Grad Student Spotlight: Natasha McCandless Fosters Emotional Wellness for Students by Bridging Somatics and Psychology

Published February 10, 2023

Natasha McCandless.

Natasha McCandless photo by Emily Vallario

Second year graduate student Natasha McCandless earned a BA in Theatre (Dance Concentration) and a BS in Secondary Education (English Concentration) from Penn State University in 2017. After graduating Summa Cum Laude, she moved to New York City, where she continued to train, create, and perform. Notably, McCandless created a curated performance series on her Brooklyn rooftop in order to showcase new work called Rooftop Stories. A desire to further pursue personal pedagogy and choreography practices led her to UB, where she is thrilled to serve as a Teaching Assistant in the MFA Dance cohort for Associate Professor Anne Burnidge’s Introduction to Laban Movement Analysis.

McCandless juggles many interests and projects. During her first year she performed in faculty and thesis work, choreographed for the MFA Dance Showcase and an informal ChoreoLab showing, as well as helped direct it with Clinical Assistant Professor Jenna Zavrel. She also served as the choreographer for the department’s production of Twelfth Night.

Most recently Natasha was one of two graduate choreographers, with Samantha Schmeer, for THD’s fall 2022 Emerging Choreographers Showcase (ESC), alongside seven undergraduate choreographers. At the time of this interview, ECS was a week away from opening.

“I have a cast of four dancers for my piece,” McCandless said. “We’re working with a prop, drawing tissues out of tissue boxes, so the piece will end with the stage covered in tissues, which is really exciting for us! Some crew member’s going to have to sweep them all up after (laughs)!”

“The title is Made of Water, and the piece explores finding joy through, and in the process of, healing,” she continued. “Exploring the idea that, even though there’s no end line to one’s journey, there’s always more growth and healing. We’re drawn back to memories, good and bad, that keep resurfacing, so how do we build communities of support and find lightheartedness and joy in the trenches of process of growth of healing?”

McCandless gives much weight to choreograph process. “The dancers and I have done some work to track what the tissues mean throughout the piece, though I’m open to the audience interpreting and making their own associations,” she said. “They’re used in a couple of different ways throughout. Last week I asked the dancers to do a little exercise-I likened it to a voice lesson in which a teachers says, ‘Speak your song as a monologue’-so they could really think about what they’re saying (via movement).

“Everyone hates doing it but it’s a helpful pedagogical tool and exercise. I told the dancers it might not be the most fun, but let’s walk through the piece and really think about the emotive intent in our rehearsal process and in their performance.  I had strong ideas coming in, but I’m very aware as a choreographer (who is not performing in the work) that I’m not living inside the container of this world. I’m building and constructing it, so I was curious to hear how the dancers were experiencing the emotional arc.

Natasha head shot.

Headshot by Corinne Louie

“I’m becoming very process-oriented as a choreographer and think a lot about choreography as a form of pedagogy, of teaching, especially in this type of setting working with undergraduate students. How can I help coach intention as a part of that process? How is it informed by the world we’re living in, the story we’re telling, and their experience within that framework? I want to allow for individuality and creativity within collaborative environment.”

Two of McCandless’s other recent works are similar in tone and theme. She created Albatross for last fall’s MFA Showcase. The work is meditative, performed with a soundtrack initially consisting of what sounds like wind and waves, moving to a minor bass and guitar figure, and finally crashing open with an aggressive, rock guitar section by Iron Maiden before returning once more to a wavelike drone.

McCandless’s program notes indicate the piece was inspired by excerpts of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” exploring themes of community, discord, death, and rebirth: "He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away / The Albatross's blood."

Albatross, by Natasha McCandless

We Call to Hearth and Hall is a quiet work which McCandless created for the informal ChoreoLab showing last fall, as noted. Like Albatross, the mysterious soundtrack establishes a pensive mood and the work takes time to unfold.

“The choreography I’ve done at UB has been inspired by literature,” McCandless said. “Hearth and Hall was based on Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is one of my favorite works. Both were also heavily inspired by sound. Albatross was initially inspired by the Iron Maiden song ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,’ which ended up in the piece as an instrumental. The music led me to Tolkien’s text and I circled back. A pattern for me has become finding inspiration from text and sound and pulling on these thematic ideas. So even if there isn’t an A to B to C narrative, I’m pulling on emotive, narrative content.”

The contemplative aspect to much of McCandless’s work gives the viewer more space to reflect on what’s experienced in real time. “Hearth and Hall is similar in that I started from a cover of the song ‘Misty Mountain’ from the Hobbit movie and was inspired to return to ideas from the text. Regarding pacing and duration, I’ve realized a sense of world-building is important. I used environmental sounds to put both the performers and the audience in a specific space. The swaying at the start of Albatross allows both to settle into and enter this world together; we discover what it’s like before we move into it.”

We Call to Hearth and Hall, by Natasha McCandless, Choreographer

In a very different vein, McCandless will co-choreograph this spring’s production of Cinderella with Clinical Assistant Professor James Beaudry. “I’m so looking forward to it. One of my goals (post-graduation) is that I would love to be someone who choreographs and also performs in both the dance and theater worlds. Getting to work with (Clinical Assistant Professor) Danielle Rosvally on Twelfth Night was a highlight of my first year. I also got to perform in Cabaret with Second Generation Theatre this summer, and that was such a great opportunity to wear my performer hat too.”

As an undergraduate double major at Penn State, McCandless worked towards both a BA in Dance and BS in Secondary Education, which includes a full semester of student teaching. “I’m a certified teacher in Pennsylvania for English Language Arts and Communication for grades seven to 12,” she said, “so even though I’ve stepped away from the K–12 education setting, the degree is important because I can see how it’s shaped my dance pedagogy.

“I graduated knowing I wanted to go back for a graduate degree, and the opportunity was right to come to Buffalo. I’ve always gravitated towards teaching. Some people in higher education are primarily interested in research and producing other types of knowledge, but for me the love of teaching and knowledge is central.”

McCandless is interested in fostering emotional wellness for dance students using strategies bridging somatics and psychology. She’s pursuing a secondary emphasis in Educational Psychology to support her research.

Natasha McCandless in "Cabaret".

In Cabaret, June 2022, Second Generation Theatre. Photo by Mark Duggan

“I want to combine my interest in pedagogy with experiences to ask, as a teacher, what are the best practices to foster emotional wellness? Going beyond not harming our students, a lot has been done to move away from some of the more stringent authoritative models of teaching. How do we as teachers not just help students to become good dancers but to be resilient and healthy and successful people in the world?

“Cartesian dualism proposes that the mind and the body are separate, and the mind has hierarchical control over the body, but somatics works to reintegrate the two through awareness, re-connectivity and refocusing on breath,” she said. “I drew a lot of knowledge from Professor Burnidge’s mind-body integration course last fall.

“I came to this idea from some training experiences I had when I lived in New York City (after graduation from Penn State) which made me question how we treat dance students. For example, asking people to push through physical pain.

“I was in a private lesson doing a big fan kick and I tweaked something in my hamstring that was very painful and the teacher’s response was, ‘Push through, do it again.’ I was trying to listen to my body to say ‘Something’s not right,’ but the teacher’s response was (opposite).

"What are the emotional ramifications of something like that and what do we learn?” she asked. “Do we learn that pain should be ignored and pushed through and how does that affect our interactions with the rest of the world? Training with this person for two years, I needed to walk away. The timing worked out that I was shifting my focus to graduate applications anyway. It was a natural endpoint.

The dance film as we come to it, with fellow graduate student Meg Kirchoff, is more contemplative than Magnetic Melodies. As an outdoor piece set in a park, nature is the setting and in some sense the theme. Moving softly in the grass, stepping lightly upon a wooden bridge across a stream, getting in literal and figurative touch with the ground itself. To feel the air and light breeze, the sensation of earth, remembering it as our sacred home.

QUARANtime, by Natasha McCandless

“Another graduate course that deeply influenced my thinking was with Dr. Michele Shanahan, in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology that was about the psychology of learning and instruction. I realized that there are a number of theories that do consider the body integrated with the mind, like Embodied Cognition or even Alfred Bandura’s Reciprocal Determinism. What can I pull from that into the dance classroom, and also from somatics, to focus on reintegrating the mind and body?

“This is still a work in progress (laughs), but I had a study approved by the IRB (Institutional Review Board) last year. Even though I wasn’t running it yet, last spring I taught an Open Jazz course and incorporated a mindfulness practice at the beginning of every class. Students were asked to self-describe their levels of feelings of anxiousness before and after an exercise.

“Every class started with the students lying in constructive rest and I talked them through bringing awareness to their breath. We usually did a simple body scan, and sometimes I gave them something to think about in terms of what they’re grateful for, something they wanted to keep in mind during class today, setting an intention.

“You can add specific questions to your teacher evaluation at the end of the semester, so I asked students about the mindfulness practice. It was really interesting that a great majority–something like ninety percent of the students–had a positive experience and saw personal results.

“I’ve thinking about how some of these ideas might integrate in my last year of teaching, as a form of pedagogy, and choreographing a thesis project, whereas I think that a lot of my written research will have to do with how I’m implementing teaching techniques in choreography rehearsals.

Natasha McCandless in Meg Kirchhoff's thesis piece, Spring 2022.

McCandless in Meg Kirchhoff's thesis piece, Spring 2022. Photos by Ryan Nappi, pictured with Anna Caison Boyd

“We run our public educational system at large as a very dualist model where students sit in chairs and learn in their head. Maybe they’re writing things down, which is an embodied experience, but overarchingly, we still have this very separated, dualistic system that’s built on a factory model.

“When we think of pre-school teachers, students have sensory tables, and they’re getting up and moving, but even when you shift to kindergarten there’s this sense of ‘Okay, now they need to learn how to be in school.’ This is how you behave: you sit very still and disassociate, and you learn up here (points to head). There is knowledge and scholarship on including the body in the classroom and fields of embodied pedagogy, but I’m curious how that then integrates into a larger scale practice rather than just individual teachers implementing it.

“Professor Chanon Judson will be serving as my thesis advisor next year. I’m excited about her expertise and choreographic methodology. I don’t know what my choreography will be yet, but it will again focus on storytelling and world-building. My research writing will probably center on the pedagogical practices of the rehearsal process and what I’m intentionally implementing from these strategies, and how is that then received by the participants–the students and dancers in the work.”

Regarding her post-graduation hopes, McCandless said, “I would really like to be a faculty member at a university in a dance department. Teaching is central to what I’m interested in doing and having the opportunity to teach both in the classroom and through rehearsal and choreographic process. That sense of mentorship helps me fulfill my creative itch, and I see it as a parallel track to provide a different type of opportunity for mentorship and teaching of undergraduate students.

“I ground myself in knowledge and love for both concert dance and theater, so as a dance faculty member I would love to choreograph for dance concerts and musicals, which I’m trying to execute here too. I would like to continue to hone my own instrument.”