Palanza Interview Part II

In Part One of our interview with dancer/company director/choreographer/dance teacher/dance school director Hilary Palanza, she discussed her choreographic impetus and how to sustain a creative life while making a company run. In Part Two, she talks to us about her dance school, Children’s Center for Dance, and offers advice for aspiring pros.

Q: How did you decide to open a school in addition to everything else you’re doing?

HP: I think there’s a real need for a non-ballet, more creativity-based kind of dance instruction for children. Some kids love tutus and ballet, but other kids need what I had when I was 4—a subtle structure of movement inside an exterior of fun and play.

Q: What’s your teaching philosophy?

HP: A big thing in San Francisco is the Montessori/Waldorf education style, which guides students through their interests. I’m kind of trying to do that with movement.  I teach dance steps, but I also ask students to think about what interests them about how they move and what their bodies can do.  It’s a lot more exciting to teach that way.  I think with kids we tend to dumb down their education. We say first they need basics and that other things, like modern dance, should only be introduced later on.  But kids, especially young kids, are already doing modern dance naturally!  They’re sort of free in that way.  I think it’s a question of guiding that impulse at an early stage.

Q: How do you do that?

HP: I talk to them about movement as language. I’ll explain things like how we talk to each other with our bodies. For example, in one class I said, “I'm going to give you an example of a movement, and I want you to raise your hand and explain to me how this makes you feel and what you think when you watch this.” All the hands shot up! They said all kinds of different things. “That reminds me of a windshield wiper!” “It’s like a tree!” “That reminds me of my grandmother tipping over!” Then, I have them try the movement out, but I also ask them to spend time coming up with different ways to move on their own. I give them about ten minutes to experiment. When it’s over I ask them to come back to a circle and demonstrate their favorite movement, and all the other students try it out.  It works wonderfully! I had this one little girl who never cared about class.  She just didn’t want to be there. When we did that exercise, she just jumped right up and had all these things she wanted to do that I had never seen before! I would have never known that she wanted to dance like that had I not given her that space, and now she’s really excited to dance and learn more.

Q: How do you manage to juggle all of your responsibilities?

HP:  It helps to see everything as informing everything else. So when I’m teaching a three year olds’ dance class, and see a different way of moving, I think about how to experiment with it in choreography.  Regular conversations give me images that I use as inspiration.  It’s a lot, and I worried about it a lot.  But there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. Dance is a language and a tool for life. It’s such a great gift to give your friends and to the community.

Q: Any tips for aspiring young choreographers, teachers, and directors?

HP: It’s really cheesy, but follow your heart. Be true to your self and be true to what’s inside of you. Don’t just say you’re an artist—make your art. Don’t talk about your art—do your art, and the rest will follow. There are tremendous challenges, but don’t ever give up. It’s the most worthwhile thing.

The Children’s Center for Dance is in the San Francisco Presidio, and they’ll be opening a second location soon in Marin. For more info, check out their website and blog!