Dance professor Livia Vanaver has closed her first class of the semester only a few hours ago, and already the students are sending her emails.
She pauses before opening them. She has no idea what to expect.
This isn’t the first time she’s taught in Columbia University’s graduate theater program, nor the first time she’s taught this particular course in corporal expression, but it is the first time she’s opened the semester the way she did today.
Today, instead of handing out the syllabus, and “getting to work” as she’s done so many years before, she led her students through a three-hour series of exploratory movement exercises, with written reflection in between. At the end of the class, she asked the students to email her with their reflections.
Now, she takes a breath and begins reading what they wrote.
The first student: “Most divine, lovely, freeing experience ever.”
The next: “My body is tingling. I should let my brain take more vacations like this."
Another: “I don’t know what happened, how out of so much happiness I could feel so sad.”
Astounded, Vanaver reads the emails again, and then forwards them onto the person who first introduced her to the power of exercises like these—Aaron Stern, from the Academy for the Love of Learning.
Vanaver first met Stern in 2000, at a conference on education and spirituality. They were both accomplished artists—a dancer and a musician—and both inspired educators, dedicated to helping people of all ages discover themselves through the arts. Vanaver asked Stern if he’d help facilitate a revisioning process for an independent school near her home in the Hudson River Valley. Stern agreed, and over the next several months not only helped the leaders of that school find new purpose and clarity, but also helped Vanaver’s own dance company expand its capacity, and—somewhat spontaneously—ended up sparking and facilitating an initiative that renewed the passion and work of scores of teachers and administrators from the local public schools. (This work continues today as the Academy’s Teacher Renewal Project in Santa Fe, New Mexico.)
Needless to say, Vanaver was impressed. So when Stern mentioned his Leading by Being® course, through which he shared his transformative learning methodology with small groups of individuals, she immediately knew she’d join.
“Something inside me just said ‘Yes,’” she recalls today. “I’ve always had this burning desire to be of service, to make myself as effective as possible in this world.” Having just witnessed Stern helping so many others unlock their full potential, she sensed Leading by Being® could do the same for her.
Not that she wasn’t “being effective” already. By the time she met Stern, Livia and her husband, acclaimed banjo player Bill Vanaver, were founders and directors of an internationally known dance company, the Vanaver Caravan. Focused on exploring folk music and dance across the world, the company had gained attention for its blend of brilliant artistry, intercultural exchange and social justice. Whether on tour in Europe or preparing at home, the company was always reaching out to children, young artists and local communities through classes, workshops and public events.
Not your typical, intensely competitive dance company. But Vanaver wasn’t in it for the prestige.
“I always knew I’d dedicate my life to the arts,” she recalls. “My house was steeped in art. My father was always singing Gilbert & Sullivan, and my mother was a poet. Every Saturday she’d take me for the free art classes at the Metropolitan Museum, and whenever I showed interest in a particular form, she’d find someone to come give classes to me and anyone else on the block.
“The night before she died—I was only 12—she wrote me a letter that said, ‘I’ve tried to nurture every artistic talent you have.’ And it was absolutely true.”
Vanaver gravitated toward dance. She choreographed her first piece at age 9, shone in Fred Berk’s Hebraica Israeli Folk Dance company, and won acceptance to the dance program at the New York University School of Arts, now Tisch. As a sophomore, she launched an innovative multi-cultural dance program called Whole Earth Studies, which brought in guest instructors from different traditions. For her senior project in 1972, she and her husband-to-be, Bill, joined two styles seldom linked—folk and modern—to create their first concert, a wildly successful “Coming Together Festival of Dance and Music” at the Washington Square Methodist Church in Greenwich Village.
Out of that concert was born the Vanaver Caravan, which quickly met with critical success. Over the next few decades, they performed at major festivals across North America, Europe and North Africa; engaged in social justice efforts, including working with the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation to aid the Peace and Reconciliation process in the Balkans, and found an arts and healing program in response to 9-11; and through their Dance Institute, brought high quality music, dance, cultural enrichment—and no small quantity of noisy wooden clogs—into the lives of thousands of their young neighbors at home in the Hudson Valley.
Still, Vanaver longed to go deeper, to know herself better so she could discover new ways to “be of service”. And as she had predicted, Leading by Being® allowed her to do just that.
“The Academy’s Leading by Being® training was such an intense experience,” she says today. “I remember it all clearly, but one moment that stands out was during the module called “Who am I?” Aaron and the other facilitators guided us through this meditative exercise in which we faced a wall for what seemed like hours, completing the statement ‘I am….’ And after running through all my ‘I am’s’—dancer, daughter, wife, teacher, person, human, etc.—I got to this point where I felt like I was everything and everything was me. I had entered into complete fluidity with the universe. My body didn’t exist as an entity unto itself.”
As she made her way through the two-year course, meeting in New York or Santa Fe every few months, she began to find herself staying more fully present when teaching, working more often from her “most genuine part.” She brought some of the movement exercises back to her studio, and began using them to find clarity in the face of difficult decisions. And though it came several years later, Leading by Being® also gave her the tools—and inspiration—to start that recent grad class at Columbia in such a radically different way, and to such profound effect.
“Finding someone out of the dark to trust was terrifying,” wrote one of the students, describing her response to one of Stern’s seminal exercises, a blindfolded activity. “To lose that touch would mean I was deserted, alone. I found myself laughing aloud to dispel that fear of getting caught without touch. But moving together was beautiful.
“I want to thank you for doing this exercise,” wrote another. “When Matthew was letting me free in the middle of the room, I would throw myself forward knowing that no one would be in front; because he would not let me crash into someone else. And all the sudden I felt extremely sad, something in those violin strings made my mood change... I don't know…. Gracias, muchas gracias.”
This March, the Vanaver Caravan celebrated the 40th anniversary of its first concert in Washington Square Park—and Livia marked ten years since she took the time to rediscover herself with Aaron Stern and the Academy for the Love of Learning.
“Leading by Being® not only affirmed that I was on the right path, but showed me these ways to go deeper. It showed me how I could touch somebody else and really see something ignite inside, some knowing, some little transformation.”
To learn more about Livia Vanaver and the internationally-acclaimed Vanaver Caravan, visit www.vanavercaravan.org