafted poem such as Carl Sandburg’s Fog. Reference other performing and literary arts to clarify the importance of openings and of conclusions as well as continuous development through the middle section, so that one’s own creative work does not lose its way, go on too long, or get riddled with extraneous moves. Utilize the other arts to focus on different kinds of endings just as you did with beginnings.  Once this awareness opens the door to astute observations and fruitful conversations in the other arts it may be time to shift to dance, which is much more elusive and much less obvious because of its speed.  Select several short professionally choreographed works in different genres (in addition to Revelations mentioned earlier) to discuss/see how each part of the B-M-E contributes to the whole. Until this overall developmental framework is conceptually clear and experientially perfected students will have difficulty making successful dances. B-M-E is a vitally important skill to hone at every grade level.

 

That’s what I learned today as I was writing teaching posters. That is what I wanted to share. While writing the B-M-E posters and listening to American Public Radio’s “Performance Today,” they happen to feature Beethoven’s 1st Symphony and called attention to the opening phrases. That was an unexpected gift to have at that moment.  That was worth sharing with you.  Isn’t serendipity grande?

 

BrendaBrenda Pugh McCutchen, M.F.A. Dance, is a dance professor, writer, and dance education consultant.  Her holistic teaching materials are used in post-secondary teacher preparation, K-12 school districts, and by teaching artists all over the US and in some parts of the world. She develops Contextual Learning Systems™ which connect key information in each artist process with the creative catalysts that activate them.  Her written works include Teaching Dance As Art in Education (Human Kinetics 2006), Viewing Dance–Vocabularies for Critiquing (2008), Creating Dance–Processes for Choreographing (2011), Catalysts for Creating Dance K-5 (2015), and Choreographic Impulses to Explore, Improvise, and Abstract (2015).  She is the director of Dance Curriculum Designs.