(by Sughnen Yongo-Okochi)
In a career that spans three decades, Dr. Susan Koff has become a voice of authority in the world of dance education. Koff is Clinical Professor of Dance Education in the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions (Steinhardt). She recently completed ten years as the director of the Dance Education Program at New York University and is currently the chair of Dance and the Child International (daCi), a UNESCO organization. Koff recently published her first book, Dance Education: A Redefinition (Methuen, 2021), which places dance education within a holistic framework. This is the perspective that Koff embraces in her career as a professional dance educator.
Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, Koff was inspired to explore her creativity from an early age. This developed further when a family friend gave her a book about ballerinas, the foundation of her love of dance. Her parents were supportive of this interest in dance and encouraged her to pursue it.
“I was extremely lucky to have parents who didn’t believe that I should pursue dance from a technique perspective, but more from a practical, artistic, and inventive viewpoint,” said Koff. “Pursuing education of any kind from a strictly technical angle is antithetical to the development of children.”
Koff’s father enrolled her at the Jewish Community Center’s dance school, where she learned different dance techniques, styles, approaches and creativity, which is different from typical dance studios. “What I liked about dance right from an early age is that it gave me the ability to create, and at the core, I am a creator,” said Koff. “Dance also always allowed me to make statements with choreography that mirrored my thoughts and moods.”
Before delving into dance education, something she had yet to define for herself, Koff was a dancer/creator. Her first performance had an unusual source of inspiration.
“The dance was based on Munch’s famous painting [The Scream]. It was not an attractive dance at all, and most people would find it dark and moody,” said Koff. “However, at that moment, I was wrapped up in the emotion within my body that it didn’t bother me. That is the beauty of dance.” For Koff, dance is a living, breathing work of art that moves in ebbs and flows and is inspired by imagination and creativity.
“If I had gone through dance classes in my earlier years just to learn dance technique, I would not have been able to draw the emotion out of that Munch-inspired piece,” said Koff. “Techniques are nice, but they are not at the core of what dance education is. A lot of my work is to counter that mentality.”
New York City
At 21, Koff moved to New York City intending to spend a year exploring the dance scene, but she ended up staying longer. “When I moved to New York, I became immersed in the downtown dance scene.” This community had a fun, creative, and potent style and introduced Koff to like-minded dancers who pursued dance with the same flair and experimentation that she did during those earlier years.
Koff’s interest in dance education and teaching began to flourish during her time in New York. While dancing, she would carefully watch other dancers, and notice their various dance styles. “I noticed that there were dancers who had exquisite lines and form, but could not actually dance. This began a pathway of discovery for me, of [asking] ‘What is dance?’”
“The first time I left New York,” she went on to say, “I started teaching children. I observed their joy and discovery, which made me change emphasis away from lines and form. This was my first directional shift from the superficial exterior to the experience of the mover. As I started to explore that aspect of moving and dancing, which was the experience of the mover, I can say I was becoming a dance educator. That path has led me to a doctorate in dance education, and working with people in so many different settings.”
She argues that teaching dance technique in exclusively traditional settings has created a fragmented understanding of dance and has eroded the artistic capability of dance, making it less holistic, which is also something that she highlights in her recent book.
“Traditional education has created exclusionary silos that take away the immediate imagination associated with dance, and that is very limiting,” said Koff. “Dance is our most fundamental form of expression, and it is a sacred process.”
In her capacity as a Clinical Professor of Dance Education at NYU, Koff has worked to remove barriers for prospective students who want to gain admission into the program. “We have stopped having auditions for this program because the concept of an audition is limiting, and it illustrates that we are evaluating candidates based on predetermined values, and I find that to be problematic,” said Koff.
Activism and a Book
In her book Dance Education: A Redefinition, Koff dissects the elements of dance in an attempt to re-frame the way dance education is approached, understood, and taught by looking beyond privileged western dance forms to compare education from a variety of cultures. She released her book at a critical time in American history.
“This was during the height of the George Floyd conversation, and the theme of the book — addressing diversity and embracing differences in people — has made me a little more activist about my work because of the timing.”
As the chair of Dance and the Child International (daCi), Koff continues to advocate for diversity in dance education. The organization is focused on teaching children about diversity and creating a collaborative environment that pushes for diversity and inclusion.
“daCi is a place where children are free of the constraints of public education,” said Koff. “For the longest time, we have made an effort to also include indigenous practices within our framework, and that has served us well. We also make an effort to include indigenous groups who can include us in their practices, and I am truly proud of the work that I do there.”