Performance Memories Part II: Stage Troubles

Performing in the community is important- which is why its one of my core studio fundamentals. Not only does it spread the art form to those who may not otherwise have access, but it helps dancers adapt to different performance conditions with grace and fluidity.

Continuing my theme of performance memories, I will share a few stories of performance conditions that were less than ideal but helped me grow as a dancer and a performer because of them.

  • One of my first community performances was when I was about 8 years old. We were dancing at an outdoor festival and it was unseasonably cold out and it started snowing shortly before we were supposed to dance. Our costumes were just our studio leotards and tights, but fortunately we were able to wear a studio sweatshirt if we had one with us. While the sweatshirt helped, our legs were still barely covered and kneeling on the ground as part of our piece was unpleasant. Luckily the dance was short and there wasn’t much snow (less than an inch), it was still one of the first times I had to really adapt to my dance space.

 

  • When I was a little bit older, my studio was doing an American themed spring recital. My tap number was to the Harlem Globetrotters theme song, which sounds like fun, until you factor in a dozen 10 year olds on stage, each with their own basketball. Now, we practiced how to plie and not how to dribble in our after school hours and even by recital time, most of us couldn’t keep control of the balls. The choreography included us dribbling our basketballs while tapping – hard enough for an adult, let alone a kid- and then passing the balls back and forth. It was definitely a struggle to maintain composure, keep control of the ball, and of course tap all at the same time. I don’t remember much about this piece other than it was a disaster.

 

  • I had the opportunity from late elementary school to early high school to perform in The Nutcracker every December.  I’ll probably do a whole post on all these stories one day but I slipped on soapy “snow”, put out a fire onstage, improvised half a battle with the Nutcracker as the Mouse King, and danced two performances sick as a dog. Lots of quick thinking and adapting there!

There were also times that the given performance space could have hardly been called a “stage”:

  • In high school, we danced at a craft fair that my family’s church was hosting. I’m not sure the fair coordinators were fully aware of the details of our performance or just didn’t think things through completely. So the eight or so of us dancers ended up performing in the middle of the main walkway, at the base of the staircase 90% of people had to use. The space was skinny and not conducive to the circles in the folk dances were showcasing.

 

  • It was with this same studio that we danced at the twice yearly street fair that the studio’s city held. It seemed like each time we performed, the stage got more and more warped and splintery. It was nice to know the size of the stage and to expect worsening conditions each time though.
  • During my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to dance in the community many times and luckily I had encountered enough unpredictable situations at that point to be able to quickly work with what I was given. During National Dance Week we decided to perform in two local public libraries. I can say that I have never encountered a performance space as small as one of these libraries. Instead of allowing us to use their children’s story time room (which wasn’t large but feasible), we danced in between bookshelves. I’m sure the audience felt like they were watching a tennis match instead of a ballet variation with the way I went back and forth across a short, narrow space that was barely to ADA regulations for patrons with wheelchairs. My variation was meant to take up space and fill a large stage with a number of traveling movements and all of sudden I had to make everything stationary.

 

  • I think the most memorable performance set up was because it was the most bizarre, not because it was the worst. Over the summer after high school graduation, we performed the same pieces (a few folk dances and a few ballet variations) from the library at an even crazier space- in the middle of a grocery store! My variation started with a number of curtsies, and I still joke about bowing to the cheese, the nuts, and the wine. The space was small, but after dancing at the library just a few weeks prior, we felt like we had a ton of space. However, everyone- the customers, our parents, and us dancers- were confused as to why our director had chosen for us to dance in the middle of a Whole Foods. I’m all for performance opportunities at no cost to the audience, but there is a time and a place and a grocery store in the middle of summer is not really the place.

 

Stay tuned- next week I will share the stories of my favorite performances and the week after will focus on my choreography projects of the past.

Performance Memories Part I: Costume Fails

The beginning of May means its performance season- our spring dance recital is about three and a half weeks away. Performances can be stressful for dancers, no matter how experienced, but the more you dance on stage, the easier it becomes to adapt to any mishaps, mistakes, or costume troubles. I thought I’d take some time this month and share some of my performance memories- the good, the bad, and the ugly. Today, I’ll focus on the worst costumes I’ve had to wear.

Teachers should take their time choosing a costume for a particular piece- one that fits all dancers, works with the theme and message of the dance, stays within a set budget, and of course is age appropriate. Sometimes teachers take their students’ opinions into consideration, but ultimately, have the final say. This means, not every dancer is going to like every costume they wear, but most look great on stage. Not every costume works however and I have some stories that I love to share:

  • When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I performed a tumbling routine to a Mickey Mouse version of “Whoop there it is”- straight out of the early ’90s. We wore a two piece costume with multi colored ruffles on both the top and bottom. Other than it being questionably age-appropriate with the bare midriff, its biggest problem for most dancers was that it was just a sign of the times. However, for my scrawny self, the ruffled bikini style bottoms were too big and made me look like I had a full load in my pants. Luckily, my aunt was able to alter to help it, but it still never looked great on me.

 

  • It’s now the late ’90s and I’m in middle school. Our school dance department’s spring performance was themed around the future as we approached the new millennium. For our modern/jazz class, our teacher had chosen a trendy costume, though it was quite impractical, and honestly, quite hideous. We wore these halter dresses that had blue crushed velvet bodices and a skirt that was this white vinyl-y faux leather material. It felt weird, the halter top was not sturdy, and a dress was not the best option for the piece with lots of inversions and floor work. Gross.

 

  • Another horrible middle school costume came when I was in 8th grade. My dance studio was putting on a production of Cinderella and I was cast as a horse with one other classmate. Now, the color choice for our costume was the first questionable decision. The director could have chosen a dark brown shade, but instead, she chose tan. Think nude for a Caucasian- i.e. both dancers. We wore nude unitards on stage with the headdresses that my mom created to the best of her ability, but regardless, it didn’t look good. In my aunt’s words, we looked like “naked Indians” from the audience. If that wasn’t bad enough, remember that we are in middle school dealing with puberty and the many changes  that come with that- suffice it to say I was uncomfortable and nervous that entire performance.

 

  • My time in my high school’s dance department brought a few crazy costumes and challenges. One year, my teacher tried to create Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory through dance. The piece was a colossal failure at best and we were wearing street clothes, many of them not meant for dancing. My classmate, who portrayed Violet -the character who turns into a blueberry- wore a halter dress and danced with a large yoga ball. During her solo, her halter strap broke, she almost had a Janet Jackson moment and had to run off stage and tape her dress back together. I was an oompa loompa and had to spray my hair green (in the movie it was orange but okay?) for every. single. on stage rehearsal. My hair had green in it for weeks after. Another year, the same teacher decided it would be cool for a modern dance for us to wear tutus that had sections rubber banded to create a messy look- it was not cute.

Throughout the years, I’ve had plenty of fabulous costumes and even more unmemorable ones, but I always reach for these stories when my dancers complain that their costume is too itchy/poofy/boring/ugly/whatever. When choosing costumes myself, I try to take everyone’s body shape/size, their age, and the movements of their piece into great consideration. Oftentimes, I struggle to choose a costume or reject one that my colleagues might have chosen because I don’t think my dancers will be comfortable- I don’t need them to like it, but I do need them to feel good wearing it, or their dancing suffers.

Stay tuned for more performance memories including dealing with small performance spaces, onstage mishaps, and more. No pictures for the worst costumes, but there will be some for other memories 🙂

Getting Organized

One piece of starting your own business that you don’t normally think about is having a space to work. Due to space constraints, I haven’t had a place that I could set up a desk, spread out, and easily work with computer and books since college. Yes, a kitchen table or couch will get the job done, but its important to have a dedicated space to sit down and work.

Now, I’m obviously still very much in the pre-planning stages of entrepreneurship. I’m still working on the research for what it takes to start your own business- how to create a business plan, market research, and even as basic as determining my fundamental values. I had grand plans at the beginning of the year to commit to researching and planning every day, but that’s been very much unrealistic. My new goal is closer to once  a week, though at times that doesn’t seem quite doable. I feel though if I push myself to take deliberate steps towards my goal of dance studio ownership at least once a week, actually working minimum of every two weeks is very manageable.

My husband and I bought our first home this past fall, about six months ago. We have a spare room that we have intentions on turning into a guest bedroom. Right now, though, getting a second bed for this room isn’t doable, but there is no sense in wasting this great space. My mom gave me a table that she and my dad made for my sister and I when we were very young now that I have space for it. This table is now my desk and I have more space than I’ve had in a long time and to top it off, I have a great view of our backyard.

With my new space, an organized bookshelf within easy reach, and a renewed motivation after speaking to my boss at my full time (non dance related) job, I feel like I am set up for productivity. Now, I just need to invest in a new computer in the not too distant future….

The “Ideal Ballet Body”

For many years, ballet dancers had to fit a very specific stereotype, particularly while famous choreographer George Balanchine was working with the New York City Ballet. In fact, one of my most used ballet resources, Classical Ballet Technique by Gretchen Ward Warren, describes the ideal female dancer as having the following physical characteristics on page 66:

  • A height of 5’2″ to 5’8″ tall
  • A weight of 85 to 115 pounds
  • A small head
  • A long neck
  • Shoulders that are wider than the hips
  • A small bust
  • A straight back with a torso that is proportional to the rest of the body
  • Long arms and hands
  • Narrow hips
  • Small posterior
  • Long, straight legs with slight hyperextension
  • Slim thighs
  • Thin ankles and long, well arched feet

Now, I love this particular book as it breaks down so many of the basic and common movements of ballet with great descriptions and pictures every step of the way. However, every time I flip past this page it makes me angry.

The first two descriptions together do not generally make a healthy dancer. Using a BMI (body mass index) calculator, the one of the only ways to be in both the “ideal ballet dancer” category and to be firmly in a normal, healthy BMI range, a ballerina would have to be 5’2″ and 115! And that doesn’t even take into consideration how rare having all of the above qualities are in women. Women are biologically created to have larger busts, wider hips, and generally have curves which are completely absent from this “ideal”.

Unfortunately, the “ideal ballet body” was hailed for decades and many professional companies and pre-professional training schools have/had contractual clauses forcing their dancers to meet these standards. Eating disorders became extremely prevalent among female ballet dancers as they were pressured to conform or loose their jobs.

When I was growing up, the ideal was still very popular. As I reached puberty, the norm of stick straight dancers was ingrained in almost every aspect of the ballet world- right down to many leotards and costumes not being created with a woman’s curves in mind. While I was in high school, at barely a C cup, I was told multiple times that I had entirely too much bust and would never be able to become a professional ballerina! I was young and on the skinny side of healthy at 5’6″ and around 110 pounds, barely in the healthy BMI range, yet I was considered to have too many curves to get into a professional ballet company.

Between being told that my skinny self was still too big to be a ballerina, witnessing friends who struggled with eating disorders, and then studying the prevalence of unhealthy dancers, I began to develop a passion to destroy the “ideal ballet body” norm for many reasons including:

  1. It encourages negative behaviors and body images. Many dancers develop poor eating habits and a negative feeling towards food, which robs them of not only their health but of the fuel needed to dance 8 or more hours a day.
  2. It limits the number of people that have access to the wonders of the professional ballet world. Many talented dancers are either turned away, or like myself, discouraged from auditioning, from ballet schools and companies.
  3. It goes against ballet’s roots and history. In the Romantic era of ballet, when it moved from the French royalty to stage, the dance form evolved as a way to celebrate the female body. How does one celebrate the female body when the “ideal” body type fights the biological norms?

While the ballet world has fortunately begun to be more accepting of more body types, it still has a long way to go. With any luck, the ballet world can continue its spirit of inclusion and become more like the contemporary dance community. And with my future studio, I hope to create dancers that are healthy and know that any body can do ballet.

 

Costume Woes Update

In one of my recent posts, I wrote about the struggles I’ve had with one particular recital costume over the last few weeks. It was a costume that my mom and I were putting together ourselves instead of ordering from a costume catalog. Here’s an update on the costume.

Big picture? The costumes are completed and finalized.

The green button down shirt that was a bit big on the dancer, we decided to keep. It coordinated well enough with her partner’s green skirt and the dancer really liked the style, so we went with it. If we decide that its too big with her jeggings (that she didn’t have for class this week yet), we can probably alter the shirt or style it differently so its not so noticeable. Finding that shirt was so close to impossible to begin with that it wasn’t worth it to try to track down another one.

The white blouses that I had an issue with ending up working out in my favor also. Even though I had ordered the blouses online, I went into the brick and mortar store to speak with a customer service rep about the asinine policy of not price matching an even exchange online. The store was incredibly helpful and returned the sizes I didn’t need and convinced the online reps to honor the price that I had originally paid for the blouses. The new sizes arrived just in time for my dancers to try them on in class this week, and thankfully they all fit perfectly.

My mom’s adventures in making the skirts were only half of what I thought they were- while she was visiting to size them on my dancers, she filled me in on even more craziness that she faced. But, the other day we were able to completely finish the four skirts and adjust the waist on each girl. Other than being washed and ironed, the skirts are ready for recital.

So, its been great news for the costumes that I was struggling with the most. And, to top it off, my mom and I are both very pleased with the way the costumes finally came together after the time and effort we’ve put in. I am just waiting on three more classes’ recital costumes, which I’m hoping will have arrived at the dance studio by the time we come back from spring break in two weeks.

Come recital, I will have pictures of the completed costumes. 🙂

How useful is my senior Capstone project really?

In order to finish my B.A. in Dance, I had to complete a capstone project that represented both a culmination of my college experiences and a look into the future. For my project, I chose to create a curriculum guide for the dance studio that I envisioned owning at the time.

My focus in the project was to create a guide for a future dance studio that creates a well rounded in dancer in six key areas that I felt were essential to any dancer’s training

  1. Ballet and Contemporary Technique (teaching the movement)
  2. Artistry, Creativity, and Composition (creating the artist)
  3. Dance History (with a focus on that of ballet and contemporary)
  4. Dance Diversity (anything other than ballet and contemporary/modern)
  5. Health and Nutrition (taking care of one’s body)
  6. Career Opportunities (turning your passion into a career)

Although I trained extensively (see my post A Personal Dance History), I felt like I lacked a comprehensive education for many years. My goal with the curriculum guide was to ensure that my students did not have gaps in their dance education while training in a pre-professional atmosphere. I split my students up into a few skill levels – Creative Movement (3-5 year olds), Pre-Technique (6-8 year olds), and Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced levels based on skill- and described out each of the 6 areas of education would be addressed.

I completed this project several years ago and with only a little bit of teaching experience. Needless to say, my perspective has changed a bit.

After distilling the four core values of the dance studio that I am now working towards (see Return to Blogging/ Core Studio Values), I went back to my capstone project with a more objective eye. Is this curriculum guide actually useful?

Come to find out that although age and experience have made me wiser, there are many parts of my college project that are usable and perhaps even practical for the future. My core values of a healthy dancer, a ballet focus, a supportive atmosphere, and a community-centered artist are represented throughout the curriculum guide without me even realizing that’s what my fundamental studio values were. Basically, my identity as a dance instructor has only become more solidified as the years have passed.

However, this project does have some serious flaws that I will have to overcome.

  1. The guide assumes a pre-professional conservatory style atmosphere with a schedule full of daily classes and weekly/monthly seminars and workshops. It does not take into account a dancer’s academic schedule.
  2. The guide does not give any hints as to the best way to build a dance studio from nothing and build to the point where all the classes mentioned are possible.
  3.  The guide only focuses on students who are serious about pursuing a career in a dance-related field. It does not provide guidance for recreational dancers who are present at any dance studio, especially one that is just beginning.

I do believe I can use my capstone project in conjunction with my four core  values to create the dance studio that I envision. I do, however, have to be conscious that I will have to build up to the point where I can use it as intended and to always be open minded enough to adjust as necessary.

Costume Woes

Spring Recital is approaching quickly. Every year, I seem to give myself a challenge that is harder than I had initially thought. Last year, I hit a snag when trying to finish choreographing a routine that was out of my comfort-zone and asking a lot of 2 minutes of movement (see previous post tilted Choreographer’s Block from around this time last spring). This year, my troubles come in the form of costumes.

Our dance recital theme this year is “God Bless America”. We have chosen music that incites a spirit of inclusiveness and a love of country in this fiercely political world. For one of my ballet routines, I chose an excerpt from an Aaron Copeland ballet inspired by the feeling of American and pioneering. I have split my dancers, all girls, into two groups of “gals” and “guys” which will be distinguished by their costumes. However, I wasn’t looking for a stereotypical “country” costume complete with faux denim and gingham.

I have a vision of pioneer calico skirts for the “gals” and a coordinating color button down shirt paired with denim leggings for the “guys”. My mom has graciously agreed to make the skirts from fabric we picked out together -I’m sure she could offer her own post on her adventures with that project- and the dancers will be responsible for their own jeggings as it is such a common article of clothing. So the bottom half of my dancers are covered.

One of my inspirations, however, a much more simplified version of each more suited for a studio recital.

My challenges are with the top half of my costumes.I searched, searched, and searched for the perfect coordinating shirts for all the dancers. It was a challenge, but I finally decided on the right ones and ordered shirts for my dancers. I breathed a sigh of relief- one less thing for me to have to worry about.

However, the not all the shirts fit. One of the “guys” shirts is on round 2 and still not the correct size. Unfortunately, I have found that a solid or muted print green button-down shirt to be nearly impossible to find. I finally found one that was the correct shade and took a chance on sizing even though it was a boy’s shirt for a small junior sized dancer. That risk did not pay off and of course the correct size was out of stock. So, back to the drawing board. I have been in numerous clothing stores and finally decided to settle on a shirt that wasn’t quite the right shade but would work if it fit. Guess what? The shirt didn’t fit. I’m crossing my fingers that I can exchange for a smaller size, if not, too big is better than too small and we can alter it. Worry begins to return.

The “gals” tops didn’t prove to be worry-free either. Only half of the shirts fit properly. Prepared to exchange for the correct size, I discover that the price has more than doubled since my original purchase and is now out of budget. The store will not honor the original sales price. Problem number 2. And these shirts aren’t just a little too small, my girls cannot dance in them.

I feel like after weeks of searching for exactly the right shirt within my budget (and costume invoices have already been distributed), I am back to square one. Only a few of my dancers have a complete costume now. I have to go back and do more research to find another set of blouses for the “girls” and one more shirt for the “guys”. A search that was already difficult.

I’m feeling as if my expectations are too high. And perhaps they are. But then again, did not realize that a green button down a feminine white blouse would be too hard to find. I need to be open to compromise and realize that I may not be able to get precisely what I have envisioned.

Fortunately, I still have a few more weeks to do searching and what’s recital season without a few bumps in the road?