Teaching Tips

How to Teach Dancers the Art of Moving in Unison

At CPYB, students learn from an early age the importance of strong corps work. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of CPYB

Dancers at the University of Arizona recently performed Jerome Robbins' Antique Epigraphs, an ensemble piece for eight women that requires intricate linear formations and walking in unison. "It was super-challenging for us," says dance professor Melissa Lowe. "Students needed a heightened sense of awareness, or it wasn't going to happen." Lowe asked dancers to use their intuition and aural sensibilities to help determine where they needed to be, when they should be there and how to get to those places—together.

Teaching dancers to work in unison, whether as a large corps de ballet or small ensemble group, is an integral part of their training. It requires teamwork, attention to detail and thoughtful preparation for a successful group effort. Teachers need to provide the right steps and counts to ensure cohesiveness, of course. But how you set the material will also encourage dancers to be in line and in sync—while still allowing them to be individuals.

Don't rely on the mirror

Photo courtesy of Colorado Ballet

Lorita Travaglia and Artists of Colorado Ballet rehearsing Swan Lake.

Group sections are most successful when dancers watch each other to gauge distance, timing and togetherness. Travaglia allows dancers to use the mirror but discourages them from relying on it as a tool. "If they're in a vertical line and really behind the person in front of them, they shouldn't be able to see themselves in the mirror anyway," she says. "I do have them look at their reflection when they're in Swan Lake and posing for a long time, for example, so they can match the shape of the arms or incline of the head. But we shut the curtain leading up to performances, because it's always a disaster when you first take the mirror away."

Dancers can use their peripheral vision to make adjustments and watch each other without making it obvious. "If they can't turn their head right or left, they can still use their eyes to see if they're shoulder to shoulder with someone, or sticking out of line," says Lowe. Ask students to look across the stage at the dancer opposite them. While the person in front usually sets the line, they should learn to make small adjustments and work through spontaneous mistakes by being in tune with each other.

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

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Music
Mary Mallaney/USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

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