Teaching artist Jessica Scudder is an alumna of Moving in the Spirit, where she started dancing when she was 12 years old. Currently, she is Parent Liaison at Moving in the Spirit and serves on the Alumni Committee.
We sat down with Jessica to talk about her lifelong love for dance, born of growing up in “old Atlanta,” how she learned to see dancers as athletes, and her heart for mentoring teens.
How did you become a dancer?
I feel like I’ve always been a dancer; it wasn’t about becoming a dancer. I’ve always loved dance. I grew up in old Atlanta, and when my older sister would want to go places, my mom would tell her she couldn’t go unless she took me with her. I ended up in some places that I probably should not have been as a little girl, but when she would go to these house parties and things, they would dance, popular dances like the “Get Out,” “Ragtop,” and “Bankhead Bounce” and all those things that are so Atlanta. I was always interested in it and enthralled by it. It was always something that I did. So, I didn’t have to become a dancer; I always was a dancer.
I think that my most fundamental shift as a dancer happened in high school with Nicky Buggs. Ms. Nicky’s was the first class where I understood the discipline part of dance. I had been part of Moving in the Spirit for a long time and understood the fundamental parts about how you can use dance as a tool for real life experiences, but didn’t grasp the actual discipline of it, things like classroom etiquette, for example. I learned that you don’t not work hard to avoid an injury, just as in football, you don’t not tackle the person that’s running the ball because you’re afraid to hurt yourself; you do what you need to do to get it done. Then on the back end you take care of yourself, you hydrate, you ice, you soak, you wrap, you do whatever it is you need to do. The discipline of that really changed the way I viewed dance. I never viewed it as a sport, and I never saw myself as an athlete until I started taking with Ms. Nicky.
Why do you teach?
For one thing, I like working with teenagers, in particular. I feel like kids today, in a lot of places, are not viewed as people, or as humans; they’re “teenagers.” The expectation is that they are rude and not respectful. So many people have negative views of this generation, so part of the reason I teach, in general, is because I am entrusted with these children; whoever the guardians or parents are, trust me with their child. And so, if they trust me with their child, my role makes a difference. I loved math and then I had a terrible math teacher in 10th grade, and now I hate math. So, I feel like the role of a teacher can change the trajectory of a child. It’s my responsibility to present multiple paths to children, but teenagers, in particular, to present them with multiple paths, multiple opportunities, multiple ways of thinking, so that they can become better people.
I think that I also offer them validation. One of the best lessons I’ve ever learned, as a teacher, was to ask the kids what they wished adults or authority figures in their lives understood about them as teenagers. One of the responses that I got that really changed the way that I view my son, other people’s children, other children in my life outside of my teaching job, is, “I wish that my mom could see that my problems are important to me the way her problems are important to her and I wish that she wouldn’t minimize it.” That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned and it really changed how I even approach teaching. I even feel like it made me a better teacher because while I always felt like their opinions mattered, it led me to dig even deeper with them, to figure out why they felt a certain way or why is their opinion was so strong about a particular topic, even if I might not understand whatever the trend is. It led me to really think about and be intentional about how I draw other things out of them and helped me to become more relatable and find relevance in even the smallest things that they are going through. Even if it’s “just a boy” or “just a friend” or “my mom ruined my favorite shirt in the laundry,” those things matter to them.
What is your proudest/most exciting moment as a teacher?
My proudest moment was when all of my seniors in the 14-15 AC touring company graduated high school and went to college and not necessarily because I had so much to do with them going to college; they all had really good parents and support systems. I was proud because they all felt like I had something to do with it. In my mind, I hadn’t really done anything special outside of my job description other than just be a safe place to talk about things that had nothing to do with our relationship as student and teacher. The feedback that I got was that even though some of them felt like their parents were pushing them to go to college, after talking to me they felt like it may be something that they really wanted to do.
What is your proudest/most exciting moment as an artist?
My most exciting moment was working with the alumni and specifically with Tenesia (Moving in the Spirit alumna and former teaching artist) on Conqueror and recreating that piece to set it on us. It was one of those times where everything in that song was so relevant to what was going on in all of our lives in some way, shape, form or capacity. That piece really was therapy and I feel like that was one of the first works where I actually understood whole “art imitating life” thing; it just clicked. Even though I was aware of it, had always been a pretty good performer, that was one of the first times, outside of dancing in church, where there was something spiritual about it.
Do you have a teaching philosophy?
My philosophy as a teacher is always to meet the student where they are and validate whatever that is. I think that applies to life as well. If you desire something from a person and you want it to be healthy and you want it to be authentic, then you have to meet them where they are in order to get it. You can have standards, and with my students, I have standards: You will work hard, you will do your best. Your best may not be 100% today, it may be 30%, but whatever your best is at that moment is what you will give me.
In order for me to set expectations for them as individuals, I have to get to know them and they have to be willing to let me get to know them. In order for them to open up and allow me to push them, I have to help them understand that I am safe and that I’m never going to purposely do anything to them that is detrimental or hurtful. So, I have to meet them where they are. I have to challenge myself in a way where I don’t alienate them or alienate their feelings.
So, my philosophy is: Meet them where they are, allow them the space to get to know and trust me, then push.
What do you like most about teaching at Moving in the Spirit?
I love having the opportunity to create a space for these kids to develop the types of relationships that I was able to develop at Moving in the Spirit. I think that is by far my favorite part of teaching here because of how the classes are set up and the emotional competency part of it: teaching these kids how, not only to communicate negative feelings, but also how to validate themselves and those feelings, then offer that validation to other people in their lives. I just love being able to give them tools that they will truly be able to apply in real life situations and teach them the importance of doing that in a healthy way.
Jessica is the lead teacher for the Apprentice Corporation, our advanced teen performance company. Learn more about Jessica in her bio.