AttenDANCE and Commitment

One of the reasons I love dance so much is because there is always something new to learn, always a new way to improve, a new way to grow as a dancer and as an artist. However, once you reach a certain age and skill level, dancing requires serious commitment. Unfortunately, I have been seeing my students’ commitment levels and attendance lacking recently. And this isn’t new, it seems that every year at this time, there are more and more absences in class, less focus and concentration, less desire to learn.

Likely everyone has spring fever and is a little burnt out come mid to late March. Everyone is ready for spring break and to give their bodies and minds a much needed break. Which is completely understandable except for two important things : a) I’ve noticed my students’ commitment levels drop drastically over the course of this year, not just the last few weeks and b) its recital season and teachers are busy preparing routines and I’d like to address both concerns.

When you are a dancer on a competition team, in a performance group, and/or you dream of a dance related career, you generally have to dedicate your growing up years to being in the studio. Not only to you have to build your skill set and develop your artistry, but you have to maintain and perfect the skills that you already know. As much as dance builds muscle memory, if you don’t practice, you loose what you’ve worked so hard to gain. Think of a football team. Last season, the team members worked hard during practice, running drill after drill and their hard work paid off with an undefeated season. This year, the team tries to skate by on last years success and skip half their practices and don’t put their all into their drills, however, they begin to loose more and more games.

Being committed to dance is very similar. If you don’t give 100% in your classes, not only are you not going to improve, but you are going to regress. While everyone around you is pushing and giving their best, you can’t sit by and wonder why you aren’t getting good scores on your competition numbers or earning the solos in your productions. And we as teachers can only give so much. I will come to class with lesson plans, give you corrections on things to work on in class, set goals for skill sets and advancement, and overall do everything in my power to help you grow and succeed. I am rooting for you. However, if you don’t give me focus, concentration, hard work, commitment, and dedication, you won’t improve and my lessons become meaningless. The harder you work, the more dedicated you are, the more you come to class, the more I become one of your biggest cheerleaders because I can see your commitment and that you work hard and WANT to improve.

Attendance is even more important during recital season. Teachers are trying to set routines and the more interesting choreography involves more than just dancing in unison in two staggered lines. However, changes in formation, timing, and groupings require all students to be present in class. It is almost impossible to set new choreography when there are several people missing in class. Its unfair to the teacher who is confused as to where each dancer stands, its unfair to the other students who have to remember where their classmates are and go over the same bit of movement over and over as the teacher shows it week after week to people who are missing, and its a major disadvantage to the students who are absent because they miss vital information.

In George Balanchine’s famous piece Serenade (link at bottom of post), he worked only with the students that were present during rehearsals. Everyone not in rehearsal the day he set a section of the dance was not included. Its a great demonstration of how vital attendance is to rehearsal as you watch dancers exit the stage because they weren’t there to learn the next part. I think its an excellent policy to kick dancers out of a section of choreography when they aren’t present when you are at a place like the School of American Ballet, but in a more recreational level, it becomes more difficult to justify. Parents have paid $50+ dollars for a costume, $20+ per recital ticket, and a year’s worth of tuition- they want to see their child on stage for more than 30 seconds.

Now, I don’t mind going over choreography several times if you are confused on the steps, timing, etc if you’ve been to class, in fact, I am happy to do so. It only becomes an issue when there are lots of absences and I have to rework spacing, timing, and reteach the same steps week after week. I have been working the last few weeks to set an ending on my recital pieces and it is taking longer than anticipated because I was missing people in all my classes. One class- the one with the most movement left to set and the most complex choreography, 1/3 of my class was absent last week, and a different 1/3 was absent this week.  The poor students that were present both weeks were confused because their spacing and timing was changed slightly, and the students who were absent were confused because they didn’t know what was going on despite having worked through that section without the music.

I understand that dancers have other obligations to family, church, and school. I want my dancers to attend their sibling’s end of year choir concert. I don’t want to be what keeps a child from her relationship with God. And I want my students to succeed in school and to get all their homework done. I do ask that if you know that you’ll be absent, to please let me know ahead of time and to please meet with a classmate to go over the choreography that we went over in class so you aren’t as far behind next week. I also ask that my dancers plan their homework and school projects out with their dance schedules in mind so that you are able to both get your schoolwork done AND come to dance class. As I become my dancer’s cheerleaders during technique, I also become your cheerleader during rehearsal. The more you prepare on your own, the more committed you are, and the more you attend class, I become more and more willing to work with you in or out of class in the rare case that you do have to miss class or rehearsal.

So students, I ask that you do everything in your power to come to dance class and give me 100% focus, dedication, and commitment as soon as you walk in the studio. Do whatever it takes at home and at school to be able to attend class. Your teacher will thank you, your classmates will thank you, and more importantly, you’ll thank yourself as you see faster growth and steady improvement.

Links to Serenade:

Technique Fundamentals Part II

As I mentioned in my previous post a few weeks ago, building a proper foundation for technique, especially ballet is an essential part of a dancer’s education. Students need to be challenged and given new goals to strive for, but they are never going to be successful without a solid foundation.

Building ballet technique is much like teaching a child to read. A young child must understand the most basic concepts of the alphabet, how to write the letters, and the sounds they make before they are able to read and write. In ballet, the alphabet is learning proper posture and alignment, the 5 basic positions of the arms and legs, and how to point your toes and stretch your leg. Once a student has learned the alphabet, she can begin to make simple words- akin to learning plies, tendus, passes, arabesque (on the floor at first, please), etc. As a student becomes more and more comfortable, we begin to add more difficult words, simple phrases, and eventually sentences.

I like to think of those sentences as more complex movements such as many turns and large jumps such as pirouettes (and eventually turns a la seconde and fouette turns) and grand jetes (and eventually tour jete and grand jete entournant). Think back to your grade school days when you learned to dissect and diagram a sentence. Much like you learned the correct usage of each noun, verb, object, and preposition, in ballet, a student must learn the correct usage of her arms, legs, and head using the more basic movements she’s already learned. These sentences become paragraphs in ballet combinations, and eventually stories in choreography.

For example, some of my students have begun working on fouette turns. Instead of merely asking them to copy what they see me do in the middle of the floor, I’ve built upon movements they’ve already learned. Starting at the barre and then moving into the center with the same movements, we’ve practiced pirouettes, developpes in and out of a plie and a releve, rond de jambes en l’air, and other movement phrases that will be used in our sentence of “fouette turn”. This method allows the students to grasp the different elements of the complex movement, breaking it down piece by piece, and then reconstructing the movement- or sentence- as a whole.

We as teachers are constantly talking about breaking a movement down to help students learn a new skill. The question is, are we breaking it down enough, allowing our students to grasp all the different elements before reconstructing the movement? Do our students know how to spell all the words- perform the simpler moves- that make up our sentence of a more complex movement? Or do our students fail to understand what we’ve broken down in pieces to them because the pieces are still too foreign?

However, we cannot allow our fundamentals to stunt our students’ talent. We must offer them reachable challenges while still building that foundation. In my previous example of fouette turns, I have explained- and demonstrated- what we are striving for, and after only a week or two of building the basics, I had my students attempt their fouette turns, thinking about the pieces and parts we had talked about earlier in class. Each week that we build their foundation, we also try our complex skill out. My students can now grasp an understanding of what the more tedious barre work moves towards, have a challenge to strive to achieve, and can see themselves making progress as we further develop the parts that going their fouette sentence.

Whatever skill set I want to work on in class, I build on starting from the barre. Barre work isn’t just for warming up, its to provide a stable environment in which to practice the fundamentals of a larger skill to be practiced in the center. When I want to work on chasses with my beginning ballet class, we practice tendus into plie at the barre so that all of their chasses begin with that movement, we practice sous-sus both at and away from the barre, and we practice saute in 5th position to find the position of a chasse mid-air.

There are about as many teaching philosophies as there are dance teachers in the world. We all see different elements of a student’s education as important or strive to achieve the elements with different methods, usually shaped by our training backgrounds. I can say that my most successful years as a dancer- the years that I improved the most and that my technique level was at its highest- were the years that I was taught by instructors who not only valued but taught technique fundamentals well. I strive to recreate a similar environment for my own students with the goal of giving them the best possible ballet training I can possibly give.

Technique Fundamentals Part I

One of things that is a core piece of my teaching philosophy is the importance of building a solid foundation for ballet technique. Without the basic knowledge of alignment, turnout, the proper shape of your foot when pointed and of your leg when stretched, you have nothing on which to build fancier, more complex steps. Just as I was sorting out my thoughts on how to best convey how essential a strong foundation is for ballet (and really any dance) technique, I came across this video.

It features a young dancer’s solo variation en pointe. However, as you can see from her beginning pose, her technique is not quite up to par. Her arms and wrists are limp and her back tendu leg is not turned out- her heel is pointing upwards instead of down towards the ground. As the variation progresses, you can see that this dancer’s technique is not as advanced as it should be in order to execute the dance. She does not point her toes, turn out her legs, or get all the way over the box of her pointe shoe. It appears as if she is supposed to be landing in 5th position after many of the moves, although its not clear because her legs aren’t turned out. Her pique turns are done without a true pique- she’s creeping up on her shoe (although not all the way) and stepping with a bent leg.

Now, I don’t mean to completely bash this poor dancer. She’s out there giving it her all. She’s got a smile on her face, full concentration on her performance, and is proud of what she’s presumably worked hard to show. Unfortunately, having a great attitude towards dance and smiling through your performance is not enough. It goes along way towards making good dancers great, but as you can see, its not much without solid technique. I also don’t expect professional level technique out of student dancers, just a foundation on which they can build and practice their art.

I don’t blame the dancer for her lack of technique. Ultimately, the blame falls on her dance teacher. As a teacher, I would feel as though I failed my student if her performance  was anything like this dancer. I would be proud that she gave it 100% and did the best she could given the choreography, however, I would look back and re-evaluate the lessons and rehearsals leading up to this point and determine how I could better educate my young dancers.

This dancer’s teacher did not focus on technique fundamentals, ingraining turned out legs, pointed toes, and straight legs in her students. She also allowed this young girl to dance en pointe before her legs- and her technique- were strong enough. She gave this dancer choreography that was too difficult for her skill level.  Teachers, it is vital that we do not ask our dancers to try something they are not ready for. It is absolutely important that we challenge our students, but we have to make those challenges realistic and achievable. We cannot ask our students to a pirouette if they cannot balance properly on one leg first. We cannot expect intermediate/advanced level work from a student who has been dancing one hour a week for just a year. A beginning student performing beginner moves well is a more successful performance than a beginner student struggling to perform advanced moves. Performances should highlight what dancers can already do well with a few built in, achievable challenges.

I’d like to address teachers and delve deeper in how to achieve that strong foundation in my next post.

Choreographer’s Block

Over the course of the past few weeks, the studio has been preparing for its annual spring recital. For me, this means choosing music and costumes for each of my classes, choreographing a two to three minute piece, setting the dance on my kids, and then cleaning it (making sure everyone is dancing together, with the music, and using the correct foot, arm, etc).

Music and costumes have been chosen and the girls are working on learning their dances each week. All of my dances have endings choreographed to them (or mostly choreographed), except for one. I have choreographer’s block. My beginning pointe class is doing a routine to a string version of a very popular song. Its a lot of fun- I’m stepping out of my choreographic comfort zone of using solely classical music for ballet, and my kids get to mix their new pointe shoes with their jazz flair to a song they know and love.

I have moves made up for about half of their two and a half minute dance. I have listened to both the string and original versions of the song so many times I could probably sing it in my sleep. The song makes me want to get up and dance and let loose, which makes sense that I would choose a song that inspires me. But I’ve lost that inspiration.I turn on the music, mark what’s already choreographed with the intentions of improving until I like the moves. Yet nothing comes. No big picture visual of shapes and patterns in space. No short movement phrase. No thought of “we’ve been working on this particular move in class and it works well with the music here”. Nothing.

Maybe I’ve listened to the song too many times attempting to choreograph moves to it and its lost its magic, becoming just musical phrases strung together instead of a cohesive, inspirational whole. Maybe I’m having difficulty merging their intermediate to advanced ballet technique, their beginning pointe technique, and a jazzy feel. Maybe I’m lost because I didn’t have a full choreographic vision from the start other than “dance the music” – no character or concept to guide me. Maybe I’m at a loss because I’m reaching further out of my comfort zone and was bound to get stuck at some point.  Maybe I’m having trouble because I’m trying to dance in what feels like one square foot of living room space or mentally choreograph while driving.

Problem is, I have a deadline. My students need to have learned their entire routine by the end of the month in order to have ample time to clean, polish, and make the dance performance-ready. Gives me 3 weeks (due to spring break) to choreograph and teach another minute or so of the dance. Often in life, we see that there’s nothing like a fast-approaching deadline to send us last minute inspiration. That deadline induced inspiration helped me put an ending on all my other dances, but this one piece is still giving me trouble.

Crossing my fingers that arriving at the studio early for class tonight, tying my pointe shoes, and listening to the song for the thousand and first time will be my lucky charm.