A Radical Shift for Young Dancers
The Art & Science of the Plié at UArts Philadelphia with Shannon Murphy
It’s impossible not to smile when you talk to Shannon Murphy. She has an effervescent personality and an inimitable passion for what she does – and what she does is dance. An Adjunct Professor, Franklin Method Educator, choreographer and dance artist in her own right, Shannon lives and breathes dancing.
We talked just a couple of weeks after she completed a ground-breaking first for herself and the Franklin Method: Shannon taught 17 students the Art & Science of the Plié Franklin Method teacher training as part of their course work at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
This is not only the first time Franklin Method teaching training has been included as a fully accredited university curriculum module, the class – which Shannon partly developed herself – also provided students with full certification to teach their own workshops and classes right away: “I think it gives them a real leg up. They get credit for taking this course with me and then complete it with a certification. It will definitely generate something for them, whether it’s a reduced injury rate and longevity in their career or helping them get that next teaching job because they’re already a certified Franklin Method teacher,” explains Shannon.
But quite apart from what her course means for her students’ careers, Shannon is most passionate about how it can make them better dancers. Though focusing on just one position may seem very specialized to a layperson, Shannon breaks down why the plié is so vital for the nuts and bolts of all types of dance: “The plié is like vegetable stock – it’s in everything! It’s foundational in other forms than just ballet. Think about classical Indian dance – Bharatanatyam – everything is in that low plié and starting to find rhythm. Think about flamenco – everything is in that plié. Think about different African dance forms – it’s all about that deep plié. So although we might not always call it a plié, it’s definitely foundational. So if you’re dancing, it’s going to help.”
Shannon took Eric Franklin’s existing workshop The Art of the Plié and expanded it into a 15-week course for her UArts students. This included three hours a week of classes as well as 10 hours of peer-based teacher training. Her mixed class comprised students with different dance backgrounds and levels of experience, and this is one factor that Shannon believes made it so successful: “I had everybody from graduating seniors to first-year students in that group of 17. Seniors were helping first years, first years were teaching seniors. I loved that. And now the first years are going forward with this embodied knowledge – and I wonder how that will change their experience of training at school.”
“When you learn how to hear what’s going on in your body while you’re dancing and you learn how to work with it and develop imagery that supports it, a lot of the wear and tear starts to fall away.”
The feedback Shannon received from her students was extraordinary, and she saw noticeable changes in the way her class approached their dance practice after a few weeks of her embodiment class: “When they’re given a new set of tools to help them along the way, they show up inside practice with all kinds of clarity, ideas and imagery. They’re there for it. They’re so deeply invested in it. And I can see it seep into their other classes and creative practice.”
Game-changing tools for dancers
Shannon sees the Franklin Method as a perfect match for anyone who takes their dance practice seriously. She should know – Franklin Method fundamentally changed the way she thought about dance: “I would say the norm in dancing is a highly physicalized practice, usually based on aesthetics. As in: this is the way a passé looks. So that’s how you do it. I watch you and I repeat. But what I was missing was someone asking: do you know how your passé feels when it’s correct?”
“I think the Franklin Method challenges the notion of what it means to be a teacher. I love this sense of exploring together and the student-centered approach – that reciprocity is really important to me as an educator.”
This radical shift in thinking encapsulates the essence of embodiment in dance: “As soon as I learned how to visualize my hip joint, I could then start recalling the feeling of ease, range of motion, control, dynamics and that feels different than if I just push my knee as far to the side as possible. And that was a huge shift. I’m still doing a passé, but now I understand that I’ve found my passé.”
Passing on these ideas and techniques to young students was something of a dream come true for Shannon. She believes Franklin Method can effect fundamental change in dancers’ minds – towards something altogether healthier: “I think it’s a radical shift to have a young dancer – before they do a piece of choreography – say let me feel it first. Let my body say yes to it. Let my body figure this out. And now let me come and be an artist with you. There was this old way of being an ‘empty vessel’. Just do what you’re told. Let someone else tell you what you thought. But as a dancer, I’m not here to just repeat the exact same thing – I’m here to have a full-bodied experience with dancing.”
“When you learn how to hear what’s going on in your body while you’re dancing and you learn how to work with it and develop imagery that supports it, a lot of the wear and tear starts to fall away,” explains Shannon, speaking from experience of her own struggles with injury. Franklin Method has helped her keep her own injuries at bay and she’s keen to pass on these tools to her students before they get into difficulty in their young careers.
Injury is common in dance
Shannon is quick to stress the dangers of the “no pain, no gain” attitude in dancing – something that is still being taught today. However, she believes that awareness of this issue is currently shifting and young students appear hungry for techniques that allow them to feel better in their dance practice. The Franklin Method fits the bill perfectly in this regard.
“In dance, you hear a lot of silly things like ‘you only get one set of knees’! These tropes get said over and over again because there’s some truth to them. There’s so much injury in dance. But what if I have better imagery skills? What if I know just a little more about the way ligaments support my movement? What if I can imagine dancing from the tone of my organs? What happens then? Are those tropes still true?!”
Speaking from experience
“The Franklin Method saved my career. I was riddled with injuries by the time I met Eric, but his techniques have helped me keep dancing. I’m now 37 and I’m still dancing,” she explains with smile. The meeting she’s describing came all the way back in 2006 when Eric was teaching a class at a dance conference in the US. Shannon was immediately struck by the way Eric’s techniques made her feel about her dance practice, and before long she was in Franklin Method teacher training.
Now an Adjunct Professor at Stockton University as well as an Assistant Adjunct Professor and co-Curricular Head of Body Pathways at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Shannon has lost none of her passion for the Franklin Method over the years: “I think the Franklin Method challenges the notion of what it means to be a teacher. I love this sense of exploring together and the student-centered approach – that reciprocity is really important to me as an educator. And if you jump into Level 1, you’ll be certified to teach, but you will also have a transformational experience for yourself.”
Teaching in the age of COVID
One notable challenge for Shannon in teaching her new course was overcoming the hurdle of remote teaching. So how was it to teach a dance embodiment class via webcam? “It was cool trying to figure out ways to overcome that. Using 3D imaging online was one of the things that I liked to do. There are a couple of really cool programs that show the 3D anatomy of bones moving in space.”
Shannon believes that the Franklin Method is also well suited to breaking the ice digitally with its more light-hearted and hands-on approach: “Franklin Method lends itself really well to not taking itself so serious all the time. So when we were learning the knee, I asked everybody to bring a cup to class – and the students were rolling their cups around and experiencing rotational movement on an axis. So we played with props in a way that could bring it to life, even though we weren’t in the room together. So I actually think Franklin Method does very well online.”
“I actually found our class to be very energizing during this time. I’m a body person – I’m usually in a room sweating with people all day, every day, so it’s really strange to be by myself. But there’s something about Franklin Method that brings us to feel our bodies in this special way. And you can really feel you’re not doing it alone. It’s another way of feeling like we’re dancing together and training together – even though we’re all in our living rooms and kitchens at home.”
The first of many
After the roaring success of her first Art & Science of the Plié teacher training in fall, Shannon is doing it all again this semester with another group of eager UArts students. But luckily for us, she is also a key member of our Level 1 teaching and mentor team – another good reason to take your first step to becoming a Franklin Method Educator this year, learn from inspiring teachers like Shannon and follow in her graceful footsteps. And if you’re lucky, she might even share one or two of her plié secrets with you…
Shannon Murphy is dance artist and educator living in Philadelphia, USA. Shannon has studied with Eric Franklin for nearly 15 years and was one of his first English-speaking Franklin Method Faculty members. She specializes in Franklin Method for dancers, teaching workshops to professionals and guesting at many University dance programs. As a dance artist, Shannon has been working intimately with a group of collaborators for the last 4 years. Due to the pandemic, they are working to develop the notion of asynchronous performances through a year-long bi-monthly zine series exploring labor, care, and decolonization. Find out more at www.shannonmurphydance.com
If you’d like to follow in Shannon’s footsteps as a Franklin Method Educator, then our Level 1 Online course is a great place to start: