Teaching artist Jessica Bertram is an alumna of Emory University with degrees in anthropology and dance/movement studies.
We sat down with Jessica to talk about her teaching philosophy, her choreographic process, and her lifelong love of dance.
How did you become a dancer?
I started dancing when I was three years old. I went to the North Alabama Dance Center and I did ballet, tap and jazz like your typical competition dance studio. Then I got to high school and did dance team. And then I kept going at Emory University. I thought, “Oh, I’m just going to take a few dance classes,” but then I ended being a dance major. I fell in love with choreographing and with somatic practice and thought, “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” Being able to find my voice in dance through the choreographic process, that was a big thing. I wasn’t just trying to look like someone else, I was actually defining my own movement and the stories I wanted to tell through dance.
How did you become a teacher?
I took Lori Teague’s (chair of Emory’s dance department) pedagogy class my freshman year. The class was about teaching us how to teach dance. We had an assignment to go an elementary school and teach a dance class there. It was similar to choreographing, in a way, so that was my first taste of teaching. And then I volunteered at Moving in the Spirit during a Holiday Store and was around the students and realized I really liked kids and teaching them something and watching them process and learn. I ended up teaching at Moving in the Spirit last year, and now again this year, and I also teach for another youth program in Sylvan Hills Middle School.
What is your teaching philosophy?
Something I always lead with is strength and self confidence. Especially working with middle school girls. They’re very much second-guessing themselves, they’re looking at what their friends do, they’re gossipy. So I lead with the idea of defining yourself and finding your voice. The movement that supports that is always super grounded and has a lot of clarity. Which are also things that I’m working on in myself.
What made you want to teach at Moving in the Spirit?
I really enjoyed that it wasn’t just about technique, like what I had when I was growing up. I like the idea that it is as much youth development as it is technique. We actually are trying to understand the students that we’re teaching and help them become better citizens and better leaders. It’s more about the long term here, as far as who they are when they leave the studio verses just what we put on the stage.
When I grew up dancing, it was super strict. You prepared for the whole first semester to perform nonstop the second semester. You trained to look good, you trained to perform. I didn’t really have a relationship with my teachers. I wish I had Moving in the Spirit when I was growing up.
What do you like most about teaching at Moving in the Spirit?
I love the kids. I always leave super fulfilled. I get a lot of energy from the kids and a lot of positive reinforcement that this is what I should be doing when I’m working with them.
What has been your proudest moment as teacher?
Last year’s show at the end of the year. A lot of my students had never danced before, had never been to Moving in the Spirit before, and they were freaking out about having to perform. They said “we cannot do this,” but they did so well! Just seeing them coming out of the performance saying, “Miss Jessica, did you see me?” made me so proud. They were so excited and proud of themselves, and I didn’t have to push them to that, it just happened.
How else have you seen dance affect your students?
I think dance, like any art form, is an escape. Students might come to class and start in one emotional place, whether it’s really good or they’ve had a rough day, and by the end of class there’s always a change in every student. I like the idea of that, that they’re coming in and releasing something and taking on whatever it is. Their whole day can change in just one dance class.
What has been your proudest moment as an artist?
Making the solo work that I did the past couple years. At Emory University I couldn’t do an honors thesis, I wasn’t eligible for it, but I said, “There’s this thing that I really want to do and I’m passionate about it,” so I made an independent project. I’d talk to my professors and they’d say, “We don’t really know what this is, but go ahead do it and we’ll give you feedback,” and it became this huge thing. It reached a lot of people, which I didn’t know I had the power to do.
The piece was called “She Fell But Felt No Fear,” and I started making it in the MARBL library at Emory. Because I did spend so much time in a library digesting these materials and then taking them to the studio and digesting them more, I really started to embody what I was trying to tell. It wasn’t something where I was performing this piece and I had no attachment to it, I really became it. Became this idea of the black struggle and the cultural nuances of being an African American woman, and not even that but just African American period. So it was taking on a lot of history, a lot of different stories and embodying them.
I first performed it at the Inman Park Festival, and then after that I kept working on it and came back for my senior year and performed it at Emory a couple of times. I performed it at the American College Dance Association in Auburn Alabama and the gala there, and then I got to perform it again as its own independent concert where I added on not just the solo, but a group work. Then I performed it again in Italy for the Staibdance Intensive. So it got to travel a lot. I think the best feedback I got about that work was “keep sharing it” because it was so important, so I’m happy I’ve been able to do that almost two years now.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
It was at the American Dance Festival, and this choreographer there said, “Don’t ask what it’s supposed to look like, just be it. Just do it.” So not trying to imitate something, but just actually being whatever you’re trying to portray. That and eat carbs. Carbs are your friend.
I think dance gives you the power to do anything.