What It’s Like to Start a Visiting Professorship in the Middle of a Pandemic

Robbie Sweeny, courtesy Funsch

Christy Funsch's teaching career has taken her from New York City to the Bay Area to Portugal, with a stint in a punk band in between. But this fall—fresh off a Fulbright in Portugal at the Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa, School of Dance (ESD), teaching and researching empathetic embodiment through somatic dance training—Funsch's teaching has taken her to an entirely new location: Zoom. A visiting professor at Slippery Rock University for the 2020–21 academic year, Funsch is adapting her eclectic, boundary-pushing approach to her virtual classes.

Originally from central New York State, Funsch spent 20 years performing in the Bay Area, where she also started her own company, Funsch Dance Experience. "My choreographic work from that time is in the dance-theater experiential, fantasy realm of performance," she says. "I also started blending genres and a lot of urban styles found their way into my choreography."

During that time, Funsch took short-term adjunct teaching assignments at various universities. In the classroom, Funsch describes herself as cautious with the power she holds. "I advocate for an inquisitive approach to the physical body," she says. "I promote students' inner teachers. I don't have all of the answers and I don't pretend to."

Funsch performs in a silky red dress, laying on her back and lifting her feet, head and arms off the ground

Robbie Sweeny, courtesy Funsch

This spring, after returning from her Fulbright in Portugal, she was already in the interview process for the position at Slippery Rock when the pandemic arrived. "The campus visit had to happen through Zoom in my sublet in Astoria," she says. "As part of the interview, they asked me to demonstrate some movement exercises in my living room in lieu of teaching a class. It was a really funny experience showing them a traveling phrase in such a small space." (And good preparation for both the fall and spring semesters at Slippery Rock, which are online.)

Dance Teacher talked to Funsch about how she's teaching virtually, the dance content she's devouring right now and the teaching tools she can't live without.

Her favorite warm-up: 

Funsch likes to start class by having her students bow (in non-COVID times, she had them bow in a circle.) "We see each other and touch the earth in some way to honor the space and our dance ancestors who have moved there before us," she says. "We honor the ancestry of the people who have been in this land before us, and add our own personal intentions for our own families and ancestors. Then, we do a five-minute improv to burn through the residue of what has happened prior to being in class."

For her own teaching warm-up, Funsch likes to "noodle around with my version of Bartenieff Fundamentals to recruit full-body connectivity and to scan my inner state for potentially relevant talking points."

Must-have teaching attire:

"Joe Boxer sweatpants from the kids' section—they are inexpensive and durable!"

Go-to teaching tool: 

"Paper and pen for free-writing and processing of the moved experience." Funsch finishes her classes with stretch and recovery, during which she asks dancers to write and reflect on class.

How she typically structures class: 

Funsch has what she calls a "somatic idea" for each class. For example, "How the rotary function in the scapula can support access to a fuller kinesphere." She introduces this concept for the class to explore as a part of their improvisation practice. "Then we come into some movement forms, like folding at major joints, back articulations and foot articulations," she says. "From there, we do some center-floor work—folding, falling, and finding an interface between the back and the floor." Then, Funsch introduces some repertoire and pairs her dancers up so they can observe and coach one another. "Toward the end of class we do a version of the material where the vocab is stripped away and it becomes more about improvising the ideas of the vocabulary," she says.

Recommended content:

"Recent books by Barbara Dilley and anything by Deborah Hay; John Cage's Silence; interviews with Tere O'Connor; antiracism resources; Susan Sontag; Jill Randall's Life as a Modern Dancer blog; the Center for Performance Research reading groups; Melanie George's interviews and jazz scholarship."

Her approach to virtual class:

"I've redesigned vocabularies to devour kinesphere space more than general space," she says. She's embraced voice-led improvisation that's conducive to Zoom, and incorporates filmed material of her moving in nature into class.

Guilty pleasure: 

"Film noir—except I'm not guilty about it!" Funsch especially likes Le Doulos, Elevator to the Gallows and Laura.

What she never leaves home without:

"A love letter from long ago"

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