“Dance isn't about the flashy moment."
—Brenda Daniels, UNCSAAt the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Brenda Daniels includes in her syllabus a quote from Merce Cunningham describing how every movement is just as important as the next. “We don't prioritize big steps—we show how every tendu or gesture with the arm is fully investigated and embodied," she says. “I want my students to understand that dance isn't about the flashy moments, but the connecting steps or moments in between."
Thinking about how movements connect is a more mature concept than basic vocabulary, alignment or coordination, but it's one that can be introduced early on and emphasized throughout a dancer's training. Let class be an opportunity for students to develop the quality and artistry of each transition step. “Like any other correction," says Daniels, “if you emphasize the idea again and again, students start to incorporate it on their own."
Take It Slow
Preparatory connecting steps require precision in order to appear seamless and ensure that what follows—a pirouette, balance or jump—goes well. Igor Burlak, teacher at Boston Ballet School, for instance, emphasizes the importance of turnout in a glissade before assemblé. “I have students face the barre and break it down as much as possible," he says. “We go super slow, so that each move takes one or two counts." Then, when students try these steps in center, they are more likely to connect them smoothly.
Terri Best, jazz instructor at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, reminds her students to be mindful of using a good plié and maintaining turnout in connecting steps. “Some people do tombé pas de bourrée and turn in that last step before they take off for grand jeté," she says. “It doesn't set them up well for the big jump." Best will show this mistake and exaggerate the step by doing it very flat-footed. “I make my point through a little bit of humor," she says, “but then they understand."
Make It Visual and Physical
Teachers should show the proper way to connect steps, or have someone else demonstrate for the class. “If dancers can see what I'm talking about, then they appreciate the value and begin paying more attention," says Best. Daniels suggests offering only one or two corrections at a time and pointing out someone who is making the transition between two particular movements well.
Students should have ample opportunity to practice the movements, too. Daniels structures her class so that dancers go across the floor multiple times. “They should be physical and sweat," she says. Give students the chance to work in a detailed way and find an approach that is most successful for them.
Use the Music
The music can be supportive in a way that eases transitions. Burlak often asks the pianist to play first, before the dancers attempt a combination. “We'll listen for the transition between notes and phrases and relate it to the physical exercise," he says. “Then they see that dancing is like a beautiful melody when they move."
Daniels encourages students to use their breath and imagine that the music is an ocean underneath them. “Maybe they're in a little boat of movement on top of the water that's swelling, ebbing and flowing," she says. Or maybe the music is atonal or jarring. In that case, dancers need to make an abrupt change from one step to the next. “It's good for students to toggle back and forth between these two approaches," she says.
Terri Best demonstrating the right way to connect stepsTreat Every Step Equally
Best thinks that dancers also need to have the right mind-set. “If they're thinking of the next big thing, they're not in the present moment, staying in character or expressing themselves fully," she says. Remind students that the audience can see them even when they face upstage, and encourage them to stay grounded in the story or character. “Every step is equally visible and should be executed with the same attention to detail, commitment, precision and focus," she says. “Poor transitions can take the audience out of the moment."
Ask students to be aware of the lines and shapes they create as they seamlessly move through space. “Students always try to please their teachers," says Daniels. “If they sense it's an important issue to you, they'll do everything they can to achieve it." DT
Julie Diana was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.
Photos: by Garrett Parker, courtesy of UNCSA; by Adam Parson, courtesy of Edge Performing Arts Center