Seen & Heard at the Dance Teacher Summit
To her fans, Mandy Moore is a pioneer of contemporary dance. But the “So You Think You Can Dance” choreographer doesn’t think her work belongs under that heading, and she’s not sure anyone knows what does. She says the popularity of dance on TV has created bad habits among dancers when it comes to the trendy but nebulous genre. Between commitments on the convention and competition circuit and her latest gig—creating opening numbers on “Dancing with the Stars”—the outspoken DT Summit faculty member spoke about the contemporary style conundrum and how to create meaningful dance, no matter what you label it.
Dance Teacher: What style best describes your work on “So You Think You Can Dance”?
Mandy Moore: Most of what I do on that show is lyrical. We could debate contemporary versus lyrical, but I was taught lyrical was a mix between ballet and jazz. It has jazz principles—the shapes, the quick direction changes—with beautiful ballet lines. When contemporary came, it was this mixture of shapes that couldn’t really be jazz and weren’t ballet. It became an umbrella for everything you can’t define.
So many people don’t understand what’s going on with contemporary, and rightfully so. We don’t even know, and we’re the people doing it! I feel like a lot of teachers get so confused, thinking, “What am I doing with my kids? Are we just doing a new version of lyrical and calling it contemporary?”
DT: Whatever we call it, what’s the harm in imitating the style?
MM: When people don’t have knowledge about something, they go to what’s easiest. Just because it’s easier to stand in parallel with no muscles engaged and flop your arms around in the air doesn’t mean that’s dance.
Dancers are hypermobile in their hips because of what they see on YouTube and TV—they think dance is about throwing your leg up in the air. They’re soft in their cores because there’s a lack of traditional jazz technique. They don’t have texture or a grounded feeling in their bodies. It feels surface-y, like they’re ice-skating.
DT: How can teachers end this trend?
MM: Kids think emoting is floppy anger dancing. I’ve done that, and I understand why it would feel good. But as teachers, we need to explain that’s just one piece of the pie. There are so many other ways to move. And if students could learn to move from a place that’s connected in their centers, when they did movement like that it would have a whole new meaning.
DT: As a competition judge, how do you suggest a teacher create a so-called contemporary number that’s evocative without being “floppy anger dancing”?
MM: Think about what you are saying, and what I [the judge] am supposed to get from the number. If you pick a song that means something to you, why would you put a random fouetté section in the middle of it? Why have your dancers flopping to their knees doing something you saw on “So You Think You Can Dance” last week when there’s nothing that supports it musically or story
wise? I’m up for all of it as long as it’s done with tact, integrity and knowledge.
DT: But aren’t tricks required to score well in competition?
MM: I get it. You’re like, “I have to put 55 things in a number.” That happens on “So You Think” all the time. Our producers tell us we have to put in more tricks, so I try to find the best, most authentic way to do it, because I’ll feel like an idiot choreographer if I don’t at least give it a transition or a build. I’m often asked to do these ’80s love ballads on “So You Think,” so usually there’s a great build in the music. I try to match it and give [the trick] a good in and a good out, so it doesn’t feel like, “Abort the mission. Stop dancing and do a trick.” It’s a challenge to transition into and out of something spectacular. It takes a lot of thought.
Photos from top: courtesy of Break the Floor Productions; by Adam Rose/FOX