As 19 dancers bent their torsos, swung their arms and flexed their feet in a Howard Community College dance studio, Sarah Nachbauer of the MOMIX dance troupe encouraged them to throw themselves into the movements.
"If you don't almost fall, you aren't doing it right," she said.
Her fellow instructor for the master class, Rob Laqui, told them that when dancers test the control of their bodies, "It's infinitely more watchable. I'd rather fall than be safe."
Nachbauer and Laqui performed with their company Wednesday night as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts and led the workshop that morning.
With an hour and a half to guide the participants through some steps, the two said they do not have time to focus on building the dancers' technique. Instead, they try to open their minds and bodies to new ideas.
"It's an opportunity for a different kind of movement than they are used to," said Nachbauer, 27, of Pittsfield, Mass.
Laqui, of Brooklyn, N.Y., added: "It's the idea that there is life outside the technique ... that technique needs to be used toward something. It also gives them an idea of what we do."
Based in Washington, Conn., MOMIX describes itself on its Web site as a company of dancer-illusionists that "conjure up a world of surrealistic images using props, light, shadow, humor and the human body." The group was founded in the early 1980s by Moses Pendleton, who was a founding member of Pilobolus Dance Theatre.
During the master class, Nachbauer and Laqui led the dancers through several series of movements in place before getting them to work on "traveling" in turns and leaps across the dance floor.
Nachbauer told them to think about how they were moving - whether it was precise or aggressive or energetic - and said, "I want you to make a choice to do it the opposite of how you are doing it."
At the end, the two showed the class some of the movements they use in a piece called "bugs." During a performance, the dancers are visible only in silhouette, crouching, scurrying, hopping and kicking in insectlike ways.
"Think about the shape you are making," Nachbauer said. "You are trying to perfect the shape and then to move."
The local dancers tried out the bug moves - such as hopping across the floor while crouched down and holding their ankles or tipping to one side with their knees on the ground and tapping their feet together. They also experimented with a few moves of their own, which drew applause and laughter from the instructors.
The MOMIX troupe often creates its works through experimenting, improvising and trying new things in rehearsals until the best ideas are chosen. Nachbauer said it is exciting to lead sessions with more traditional or structured dance classes and "see them open up who they are and accept something they don't necessarily like. That's really brave."
Laqui added that the technical skills still are important. "The technique allows you to be specific in your expression. If you have a vocabulary of technique, you have a greater capacity for expression."
Maggie Kudirka, 16, of Ellicott City has a background in ballet but has recently been studying modern dance. She said the master class was interesting because of "how they look at the body."
"They are interested in movement, in how the muscles move, where the movement comes from in the body," said Anneke Collins of Columbia.
Collins, 18, has studied modern dance among other styles. She took part in a Festival of the Arts-sponsored workshop two years ago in which she learned classical, hip-hop, jazz and breakdancing moves to appear onstage with the group Nebellen.
She said that with any master class "you just want experiences." This time, she said, "I liked it. They are really funny. ... and I sweated. That's a good sign."
Danielle Ragaglia, 25, of Towson did not get tickets to the MOMIX show, which sold out, but she said she was excited to take part in the workshop because she saw the troupe perform in New York, and "it was the most amazing show I've ever seen, hands down. Every piece is unique that they do. ... I'm interested in learning new ways of moving."
The Columbia Festival of the Arts concludes with the Second City comedy troupe tonight and Squonk Opera presents "Columbia: The Opera" tomorrow. Information and tickets: www.columbiafestival.org.