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Great Expectations

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Getting the most from your performance group means expecting the best from yourself

By Diane Gudat

All dance teachers want to bring out the best in their performing groups. Although many factors are involved, the most important one is to create a nurturing, stimulating working environment. Ideally, you want to establish a family feeling that encourages the dancers to work together toward a common goal. To ensure that, no dancer should be made to feel more important than another. Performance groups that consistently feature one or two dancers or showcase male dancers excessively run the risk of making the others feel less important.

As the artistic director, you determine the flavor of the group. In order for the dancers to work toward your goals and expectations, you must decide what you want the group to achieve. Before you hold your first audition, develop a mission statement that defines the group’s purpose, focus, and goals. Give it to your staff and, later, to the dancers and their parents. Make sure that everyone who works with the dancers understands your goals and priorities.

With mission statement in hand, you’re ready for the next step: choosing the dancers.

Dancer selection
Schedule auditions at the same time every year, and announce the dates and expectations early. Choose an audition panel of judges composed of friends or colleagues who do not work with the dancers on a regular basis. Make the requirements for membership in a performance group clear. Will the dancers need to demonstrate a certain level of flexibility or be able to do a double pirouette or strong grand jeté?

Provide the dancers with a critique of their audition. Point out strengths and weaknesses and offer suggestions to improve their performance. Ask them to write a short letter in response to the critique that states what they believe they can and should work on. Ask those who are selected to describe the personal strengths (like leadership, spirit, organizational qualities, promptness, friendliness, or a good memory) they will bring to the performance “family.” In strong families, each member feels needed and understands their role and what they contribute to the group.

Parent/student responsibilities
Provide those who audition with participation guidelines, including required dance classes; rules about attendance; when, where, and how often rehearsals will be held; and fund-raising responsibilities. Require that the students who are selected for the group (and their parents) read and sign the guidelines; keep copies of the signed documents on file. Make it clear that all members must adhere to the guidelines and will face consequences if they do not. Special treatment can cause a breakdown in the group’s structure.

Many performance companies have a parent booster club that supports the group through fund-raising. Make sure that the parents understand that they have no say in decisions about activities or artistic elements; their purpose is simply to support the director’s goals for the benefit of the group. Have the parents form committees that utilize their personal talents or interests, such as making travel arrangements, raising funds, maintaining costumes, organizing transportation, and providing snacks.

Communication
Good communication with the dancers and their parents is all-important. Decide well in advance when and where rehearsals, workshops, competitions, and performances will be held. Parent meetings should be regularly scheduled events and attendance should be required. Send out newsletters frequently and post information at the studio on a designated performance company bulletin board.

Keep a professional distance from the dancers and their parents. Familiarity makes it difficult for you to be objective and consistent when problems arise, and when you do enforce rules, students and parents may feel that their friendship has been betrayed. Those who are not in the circle of friends might feel slighted and accuse you of favoritism.

Tell your students to leave the drama at the door. Do not allow them to discuss personal problems, boyfriends or girlfriends, or bodily functions during class or rehearsals unless they relate to the work at hand. Students must understand the effect their mind-sets and attitudes have on the group. Attitude is extremely contagious, whether it is positive or negative.

Nip problems in the bud when necessary, but do not resolve conflicts between students unless they are major or affect performances. Teach students to mediate and be responsible for their interpersonal relationships. Older students can show leadership and guidance in mediating problems.

Behavior
Make sure that the teaching staff, demonstrators, and older dancers set good examples in terms of energy, enthusiasm, expectations, and professionalism. If you see apathy, rude or abusive behavior, or lateness among the role models, you can expect to see it in the dancers. The same is true for positive or inspirational attitudes and behaviors.

Identify leaders for each part of the routine (the dancer in the center front or someone who cannot see anyone else in the choreography) and make them feel important and responsible. Learning to work as a team is an important life lesson, and it will make the group look polished. Even though there is a leader, all dancers must accept personal responsibility for learning steps and staying in formation. We use the mantra “You are the boss of you.”

Reward leadership and other positive behaviors with praise. Catch your dancers doing something right instead of looking for what is wrong. Give small awards to those who display the most energy, best memory, best turn, or most improvement during the rehearsal. Award the MVP (Most Valuable Player) award after a competition or convention to one dancer from each group who showed the most improvement, leadership, kindness, or spirit.

Classes and rehearsals
Decide what to focus on in each class or rehearsal, and highlight any skills that need improvement. Create incentives for success, such as charts and small rewards for goal achievement.

Teach the dancers to rehearse with the energy and expressiveness they will use onstage. Encourage natural smiles and caution them not to exaggerate their facial expressions. As an exercise, have the dancers face the mirror and listen to the music without moving, responding only with facial expressions. Give them key words to describe what you want them to show: “happy,” “surprised,” “angry,” “confused,” “frightened,” and so on. Start these exercises with young students to allow them to gain confidence as they grow. Older students might be self-conscious and need time to become comfortable with the exercises.

Set realistic goals for the group and reevaluate them each season. Expect personal excellence from each dancer. We use the phrase (borrowed from Oprah!) “Let no one outwork you today.” Their work ethics are their personal investment toward excellence. If everyone works as hard as they can, the entire company will move forward.

Hold company class before rehearsals to work on some of the challenges in the choreography and strengthen the group. All levels should take this class together to reinforce the group’s family feeling.

Choreograph at the dancers’ level with a few small challenges for growth, and don’t hesitate to make changes when necessary. Stay positive! The process of learning must be made to appear more important than the end product. The success is in the lessons learned and the positive experiences in the studio along the way.

Emphasize the dancers’ need to keep their eyes forward and be aware of those around them. Periodically rehearse while facing away from the mirror to limit dependency on visual cues for correctness.

Invite other dance professionals to critique your work, and listen to their comments. Allow others to teach or choreograph so that you can objectively observe the dancers in class or rehearsal. (Insist that they comply with your standards for music and movement.)

Performances
Choose competitions, performances, and workshops carefully. Do your research (including asking other teachers for their opinions about various events) and consider the following questions.

  • What will it cost and how will it be paid for? Constant bills or fund-raising can exhaust a parent’s initial enthusiasm for your goals.
  • How will it enhance your dancers’ education and help them improve?
  • What are the qualifications of the faculty? Will they be a positive influence on your dancers?
  • Is it a win–win or win–lose situation? Are the dancers mature enough to accept a judge’s decision? Are the parents prepared to handle the situation?

Listen to the judges’ comment tapes and watch videos of rehearsals and performances. It is never easy to receive criticism or relive an imperfect performance, but doing so will help target strengths and identify flaws. Be willing to grow with each experience and keep your sense of humor. Getting more from our students often means expecting and getting more from ourselves.

Choreography tips

Choose music and choreography that will best display each group. Remove all questionable lyrics and keep the music short. Short routines allow the students to work on clarity and performance quality rather than memorization and stamina. Keep unison dancing to a minimum, particularly in complicated turn sections. The following choreographic elements will enhance your work.

  • Utilize a variety of floor patterns.
  1. Keep groups moving through each other.
  2. Use formations such as circles, lines, triangles, and columns.
  3. Choreograph entrances and exits during the piece.
  • Include interaction between the dancers.
  1. Teach the students to establish eye contact with and react to each other onstage.
  2. Use partnering and weight sharing.
  • Create layers of choreography.
  1. Use canons or have dancers do different steps to the same portion of music.
  2. Use a variety of tempos. 
  • Create levels within the choreography.
  1. Utilize different planes with floor work, leaps, and centered movement.
  2. Add variety with benches, stairs, and chairs.
  3. Include simple lifts and body stacking.
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