Talking With Artists Who Teach: Katenia Keller
Katenia (pronounced Ka-teena) is a dancer, choreographer, visual artist, and arts educator based in the Belfast area. She has been a teaching artist with Maine Alliance for Arts Education’s Building Community through the Arts program since 2007. Katenia speaks to MAAE Executive Director Dana Legawiec about her experiences as a teaching artist and the importance of the program’s legacy.
How do you define your creative practice? How does it intersect with your teaching?
I realized a few years ago that I’m always teaching the same thing: it all comes down to consciousness, to exploring dualities, and finding balance between opposing forces. The tarot card project was about my own consciousness but that’s what I’m teaching too – the Self and the Collective – how we’re all connected, and our every action affects everything in the web. I think as humans we often stay in the mind and it’s really good to get into the body. The dance work is another way to embody our emotions and to process our feelings. We become disconnected to the fact that we are all part of an ecological whole. All the species are important. We all have a masculine side and we all have a feminine side and it’s bringing those into balance. Walking that fine line between doing and being. It’s OK to just simply be…just being in this amazing miracle of life is so important. Paying attention to it. Finding the balance of living on this earth and using what we need, honoring her with respect as opposed to mining it. In everything I create, I feel like I’m trying to learn this as I teach it.
I’m really struck by the notion that as a teaching artist, you are very much engaged in inquiry, instead of teaching technique. I love how this interior work of exploring consciousness and finding balance has a corollary in how we relate to the earth. These are on the one hand simple concepts and yet so incredibly deep.
How do these values show up in your Building Community through the Arts classroom?
I think they come through in different ways. I’m always aware that there might be a moment where I can share something more deeply with the class than the themes of the story, but I also feel like the focus of this program – building community – is the same thing: I just believe in letting every student know that they are an important part of the whole. No one’s going to be left out, we’re all going to come together and work together and create something together, and your idea is just as important as my idea or someone else’s idea. We are opening these doors to creativity and to perception, to a different perspective.
Can you think of a moment where something shifted for you or for a student and you appreciated “arts education” or “arts IN education” in a new light?
I’ll start with the fireflies. Some background: I’d bought this little cottage by the water and loved it and felt so blessed until I became aware of chemical spraying in the neighborhood. The land, air, and water around me felt toxic and I decided to sell my cottage. So I was in Bangor working with the very last group of students that I taught. We were working with the novel Into the Wild. It was near the end of the residency, and we had to put the whole piece together. They chose a song about dancing with fireflies. It was a sweet song and they loved it. I’m watching them move to this music about fireflies – it’s the culmination of everything we’ve been talking about – and I just got teary. When they finished the run through, I shared with them that I’d just had to sell my home because of the toxins sprayed on the grass. I said ‘here you are dancing with these fireflies and it gives me hope for the future.’ Suddenly there was this collective insight. I could watch their heads turn and look at their teacher like is this true? and their teacher said ‘yeah, you know when you spray the lawn it’s not just killing mosquitoes’ and then they look back at me like it was something they had never thought of. For me, it felt like change is going to come out of this. It was just one of those moments where it felt like some essential truths came together.
I can imagine being there in the room with you and that moment of the students’ collective realization, their heads turning, the movement like the wind across the grass. I wonder how they’re being part of that creative experience, moving to the music, impacted their learning? Maybe they’d heard about toxins being bad for the environment in science class, or on the news, and it’s just words. By facilitating the experience of moving all together with the music, you’d created an environment where that information could impact them more deeply.
When did you set out upon your path as an artist?
When I was in ninth grade my class had an opportunity to go see a production from the North Carolina School of the Arts. We were there for two hours and it changed my life. It was a regional play, based on this old English ballad, The Ballad of Barbara Allen, but set in the Smoky Mountains. I’d been studying dance since I was a little kid, but to see all these very talented young people who were students there was amazing for me. It was a play, but they also danced, and they also sang. I just feel like it was a moment where something opened in me. The lighting, the costumes, the choreography, every piece of it was part of one unified vision. I just hope that somehow my work with students opens a door for someone, they may see a path for themselves that they hadn’t known was available.
Yes, which is why the work of teaching artists in Maine is so critically important, especially in rural or remote areas where students might not get a professional company to come into their school. The impact of these experiences isn’t immediately measurable.
I worked with a dance program brought up from New York City up into the wilds of Maine near Kingfield for twenty-some years. The teacher would come in with the class and everybody participated – it wasn’t like you had to be an ‘artist’ to participate. We would have like 200 kids in our performance. What I noticed was that there were kids who were leaders in dance class, sometimes the teacher would later come up to me and say ‘wow you know they really struggle to pay attention in our class, I’m really surprised to see them as the leader in this piece.’ Their whole identity had an opportunity to change. There was something they didn’t even know they could excel at.
Yes, and now the teacher sees this student in a new light, which also shapes the student’s identity. Students can have discoveries within themselves, but once a teacher or parent or community member also begins to view the child differently, that can be incredibly powerful.
Katenia, you draw from such a deep pool of experience and artistry and creativity in your work. Your students get to dip into that well just for a couple of weeks but it’s so potent.
It is potent, yes. The students don’t know anything about me really, but they feel something from it for sure. Trust, you know, is a huge thing – that they trust me enough to open up, to take those chances.
How you work to build that trust in a classroom is a topic for a whole other conversation! Thank you, Katenia!
To learn more about Katenia and her work, including her stunning tarot decks, visit www.kateniakeller.com.