Meet Hania (Hanna) Szymczak. From being a Fulbright Fellow in Germany (from 2016-2017) to traveling the world (she’s been to 50 countries!) to organizing an international virtual residency from a rented basement room in Wroclaw, Poland (where she can literally touch the ceiling with her foot), Szymczak is a force to be reckoned with. Her rare blend of ambition and out-of-the-box thinking has allowed her to pursue her own dreams while empowering countless others to be the best version of themselves. Dance Informa had the chance to catch up with her to discuss how she got to where she is today, her most recent project – Choreography Days 2020 – and her big plans for the future.
Tell us your dance origin story.
“As a kid, in addition to intense music training and participating in Theater Club at my Polish school, I danced once a week, and depending on the country we were living in at the time, the genre of that dance class changed – Latin American pair dancing, hip hop, you name it. In one of those classes, I had a teacher who led us through improvisation, meditation and somatic practices, which at the time I thought was pretty weird. In retrospect, I’m like, ‘Oh, that woman was probably into contemporary dance!’
When I was in high school, my parents decided to move our family to America, and I was angry. I thought to myself, ‘If we’re moving here, then I want jazz.’ Needless to say, I started taking jazz, as well as lyrical, swing and even beginner tap with kids half my size. I was still only dancing about once a week, and planned to go to college and major in theater.
Unfortunately, my parents vetoed that plan, and I enrolled at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, as a math education major. After a year-and-a-half, I knew I couldn’t be a teacher. I just wasn’t passionate about it. So, armed with a good old math minor, in addition to completing a German Language and Culture major, I created (after getting the go-ahead from four separate departments) and executed my own composite major: Leadership and Performing Arts.
While pursuing this major, Steven Iannacone, my composition professor within the dance department, convinced me that despite my lacking technique, I had something to offer to the dance world. I will never forget the night I performed in a student piece, and I hardcore bobbled while I was supposed to be holding a long arabesque. Mortified, I went up to Steven after the show and apologized because he was the comp teacher. He said it wasn’t my fault, and that it’s the choreographer’s job to accommodate the dancers’ body and make them look good on stage. I was bewildered, and this revelation, along with the practical composition toolbox I developed in his class, cracked open the world of choreography for me. I still have my composition notebooks on hand whenever I’m creating. Even if I don’t open them that day, knowing my notes are there for support gives me the confidence I need to make bold, creative choices.
The Hope College Dance Department supported me when I was a nobody. The faculty saw that I had lots of gusto, and that even though I was a little rough around the edges, there was something special there. I am forever grateful for the department for giving me a safe space to get out of my head and into my body. To get out of my own way.
After graduating from Hope, I earned a Masters in Performing Public Space from Fontys University in the Netherlands. Now, I am constantly looking for ways to pay it forward. Whether it be as a university faculty member or a guest teaching artist, I am currently on the hunt for opportunities to provide functional dance training and be a knowledge source that empowers people to think creatively.”
How did you get the idea for Choreography Days? Was it inspired by anything specifically?
“Like most big ideas, the idea for Choreography Days came from a problem of sorts: how can I further my choreographic practice while simultaneously creating a space for others to do the same? In my masters program, which I finished up shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic began, we talked a lot about cyberspace as an example of performing a space into being. As a way to literally create a space. This thought process mixed with what one of my professors at Hope, Linda Graham, once told me — ‘If you want to be a good choreographer, start by making a dance a day.’ — and Choreography Days was born. I sent out an open call for participants, and things took off from there.”
For those who don’t know, what exactly is Choreography Days?
“Choreography Days is a virtual residency in which each participant creates a new movement phrase based on a provided prompt every day for 20 days. It is a space to practice the act of making choreographic decisions resulting in set choreography or a set movement score by the end of each day. A space to try, fail, to practice and to not be perfect. To learn more, feel free to join the CD2020 Facebook Group. Be sure to indicate that you are joining as an ‘audience member’ when sending the request to join!”
What kinds of tasks were the participants given? Can you share some of the prompts?
“Here are some snippets from a few of them:
Day 7 — Co-choreography: Expanding your vocabulary by putting someone else’s body into your body.
Task: Choose someone else’s choreography posted in the group. First, learn their choreography. Next, create either: 1. A continuation of it (meaning, make their choreography longer) or 2. An ‘A’ version (a variation of the original piece, closely based on the original, but with some changes). Be sure to tag your ‘co-choreographer’ in your post!
Day 11 — Tapping into your subconscious genius: Learning one’s own improvised movement.
Task: 1. Record yourself improvising for one song. Don’t plan anything beforehand, except for figuring out which of the musical options for today you would like to use. 2. Next, proceed to use your recording to learn your improvisation, or your favorite section of it (minimum of 15 seconds). 3. Record yourself again once you’ve learned it! 4. Post both videos in the group — the improvisation and the memorized version of the improvisation. They should look as similar as possible.
Day 13 — Secret life: Who am I when I’m not choreographing, and how can that enrich my choreographic practice?
Task: In the name of consciously practicing the act of ‘living into’ this complex integrality of your uniqueness, today’s task is inspired by ‘who else you are’ in addition to being a choreographer. Reach for, celebrate, recognize and appreciate the sum of the wealth of knowledge, skill, fascinations and wisdom that you, your mind and your body collectively have. How can you reframe it as integral rather than as separate parts of who you are? Think about yourself as a whole, bound up into one beautiful human being. How can you create choreography that takes advantage of more than just your ‘dance’ or ‘choreography’ knowledge? What can your choreographic practice gain from your other practices?
We also had ~mignolo dance~, a New Jersey-based professional contemporary company, provide a prompt for us:
Day 11 — From English to ‘Movenglish’
Task: Your task is to translate this quote into a movement phrase: ‘Each art has its own rules and different forms, nothing more. All art consists of the same content — a human being expressing himself. The difference is only in the form; the content is all the same.’ When translating, the only requirement is that you assign one movement to each word, and every time that word repeats, you use the same movement. For example, if I shrug my shoulders for the word ‘the’, every time the word ‘the’ comes up, I have to shrug my shoulders. Things to think about when translating: meaning, relation between words, part of speech, connotation, number of syllables/sound and difficulty of word. When videoing your choreography, either speak the words as you do the movements out loud or record yourself speaking the words and dance to the recording. This way, we can be absolutely sure which movements go with which words.”
That sounds intense for both the participants and you as the founder and director. Did you have any help running the program? Who else was involved?
“Jazlyn Ruiz was such a great assistant that I upgraded her title mid-residency from Assistant Social Media Manager to Assistant Communication Manager. I really can’t thank her enough!
We also licensed the work of several musicians who responded to our open call: Felix Herbst (USA), Alina Kashitsyna (Ukraine), Jon Fuller (USA), André Perim (Brazil), Marin Esteban (France), Jens Jongepier (Norway), Lena Kilina (Russia), Matt Bogdanowicz (Poland/Canada), Sara Page (UK), Maaike Haverals (Netherlands), Christian Forester (USA), Daniil Posazhennikov (Russia) and Tomás Brantmayer (Chile).”
What is your ultimate dream for Choreography Days? Will it be an annual event? If so, do you anticipate the model changing at all for next year?
“Yes, Choreography Days will be an annual event, or possibly happen even more often! One thing that may change is the length. A shorter residency period might be more functional, but that decision will be made based on participants’ survey responses. In the future, there will also likely be a (reasonable) fee to participate.
The ultimate dream is an in-person residency that complements the online expression, where a set of choreographers come together for several weeks and take turns choreographing on one another. One of my most significant choreographic struggles is that I lack access to dancers, and I know I’m not alone in that.”
By Charly Santagado of Dance Informa.