Written by Craig Schreiner | Photos by Craig Schreiner
In WHY I TEACH, Piper Morgan Hayes, a lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, talks about dance, life and always wanting to do better, to be better and to do more.
Hayes teaches Tap I and II, Jazz I and II, Contemporary Dance, Ballet, and two sections of World of the Arts. Her lesson preparations are meticulous. She practices and refines until her mind and muscles remember. As Hayes rehearses movements for class, spontaneous words come forth — choreography, answers to questions and joy.
Her disclaimer to students in her jazz class: “I love this music so much that I might have trouble teaching it.”
The students smile and know that she’ll teach it as well as it can be taught. Hayes said she came to UW-Whitewater in 2015 as an emergency hire and stayed, a natural fit with dance faculty who reach for another level in teaching, choreographing, performing and growing alongside their students.
“I want to make each class the best class for the student — each and every time. I never want boredom in my classes. When a student is struggling with a movement idea and conquers that movement idea, I can literally see their body fill with joy, confidence and strength to take on risks. It feels good when students say their dance course is the best part of their day. I always remind students that I am also human — I don’t have all the answers — and that “mastery” of a certain job or skill is purposeless. In my eyes, dance and life are about evolution and the attempt to continually keep trying hard. Where are your limits?”
“I began dancing in the fourth grade. It consumed my life up until high school graduation. I didn’t have anyone in my life who danced professionally, but it was a natural path for me after high school. I was inspired by the rare performances I saw such as the MOMIX dance company that performed “Lunar Sea” at the Young Auditorium many years ago and Cirque du Soleil. Fortunately, or unfortunately in some circumstances, I have an INSANE sense of drive and passion for the things I enjoy and am committed to inside my life. I am literally never quite satisfied with work and life — I always want to do better, be better, do more.”
“In the art world, you try to make the best choices you can. I pursued a MFA to be able to teach on more platforms and to share my art with those in my social teaching sphere — it is also a great way to make connections with professional dancers, artists and choreographers inside the world of academia. As I look forward, the sense of being able to teach students of all different levels and backgrounds is eye-opening.”
On a warm day in fall 2020, Hayes reviewed concepts of time, space and feeling with her students in a group composition class on the Lawcon tennis courts along Prairie Street on the UW-Whitewater.
“My goal as a human, an artist and an educator is to keep current and keep evolving the ideas and concepts I present to students. In my dance courses, I give assignments asking students to explore how racism, inequalities and gender-based disparities were present in dance history. I do not shy away from talking about racism, sexism or cultural appropriation in my classes. Art is a beautiful attribute to all our lives, but art should not be exclusionary. All should be welcome, recognized and able to share their thoughts, feelings and personal truths.
“In my WOTA sections,” she said, referring to the campus term for the World of the Arts class she teaches, “I talk about current events and how they relate to art such as All Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, racism, native African dance forms, cultural appropriation, the early absences of women in art creation/history, gender fluidity and even underground dance. In all of my students, my hope is to develop a sense of comprehension and appreciation for people and concepts that may not be or look like oneself.”
“The students I teach are a mix of dance minors and students who are pursuing vastly different majors and minors on campus who have always wanted to get back into dance or start fresh. Some students come with a long history of studying dance and others have never stepped foot inside a dance studio space before. I try to start from the basics and progress in technique, movement capability, spatial awareness and the development of one’s character and essence in dance. Often, I ask, ‘How is this movement new to you TODAY? What are you choosing to let go of today? What/who is your character today? Set your intention for this class right here, right now.’ Dance is about exposure, embracing what you witness and would like to change, finding correct body placement, musicality, improvisation, but also letting go. It’s where one can truly find who they are. The most intelligent people I’ve ever come across are artists. Period.”
WHY I TEACH is a series about the dedicated professionals at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, including professors, coaches, advisors and other staff members, who make every day a teachable moment — and every place a learning place — by their expertise and example.