It's a dance teacher's job to prepare students for professional careers. As everyone knows, this means more than just giving them precise technique and exceptional performance capabilities. Perhaps more than ever, it's important that teachers prepare their students to know how to make smart and safe decisions when entering the workplace. It's important that we give them the skills to say "no" when a project doesn't fit with their personal values, puts them in a dangerous or toxic work environment, or is discriminatory to their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Teachers need to help their students advocate for themselves in order to create a career they can be proud of.
Here are four tips for helping your dancers make safe and smart professional decisions when they leave the warmth of your caring and supportive studio.
Eva Stone directs The Stone Dance Collective, shown here in Eve, reconsidered. Photo by Rex Tranter, courtesy of The Stone Dance Collective
Unlike the majority of my students and colleagues, my journey in dance has been unorthodox. At age 14, I enrolled in modern dance at my high school, and something about the large open studio with room to move thrilled me (and still does). I immediately set out to impress my dance teacher with my complete repertoire, a solo interpretation of "Bohemian Rhapsody" created in my living room, infused with several badly self-taught ice-skating moves. In that moment, an awareness of the power of movement, music, space and performance aligned, and I instinctively knew I was someplace special.
My high school dance teacher was smart. Knowing that she did not have the time to mold us into technically proficient dancers, she introduced us to the craft and skill of making dances. I spent four years opening the door to my creative voice, becoming a confident choreographer. As a dance major in college, however, I quickly realized I was lacking something very important: actual dance training. So I began an intense regimen of studying, analyzing, copying, stealing and emulating every movement language, quality and nuance with which I could connect. Later, I completed a master's degree in choreography and choreological studies, formed a small dance company and set out to fund my artist's life with teaching.
As a modern dancer, and having come to dance late, communication and imagery were significant in managing the demands of my training. I had to ask a lot of questions, because I had not yet developed a physical vocabulary of answers. I needed a sense of humor, to prevent me from quitting. I had to negotiate, rationalize, moderate and articulate, both verbally and physically, a pathway through much of what I was performing in or choreographing. This allowed me to solve problems more creatively, from a place separate from a perspective of pure technical ability. I now use these same methods for teaching students.
Taught by Francesca Harper and demonstrated by Naya Lovell, this step borrows from William Forsythe's quest to take classical movement vocabulary and deconstruct the shapes created. "Let the momentum at the top of the développé carry you," says Harper, "and see how your body intuitively has its own response."
Cheyenne Murillo and her partner Sasha Altukhov at Millennium Dancesport Championship. Photo courtesy of Murillo
It seems everyone is trying to break into the ballroom scene these days, and we don't blame them—it's ALL kinds of fabulous!
But getting started can seem overwhelming for everyone involved. Whether you're a studio owner looking to implement a new ballroom program or a student looking to get started, you're likely to have A LOT of questions.
To help, we've talked with Cheyenne Murillo, U.S. Open Pro Rising Star Champion and teacher at Strictly Ballroom in Orem, Utah, to answer five questions every aspiring professional is sure to have.
A: For those with more music training or tech savviness, I recommend using Apple's GarageBand. For anyone who's not quite ready to create a song from scratch, I recommend trying a program called Incredibox
Students at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
To an untrained eye, fifth position might look simple and easy. But the iconic crossed position of the legs and feet proves to be one of the most challenging classical ballet positions for dancers to do correctly, and for teachers to introduce properly.
At Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, teachers take a hands-on approach. "We rotate the tops of the backs of the legs forward, so students understand how those muscles should work," says Darla Hoover, associate artistic director. "We put their body in the right position while pointing to areas they need to hold. It's a constant narrative. You can't just slap them into fifth and call it a day."
Some leading schools differ in their philosophies about how and when the position should be taught. But they all agree that dancers need strength, good alignment and careful guidance to ensure that they find their best fifth.
Stepping into arabesque from développé effacé is tricky, says Kelly Slough of Mark Morris Dance Center, because it involves "that moment of truth": changing weight from one leg to the other in one movement. To make that transition easier, Slough encourages dancers to complete the weight shift as quickly and confidently as possible—as counterintuitive as that may seem. "Taking your back with you," as she calls it, means there's less of a chance you'll underestimate the required change of weight and fall backward from the arabesque.
For decades dance teachers have worked tirelessly to get their dancers to look cohesive onstage. From perfectly matched costumes, to the exact brand and style of footUndeez, to buns that are all parted on the exact same side (the bane of my existence), you people know how to get your kids to look uniform. And when it comes to getting your dancers' makeup to match, your attention to detail is no different. You have each spent hours with parents teaching them how to apply it so that it looks just the way you want it to.
Those are precious hours you could have used cleaning choreography or correcting a student's arabesque. Am I right? Thankfully, the internet has come to the rescue and created YouTube tutorials that you can send out to your dancers' parents so you don't have to spend unnecessary time on it. They can even watch the video each time they do their makeup to make sure they get it just right! Heaven bless modern day technology.
Scour YouTube to find the look that fits your studio. Here are three clips we think are great for the stage!
In your class this year, you have a great group of students eager to learn and explore. But, you only meet once a week. What is the best way to choreograph a final dance for the year, given your limited amount of time together? How best to set up the students, and you, for success? Jill Randall, artistic director for Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California, shares this advice.
The First Big Question
Before launching into a list of strategies and techniques, take 15 minutes and discuss with the director of your school: What is the goal and benefit of a once-a-week class performing in a show? Jot down the pros and cons; consider some great alternatives, including an open class for families at the end of the semester, or your class sharing with another class some combinations a few times a year. Maybe learning a full dance, and performing it onstage, isn't the ideal end-goal. Plus, do you teach on a Monday or on the weekend? How many classes might your once-a-week students miss this semester due to school holidays and family trips? What will happen if a student is absent and you don't see them for two weeks at a time?
If the "pros" on the list are robust, here are seven strategies to leverage your creative skills and support your once-a-week students.
This is a well-known idea from K–12 education. You can call it back-planning or back-mapping. You figure out your goal and your end date. Then, you pull out the calendar and count the number of classes and number of hours to get to that goal.
Decide on the date you want to complete the dance, and determine how many classes are simply about running the dance (not learning new choreography). During spring semester 2018, I taught a once-a-week Level II Modern Dance class for children ages 10 to 12, and I aimed to complete the dance five weeks before the show. This greatly eased the stress, and I already anticipated some absences due to spring school obligations of my students. Plus I taught a Monday class, and I had to factor in the Memorial Day holiday.
Whatever way you describe it, you are parsing out and chunking out the material over the course of several months. If your song is four minutes long, how many seconds of choreography might you accomplish per class? This is an important skill to hone and fine-tune as a teaching artist. Consider 20 to 30 seconds of choreography per class time.
Related to back-planning, determine how much time per class is devoted to the learning of the dance. Be consistent for yourself and for your students. If your class is 60 minutes in length, consider how many warm-ups in the center you want to teach, as well as traveling work across the space. Don't let the warming up and technique fall to the wayside. Consider 15 to 20 minutes per class for the choreography.
Once you start to choreograph, words and phrases can serve as memory devices for you and the students alike. Take notes in your teacher's notebook or on large chart paper on the wall. Take one minute to write down ideas with the students—this will also jog their memory next week. Come up with the words and phrases together. (For example, you might write down keywords for the choreography, such as: "jumping phrase," "zig zag travel," "group shape," "scatter.")
Now with phones and tablets, we have quick and easy technology to capture the choreography. You can review the video clip from last week by gathering around the iPad; you can post the video on Vimeo or YouTube (set up a password to keep the casual rehearsal videos under wraps). Also possibly ask parents to pop into class to take a video for their own child to review at home during the week.
As with the videos, sharing the music will offer another opportunity for students to practice at home and feel the music. Send them an mp3 file or send out the YouTube link.
Setting a Modest Length for the Whole Dance
Maybe choreography averages five minutes at your school, but are those five-minute dances with classes that meet twice or three times a week? Carefully decide on the dance length and err on the side of brevity. If your class meets once a week for 60 minutes, a dance 2 1/2 to 3 minutes in length sounds reasonable.
Squeezing in an Extra Rehearsal
Yes, the class meets once a week. But adding one or two extra rehearsals during the final month of the semester can be highly beneficial for all. Talk with your director about this option. Book the space, message the families and confirm what your extra payment will be for you as the teacher.
The once-a-week class might not be your opportunity for your most original choreography this year. There is nothing wrong with taking the combinations you taught the group over the semester and creatively piecing them together. Simple choreographic tools like formations, groupings and facings can easily spice up the phrases. Maximize concepts like A-B-A form and canon in the choreography.
The once-a-week class poses some unique challenges for choreography. But you can strategize and plan accordingly to make it a great experience for students and teacher alike.