The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Hero's Journey

Hero's Journey

Finding what's missing.

For as long as I can remember I have had an interest in education. I think it began when I was thrust into a one week tap dance intensive with Savion Glover. I was 10 years old. Savion did not teach the way I was used to. Not even close. I had been taught in a traditional private-sector dance school for 6 years prior. Not even my general schooling prepared me for Savion’s approach. Even though I attended magnet schools and was involved in accelerated programs, the informality of Savion’s teaching style was jarring, then exhilarating, then all I wanted.

Savion was only 17 years old when I first began working with him. He taught the way he had been taught. Informally, in the manner apprentices learn from masters. He was learning from the masters of the craft, and was now teaching in the same manner. Show, explore, then practice. Demonstrate the goal. See who gets what of it on the first pass. Explore what is required knowledge for further understanding. Run as many passes as necessary until the student is able to replicate the goal within degrees of variability. Nothing in this world is as precise as we might think. In this process information is unveiled on a need-to-know basis. Things were broken down for the sake of correction and replication. If the student got it on the first pass, new goals were set, and the process began again. There was no linear curriculum per se. There was exploration of ideas, new examples of expressing the craft, and discovery of creative choice within the context of the tradition of the craft.

Each attained goal was reason to celebrate, in a very real way. Each goal was an inch of territory conquered in Tap Dance Land. It was an inch of growth in the journey of formation. Most of it was personal. For me, it wasn’t until I was 21 years old, and working with Savion again, in the short-lived company TiDii (pronounced Tie-Dye), that group formation became a topic of conversation. Thinking through how we danced together was as important as how we danced as individuals.

Having now been a tap dance educator for more than half of my life – going on 26 years – I consider the group dynamic just as important as what is going on with the individual. The balance is tenuous. In Tap Dance Land each individual requires a particular amount of skill to play. However, that skill is sharpened by, even pressed into service for, the group dynamic. That is, the way the members of the group relate to each other as expressed in the dancing.

Did you that you can hear when members of a tap dance group don’t care about each other? Did you know that apathy is as audible as assurance, care, anger, or joy? If the dancers are honest, their tone will express their heart. As much as technical skill can mask things, the connection between emotion and body is inescapable. Having this sensitivity, it isn’t a wonder that focused on group dynamics in most of my teaching.

Focusing on group dynamics is like swimming upstream in a culture that is steeped in individualistic thinking. Even work happening at the cutting edge of education abdicates responsibility around group formation. Consider the example of Zach Lahn’s new school, Wonder. Based on the Acton Academy model, the school uses the story structure of the Hero’s Journey as the narrative for each individual student. Every student is the hero in their life journey. In the context of school, this journey includes the challenges of learning skills, solving problems, and achieving particular goals. By all accounts this is a wonderful way to contextualize learning, and the learning outcomes that Acton and Wonder share are impressive. I just can’t help thinking that something is missing.

Heroes are individual people and the hero’s journey is focused on the individual. Frankly, there is only so much an individual can do before requiring relationship, both from the formation standpoint and that of impact. To grow one must recognize how they are in relationship with others. To consider impact, we must be considering how what we do affects others within our reach. Even those ideas are focused on the self, which is not in itself a bad thing. It is just incomplete.

Imagine for a moment a group of individuals committed to a certain goal, say running a business together. Consider the choices they may make within their own lives on account of this goal. Imagine, again, that part of their journey was a conversation not only around the what (which is significant), but also the how. Imagine the how covering the business logistics and the relational dynamic among the group. Imagine that the commitment to each other, is what spilled over into the business, as opposed to the other way around. Imagine that the group’s relational dynamic is what spilled over into the business/client relationships.

There are important questions about what needs to happen for such a formative group to even begin to exist. There are important questions about what needs to happen when a group like this decides to form. There are so many questions. In a culture with momentum in the opposite direction of group formation, the first question might be, “Who might you bring with you?” More on that in tomorrow’s Asking the Question.

I don’t deny that each of us are all on our own hero’s journey. We all have our own stuff. We have our dreams, our challenges, our successes and failures. Even those who seem larger than life are still human, just like us. The scale or image of what we see may be different, but not the reality of life. The Hero’s Journey is a real thing and that is one of the reasons it is such a pervasive part of the canon of (at least western) literature. And still, I wonder what life might be like if my own individual journey was couched in a communal context – not just for the sake of finding the guides, resources, or initial thrust of my journey. Rather for the sake of imagining an entirely new kind of life.

Allow me to offer a vision. In the world of spiritual formation, the idea of spirit addresses the inner energy that animates any particular action. The spirit within a person dictates the direction of the action. Not in a right and left kind of way, but rather a good or evil kind of way. Within this context, that accepts the idea of good and evil, and accepts the idea of inner energy or spirits that animate life in particular directions there would be spirits of good and spirits of evil. By logical extension then, there must be a spirit that is completely good, even perfect. This may be called the Holy Spirit – even the Spirit of God. Meanwhile spirits that animate evil may be called demonic – with Satan being the complete embodiment of such things.

Now for a moment, imagine a community of people for whom every member was animated by the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine a group of people being animated by a common spirit? Can you imagine how they would relate to each other? Can you imagine what kinds of actions would flow from the Spirit which they all shared? The Book of Acts, in the Christian Bible, recounts the earliest such communities to be documented in which everyone in the community was animated by the Holy Spirit. If you haven’t read that book, it is worth considering.

Admittedly, this vision may be beyond our imagination right now. It may sound utopian, or unrealistic. We may be so used to the examples of a common spirit being shared among people within the context of evil – think about destructive mobs – that we can’t get our mind around something that is common and good. But why shouldn’t a shared experience of a common spirit of goodness be within reach? Even one of the Holy Spirit? I don’t accept the idea that it simply isn’t possible, or maybe for someone else, but not for me. No, this is for you. It is for us. It takes effort, and is possible. Not just for one hero, but for entire groups of people, contending for a way, energized by a particular spirit, working towards a vision like none other.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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