Murphy Award: Carol Cunningham-Sigman

April 22, 2015  


Five exceptional teachers have been selected as recipients of the 2015 Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award in Memory of Charles B. Murphy. This week, Purdue Today will feature Q&As on each of the recipients. This Q&A focuses on Carol Cunningham-Sigman, professor and Division of Dance chair.

Years at Purdue: 31

Teaching interests: Somatic modalities integrated with contemporary modern dance techniques for example, the Bartenieff Fundamentals, Laban Movement Analysis and experiential anatomy; interactive choreography as it relates to electronic time-based media, real-time motion capture technology, computer animation and virtual reality. 

Carol Cunningham-Sigman

Carol Cunningham-Sigman, 2015 Murphy Award recipient and professor and Division of Dance chair. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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Goals as a professor: I have a passion for teaching dance as a form of embodied awareness and understanding as well as a form of communication and aesthetic expression. In each class I teach I strive to inspire, enliven and connect with students as I share my love and joy of the dance discipline.

A constant through-line in my classroom is to help each student physically develop the movement potential of their own unique body structure and to discover their personal expressive "voice" as a dancer and choreographer. By teaching dance movements from a functional anatomical approach, students are able to explore classical dance technique with ease, also preventing injury to their body. By integrating movement improvisation into the lessons, the students relax and do not worry about getting it "right." They can work and take chances without being judged. When students feel less pressure, they tend to explore and play, inventing unique and expressive movement ideas.

I feel it is important to help students find connections between the dance discipline and their academic major such as theater, visual art, dance therapy, dance history, dance education and computer graphics.

It is my hope that students leave the creative environment of the dance studio with a spark that helps them find new ways of solving problems and expressing themselves with confidence in front of others. My ultimate goal as an instructor is to help my students discover the artist within themselves through the power of dance.

On how her approach to teaching has changed over the course of 31 years at Purdue: As a faculty member at Purdue, I have always continued to take professional classes in modern dance to keep my body in good performance condition and to learn the latest contemporary movement skills and philosophies so I can provide the highest-quality experience to my students. When I began teaching, I taught more of a classical codified movement language based on historic styles such as Martha Graham Technique. Now my class methods include more self-exploratory exercises and the dance phrases are built on a biomechanical natural movement "release" style.

Also, in the past I began dance class in an arrangement where students stood facing the studio mirror as I addressed their body balance and placement. Now I begin class by having my students lie down on the floor in a constructive rest position, and I lead a brief meditation so I can direct the students out of their overly busy and distracted minds back into their bodies. After doing this, I find that the class is prepared to fully engage in learning dance through self-discovery rather than copying my movement or trying to compare themselves with other dancers in the studio.

The most important lesson Cunningham-Sigman want students to take away: I hope that my students will learn that it is important to be yourself because no one else can. To understand that you are the best version of you and that the more you try to be someone else, the more you blend into the walls. All of the great dance innovators such as Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan and Merce Cunningham changed dance because they were original. This idea of valuing your own uniqueness can be applied to all disciplines of study outside of the studio. I also hope my students will be inspired to participate in community dance classes after they graduate from Purdue because dance is a lifelong practice for well-being.

Cunningham-Sigman's teaching inspiration: While I was in grad school at the University of Illinois, Professor Mary Price Boday, a professional dancer, inspired me to teach. She modeled the ideals of a professional teacher because she breathed dance in and out like oxygen, immersed herself in dance and was compelled to share this fascination of dance with all of her students.

Professor Boday was sensitive to the needs of her dance students, regardless of their ability or innate talent. She would find the best way to challenge every student to do their best work in class. I felt she believed in me, encouraged me, cheered my successes, and helped me understand and correct my mistakes. Because I felt her respect for my work, she could push and lead me to the next level of accomplishment. I appreciate how she could connect with her students' human feelings with warmth instead of teaching dance in a command-type military style where students do as told to do. I model my classes after hers in many ways even though I am not teaching students to be professional dancers.

On her colleagues and students in the Patti & Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts: The experience and knowledge of my colleagues in the Patti & Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts has been a great inspiration for sustaining a dynamic, creative and productive dance program at Purdue. It is the students, however, who inspire me to work so hard every day.

What her students say: Carol is an ideal instructor. Not only does she instruct, but she participates in her own instruction, which allows her to understand the questions the students may have and address them before we even get the chance to. … She's very enthusiastic. Carol genuinely engages students in developing a better sense of their self and how to focus on being a stronger dancer physically and mentally. This was my first time having her as an instructor, and I loved it. She doesn't just focus on having the right positions and perfectly pointed feet but instead on really dancing and feeling the music. Loved it! 

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