In 2011, New York City–based choreographer Pedro Ruiz returned to Cuba after 21 years of dancing with Ballet Hispanico and more than 30 years being away. The experience was so moving that he created The Windows Project as a continuous cultural collaboration between American artists and Cuban dancers.
"I was so overwhelmed seeing all the dancers do Afro-Cuban dance with live music. It was the moment my soul reconnected to Cuba and to my roots," says Ruiz of his first trip back. "I started weeping." He saw that, while Cuban companies and schools have amazing knowledge and passion for dance, they needed access to train with teachers in a variety of techniques, and choreographers outside of Cuba. "Cuba is still struggling economically, so the dancers also don't have good ballet shoes or costumes, and The Windows Project was my way to begin to help," he says.
Ask middle school students their thoughts about a modern dance performance and watch how quickly the battle of “I loved it!” or “I hated it!” begins. Too often young dance students have tunnel vision on physical training and rarely care to see performances outside their personal aesthetic. But K–12 education should expand students’ field of vision. By guiding their eyes to openly observe and their minds to analyze the viewing experience, you can teach your students to appreciate a variety of choreographic styles.
The 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center in New York City created a new course this spring for just that purpose. Over the five weeks of the Dance Education Lab (DEL)/Harkness Dance Festival Intensive, a group of 16 K–12 educators attended performances and worked with the dance company members in the studio, all with the goal to help their students view, understand and talk about dance.
This year’s Harkness Dance Festival was inspired by choreographer and festival curator Doug Varone’s Stripped/Dressed performance concept, wherein the audience is given a peek into the creative process to see what the choreographers are motivated by and how the editing process shapes their work. Before performing, the choreographers informally share their unique modes of movement generation and their approach to themes and music.
Educators participating in the DEL/Harkness Dance Festival Intensive attended the five festival performances, then they spent four hours working in the studio with each company to delve into the creative devices and choreographic themes of the work. The 2014 intensive included Kyle Abraham, casebolt and smith, Nora Chipaumire, Netta Yerushalmy and David Dorfman—an innovative and eclectic group of choreographers.
“We learn directly from the choreographer or company member how their work is created, then we establish connections between these choreographic strategies and the NYCDOE Dance Blueprint,” says Ana Nery Fragoso, Dance Education Laboratory faculty member and intensive facilitator, referring to the New York City Department of Education’s curriculum guidelines for teaching dance. The workshop is unique in its focus on guiding dance educators to become well-informed viewers, not just dancers.
The first half of class is for improvisational and imaginative tasks, so participants can get a flavor for the choreographer’s way of working. “The choreographer designs strategies to help us create movement material on the spot,” says Fragoso.
The second half puts these strategies and themes into practical classroom perspective, using such tools as Laban Movement Analysis categories of body, dynamics, space and relationship. Participants have time to brainstorm ideas for K–12 dance curriculum and formulate lesson plans.
For students to effectively discuss a choreographic work, Fragoso suggests they experiment with creating choreography, developing their personal voices. One of the workshop’s main goals was to spark ideas for guiding the creative process, to ultimately open students’ minds to all styles of choreography.
Kyle Abraham’s workshop, taught by company member Chalvar Monteiro, began with an arm phrase from Abraham’s piece The Radio Show. He then guided the group through a loosely structured improv—create three arm gestures that repeat, while the legs and body move freely below—then scaffolded new ideas onto the initial task. He requested level changes, encouraged borrowing other dancers’ gestures, incorporated music changes and finally opened the improv into a circle wherein three people were moving at all times. The participants were excited that the structure allowed them to become a cohesive group discovering a common thread, regardless of their varied training backgrounds.
An underlying premise of the intensive is to reveal that no matter how complex a work appears onstage (especially when performed by virtuosic professionals), there is often a simple beginning structure. For example, one of Abraham’s basic movement tasks works for all ages: Dancers must travel from one side to the other using three action words, such as dive, wiggle and pop. Netta Yerushalmy also used a word-oriented game, making movement sentences inspired by words in a Gertrude Stein novel. “For younger students, you could use a Dr. Seuss book and create a simple gesture for each word,” says Fragoso.
Going hand in hand with comprehending choreography is the need for a common vocabulary for students and teachers to discuss dance. This language elicits clear observations, descriptions and evaluations of their experience watching movement. The course description states that educators will honor their students’ “emotional and instinctive responses,” while guiding them to express responses more mindfully than saying “I liked it!” As Fragoso puts it, “We as teachers must learn how to form and ask open-ended questions, so students really analyze the work in their own way.” For more: danceeducationlaboratory.com DT
Jen Peters is a former dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Photo (top) by Julie Lemberger, courtesy of 92nd St. Y; by Mariliana Arvelo, courtesy of 92nd Street Y
After a long day of class and rehearsal, a dancer’s body craves a little TLC. Massage has been proven to increase circulation, unravel muscle knots, gently loosen tight fascia and create an overall sense of relaxation and balance. “The more you move, the more you need to release to address imbalances,” says Erika Kalkan, a physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases. A professional massage isn’t always an option, because of tight schedules, finances or location. Luckily, self-massage can be very effective; you just need to have the right tools and know how to use them.
If you try to use your own hands to massage yourself, you’ll find it’s difficult to reach certain areas and to apply enough pressure. Tools like foam rollers and tennis balls are popular among dancers because they let you use your own body weight to work deeply into muscle tissue. Balls work best for smaller, pinpointed areas while rollers are better suited for bigger muscles and allover relief. When using a tool, Kalkan suggests less motion and more sustained pressure with deep breathing. Instead of chatting with friends while casually rolling your calf on a ball, focus on what you are doing and visualize muscles releasing.
Here, Kalkan outlines self-massage techniques for treating commonly tight areas in dancers. Roll slowly across the area, and pause on tighter spots for about 20 seconds or until a slight release is felt. These exercises work best on a warmed-up body and can be done daily or as needed.
To Release the IT Band and TFL
Dancers frequently have tight iliotibial (IT) bands—thick bands of fascia running along the outside of the thighs—and tensor fascia latae (TFL)—small muscles near the outside of the front hip joint. If left untreated, it can cause knee pain and restrict hip mobility.
Lying on your side, place a foam roller under the outside of your bottom thigh, about three inches above the knee. Taking weight into your hands, slowly roll the roller up toward the hip, stopping before going over the hipbones. Roll back down to just above the knee, and repeat 8–10 full rolls, stopping to breathe into tighter spots.
If the pain is extreme, try a softer roller, taking more weight into your hands, or placing the top foot on the floor to relieve some pressure. If more release is needed, go for a harder roller, or try slowly bending and straightening the bottom knee.
To Release the Piriformis
Overuse of the piriformis (a deep central gluteus muscle) can be caused by weak turnout muscles (deep rotators) and can cause painful compression on the sciatic nerve.
Lying on your back, open the right leg into a turned-out passé, and place a ball (tennis ball or smaller) directly under the center of the passé leg’s glute muscle. Move around a little to find a tight spot, then stay there and breathe, imagining the muscles relaxing over the ball.
Stop and reposition the ball if tingling or numbness shoots down the leg.
You can also try sitting on top of a foam roller, one leg in a turned-out passé position, and rolling very slightly up and down.
To Release Pectorals
Overused and often overlooked, tight pectoral muscles contribute to forward shoulder and head posture, which throws off alignment.
Hold a small squishy ball or soft tennis ball against a wall, just below shoulder level. Facing the wall, lean forward until the ball touches slightly below your right collarbone, near (but not in) the armpit. Lean in more to increase pressure and hold for 20–30 seconds, while breathing. Move ball slightly toward the sternum and repeat.
Release pressure and move the ball if arm or fingers feel tingly or numb.
To Release Calves and Foot Arches
Calves and feet get tight from relevés, jumping and pointing the feet. If left unaddressed, this can lead to Achilles tendon issues, foot pronation and improper foot and ankle mechanics.
Small diameter rollers and small balls work best here. For calves, sit down and place the tool underneath the lower leg, slightly below the knee. Roll the ball/roller down toward the ankle, pausing on tighter areas. Be sure to roll over the central, inside and outside muscle fibers, and take note of which areas are tightest.
To release arches, stand and place the device under center of the foot, rolling very slowly toward toes, then back toward the heel, again pausing in spots for 20–30 seconds. Strong pressure can be applied on the feet, as long as the ball is on the meaty part of the muscles, not directly on bones. Again roll central, medial and lateral part of the arch. DT
Jen Peters is a private Pilates instructor and a former dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Photo by Jacob Pritchard for Pointe
Parents enter their children in dance class with visions of pink ballet slippers or cool tap shoes. But bare feet? Modern dance? Not necessarily the dream they had in mind. Young students often jump from creative movement—the perfect introduction to any modern technique—straight into ballet, bypassing modern until high school or even college.
Yet teaching modern to children shapes future well-rounded, adventure-seeking dancers—students who are not afraid to really run, slide on the floor or create movement. “Children in modern are able to express themselves using their entire body, and they can break the rules of ballet by finding freedom in movement,” says Tiffany Barnes, director of the Junior Division at The Ailey School in New York City. Learning technique is undeniably important, but through improvisation and developing expansive movement, modern adds another dimension to young students’ dance vocabulary. Here, Barnes and other experienced teachers share how they tailor fun, constructive classes for children.
Modern techniques come with a wide array of movement vocabularies, some better equipped for children than others. The Ailey School dives into Horton technique between ages 7 and 10 for boys and 11 and 12 for girls. Unlike more contemporary fusion classes, Horton has a very defined progression of warm-ups, exercises and fortifications. The technique’s clarity of shape grabs young students’ attention immediately, but it is challenging. “I’ve realized that students don’t have to learn everything right away,” says Barnes. Rather than teach an entire overwhelming phrase, break off small chunks at a time—just feet and legs, or just arms. Students will build strength slowly without getting frustrated.
Teaching language should remain fun, peppered with detailed imagery. Barnes suggests scaffolding imagery by starting simply with one idea, then building upon that image. For example, with the Horton side hip push, she asks students to pretend they have a rock tied to one leg. How does it feel? How does it affect the movement? Students act out the action first, then return to technical terms and drag the rock in a straight line across the floor, with the working leg straight and pointed.
While a traditional modern class may not be suitable until later for most students, both Lydia Hance from Hope Stone Kids in Houston, Texas, and Tanya Bello from the ODC School in San Francisco interweave basic modern principles into their classes as early as 5 or 6 years old. “I focus on the spine as the base of all movement,” says Bello. “I teach head-tail connection, roll-downs, curves and spirals from the spine.”
When Hance approaches elements like drop swings, she has students imagine they are on a roller coaster ride, or that they have a hiccup at the top of the swing. With pliés into over-curves or side curves, she asks them to “pour hot chocolate into mugs on the floor.” Imagery works wonders for all ages, but it is especially effective when tackling alignment issues or tricky steps that are difficult for young students to grasp.
Music should be very different from that of ballet class, even if you have a piano accompanist. Integrating atypical meters, such as 5- or 7-count phrases, can really shake things up for students used to counting in 8s. The Ailey School’s Horton classes use drums, with a lot of 6/8, swing-like rhythms. “Percussion, with different beats and rhythms, really turns their world upside down (or sideways!),” says Barnes. “Kids see it as a chance to break out and really dance.”
No live musicians? No problem. Hance enjoys mixing up her class playlist with various artists ranging from Paul Simon to Bach, again using a mixture of meters. She prefers dynamic songs, but if students have trouble focusing, she’ll begin with something more calming before working up to more energetic tracks.
Explore, Discover and Get Moving
Whatever the technique, modern has the ability to unlock creative possibilities. As Hope Stone’s education director, Hance gives students as young as 4 creative control of choreographic elements like tempo, shape, spatial patterns and level variation.
“I give them opportunities to think critically about movement and be empowered to make their own decisions,” says Hance. “Kids just need to dance sometimes without being told exactly what to do.” Barnes agrees, saying that young students enter the studio with such personality and “an innate performance quality that we don’t want to stifle.” The Ailey School’s First Steps and Bounding Boys programs, for ages 3–6 and 4–6, incorporate an improvisational free dance during each class.
ODC starts with creative movement at age 4 and introduces technique around ages 8 and 9. Improvisation remains an integral part of the class, increasing in complexity as students mature. Bello says her students really look forward to it. “Many dancers are scared to do anything beyond what they are told. With modern experience they are more vulnerable and excited about trying new ideas.”
Game-like structures like freeze dances, follow the leader and mirroring a partner are great for breaking improv ice. Be mindful of letting the little ones run amok, though. Provide structure and direction to free dances. Suggesting level changes, mood changes and various movement qualities or tempos—round, smooth, sharp, fast, slow, straight, wiggly, loose, tight, etc.—will keep young minds on track while challenging them to think outside the movement box. DT
Jen Peters is a former dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Our first improvised dances didn’t happen in a studio, but during playtime, when we twirled around the living room or outside in the grass. “Long before any of us ever took a ballet class, we just danced from the heart,” says Thom Cobb, associate professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. “That is why improvisation is so thrilling.”
Improvisation is an essential skill dancers of all styles should become comfortable with. It helps them discover their own way of moving and enhances their awareness while dancing in a group. Plus, those comfortable with the task will be most prepared for college and job auditions, where they may be asked to improvise, or rehearsals with choreographers who use it during their process. Here, Cobb and others share strategies for helping students approach the sometimes intimidating practice.
Dance without “Dancing”
Cobb has found that one of the reasons dancers have difficulty improvising is because they’re worried about how they look. During students’ first classes, he asks them to move using pedestrian movement only. They’ll begin by walking through the space, stopping and starting as they please, while he calls out tempo and direction changes. Starting class this way also helps students learn to move without using steps they’ve already learned in technique classes, like arabesque and pas de bourrée.
Review the Basics
Space, time, shape, motion and energy—these concepts may seem simple, but with novice improvisers, it’s best to review what each means. “My first classes deal mostly with space, because it’s a dancer’s clay—our active partner,” says Juilliard choreography professor Janis Brenner. “We investigate direction changes, using near and far space and making lines or curves through space.” Discussing each principle separately gives students room to fully explore the range of movement possibilities within each.
Build Off Established Choreography
Bill Evans, visiting professor and dance artist at SUNY Brockport, finds students aren’t as afraid to improvise when given clear instructions. Dancers can modify your choreography by playing with the sequence, rhythms and energy, taking as many liberties as they’d like, including inserting their own movement. “When I do this with my students, they become more engaged in problem-solving,” says Evans, “ingeniously finding ways of making stationary patterns travel and enjoying surprising transitions.”
To lighten nerves, Dale Andree, adjunct faculty in the college and high school divisions at New World School of the Arts in Miami, stresses the importance of creative but serious play. In “Follow the Leader,” she picks one student to lead an improvisation, while the others copy their movement. This game develops a keen sense of awareness and helps dancers learn how others move.
“The Alphabet” is one of Cobb’s go-to exercises. He has students dance, while saying each letter aloud in their choice of volume and tempo. Students’ movement should be inspired by how they say the letters. Sometimes, Cobb shouts out qualities. How would a cheerleader or witch say and dance the letter G?
Connect with Music—or Don’t
Music greatly influences a dancer’s improvisation. Using it can help your students open up, as long as it doesn’t overpower the class’ focus. “I stick with music that creates an atmospheric space,” says Brenner. “It shouldn’t be overly rhythmic or loud, have too many preconceived associations or intrude on the movement idea we are working with.”
As an investigatory exercise, Cobb asks students to improvise to one piece of music and again to another. Then, the class discusses how the different sounds influenced their movement choices, mood, timing and quality. He adds that working in silence, though, is often the best way to get students to delve into a more personal exploration.
Guidance vs. Direction
Asking your students open-ended questions, instead of giving directions, leaves more room for them to explore. For instance, “How can you move by leading with your elbow?” instead of “Move your elbow slowly in circles around your partner,” provides endless possibilities. “I give them parameters, but really they can move their body however they feel most comfortable,” says Andree. She adds that providing imagery helps students delve into deeper studies in texture and movement quality. For instance, the image of mud “is wonderful for getting students to feel weight and a sense of suction or the idea leaving imprints in the ground.”
Critiquing students’ proficiency during class isn’t important. Instead, Brenner and her students chat after each exercise so everyone can discuss their experience and learn from one another. Remind dancers that there is no right or wrong when it comes to improvisation. After all, discovery, not a finished product, is the goal. DT
Jen Peters contributes to several dance publications. She is a Pilates instructor and former dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Photo by Rebecca Puretz, courtesy of Bill Evans