Teaching artist Andre Lumpkin first came to Moving in the Spirit as a mentor and a teacher while he was pursuing undergraduate degrees in sociology and dance/theatre studies at Emory University. He recently earned his M.F.A. in choreography and performance from Florida State University and returned to Atlanta to launch his professional career.
We sat down with Andre to talk about his transition from doctor to dancer, his work intersecting sociology and the arts, and how he helps his students create calm in the “eye of the storm.”
How did you become a dancer?
I’ve always been moving and dancing as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, in high school, middle school, it was more social dancing, learning the latest hip hop moves and freestyling. Once I got to Emory University, I realized that dancing could be something that was serious, that I could have a career in dancing as opposed to it just being my outlet.
My sophomore year at Emory, I took my first dance class, jazz, which was a great crossover genre for me. I fell in love after that. I wanted to get into the modern company, Emory Dance Company, so that summer before the audition I enrolled at Dance 101 down the street and got an unlimited pass. I just took classes and classes and classes so that I could be competitive for the audition. I got in, and I just took off from there.
How did your family feel about you changing your studies to focus on dance?
Growing up I always heard, especially from my dad, that you had to either be a doctor or a lawyer, if you were a doctor or a lawyer then you’d be alright. That was the main thing, they were worried about my wellbeing as a black male in America. So going into Emory University, that’s what I was focusing on. I wanted to be a doctor and an infectious disease specialist. That changed as I got into school and I realized my gifts in science weren’t really geared toward the medical route. I majored in sociology and became more of a community organizer, and I minored in dance and theatre studies. As my parents started to see me develop and see the work that I was doing, making my way through the community working and performing, going overseas, learning about healthcare, they started to accept my route and accept that I would be okay.
Do you see your work in sociology and your work in the arts intersecting?
Oh very much so. When I first considered going to grad school, it was either going to be for a master’s degree in public health or a master’s degree in fine arts. I decided to go for an M.F.A., and I started to see how my creativity and my activism and my community organizing could come into the work that I was making. My thesis very heavily emphasized the different factors we focus on as human beings that connect us and disconnect us, and how we can bridge those gaps. The subject matter was fear, because I felt like fear can definitely take away a bridge, or create a bridge if we can conquer that fear and meet in the middle. I really found my voice and how I can bring my activism and community organization into the work I make.
Why did you decide to go into teaching?
From a young age, one of my first jobs was teaching at the local YMCA. I always felt fulfilled when I was able to go into a room and share myself with my students and my students shared themselves with me. I’ve just always felt this sense of joy when I teach, so I continue to do it.
What has been your proudest moment as a teacher?
Most recently, I was able to teach a full course on hip hop at Florida State University as part of my graduate assistantship. One of the first things I said to the students when we began class was “I see hip hop as a social movement.” We have this era of time in the late 70’s and 80’s when it really exploded and became mainstream, but that was just another movement of the same culture, the voiceless trying to have a voice. By the end of the semester, they were so excited, they were so involved, they were so energized about this conversation. There were a lot of revelations we had together in class. It was such a moment for me because I felt like this is work that needs to be done.
What do you like most about teaching at Moving in the Spirit?
The structure and the holistic sense of how we approach class. I love the dance therapy techniques we bring in and how we engage our students. Like checking in with the students at the beginning of class — something that can seem so simple but can be so influential in the students. As well as Sunshine (positive affirmations), as well as Family Time (peer learning and mentorship), as well as all these things we do outside of regular dance class. I think that’s really important. Because as a dancer we have to bring our holistic selves to class and if we can’t that affects us, it affects how we grow and develop and how we execute. But that’s the thing about dance, it is mind, body and spirit, so the fact that we automatically cultivate that from the beginning, we add that structure into our class, it seems simple but it’s almost mind-blowing in a way, and I think it’s so important for the students.
What is your teaching philosophy?
I like to teach from a place that “dance is dance.” There’s these genres, there’s these techniques, there’s these aesthetics we can get to, but what is really important is how you add you to it. How you develop through all of that. How you grow through all of that. And in that way you become a holistic being. So yes, the shapes, the technique, all of that is important, but if it’s not affecting you on a deeper level, and you aren’t affecting it on a deeper level, then there’s a disconnect that’s happening.
And so I always try to teach from a place of “Yes, these are the things you’re trying to reach, but also what are you trying to reach within yourself? What are the goals that you have in life?” You can bring that into your dance class. If your goal is to be organized, you can bring that into your dance. If your goal is to be more assertive in life, you can bring that into your dance. It’s all holistic.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s actually a quote I heard. “Any idiot can make it through a crisis. It’s really day to day living that wears you out.” It has always stuck with me because I’ve had a tumultuous life, but those moments I’ve felt the most challenged were where I really grew and developed and found an inner joy that has led me to the point where I am now, where I can be happy with what’s going on in all this chaos. I realized that you’ve just got to take it day by day, or minute by minute, hour by hour. If you can step back and see the moment in front of you and not drown in all the things that have happened or that you think will come, then you’ll be okay.
Do you feel like dance is something that helped you through the chaos you referenced?
Oh yes. I grew up in a single parent home, and my mother actually dealt with mental illness throughout, so sometimes she would go away and my sister and I would have to be bounced around. There was this one group called United Souls that I became involved in, and one of the many things we did was we went out and we performed and danced for different communities and put on shows. So not only did I get to connect with peers and people my own age, but I got to connect with them through movement, through dance.
There was this sense of catharsis, of release that I got, and that’s one of the many moments where dance kind of stepped in or became the vanguard in my life to help me navigate through all the depression or abuse or anything I was dealing with growing up. In those times when I really felt alone, I would just move. And in moving and dancing and just being, there was this sense of transcendence. I was able to move out of everything for a moment and then come back with peace. It was like I created an eye in the storm, for just a moment, and it was quiet, and I could think again. It wasn’t so loud.
Do you see dance impacting your students at Moving in the Spirit in a similar way?
Yes. I think there’s something about walking into a dance classroom that is automatically liberating, especially if you connect to dance in that way, and I think a lot of our students are here because they connect to dance in that way. I can see a student walk in and be in a funk or be overwhelmed by what may be going on that day or what may be happening in their life, and throughout the length of our class they completely change. Their energy changes, their mood changes, how they’re speaking changes, how they’re holding their body changes, and I see them take that positive energy back out into the world.
And some of those students come in and they’re in a funk and maybe they still are, but you can see that maybe now, having that moment of silence, that calm “eye in the storm,” they’re able to navigate what their challenge is. So when we check out after class they might say, “Well, I feel this way, but now I can figure it out.” And that’s important.
Andre teaches Collective Motion, Boys in Motion, Men in Motion, GLOW in Motion, and Apprentice Corporation classes at Moving in the Spirit.