How I teach contemporary/lyrical

Tracie Stanfield and her company dancer Heidi Sutherland playing with suspension and weight at Broadway Dance Center

"And one and two and three and four!” Tracie Stanfield accents each count with a staccato clap. Dancers whip through double-time chaînés, changing their spot each time to travel in a tight square. It is the culmination of a demanding across-the-floor combination in Stanfield’s contemporary/lyrical class at New York City’s Broadway Dance Center. “I usually try to do style, a turn and a jump across the floor,” she explains. Today’s turns are challenging enough, however, to keep dancers busy for the entire class segment.

This push to get students moving through space with technical precision points to Stanfield’s core philosophy: Dancers should learn technique as movement, not a separate concept. “I feel like they always think technique is this mountain in China, and they’re going to climb it one day,” she says. “But it’s just how you move the body.” Through exercises that focus on deliberate placement, spatial awareness and body control, she trains versatile, marketable dancers who can perform nontraditional choreography with technical integrity.

As the backbone of her class, Stanfield’s contemporary warm-up is a doozy, consuming half of the 90-minute session. Designed to foster body awareness and a strong connection to the floor, the routine includes pliés and relevés, tendus and lunges, and plenty of spinal flexion and extension. She tests dancers’ balance with dégagé passé relevés in all directions and rolls to the floor that come back to standing without using the hands. She tests their nerves by having them roll up through their spine on relevé and extend into a dramatic back arch.

Drawing from her experience in ballet, modern and jazz, her advice is succinct and carefully worded; she gives dancers just what they need to find length from head to toe while achieving security and groundedness through their centers. “Heavy feet; lift your ears,” she says. During the back arch on relevé, she suggests, “think of pressing down through the standing heel, even on relevé. It’s a weird feeling.” The dancers’ wobbles cease.

After the center warm-up comes a brief floor-barre, then the across-the-floor, challenging dancers’ technical prowess as combinations take up more space. “I call it taking technique on the road,” Stanfield says. She sweeps her straight, amber hair into a long ponytail, frees two strands by her face and scurries around the room, touching a back, chest or hamstring with a single finger to activate a deeper spiral or stronger standing leg.

Finally, dancers enjoy a combination that would kill on “So You Think You Can Dance”: all gooey transitions and gorgeous extensions set to a broken-hearted ballad. She asks them to “live it,” but not at the expense of getting it right and moving conscientiously. Most of these dancers will return tomorrow for class. That’s when she’ll ask them to listen to the lyrics and work on internalizing the story. Today, it’s all about getting the movement. DT

Tracie Stanfield learned to dance in ballet and tap classes at the YMCA in small-town Arkansas. After her family moved to Texas, she trained at a ballet academy through high school and studied modern dance at the University of Texas for two years before beginning a performing career with regional dance companies Third Coast Jazz and Tapestry Dance Company (the latter mixes tap and jazz in their repertory). In 1997, she moved to New York City and got a job assisting musical theater choreographer Michael Blevins. A year later, she began teaching at Broadway Dance Center—first tap, then jazz and contemporary—and created the teen program at the studio. She founded her own contemporary jazz company, SynthesisDance, in 2005.

Heidi Sutherland has been a member of Stanfield’s SynthesisDance for 10 years.

Photography by Kyle Froman

 

 

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