I am mentoring students in choreography workshops at the Universidad Espiritu Santo for three weeks. The classes are design to explore the choreographic process using exercises to help students develop their own choreographic voices.

 

The university students are most accustomed to the rigors of Cuban Ballet methodology, and many of my exercises seem foreign to them. We discussed that it’s because unlike ballet, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to choreography. In ballet class, it’s easy to tell if a pirouette is off-balance or turned in, but critiquing a peer’s work or assessing your own process is so free, and sometimes scary. So, I usually give my students a prompt for each exercise or improvisation (though I do give them complete freedom within the set confines).

 

After three days of 4-hour sessions, I felt my dancers were ready to tackle their first major assignment: to create a solo performed to a poem of their choice. I was surprised in my students’ broad range of selected poetry—they found works both in English and Spanish, written by poets including Edgar Allen Poe, Pablo Neruda and Bob Dylan.

 

Here is the breakdown of the assignment:

1.     Choose a poem that holds personal meaning.

2.     Underline specific words or phrases that will act as movement accents. (During performance, these underlined words or phrases will also serve as audio and choreographic landmarks, as a classmate will read the poem aloud.)

3.     Transform the poem into a rhythmic composition by adding pauses in the form of ticks or vertical lines either between words or stanzas. These pauses can be used for dramatic effect, or to add time for longer movement phrases. For example, one line might look like this: Gone //// far away // into the silent // land //

4.     Working with a group, introduce and read each poem—first as originally written and secondly as your own composition with pauses and rests. (Notice that when the poem is read with students’ rhythmic interpretations it takes on a more emotional and personal feel.)

5.     Now the dancing: Layer movement over the poem using the composed pauses, also paying special attention to the underlined words or stanzas that initially stood out.

6.     Show and share—perform one solo at a time then discuss and critique.

 

Introducing and teaching rhythm can seem easy, but in reality it can prove to be a complicated concept—especially for younger dancers to grasp. At Ballet Hispánico's School of Dance in New York City, Los Explorers for 3- to 5-year-olds uses classic salsa and tango music to help kids acquire rhythmic awareness.

Here Rebecca Tsivkin, early childhood programs associate, and Kiri Avelar, associate school director, offer exercises to help youngsters feel the beat.

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Dance Buzz
Panelists (left to right): Emily Nusbaum, Eric Kupers, Judith Smith, Deborah Karp and Suzanna Curtis. Photo by Aiano Nakagawa, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

This past Saturday, I visited Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley, California, to attend the Dance & Disability Discourse & Panel—a discussion with five artists, educators and researchers about access and equity for disabled students in dance education. Here are three statements from the discussion that I found eye-opening.

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How-To
Todd Rosenlieb, left, of The Governor's School for the Arts. Photo by Victor Frailing, courtesy of Todd Rosenlieb

You're setting choreography on your class and most of the students are picking it up. One dancer, though, is having difficulty remembering the steps. You review the material several times, but you fear that this is starting to hold back your more advanced students. Still, you're worried the struggling dancer will be left behind. What is the best way to proceed?

Memorizing choreography is an essential skill for dancers. Fast learners have more time to work on the technique and artistry within a combination, and they are often the first to catch the eyes of directors. Like most skills, learning pace can be improved. Encouraging students to develop their own memorization methods will help them approach choreography with confidence.

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Dancer Health
Neuromuscular expert Deborah Vogel with Jordan Lazan, right. Photo by Jim Lafferty

By strengthening the intrinsic muscles of the foot and ankle, a dancer can help prevent or correct existing pronation. Having strong intrinsic foot muscles keeps the arches aligned, preventing them from dropping inward.

Here, Vogel shares three strengthening exercises to help correct and prevent pronation. She advises dancers to include these in their cross-training regimen.

Mobilize your ankles. (Step 1)

For this ankle mobilization exercise, having a TheraBand wrapped around your ankles puts pressure on your feet to pronate. By resisting that action and keeping your feet centered through the relevé, you're essentially training the ankle where center is.

  • Sitting up straight in a chair, with your feet planted on the floor a few inches apart, tie a TheraBand in a loop around your ankles. You can place a yoga block vertically in between your knees to maintain space between your legs.

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How-To
Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts

Ellen Robbins' modern dance classes for kids and teens are legendary in New York City. Robbins, who has been teaching kids how to dance since the 1970s (and whose pupils included the actresses Claire Danes and Julia Stiles), takes the standard recital model and turns it on its head. Her students—ranging in age from 8 to 18—are the choreographers for the annual concert she produces at esteemed NYC venue New York Live Arts.

If that approach sounds borderline insane to you (we know you're all deep in the throes of recital season right now), consider Robbins' unique teaching philosophy: Improvisation is present in every aspect of class, for every age group. Here are four ways she shapes her youngest dancers into choreographers—almost without their realizing it!

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Teachers & Role Models
Former students of Kelley gather around a cardboard cutout made in his honor at the recent tribute. Photo courtesy of Merritt

Every dancer has a teacher who makes an impression. The kind of impression that makes you want to become a dancer or a teacher in the first place. For Mara Merritt, owner of Merritt Dance Center in Schenectady, NY, and countless others, that teacher was Charles Kelley.

Known as "Chuck" to most, Kelley was born December 4, 1936. He was a master teacher in tap, jazz and acrobatics, who wrote syllabuses for national dance conventions like Dance Masters of America. Growing up in upstate New York, Merritt's parents, both dance teachers, took her into Manhattan every Friday to study with Kelley. First at the old Ed Sullivan Theater and the New York Center of Dance in Times Square, then years later at Broadway Dance Center.

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