Developing precision in lines and formations

American Ballet Theatre in Giselle

In the few moments before the lights went up on her students’ competition number, Lisa Pelliteri of Plumb Performing Arts Center in Arizona held her breath as she watched a potential nightmare unfold: A young dancer placed her center chair well off of its mark, which could throw off spacing for the whole number. Luckily right before the performance, the student caught the mishap and inconspicuously slid the chair into the correct place.

You can spend months perfecting dances, but once your students are onstage, it’s up to them to pull off a clean performance. If they don’t know how to adjust their formations, the whole number will suffer. Fostering spatial awareness isn’t an easy task, but it can become as embedded in your dancers’ reflexes as the choreography itself.

Map It Out

Melinda Farrell, assistant choreographer to the Radio City Rockettes and teacher at the troupe’s summer intensive, says the key to getting dancers to retain precise formations is by layering them into the rehearsal process. She has the Rockettes master the choreography before she places them in spots. This way, the group can perfect timing and body positioning, since slight differences will make the dancers appear out of place. “If someone is a hair early or a hair late, it flaws the formation,” says Farrell.

Others may find it easier to assign spots before diving into teaching the choreography. Susan Jones, ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre, draws an aerial view of each formation with Xs and Os (similar to football blocking). Then, the dancers learn choreography in their positions. She says it helps them understand the direction and distance they’ll need to cover.

After the dance has been mapped out, both Farrell and Jones solidify transitions. The Rockettes walk the whole routine, formation to formation, without executing any steps. The floor is marked with numbers across the front and back for width and horizontal color lines to indicate depth, helping them prepare for the stage. “Walking it makes it clear if there will be traffic or timing problems,” says Farrell. Jones says that if her students’ transitions are mismatched or awkward, she has them partner up temporarily by standing close together. Then they can feel each other and practice breathing in the same tempo.

Group Awareness

The mirror is a fantastic rehearsal tool, but it can become a distraction if dancers rehearse with it too long. Finding the right moment to take the mirror away—and spending significant rehearsal time without it—is essential. Pelliteri usually begins by having dancers face the mirrored side of the studio and turns them away as soon as they’re comfortable with the choreography. “If they work off the mirror in the beginning, they begin to feel each other and the bodies next to them,” she says. “They actually start to memorize that feeling, so when they’re onstage, they are more aware of their relationships to one another.”

Developing a student’s intuitive sense of spacing takes time. “I see it really starting to gel with them somewhere between ages 9 and 12,” says Pelliteri. Their minds and bodies have to be able to concentrate on multiple details during performance. And they must truly understand the idea of teamwork. Still, there are tricks to help clean routines. Sometimes, the choreography will allow a dancer to peek out of his or her peripheral vision. Note these moments to your dancers to make their glances efficient and less distracting to the audience. For example, the Rockettes use the principle they call “guiding right.” Each dancer checks the alignment with the girl two spots to the right so that she doesn’t have to worry about what is happening on her left.

In the end, repetition, simplicity and specificity allow dancers the freedom to reach beyond the precision and perform. It’s about building awareness of the team as a cohesive unit, as well as fueling the instinctual ability to fix problems—vital elements to nailing the routines on a new and unpredictable stage. “That’s what we’re going for in the rehearsal process—to get it into your body enough that you’re not overthinking it,” says Farrell. “Plus, we want the audience and the dancers to enjoy themselves.” DT

Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston. She is currently a Calderwood Fellow in writing at Emerson College.

The Cheat Sheet

Tips on tackling tricky formations: 

Straight lines: When closely spaced, have students use the Rockette rule, guiding right. This allows them to see if they’re aligned with the person two spots to their right.  

Kick lines: These often suffer if a dancer is weak. Rockettes assistant choreographer Melinda Farrell says core and back strengthening exercises will keep students from pulling on the others around them. 

Circles: Students can focus on and follow the dancer in front of them to stay aware of spacing and curvature. Practice with tape marks at the front, back and sides of the circle to help indicate its outer edge.  

Diagonals: Susan Jones, ABT ballet mistress, waits to set specifics until the company gets onstage, since the space greatly affects the line. She assigns body parts that dancers should align themselves to. For instance, she may ask a dancer to place her right shoulder in line with the next downstage girl’s spine. 

Irregular formations: Football-play Xs and Os can be especially helpful here. In the end, the only solution is repetition.

Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston. She is currently a Calderwood Fellow in writing at Emerson College.

Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading...
Site Network
Getty Images

Dancers certainly don't need anyone to tell them how physical their profession is. But now, we have the data to prove it.

Researchers at InsuranceProviders.com analyzed data from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a national organization developed through support from the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration, to determine the 20 most physically demanding jobs in the country. They analyzed the level of strength, stamina, flexibility and coordination required for a host of jobs, and each category was assigned

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: How do you approach gender when teaching in 2020? When I was training, male dancers were encouraged to make their movement masculine, while female dancers were encouraged to keep their movement feminine. Today, gender has become much more fluid, and the line between masculine and feminine performance has blurred. How does that impact the way we should be teaching?

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Going upside down can be scary. It's spatially bewildering, and young students who have spent their lives upright often lack the strength required to feel confident putting their weight on their hands. But, don't fret! There are safe and pleasant ways to build the muscle and the might for dynamite inversions.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

I love this level. I see it as the true origin of a student's dance journey. Intermediate students have bought in, caught the fever, chosen to move beyond inquiry about dance to investment in dance. They are yearning to advance past their beginner training and label.

As teachers, we begin to set more stringent expectations for them to commit to class, take ownership of their learning, and comprehend more terminology and skills. Yet, they are still a bit disheveled in their movement and engagement. They still sometimes forget their dance pants and confuse upstage with downstage. Some of them are still, well, terrified.

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...
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...
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of PNB School

Naomi Glass, teacher at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, knows firsthand the advantages and challenges of hypermobility. As a young dancer, she was told to keep her hyperextended knees in a straight position far from her full range of motion. "It felt too bent to me," she says. "But once I was able to access my inner thighs and rotators, I found strength and stability and could still use the line that I wanted."

Hypermobility occurs when joints exceed the normal range of motion. Dancers can have hypermobility in specific joints, like their knees, or they can have generalized laxity throughout their bodies (which is often measured using the Beighton system—see below). While this condition may enable students to create beautiful aesthetic lines, it can also increase risk for injury. Help dancers gain the strength they need to stay healthy while making the most of their hypermobility.

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...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox