Dance Teacher Tips

Get Your Students to Use Their Backs, and Make Them More Versatile

Jared Grimes. Photo by Santiago Barreiro, courtesy of Grimes

A tap dancer's upper body might be hunched or upright, quirky or smooth, depending on the individual's style. "People might think it looks silly when hands or arms are doing awkward things, when the dancer is reaching for infinite possibilities," says Jared Grimes, tapper and choreographer based in New York City. "But that's what the back and core muscles do for a dancer. They provide support for the thoughts below."


All genres of dance require a strong and flexible back. Whether it's grounded hip hop or classical ballet technique, good use of the back will mean the difference between disjointed movements and dance that is fluid, powerful and multidimensional. But it can be difficult for dancers to feel and use this part of their body they cannot see. Imagery and breath will help students access these muscles, build awareness and show them their backs can help them be more versatile.

Feel the Breadth

Students often feel their arms as being attached at the shoulder joints. "They compartmentalize body parts," says Elizabeth Parkinson, professional dancer and dance educator. "The more they can look at their arms as coming from the center of the back, the better." Instead of visualizing two wings, as many people often do, Parkinson encourages dancers to feel like they have one long arm extending from the fingertips on one hand to the fingertips on the other. "It's as if you have one long arm that extends through the broadness of your back. The energy is always moving."

To feel a greater connection and sense of expansiveness, dancers can also lie on the floor and imagine all parts of their backs and shoulders touching the ground. Try having them move through different port de bras positions keeping their upper bodies rooted to the floor, using the flat surface to help broaden the shape of the back.

Use the Breath

When Grimes sees that dancers have tension, he stops the class. "I ask them why they aren't breathing," he says, "and using their brains so much that they forget to do the thing that gives us all life!" Some people forget because they are so focused or nervous, and the lack of breath just increases anxiety and prevents dancers from having control of their movements. "They need to take in energy and release it, not only in their backs but their entire bodies. I tell them to be human."

Students can pause and consciously take a breath, feeling how the action affects movement through the back of the rib cage and surrounding muscles. It will bring awareness to that part of the body and help a dancer add texture to movement, creating more mobility. "Dancers can learn how to control their movements through breathing and learn to lose control when needed in choreography," says Michelle Davis, faculty teacher at Portland Ballet. "If they develop an understanding of breath, it can help them jump, sustain a balance and coordinate movements in general."

Strengthen

A dancer's back must be strong and flexible, providing support while allowing maximum mobility. Davis recommends that her students swim and practice port de bras with light hand weights to condition their back muscles. "They can also do floor barre and yoga, and even walk. Men need to work with a knowledgeable trainer," she says. In class with younger students, Davis helps them strengthen their abdominals to support correct alignment of the spine. "I tell them to push down and pull up like an elastic band."

Lack of strength in the legs and abdominals might also cause tension in the back and upper body. "When students activate their seat and plié, and their pelvis is in proper alignment, they can build a foundation for the upper body," says Parkinson. "Strengthen the pelvic floor and plié, and you'll have the freedom to move the back as you choose."

Build Versatility

A strong back is also important for floor work and partnering, since dancers are expected more and more to show versatility and perform more complex choreography. "Not only are we using our back to motivate port de bras or vocabulary, but our arms bear more weight than they used to," says Parkinson. "We have to be really strong, the way our legs are strong." In partnering, holding with the top of the shoulder or having a stiff arm could limit the movement and cause injury. Dancers need to use the strength in their backs to help with counterbalance while enabling both freedom and control.

Teaching a dancer about anatomy and how to best use their backs will help them build texture into their dancing and build greater overall strength. "It's important to have mastery over your body in terms of how it works mechanically," says Parkinson. "How do my muscles support my bones? How do my shoulders work? From a physiological standpoint, the more you know, the better. It helped me be a very versatile dancer."

Dance Teachers Trending
"Music is magical," says Black. "It just transforms kids." Photo courtesy of Black

After 31 years of teaching, Kim Black has mastered how to reach young dancers. Between a studio and private school, she teaches 34 classes per week in Burlington, North Carolina: That's 238 kids from ages 2 to 6 years old. "You have to make them fall in love with dance," says Black. The music, she says, cues this engagement.

Keep reading...
Site Network

2019's movies featured some truly fantastic dancing, thanks to the hard work of many talented choreographers. But you won't see any of those brilliant artists recognized at the Academy Awards. And we're (still) not OK with that.

So we're taking matters into our own jazz hands.

On February 7—just before the Oscars ceremony—we'll present a Dance Spirit award for the best movie choreography of 2019. With your help, we've narrowed the field to seven choreographers, artists whose moves electrified some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Kathryn Alter (left). Photo by Alexis Ziemski

In every class Kathryn Alter teaches, two things are immediately evident: how thoughtfully she chooses her words, and how much glee she gets from dancing the movement and style of modern choreographer José Limón. At the 2019 Limón summer workshop at Kent State University, Alter demonstrated a turning triplet with her arms fully outstretched, a smile stretching easily across her face. "It should be as if…" She paused to think of the perfect analogy that would help the dancers find the necessary circularity of the movement. "As if you live in a doughnut!" she finished, grinning broadly. The dancers gathered around her laughed—her smile and love for something as foundational as a triplet was contagious.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Melanie George (right). Photo by Grace Corapi, courtesy of George

Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.

New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a scene from An American in Paris. Courtesy Fathom Events.

If you loved Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, you can now see the 1951 Oscar-winning movie it's based on in all its Technicolor glory. Fathom Events will present MGM's An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and French ballerina Leslie Caron, and with music by George and Ira Gershwin, in select theaters nationwide January 19 and 22.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Morrissey (left). Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts

When Joseph Morrissey first took the helm of the dance division at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a boarding high school in Interlochen, Michigan, he found a fully established pre-professional program with space to grow. And his vision was big, with plans to stage the kind of ambitious repertory he'd experienced during his dance career. But the realities quickly set in. During his first year in 2015, the department was denied by the George Balanchine Trust to license any Balanchine ballets—the dancers were not quite ready.

This early disappointment didn't derail Morrissey. In just four years, he has not only raised Interlochen's training standards, he's staged ambitious full-length ballets and been granted the rights to works by Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille and, yes, Balanchine. Guest artists regularly visit, and he's initiated major plans to expand the dance department building. Morrissey is only 37, but it should come as no surprise that he's done so much so fast—his entire life's journey has prepared him to be an artistic leader.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Valerie Amiss with students. Photo by Tracie Van Auken, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jared Nelson, artistic director of California Ballet, demonstrates a tight fifth position as he talks to his class about the importance of rotating from the hips. "Having a visual image helped me as a dancer, so I try to demonstrate as much as possible," he says. "But I am also very conscious of word choice. Every dancer is different, and you have to phrase things in a language they will understand."

Teachers should always be aware of how they communicate with their students, including how they choose language for different individuals, classes or situations. Using the right terminology in early stages of training will ensure that students learn the proper names of steps. This foundation is crucial, particularly when so much of the classical vocabulary has been substituted by nicknames and phrases. (Think "lame duck" or "step-up turn" in place of piqué en dehors.) But good use of language also means using imagery and positive reinforcement to ensure the right kind of messaging. What teachers say in the studio could make the difference between dancers who listen—and ones who really hear.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington and Da'Von Doane in Claudia Schreier's Passage. Photo by Brian Callan, courtesy of DTH

Back to your routine after the holidays, but still looking for something to watch? Then this new PBS documentary titled Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants is for you. The hour-long film tracks the creation of two dance pieces: Claudia Schreier's Passage for Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Sir Richard Alston's Arrived featuring students of Norfolk's Governor's School for the Arts. Both works were co-commissioned by the American Evolution 2019 Commemoration and the Virginia Arts Festival last May, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans to English North America and the history of slavery that followed.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Getty Images

Q: My tween is begging me to go to a faraway summer intensive, claiming "all my friends are going." How do I know if she's ready?

A: It can feel like a rite of passage for serious dancers to attend an intensive at a major ballet school. They dance all day and often explore the area's surroundings or attend performances on weekends. But living away from home, having a roommate and living the "dorm life" can be a challenge.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Kensington Macmillen in class at CPYB. Photo by Joel Thomas Photography, courtesy of CPYB

Last year, Kensington MacMillen auditioned for summer programs away from home for the first time. A longtime Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet student, MacMillen had spent previous summers at her home studio, but now she was ready to branch out. After auditioning for three programs, her first response was a rejection from Miami City Ballet.

"A bunch of people from here had gotten in, and I didn't," she says. "So then you just kind of panic." She was still waiting to hear from the other programs and worried that she'd have nowhere to go.

Keep reading...
Dancer Health
Physical therapist Meredith Butulis in action. Photo courtesy of Twin Cities Orthopedics

After a long tennis match or a basketball game, elite athletes often head straight to the locker room and hit the exercise bike. On first thought, this might seem to be overtraining, but in fact, they are pedaling as a way to cool down properly.

"All of our blood vessels get dilated and blood goes out to muscles when we are doing cardiovascular work," says Meredith Butulis, a physical therapist specializing in dance medicine. "The blood goes mostly to the leg muscles, and blood pooling there is a real phenomenon. If your blood doesn't get back to the heart and brain, you can pass out."

She goes on to explain there are two ways to recover from an intense workout: actively, using a low-intensity movement to gradually bring the heart rate down, or passively, with no activity at all. The latter requires little explanation—how many times have you seen a dancer do a run-through and follow it up by sitting down on the side of the studio in a static stretch? But for many reasons, including the real possibility of blood pooling that Butulis describes, a passive recovery is not the best choice for dancers.

Keep reading...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox