The New Guy

Posted on January 15, 2009 by

Unlike most female dancers, many male dancers start dance training late—and still go on to have successful performance careers. Well-known professionals such as Broadway choreographer Robert Ashford and Merce Cunningham, for example, started dancing seriously only in college. Nevertheless, learning the fundamentals of dance at a later age can be an uphill battle, and it’s important for teachers to understand the challenges newbie males face in their first-ever dance classes. Here are some ways to make them feel as comfortable as possible so they can realize their potential sooner.

Develop Basic Technique

No matter how quickly they pick up choreography, all men should be placed in a level-one dance class if they’ve never done a plié before. “If you accelerate a student too fast, errors and holes in the technique begin to appear,” says Tom Ralabate, associate professor of dance at University at Buffalo in New York. “I think in American dance training, we tend to move male dancers way too fast and get them into doing advanced choreography before they are ready. I think something very valuable about the process is lost when we do this.”

Even with a truly gifted male dancer, be careful that the challenges you offer are “appropriate to ensure proper development and an injury-free environment,” says Ralabate, who suggests coordination exercises for male students to find continuity between different parts of their bodies and to feel comfortable moving through space. “Exercises dealing with alignment, posture and placement will help them learn valuable rules about the body to achieve movement success,” he says. “They get a sense of both outward and kinesthetic, or inner, movement flow.”

If your program only offers mixed-level classes, use the knowledge of your more experienced students to make them feel important while at the same time providing newcomers with individual instruction. Debby Stringham, an adjunct dance professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, has her advanced female tappers help out the beginning guys in class. “I may teach the time step and say, ‘Okay, let’s take a two-minute break, and those who are familiar with the step help somebody else in class who is learning it for the first time,’” she says. “I keep them engaged by using their skills to help somebody else.”

Build on Past Experiences
While it’s important to help male students build a strong foundation in dance technique, it’s also wise to encourage their natural movement inclinations. Nancy Kane, a lecturer at State University of New York, Cortland, has new students fill out a questionnaire that asks what kind of movement experience they have. “If they come with a martial arts background, for instance, they may have a certain quality of movement that I can call on in class,” she says. “That increases their self-esteem and recognizes that they have something to bring to the program, which makes them more comfortable and confident going forward in dance and solidifies their relationship to it for the rest of their lives.”

Stringham has a similar philosophy and, in the past, has even used sports equipment to bridge the familiar and unfamiliar in a creative modern class with a lot of newcomer males. “They were athletes, and they felt really uncomfortable being there,” she says. “I realized that I needed to find different ways for them to relate to the class. Dance was a foreign language to them but they were comfortable with sports, so I brought in a bunch of basketballs. I asked them to find creative ways of using them, other than shooting hoops.”

Include Improv
Beyond harnessing the power of past movement experience, encourage male students’ own way of moving from the get-go. “Let them explore and experience the joy of movement through combination work and improvisational exercises,” says Ralabate, who incorporates an improvisational component into all of his technique classes. “Often I will teach a jazz adage with many technical elements, but will find a natural break in the exercise for dancers to improv with different guidelines. Even progressions across the floor can combine structured improv elements.”

Stringham also finds value in encouraging creativity. She recalls one student in an African dance class who was struggling with technique, but blew her away when it came to an end-of-class project in which groups of students created dances and performed them for the class. “I remember that he was a turtle, and when he was doing his own movement I just about started crying,” she says. “He had the most beautiful way of moving. I realized then that there’s more there than just what I’m trying to teach them. Some of it is finding a way to help them connect to what is beautiful about the way they express themselves.”

Be Patient and Flexible

Treating novice males with as much respect as you would a more experienced student may seem like an easy goal, but it can take a surprising amount of forethought. Before entering the classroom, pledge to yourself to answer all questions without being condescending. “That would defeat the purpose and make them think that dance is something they cannot achieve or something they are put off by,” says Kane.

Don’t shy away from humor. “There are some funny things that you can work into every class,” says Stringham, who says things like, “Use your other left foot,” as often as possible. “Not taking yourself too seriously and even making fun of yourself are important so people can relax. I think sometimes males feel like they don’t want to look foolish, so I try to find ways to let them know that we’re going to try to laugh and have fun instead of judging one another.”

Outside of movement-related difficulties, realize that getting guys to feel comfortable wearing tight-fitting clothes in class will most likely be a progression. The most important thing is to get them hooked on dance, rather than force them to adhere to a strict dress code right away. Ralabate has beginner male students take other forms of dance, such as tap, jazz or modern, in addition to ballet. Stringham has gone as far as letting students wear baseball caps in ballroom classes. “At first I thought, ‘Are they being rude?’ but then I realized the cap gave them an extra bit of security so they didn’t feel so exposed,” she says.

Provide Role Models
Dance looks different on male bodies, and sometimes, depending on the genre (ballroom and ballet), the role of male dancers is significantly different from the females’. It’s therefore important for them to have role models. “It gives them confidence to see another man who’s doing it and looks good while, at the same time, exuding masculinity,” says Stringham. If there are no male teachers on staff, find another way to introduce your boys to male dancers. Watching videos of iconic male performers is one strategy, but nothing beats live performances. “Having them view other men expressing movement makes more of an impact,” says Ralabate. “Also, it is helpful if beginner classes with guys are scheduled next to more advanced classes with guys. This gives the newbies a chance to view more proficient male dancers.”

It’s important for novices to watch the pros not only for inspiration, but also to understand that being a male dancer doesn’t mean that all of their movement has to be done at full throttle. “I have to help them dial it back,” admits Kane. “They will get so intense and push things so hard, I have to say, ‘You know what, you really need to be able to breathe through this and look for shadings in your movement. Don’t just go full blast. The more punching, percussive movement is not always the way to get better at the dance.’”

Nurturing the ego of a male dancer new to the artform, while at the same time helping him find where he fits within the spectrum of dance, can be challenging. “The more sensitive a teacher can be to students’ needs and who they are and what they naturally need to express, the better,” says Stringham. “When men enter the dance studio there is a fragile balance between their desire to do well and their fear of making a mistake or looking foolish. You have to be a bit of a psychologist and find ways to let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes and encourage them to be themselves. If you’re not dancing from your own self-expression, then a vital part is missing. If you can get people to connect to that expressiveness, the self-consciousness falls away.”

Sara Jarrett is a writer in New York City.

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