When it comes to physicality, dancers are athletes. Watch a New York Knicks game, for example, and you'll see the Knicks City Dancers work just as hard as the basketball players. Their routines are packed with energy and intensity. Plus, they continue performing on the sidelines, with little time to rest.
A new year calls for a new approach to your training. As you make your resolutions for 2018, think about the corrections you hear most often. Now is the perfect time to address these issues and set realistic goals to fix them. Not sure what to tackle first? These seven resolutions master teachers wish you'd make will help you start the year off on the right foot.
Marnie Wood (center) encourages her students at the Martha Graham School to establish their identities from an early age. Photo by Brigid Pierce, courtesy of the Martha Graham School
When Martha Graham taught class at the American Dance Festival in the 1950s, she often gave an exercise with contractions and releases—but no counts. "Instead, she would have students imagine they were sand diviners trying to foresee the future," says Marnie Wood, director emerita of the Martha Graham School and co-founder of the University of California, Berkeley, dance program. "She asked them to reach out as if they were trying to find answers, come up with nothing and reach out again." Graham used imagery to inspire movement and encouraged dancers to draw from personal experiences. This method, she believed, helped dancers find their own language.
Dana Genshaft has only one rule for budding choreographers at San Francisco Ballet School: No cartwheels or splits allowed. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet School
Ask a 5-year-old to make up a dance, and she'll probably skip around the room, impulsively moving to the music. But give the same assignment to a teenage dancer, and the student might clam up, unsure what to do. Even mature dancers can feel reluctant to create something new, especially if they've never tried their hand at choreography. "I wasn't exposed to the art of making dances until I was in college," says Lauren Giordano Curran, faculty at Gus Giordano Dance School in Chicago. "I felt self-conscious because I had never had that experience."
It's easy to overlook the vital practice of helping dancers develop their creative voices, when so much of dance training tends to focus on technique and repertory. But teachers can introduce the art of making dances in age-appropriate ways, giving students the tools they need to choreograph and the confidence to do it.
One of Nicole Belanger's reliable fixes for a mixed-level class is the buddy system. Photo by Caitlin Hargett, courtesy of Gus Giordano Dance School
Teen jazz class at Chicago's Gus Giordano Dance School, under the direction of Amy Giordano, has a wide range of students. "Some just started dancing a month ago, and others have been dancing for three years," says Nicole Belanger, dance education director. To maintain a positive environment, Belanger pairs older kids with less experienced ones. "It builds a bond," she says. "Then they're all open to taking corrections and working toward their goals, rather than comparing themselves to the next person."
Teaching a mixed-level class isn't ideal, but sometimes a shortage of space or faculty prompts consolidation. Workshops and open recreational classes may also attract diverse groups in terms of age, level and ability. If the class moves too slowly, advanced dancers might lose interest. If it progresses too quickly, the beginners feel lost. Structuring a multilevel class can be a challenge, but there are some surprising advantages if you manage it right.
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.
William Whitener held countless auditions when he directed The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, and he himself learned from legendary choreographers Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse about what it takes to make it on Broadway. Now he coaches ballet students on these skills when he guest teaches around the country. "Auditions require a certain amount of strategy," says Whitener. He holds mock auditions and discusses all aspects of the process—registration, class and even how to make a professional exit. "Practicing for this kind of performance works better than telling dancers what they should do," he says. "They need to actually do it."