MIM Insights: The Teaching Artist
February 11th, 2020
“I was hooked and never looked back”
Minds In Motion alumnus-turned-teaching-artist Paul Dandridge has a unique relationship with the program. He kindly took some time out of his teaching schedule to discuss his path from reluctant dancing 4th-grader to full-time dance instructor.
In your own words, describe your dance journey.
I came into the dance world through Richmond Ballet’s Minds In Motion program at Bon Air Elementary School. I was a complete and utter novice, but had grown up very active with soccer, baseball, climbing trees at Maymont, riding bikes down the street, and basically running around outside any chance I could get. When I heard that in fourth grade we would be losing one of our gym days to a dance class called Minds In Motion, I was less than thrilled; gym was the best! But virtually from the first class with Brett Bonda, I connected with his energy and the physical and mental demands of the class. I loved it! From there, I was hooked and never looked back.
That winter I auditioned for, and was accepted into, the Minds In Motion after-school scholarship group, Team XL. I have always been motivated by competition, so being surrounded by other 4th graders who were great dancers pushed me to keep working hard. After fourth grade I auditioned for a more advanced MIM group, Team XXL (now known as the Minds In Motion Ambassadors). We had more rehearsal time with Teaching Artists, more performances around the community, and more competition as the group was made up of 5th through 8th graders.
Being in Team XXL, I was eligible to perform in Richmond Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker,” which introduced me to the world of ballet… I had been reluctant to join a ballet class, because my 10-year-old self was still convinced that ballet was for girls, but after my experience with “The Nutcracker” and seeing Richmond Ballet’s professional company perform–the strength that was required to jump as high, turn as fast, and lift people overhead–I realized I really wanted to try.
After a year of taking ballet, I knew I wanted to be a professional dancer. I continued taking ballet classes at Richmond Ballet through High School, climbing through the levels and culminating with the pre-professional Trainee program as I finished High School. When faced with the decision to either audition for a professional company position at Richmond Ballet, or elsewhere, or attend college, I settled on the ballet program at Indiana University. At IU Ballet Theatre, I could work towards a Bachelor’s of Science in Ballet Performance while getting to perform world class ballet and contemporary pieces with world-renowned choreographers and former professionals.
After 4 years of college and performing, I returned to Richmond Ballet as an Apprentice in the company and joined the Minds In Motion Teaching Artist faculty. I was faced with another decision after my first year, to either audition for another ballet company or begin teaching full time. My year of teaching with Minds In Motion sparked a love for teaching and giving back to the next generation of dancers and performers, so I decided to stay in Richmond and teach full time with Minds In Motion and the School of Richmond Ballet. My ballet training gave me a solid foundation to continue performing in other genres and I began performing in musical theatre productions around Richmond. Now, I am in my ninth year teaching with Minds In Motion.
There’s a joke among your former teachers that you would never smile while dancing in MIM. And later in XL. Or even in XXL…
I was so focused, particularly when I was younger, with getting the technique of dance perfect, that my ability to perform was hampered by that obsession to “get all the steps right.” On the inside, I was loving not only performing, but class as well. On the outside, I was very stoic.
You got into teaching dance pretty early. What is it about teaching that grabbed your attention?
I have always loved children, and still to this day do not feel like I have really “grown up.” I find easy to connect with kids and all of their individual idiosyncrasies and take great joy in getting them to open up and break down the typical teacher/authority figure – student/subordinate relationship. Once there is mutual trust,
it’s so much easier to get them to move around the space like they’re ghosts with a head cold, or pirates, or to stand tall and strong.
I enjoy passing on the knowledge I have gained over my years, but also allowing room for a child’s personality and individuality to affect my own teaching style to get them to go as far as they can. For me, teaching isn’t [a] linear of passing on information one to another, but a continued growth for an individual student, a class as a whole, and the teacher as well. It’s a journey that has to be shared, and the challenge of meeting each individual student where they are keeps every day interesting.
One morning Katherine Smothers took your Rhythm & Motion adult dance class: you were teaching your first teacher. Can you describe what that felt like?
Haha, if I’m being honest in this moment, it didn’t really register. For R&M, because it’s so fast paced, it’s more of a performance for me. Being in a studio and working with Katherine, Cat, or Brett as contemporaries is much more surreal for me 😊
What’s different with teaching adults, as opposed to kids?
In terms of my teaching, not a lot is different between adults and kids. I fully believe that for anyone to lose their inhibitions and social self-consciousness, you (the teacher) have to allow yourself to be human and make mistakes and be true to yourself and your personality. With content, I have learned that what works perfectly with one child will make zero sense to another. As we grow up, it’s still the same. One way to deliver content
does not work for everyone. So, when teaching dance, I’ll repeat the same step in as many ways as I can; “chasse right,” “1-2-3,” “right-left-right,” “step-together-step,” and using just as many various descriptors, metaphors, and analogies to get the feeling of a specific step.
As people get older, I think they take on more inhibitions and are more reluctant to try new things or put themselves out there in a vulnerable way. When I teach adults, I don’t add any false sense of propriety, because that’s not who I am. I still teach any technique of dance with the respect that it is deserved, but by allowing myself to teach as myself and not emulate “what I think a teacher should be like,” I hope I allow others to be themselves and not feel the pressure to “dance how I think someone dancing at Richmond Ballet should dance like.”
You have a unique teaching style, especially with ballet classes. What’s your philosophy to bringing ballet to students–both intro (Ambassadors) and more advanced (middle men/upper men’s work)?
Especially with new ballet students, I think it’s important to keep the personality and personal connection between student and teacher. With the Ambassadors, we are bringing them into this world of ballet, and dance in general, so if the focus becomes solely technical, they may tune out. With them, there is a balance of learning technique, appropriate behavior, life skills and lessons, and a personal connection. If they don’t have a connection with their teacher and they did not sign up for ballet class, why would they care if they don’t have proper technique or appropriate class decorum?
With the students that HAVE signed up for ballet class, we have plenty of conversations on technique, but also trying to pepper in the WHY we do something a certain way, to hopefully bring a better understanding to the technique. Also, as I was growing up, I found myself overly concerned with technique and less on performance…and feel that that was a major defect and missing component to my dance education. We are a performance art and also have to train and learn how to perform.
You also do some work in the local musical theater scene—how did that come about, and how are you with the whole singing/acting thing?
I have always been musically inclined and have loved singing and playing musical instruments throughout my childhood and continue now. Growing up, I sang in my church choir and was with the Greater Richmond Children’s choir for a time, before dance took over. After leaving a professional dance career, I had more time and opportunities to audition for, and be in, musical theatre productions. My wife, Emily (also a Minds In Motion Teaching Artist), has grown up in the musical theatre world and she helped bring me into that fold.
Many dancers I know are intimidated by singing and feel like “oh no, I don’t think I can sing so I can’t do musical theatre.” But the musical theatre world is constantly looking for people who can dance. Most dancers I know are also fine singers, especially for an ensemble setting in a show. Even those that do not have technical singing ability, they already have the tools and drive to learn how to sing properly if they want to.
Your students may or may not know you are a soccer player, EMT/lifeguard, and avid outdoor kayak/canoe type. Any other sports/crazy activities?
I just enjoy being active. I play guitar, fly my daughter all over the place, and try and do as many home improvement (of home fix-its) that I can on my own. My family is fairly large (I’m the oldest of four siblings) and we are all quite active. My sister rock climbs, my youngest brother plays football and baseball, and my other brother and I play soccer together. We’re always doing something.
Do you have a favorite dance you’ve that you’ve choreographed?
I am a pretty harsh critic and don’t particularly care for the dances I choreograph. I always find there’s something that needs to be tweaked or could be better. I thoroughly enjoy setting other people’s dances and working with dancers to get those nuances and my favorite dance I’ve set is Cat Studdard’s “The Starving Time.” I’ve set that now three times on various Team XXL and Ambassador groups.
Do you have a favorite dance that you’ve performed (MIM OR R&M OR ballet OR theater)
Ooooo, tricky, there are so many to choose from so I won’t pick one. My favorite MIM dance I performed growing up was “Boogie Till the Cows Come Home.” Cow print cowboy hats? Awesome. Fun song? Check. Great, tricky little dance? Definitely. For ballet, I love Fredrick Ashton’s “Les Patineurs,” The Ice Skaters. The ballet has no real story, but there are various characters, (the couples, the Red Girls, the Duet) and I performed the Blue Boy – a speed skater. For theatre, I had the opportunity recently to perform with Virginia Repertory Theatre in their production of West Side Story as Arab. The music and story of the show are well known and fantastic, and we were lucky enough to perform Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. POWERFUL and so fun. In Rhythm & Motion, my favorite dance constantly changes as I add in new dances to class, but currently I love the frenetic energy of “Famalay” (Family) – the song is great as well!
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