Teaching and Learning Lessons: Dancing with the EC Stars

Photo Credit: Emmanuel College Dance Marathon

Photo Credit: Emmanuel College Dance Marathon

Over the past month, I’ve been involved with one of the most challenging, thought-provoking, and exhausting projects of my tenure at Emmanuel. But I am proud to say that after last night, it is complete and that chapter of my career is closed.

I successfully competed in the second annual Dancing with the EC Stars.

A campus event inspired by ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and presented by our Dance Marathon team as a fundraiser for the program, it features five students (our “professional dancers”) selected from around campus for their known dancing ability who get paired with staff members (the “stars”) who have a high threshold for the possibility of embarrassment. The dances are choreographed by the students, who then teach them to their partners. That concept alone brings about the first lesson…

Lesson Zero: Be willing and prepared to learn from your students.

I don’t know that this is ever articulated in preparation programs for our work. But I know it’s one of the things that I enjoy most about my work. All the professionals here had to step out of their roles as educators and cede control to students. We entrusted our success in the event to them. And they all lived up to, and in some cases exceeded those expectations. Without a willingness to learn from our students, we get stuck in patterns of behavior that aren’t informed by theirs, and subsequently may not serve them in the most effective fashion. Are there topics on which we know better? Sure. But are there things we need to learn from them? Absolutely. I have found my work to be its most rewarding when I place myself in a mindset of learning from the students that come through my door, pass me on campus, or see me at events.

With that said, I want to share a few additional lessons, taught to me while observing the dynamics of each pair of dancers in the competition.

Lesson One (Danielle and Scott): Learn from those with whom you disagree.

The following story was informed in part by an anecdote shared with me by one of my student assistants.

Scott and Danielle, tapping to “Proud Mary” (Photo Credit: Emmanuel College Marketing)

Scott Gagnon, the director of our theater arts program, evidently once said in a History of Contemporary Theater class that tap dance was the easiest style to “fake your way through.” I don’t believe he was saying that it wasn’t a skilled form of dance, but rather that it is more forgiving of…shall we say, improvisation? A student in the class with a background in tap raised her hand and challenged him on that notion. They debated in class, civilly as I understand it, before ultimately agreeing to disagree.

And that student, who was bold enough to challenge her professor, was Danielle. Their assigned style? Tap. 

But this philosophical difference didn’t stop Scott and Danielle from working together, ultimately putting together a successful tap performance set to “Proud Mary.” Similarly, philosophical differences with a colleague (or even a student, as I’ve written about in some capacity before) shouldn’t keep you from being able to present a show-stopping final product. With dedication to a common cause, and the determination to keep any disagreements civil, differing work styles and beliefs can ultimately be incredible assets to an initiative.

Lesson Two (Kenny and I): Hold yourself to a high standard of excellence.

The student I was paired with, Kenny, is a first-year commuter student with whom I became familiar at orientation this summer. While generally reserved (which stood out to me because hey, I look out for that sort of thing!), he stood out especially because he mentioned during our tour that he was a breakdancer. He and his brother are involved in a dance crew in their hometown, and I liked seeing him light up when he talked about learning moves and how long he’d been dancing. Later that night, during the social element of the schedule, I got to see him dance for the first time. And…wow. So when I got paired with him, either I or my years of ballet training whispered “Oh, shoooooooot.” The reaction was not one of disappointment- I’ve since gotten to work with Kenny in many different capacities and really enjoy him- but one of immense challenge on my part.

Breakdancing is a demanding style that is only successful if attacked with goals of precision. The same can be said for the majority of professions (art of the abstract and sandwich variety come to mind as notable exceptions). So much of what we do depends on our decision to ensure it gets done well. And even in the face of other partner groups who danced in styles that demanded less precision, he held me to the standards of our prescribed dance style: clean, sharp movements. The ballet dancer, gymnast, and yogini inside me howled as our graceful, flowing movements were taken away, but he challenged me to get better at each successive practice.

Is it easy for us to be a little more relaxed with students, covering up flubs and being overly permissive of repeated mistakes or mediocrity? Of course it is. You can avoid being disliked this way. But without confronting those missteps, and encouraging both sides (yourself and the student) to demand a better product, we become stronger professionals and our students become stronger as individuals.

While we didn’t take home the mirrorball trophy, I know that I worked harder than I have in a long time to bring a project as close to perfection as possible…because that’s what the style of movement, and my partner, expected of me. Don’t be afraid to expect break-like precision.

As a treat, I’ll share part of the journey we took toward precision:

Lesson Three (Ashley and Mike): Don’t ever be afraid to have fun.

I’m grown enough to admit this: I was proud of a coworker for twerking in public last night.

Mike and Ashley! (Photo Credit: Emmanuel College Marketing)

And I will never use the words “twerking” and “proud” in the same sentence ever again. But that moment, with Mike and Ashley just going for it, was indicative of the spirit with which he attacked a dance style and experience that was wholly out of his comfort zone.

The whole day of the performance, Mike’s boss Susan told me to keep a close eye on Mike, who had been extremely nervous at rehearsals and in the days leading up to the show. But when the chance to come up on stage arrived, he shook it all off and delivered a hilarious and fun-loving performance.

Most of us are already aware of the fact that we need to take our work seriously. But we don’t always have to take ourselves too seriously. And Mike’s willingness to just have fun, especially with something that he wasn’t completely sure of himself about, yielded a great product. Not perfect, but it didn’t have to be.

Lesson 4 (Alex and Carlos): Seek inspiration in unlikely places.

One of my favorite things about Emmanuel College is that we have a close enough community that everyone has at least passing familiarity with most of our colleagues on campus. But Dancing with the EC Stars has been particularly good for bringing in staff members and students who not everyone knows well. Case in point: last year’s champion was our Director of Campus Safety, and Alex’s partner Carlos is one of our mechanics in Facilities.

Carlos and Alex, doing some swing! (Photo Credit: Emmanuel College Marketing)

So often, we assume that those who don’t work with us often or directly don’t understand what we do, and in some instances believe they don’t understand the value of it. But don’t default to that assumption. Nearly constantly cheerful and courteous, Carlos threw himself into this competition with enthusiasm that made my heart squeal (I don’t know how else to explain the feeling). In fact, as we came down to the wire on our fundraising (I’ll get to that element in a moment), he stopped by my office to encourage me to continue my efforts.

I said from the beginning of the competition that I would be honored to lose to Carlos. He was an unlikely competitor, but a dedicated and supportive one. While I may not get to work with him again soon, he was so much fun to dance alongside.

Lesson 5 (Garrett and Carolyn): Winners embrace the whole process.

Carolyn Caveny is all in, all the time. As a member of the academic advising team at Emmanuel for 26 years, she has dedicated so much of her life, time, and energy to the Saints community. Last semester, she lent her vocal talents to our programming board’s “Not Your Average Karaoke” competition, and her performance (to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’) was so well received, students overwhelmingly nominated her to take her talents to the floor.

But Carolyn wasn’t just ruthless on the dance floor. At one point, I compared her dress rehearsal with Garrett to this scene from Miracle:

She also threw herself in tirelessly to rallying those around her to raise money for Boston Childrens’ Hospital. With her in the lead, the event surpassed its fundraising goal of $1500, bringing in $3300. Carolyn was responsible for $1200! She also bought out 2/3 of the VIP section, ensuring that her colleagues (including her “agent”, our campus registrar and a past competitor) could come out to support her and bringing in even more money for ECDM.

Carolyn’s dedication to the cause was complete. And we should all try to attack our work with similarly comprehensive enthusiasm. Are there things that aren’t going perfectly? Oh, almost definitely. And do we have our days where something makes us want to pack it in? Sure, those are normal. But Carolyn’s complete focus got her and Garrett the Mirrorball Trophy- she was so very deserving.

The ECDM “Season 2” Champions! (Photo Credit: Emmanuel College Marketing Department)

Thanks to the ECDM Team for letting me be a contestant, to Kenny for being so patient with me as I learned something brand new, and to all my fellow competitors for teaching me about myself and the people around me.

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