Things I Don’t Get (Dance Training Edition)

A couple questions about typical dance training practices (a little one and a bigger one) that I’ve thought/talked about lately:

1) Why do we so often phrase corrections as body-type-specific, even when they’re not?

For instance, if you’re a shorter dancer, you’ve probably heard something like “Because you’re small, you have to make your movement even bigger.” And if you’re taller, you’ve probably heard “You need to use that length to move bigger.”

Both are basically asking you to move bigger, which could be a perfectly valid correction for anyone. Is reminding people of their height actually useful here?

Same with “You need to really point your feet, because your ankles aren’t as flexible” versus “Your need to really point your feet to use all that ankle flexibility.” If the point is just “point your feet,” is it actually relevant to point out obvious physical features?

I’m sure I’ve done this myself, maybe because it makes the correction feel more “personal” (without adding any actual personalized direction). But at a closer glance, it seems, well . . . pointless or even counterproductive to needlessly associate technique with body type. Sure some technical corrections are body type-specific, but if they’re not, why pretend they are?

2) Why do we assume that preschoolers can handle improv, but not middle-schoolers?

We put preschoolers in “creative movement” classes, because they’re not developmentally “mature” enough for structured technique and choreography. By age 7, they’re supposed to be too old and for that.

These “creative movement” exercises look suspiciously like improv classes, which usually show up in more advanced dance training–but not before high school or college, when the dancers are considered technically/artistically/intellectually/emotionally “mature” enough. And if they do have some improv experience before that, we assume that they must be an extra “mature” group of students.

Why this improv gap? I understand that there are other important aspects of training to focus on during this intermediate period, and that every school has to make some choices when it comes to allocating time.

But I have a hard time buying the “not mature enough” argument that gets thrown around a lot. Why do we trust 3-year-olds to decide how to move their bodies not 13-year-olds? Sure lots of middle-schoolers tend to be self-conscious about improvisation, but maybe that would be different if they never stopped doing it.


Note: I don’t teach on a regular basis and I do mean these as questions, not just criticisms. So if you’re a teacher (or student) who sees a good reason for doing these things, I’d love to hear and discuss it. I’m just less inclined to hold onto teaching practices without a good why.

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So You Think They’re Too Young?

So You Think You Can Dance recently announced a new season, “The Next Generation,” featuring kids 8-13. I’m not all that excited.

I’ll admit that my feelings about SYTYCD in general are pretty lukewarm. It attracts some very talented dancers and good choreographers, but once they did a “sexy dentist” routine, I started wondering if the show was reaching its limit. Still, despite being a little weary of tilts and crop-tops, I have to admit that the show has really expanded the range and quality of dance featured on mainstream TV (even if that still represents a relatively small slice of the larger dance world).

But the younger cast seems like part of an unfortunate trend–especially, but not exclusively in the dance world–of emphasizing child celebrities.

Now it’s not that I don’t admire talented kid dancers. I definitely wasn’t cranking out lengthy turn sequences when I was eight, but if you are, good for you! Unlike some others, I don’t automatically assume that a very advanced young dancer is exploited, destined to burn out, or deprived of a childhood. Of course, these things can be the case, but it there are also some genuinely gifted, hardworking, and passionate kiddos out there.

The issue is when we as a culture get overly fixated on the child prodigy ideal, gawking over their youth as much as their abilities. Yes the title “The Next Generation” suggests that these are future stars with their real careers ahead of them. But in reality, when we repeatedly focus the spotlight on early excellence, that becomes seen as the goal itself, rather than a step on the way to something greater (and post-pubescent). We see this with “instafamous” competition kids and “master classes” given by girls from Dance Moms.

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SYTYCD Season 20?

Idolizing child prodigies probably isn’t all that good for the prodigies themselves.  Besides the pressure and fear of disappointing that comes with the extra attention, what kind of message are these kids getting about growing up? If half of your appeal is being young, how can getting older feel like anything besides a loss? (More specifically when it comes to SYTYCD, I’m really hoping that high injury rates and excessive sexualization of female dancers don’t carry over to the junior edition.)

But beyond those chosen few, these TV shows and cultural attitudes also shape the aspirations of other young dancers. Do we want them aspiring to be 10-year-old TV stars? Or aspiring to have sustainable careers as adult professionals? Or even aspiring to continue dancing throughout their lives?

It’s not impossible for one individual to accomplish all of those things, but as goals, they demand very different training priorities. Hopes of child stardom push dancers to focus on the immediate product: to push for bigger, higher, more, and most importantly, sooner. To focus on presentation and exposure over consistent technical training and education. To elevate solo performances over ensemble work or collaborative skills.

Longevity, on the other hand, requires dancers to focus on developing sound technique, generally prioritizing alignment over flash and quicker advancement. To understand their bodies well enough to work intelligently around limitations or injuries. To realize that being a responsible, contributing team member is as important a professional skill as being a good soloist. To recognize that artistic development is a potentially lifelong process that they are just starting.

Let’s be real: our culture is already youth-centric enough–dance even more so–without the child star aspect. Dancers are known for having extremely short careers. Yes, this has to do with physical aspects of aging, but also with an industry that is all-too-eager to replace more mature dancers with younger and shinier (not to mention cheaper) up-and-comers.

And yet, some of the performers that most inspire me are those who have stuck with dance–in whatever form–into their 40s, 50s, and beyond. Who have shown that older moving bodies can be intelligent, expressive, and beautiful, even if they have different needs and functions than younger ones. Who have moved beyond the competitive ambition of early adulthood (which is totally valid–I’m so there now) to define their own personal values and contributions as artists.  Who have repeatedly challenged themselves to keep growing, changing, and reinventing themselves in their work.

So if mainstream attention shifts toward even younger wiz kids, will it become even harder for us as dancers to convince the public that we are not disposable? That we gain something of value in our years of work and experience? That we have something to say in our dancing, and we need some time to say it? That dance is a relevant form of human expression–that doesn’t restrict the definition of “human” to those under 30 (or 13).

Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun to watch awesome 11-year-olds, but if I had to choose an “impressive for her age” dance idol, it would more likely be that 95-year-old woman taking class at Steps in a green unitard. Because while SYTYCD: The Geriatric Edition may be unlikely, that’s not going to stop those who need to dance and are in it for the long haul.

Going Home

(A snippet from something I’m writing)

Jung talked about people wanting to regress to the womb in difficult times. But what if we actually could? What everyone revisited the womb for just a moment and saw that it was wet and lonely and cramped and had a pretty darn high mortality rate? Would we realize that it never really could provide the comfort and safety we were seeking, and search around us for answers instead? Would we start looking forward instead of back? Would we finally grow up and get on with life?

Then again, Jung said a lot of crap.

Intensive Life

So where have I been this week? (No I’m not apologizing for my lack of posting, though I have been busy and pretty exhausted, if you were wondering.) I just finished my first week working as a chaperone for Joffrey Ballet School’s San Francisco program, and I’m having a fabulous time with the people, the place, and of course, the dancing.

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The most exciting perk of my job is getting to take class with the program. It’s a very diverse contemporary ballet-focused program which has involved doing everything from classical variations to contact improv, and the faculty is incredible.

Because of my chaperoning schedule, I sometimes have to take class with younger groups. While I totally appreciate the opportunity to take class with people my own age when I can, it has also been a really informative experience to take class with younger dancers. For one, it has made me more conscious of the way I take class (how I learn combinations, how I respond to group corrections, what I do when I’m on the sides, how I manage my space, etc.). I guess I feel some pressure to be a role model, not just as a dancer, but also as a student/class-taker.

It’s also interesting to watch dancers at various ages and stages of technical/artistic development take class, particularly since it’s been a while since I’ve been in a dance setting that included younger kids. It’s easy to look at adult/professional dancers and not think about how they got to that point, but looking at students, I can see how different elements of dance training “click” at different points for different individuals.

The irony in all of this this is that almost every kid who has ever been at a summer dance intensive (including myself in the past) gets really concerned about what class level they are placed in. And while everyone has heard the “it doesn’t matter, you can improve in any class, work on basics, push yourself, blah blah blah” spiel, we don’t immediately realize just how true it is. I’ve known this stuff for a long time, but now, at a point where I’m more or less responsible for my own training and just thrilled to be in class all day, when I’m standing in a class of fourteen-year-olds and all I can think is “I’m dancing and learning stuff! Awesome!” it has a different kind of resonance.

Another highlight of this week was a Q&A session with the faculty. This gave me a lot of thoughts and feels that I might just have to make a separate post about, but in short, it was both surprising and encouraging to see that they had varied and non-conventional paths to their careers. Their stories included late starts, non-dance college degrees, parental resistance, and paralyzing back injuries–not exactly typical steps in the “how to have a dance career” eHow–but it was clear that their intense commitment and tenacity, as well as talent, allowed them to carve out their own routes.

A few words that stuck from this week:

  • “Instead of banging your head against the door, you could use the doorknob.”

Josie Walsh on working hard versus working smart

  • “Sometimes fear is an indicator of where you should be going.”

–Josie again

  • “Be careful about trying to emulate people. What you see isn’t always what’s going on.”

Allison DeBona when asked about her role models

  • “Be aware of what other people are doing, and then do something else.”

Sara Silkin teaching improv

Now on to week 2!

Back.

Some thoughts that went through my head on my way back to school.

  • I don’t want to go. Which is weird. I’ve been looking forward to this semester for a while and break seemed way too long, but now that I’m actually going, I have this aching feeling of stress and sadness. I guess the act of leaving itself is always hard. I guess the TSA doesn’t make it any easier. Plus I actually am sad to leave my family.
  • It’s funny how all progress in independence and maturity just fell away once I stepped into my parents’ house. Context really is everything. Now I feel like I’m 12 again and some part of me is freaking out about going to the airport alone.
  • Seeing SF lit up from the plane during takeoff: woah this place is beautiful. Bye.
  • Taking a shuttle from the airport in the morning: woah that sunrise. Why don’t I get up at 6 everyday? Besides the obvious . . .
  • This is the first time I’ve driven into New York and thought “Okay, I know this place. I’m home.” It’s funny how the same sights that were new and different last time now invoke comfort and familiarity. It reminds me that progress and growth are real.
  • Woah, I live here.

Things I Learned in 2013

  1. College admissions are not controlled by some magical, divine force. No matter what they tell you about ending up where you’re “meant to be,” it’s really just people and numbers on the other side of the process.
  2. That said, most people don’t need a flawlessly-matched college to have a positive experience.
  3. Moving, distance, semi-independent living, urban navigation, and time management are not nearly as hard as people make them out to be.
  4. It’s one thing to hear older artists talk about how they don’t care about success or external validation and like the idea, but it’s another to genuinely feel this way about myself. I need some distance from the constant panic and uncertainty of young adulthood before I can get to that place, and that’s okay.
  5. There is more than one way to be social.
  6. You know how people slightly older than you seem to have it all figured out. They don’t.
  7. Everyone’s life looks way more exciting/perfect on Facebook.
  8. It’s totally okay to feel lots of different things simultaneously. Acknowledging this make every one-word answer to “How are you?” feel painfully dishonest.
  9. Everyone is shamefully ignorant about something. Google helps.
  10. Not all snow is adequate for snowman building.
  11. I don’t actually know what my parents are thinking.
  12. People have no idea what I’m thinking either. Explaining is important.
  13. Java and JavaScript are actually not the same thing.

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Have a great new year, people. Or an average one. No pressure.