In the few moments before the lights went up on her students’ competition number, Lisa Pelliteri of Plumb Performing Arts Center in Arizona held her breath as she watched a potential nightmare unfold: A young dancer placed her center chair well off of its mark, which could throw off spacing for the whole number. Luckily right before the performance, the student caught the mishap and inconspicuously slid the chair into the correct place.
You can spend months perfecting dances, but once your students are onstage, it’s up to them to pull off a clean performance. If they don’t know how to adjust their formations, the whole number will suffer. Fostering spatial awareness isn’t an easy task, but it can become as embedded in your dancers’ reflexes as the choreography itself.
Map It Out
Melinda Farrell, assistant choreographer to the Radio City Rockettes and teacher at the troupe’s summer intensive, says the key to getting dancers to retain precise formations is by layering them into the rehearsal process. She has the Rockettes master the choreography before she places them in spots. This way, the group can perfect timing and body positioning, since slight differences will make the dancers appear out of place. “If someone is a hair early or a hair late, it flaws the formation,” says Farrell.
Others may find it easier to assign spots before diving into teaching the choreography. Susan Jones, ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre, draws an aerial view of each formation with Xs and Os (similar to football blocking). Then, the dancers learn choreography in their positions. She says it helps them understand the direction and distance they’ll need to cover.
After the dance has been mapped out, both Farrell and Jones solidify transitions. The Rockettes walk the whole routine, formation to formation, without executing any steps. The floor is marked with numbers across the front and back for width and horizontal color lines to indicate depth, helping them prepare for the stage. “Walking it makes it clear if there will be traffic or timing problems,” says Farrell. Jones says that if her students’ transitions are mismatched or awkward, she has them partner up temporarily by standing close together. Then they can feel each other and practice breathing in the same tempo.
The mirror is a fantastic rehearsal tool, but it can become a distraction if dancers rehearse with it too long. Finding the right moment to take the mirror away—and spending significant rehearsal time without it—is essential. Pelliteri usually begins by having dancers face the mirrored side of the studio and turns them away as soon as they’re comfortable with the choreography. “If they work off the mirror in the beginning, they begin to feel each other and the bodies next to them,” she says. “They actually start to memorize that feeling, so when they’re onstage, they are more aware of their relationships to one another.”
Developing a student’s intuitive sense of spacing takes time. “I see it really starting to gel with them somewhere between ages 9 and 12,” says Pelliteri. Their minds and bodies have to be able to concentrate on multiple details during performance. And they must truly understand the idea of teamwork. Still, there are tricks to help clean routines. Sometimes, the choreography will allow a dancer to peek out of his or her peripheral vision. Note these moments to your dancers to make their glances efficient and less distracting to the audience. For example, the Rockettes use the principle they call “guiding right.” Each dancer checks the alignment with the girl two spots to the right so that she doesn’t have to worry about what is happening on her left.
In the end, repetition, simplicity and specificity allow dancers the freedom to reach beyond the precision and perform. It’s about building awareness of the team as a cohesive unit, as well as fueling the instinctual ability to fix problems—vital elements to nailing the routines on a new and unpredictable stage. “That’s what we’re going for in the rehearsal process—to get it into your body enough that you’re not overthinking it,” says Farrell. “Plus, we want the audience and the dancers to enjoy themselves.” DT
The Cheat Sheet
Tips on tackling tricky formations:
Straight lines: When closely spaced, have students use the Rockette rule, guiding right. This allows them to see if they’re aligned with the person two spots to their right.
Kick lines: These often suffer if a dancer is weak. Rockettes assistant choreographer Melinda Farrell says core and back strengthening exercises will keep students from pulling on the others around them.
Circles: Students can focus on and follow the dancer in front of them to stay aware of spacing and curvature. Practice with tape marks at the front, back and sides of the circle to help indicate its outer edge.
Diagonals: Susan Jones, ABT ballet mistress, waits to set specifics until the company gets onstage, since the space greatly affects the line. She assigns body parts that dancers should align themselves to. For instance, she may ask a dancer to place her right shoulder in line with the next downstage girl’s spine.
Irregular formations: Football-play Xs and Os can be especially helpful here. In the end, the only solution is repetition.
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston. She is currently a Calderwood Fellow in writing at Emerson College.
Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre