2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers

November 2016 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | Landing Lifts and Turning Heads

by Patrick Corbin

Tip 1
Developing lifting skills is fundamental to learning how to partner. Teachers often emphasize a lift’s take-off and apex, but the most important part of any lift is the landing.

Tip 2
“Look side, farther side, all the way side!” Sometimes I find it difficult to get students to turn their heads. Clarity of focal intent can be tricky. Students often think they are turning their heads when they are merely shifting their eyes.

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October 2016 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | Landing Jumps and Trusting Partners

Tip 1 We want students to jump high and give the illusion of being suspended in midair. But what about landings? Do your students make a lot of noise when they land? Are they able to bounce high in the air but unable to put their heels down when landing? Landing carelessly is likely to lead to injuries. To develop a strong, sustainable, and healthy jump, a young dancer must develop a pliant landing with a generous plié. Here are two helpful directions that are easy for students to remember and effective in reminding them to land softly.
Tip 2 Trust may be the most crucial aspect of partnering. Partners must have faith in each other to achieve the sometimes seemingly impossible tasks that choreography calls for. One way to build this trust is an exercise I call “Blind Date.”

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September 2016 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers

Tip 1
Young dancers often become self-conscious and timid when asked simply to walk; make sure to teach students this necessary skill.
Tip 2
Are your students stuck in the mirror? They may be addicted to looking at their own images, or they may be using the mirror as a tool to mask sequencing problems. In my own teaching, I became weary of repeating, “Don’t get stuck in the mirror.” One day, instead of repeating myself once again, I pointed at the mirror and shouted, “She lies!” This broke the students out of their mirror stupor with a laugh; for the rest of class, they used the mirror less. I now use this idea almost daily. When I notice students focusing on the mirror, I point to it and say, “What does she do?” The students respond with a resounding “She lies!” As a result of this practice, my students now depend less on the mirror.

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August 2016 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | “Relinquish Your Ribs” and Rhythmic Turns

Tip 1
When students’ ribs are splayed, it probably means they are not engaging the abdominal muscles correctly. Throughout my early training, instructors would often tell me to engage the abdominals by puffing out my chest and sucking in my stomach, using words like “hold,” “grip,” “tighten,” and “squeeze.” Unfortunately, this created tension in my torso and was a terrible waste of energy. I was well into my 20s and taking class with the great Susan McGuire (a longtime Paul Taylor dancer) when I heard her say, “Relinquish your ribs.”

Tip 2.
Multiple turns are not the province of ballet only; modern and contemporary choreographers do sometimes ask for them. Yet this skill can be enigmatic. Turns come and go, and sometimes we wonder if we ever understood them. At times in my performing career, turns came easily; at others, they eluded me. Then, during one period of excellent turning, it dawned on me that when I was “on,” my turns flowed with the music. The rhythms of my head spotting and my body turning were harmonious.

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July 2016 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | True Side Bends and the Pinkie Proposal

Tip 1
In a side bend exercise, students may pike and pitch forward slightly, thinking they are increasing their side bend. Instead, they are likely inhibiting it in the long run. Remind them, as you demonstrate and as they do the exercise: “Truly side!” They won’t be able to bend far at first, but with repetition their spines will loosen and they will both increase their true side bend and develop the strength to support it. Bad habits always creep back in, so keep constant watch for the true side bend.

Tip 2
Lifeless, shapeless hands! How do we help students to extend through the tips of their fingers without tension? The only rule I follow for hands came from the great José Limón dancer Betty Jones. “Human hands,” she would say—and suddenly I released all notions of trying to create shapes with my hands, instead allowing them to be simply hands; this in turn allowed me to extend them without tension. Try asking students for “human hands” that include the two thumbs.

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May-June 2016 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | Healthy Heads and Sequence Recall

Tip 1
Maintaining a healthy head position is a constant challenge for students at every level. Students often jut the chins forward, which can create a number of problems with alignment. This first came to my attention while I was recovering from rotator cuff surgery. My physical therapist pointed out that my chin was out and the base of my skull was sinking into my cervical spine. “That’s why you have shoulder problems,” he said.
Tip 2
Maintaining a healthy head position is a constant challenge for students at every level. Students often jut the chins forward, which can create a number of problems with alignment. This first came to my attention while I was recovering from rotator cuff surgery. My physical therapist pointed out that my chin was out and the base of my skull was sinking into my cervical spine. “That’s why you have shoulder problems,” he said.

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March-April 2016 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | Parallel and Taylor Chassé

Tip 1
The parallel position is an important aesthetic aspect of modern dance and promotes good alignment of the legs and spine. It’s often difficult, however, for students to maintain a good sense of parallel, and sometimes awakening their awareness of parallel can be more challenging than helping them find turnout.
Tip 2 My old boss Paul Taylor uses the chassé as his go-to traveling step in almost every one of his dances. The Taylor chassé is different from the ballet or jazz chassé.

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February 2016 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | Hinges and Finding Shapes in Space

Tip 1
The hinge is a useful and versatile movement. It can be a transition to the floor, a partnering tool, or a way to build core strength. A common misconception is that the hinge is a backward-falling movement, but once you think back in a hinge, it is all over. Think forward for hinges.
Tip 2
The task of getting young dancers to experience their full movement potential can be frustrating; they often get stuck merely making shapes. To encourage full, grounded movement, after students have executed an exercise or combination, have them repeat it, this time thinking: “I am not ‘making’ these shapes. The shapes already exist in space. As a modern dancer, I find the shapes and assume them.”

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January 2016 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | Contractions and Expressive Feet

Tip 1
The word contract is often used as a blanket term whenever we want the back to curve, but there is more than one way to curve a spine. There are differences, for example, between a Graham contraction, a rounded back, and a Taylor contraction.
Tip 2
Feet are like hands in their expressive capability, but young dancers often don’t use feet to their full potential. This can be due to thinking about line in an absolute way. These students have in mind an unattainable, ideal image of “perfect lines” that has little to do with their actual bodies. This creates a disconnect between the mind and body. The idea of line becomes a struggle and makes these students feel inadequate—which in turn makes it even harder to create “nice” lines.

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December 2015 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | Using the Legs, Encouraging the Individual

Tip 1
Fully engaged legs are essential to classical modern technique. Yet sometimes so much value is placed on the torso and arms in the classroom that clarity in the legs is lost.
Tip 2
When training is too focused on physical ability, students may miss out on the sense of personal exploration that is one of modern dance’s most important gifts. Especially with codified styles, we teachers may get lost in a sense of achievement as our students advance through the acquisition of vocabulary and proper technique. But it’s important always to be exploring ways to bring forth students’ full humanity in class. We should be able to see the individual in modern dance—it is part of what makes this tradition so beautiful.

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November 2015 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | Spirals and Using Progressions

Tip 1
It’s important for students to understand the modern dance concept of the spiral in the back. The spiral allows dancers to move in a way that feels fully three-dimensional. Think of it as a carving motion, in which dancers use the arms or legs to help them carve through space and generate a turn or fall.

Tip 2
To teach coherent classes with a sense of progression, try incorporating the shapes, movements, and energy of the final combination or phrase into the earlier parts of class. This means no improvising the final combination on the spot—it must be choreographed in advance so the rest of class can be planned too.

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September 2015 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | Questions in Class and Hyperextension

Sometimes students lean too heavily on asking questions. Encourage them to understand that part of class is figuring out answers for themselves. Students become more engaged in learning if they’re empowered to use various methods for absorbing material or concepts, such as observing another dancer or trying an exercise a few times.

Working with hyperextension can be challenging in all dance forms. First, students struggling with hyperextension need to understand which muscles to engage for support; I often focus on the adductors and hip flexors. Students can find their adductors by standing in parallel while squeezing a yoga block or medium-sized therapy ball between the thighs. Have them repeat this in first position, encouraging them to feel the thigh bones spiraling outward, taking pressure off the knees.

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January 2015 | 2 Tips for Modern & Contemporary Dance Teachers | Risk-Taking and Groundedness

I sometimes sense my students moving hesitantly in class, doubting themselves and shying away from risk-taking. To address this, I tell them to ask themselves these questions in class when they feel unsure: “What is there to lose? What could go wrong? Do I trust myself enough to figure it out if I, say, turn the wrong way?” Their bodies are smarter than they realize: they don’t need to sabotage themselves by worrying about major catastrophes.

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December 2014 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Inviting and Allowing

I like to invite, not tell, my students to participate. “I invite you to form a circle,” for instance, has a very different tone from “Form a circle.” Words like “invite,” “encourage,” or “ask” indicate to students that they have agency, and that they and I are equally engaged in investigating new possibilities.

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November 2014 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Fun, Challenges, Success

Every technique class should include opportunities for students to have fun. I encourage you to begin class by asking, “Who has a joke?” You might keep a supply of your own (lighthearted, non-political, non-religious, mostly silly) jokes on hand in case students can’t think of one. You’ll find that after a while many students will come prepared and eager to share.

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October 2014 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Opening and Closing Rituals

I find that an opening ritual can be an important component of a successful class. One of my favorites is to have students stand in a small circle. I make eye contact with each one, welcome them, and invite them to “go inside” and notice what is alive for them today. That is, what questions about their bodies’ moving or the work from our last class still resonates? I ask them to share their personal aliveness with another student or, sometimes, with the entire group.

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August 2014 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Words for Optimal Functionality

Instead of saying, “Point your toes,” I say, “Reach through your toes,” or, “Allow energy to pour out through each toe tip.” I find that the image of “pointing the toes” can create tension that immobilizes the many joints in the foot and ankle. Thinking of the foot in isolation can cause disintegration. Our continuous goal in guiding our students should be integration, recognizing that the foot (like the rest of us) is a constantly reorganizing and adaptable part of the whole human organism. The images of “reaching through the toe tips” and “allowing energy to pour out through the distal ends,” however, can create a synergistic energy balance through the leg and foot. The result: they are resilient and pliable and look longer.

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May-June 2014 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Balanced Rotation

Balance is the key to healthy functioning, in dance as in all aspects of our lives. Activating internal (inward) as well as external (outward) rotation in the hip joint is crucial to our students’ well-being. Turning out more than turning in creates unhealthy imbalances. Because muscles that are not continually engaged become weak and muscles that are overworked become disproportionately strong or hypertonic (inelastic), it’s important to give students opportunities to work in outward rotation, neutral rotation (parallel), and inward rotation in every class. I enjoy sharing phrases that move through inward and outward rotation and linger for crystallizing moments in positions that allow students to experience being turned in, parallel, and turned out in both the supporting and gesturing legs.

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March-April 2014 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Talk About Turnout

Many young dancers develop chronic injury patterns as a result of erroneous ideas about turnout. Outward (or lateral or external) rotation at the hip is the movement of the femur around its own axis, away from the midline of the body. Classical ballet requires outward rotation, of course, but modern dancers also need to understand and use turnout. Many of the college students who first enroll in my modern technique courses have tried for years to turn out primarily in the feet, ankles, and/or knees; they have developed serious misalignment patterns (including anterior tilting of the pelvis and pronation of the feet) as a result. A change in one part of the body creates a change throughout the whole organism, and the entire body of a dancer with a misaligned pelvis or feet lacks neutrality, connectivity, and resilience.

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February 2014 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Balance and Functions

Proportional balance: Recent research in dance science confirms the importance of proportional balance in classes among time spent on the floor, time spent standing in place, and time spent moving across the floor. All three portions of class are important, but dance scientists recommend that teachers devote approximately one-third of class time to each.

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January 2014 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Shape and Process

It is important to understand the pathways or processes through which body forms (sometimes called shapes or designs) are created. We do not simply move from one static shape to another when we dance; we engage in a continuous process of change. A change in one part of the body is accommodated by changes throughout the whole organism. It is in sensing and/or witnessing the process through which the body changes form that we find the deepest kinesthetic satisfaction.

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December 2013 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Get Grounded

Teachers ask if they should mix styles of technique (Graham, Limón, Cunningham, etc.). Of course, but students do need a grounding in the base modern-dance style you have evolved (which has most likely drawn from several sources). If you teach your “home” style through concepts and principles—rather than only steps or exercises—those same core ideas can serve as inroads to different styles. You can investigate movement patterns in a new style or technique on your own until you feel ready to share them, or you can say, “This interests me. Please help me explore it,” and let your students participate in how to unpack it and integrate it with your other work.

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November 2013 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Seeing the Good, Analyzing the Need

When judgment starts, learning stops. When students perceive they are being evaluated, they become concerned with being “right” rather than actively engaging in a process of investigation. They lose their willingness to fail and then try again, and again, developing new skills and neuromuscular capacities. Analyzing what students need from us, and from themselves, in order to move forward successfully, is different from looking for what is “wrong” with them.

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October 2013 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Change and Replace

Teachers often ask students to “let go” of a habit. However, I have learned that we can’t simply let go because each habitual pattern serves (though perhaps not well) a need. We have used that inefficient pattern to develop the skills and artistry we possess. What we must do instead is replace these habits with new patterns. Instead of asking our students to focus on what not to do, encourage them to focus on the positive traits they are trying to establish.

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September 2013 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Unpacking, Uncovering

Most students learn longer combinations more efficiently if you follow a whole-part-whole strategy. First demonstrate the whole phrase as clearly, musically, and qualitatively as possible, so that the students get the big picture or context. Then, unpack the various parts and teach portions of the phrase. After each part has been investigated, it is time to put the whole pattern together again: whole (oneness), part (differentiation), whole (integration).

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August 2013 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Placing the Weight

When straightening the knees is over-emphasized, students can learn to stand with the body weight back on the heels. This pattern causes rigidity throughout the body and misalignments of the pelvis, spine, and rib cage. Encourage your students to experience each foot as a tripod, placing equal amounts of weight on the first and fifth metatarsals and the calcaneus (heel bone). This will direct the line of gravity in front of the heel and distribute the weight where it needs to be for a resilient feet-to-head connection.

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July 2013 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Joy of Teaching

As you walk from your office or dressing room to the studio, take a moment to check in with your breath, ground yourself, and remember that you love to dance and teach. Sometimes the difficulties of managing a business or interpersonal conflicts with colleagues or students’ parents deprive us of the joy that is waiting for us if we remember who we are and why we chose to become teachers.

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May-June 2013 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Spine Flexibility

Spinal curves create shock absorption. Some teachers encourage students to “straighten the spine”; I don’t consider this sound advice. The curves in the spine make us resilient, spreading the impact of forceful movement throughout the body and allowing us to move with elastic buoyancy. Flattening the curves creates rigidity and may invite injury.

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March-April 2013 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Discovering the Spine

Touch brings awareness. When investigating successive (wavelike) sequencing through the spine, I ask students to work in pairs. One student stands behind the other and slides a fingertip firmly but sensitively down the spine, from the base of the skull along the 7 cervical (neck) vertebrae, the 12 vertebrae of the thorax, the 5 lumbar vertebrae, and the fused vertebrae of the sacrum and the tailbone (coccyx). The student receiving the touch is invited to close her/his eyes and tune in fully to the kinesthetic experience.

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February 2013 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Investigations

Opposites provide variety. Rudolf Laban framed all his movement inquiries as investigations of opposites. He believed that things are defined by what they are not and that exploring all the possibilities between two extremes helps us understand the choices available to us. This guiding principle leads me to design classes that include a balance of large/small movements, strong/gentle forces, front/back spaces, set phrases/improvisation, musical/breath rhythms, outward/inward rotation, fast/slow tempos, inward/external focus, and strength/flexibility. Variety creates balance, and balance creates well-being.

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January 2013 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Focus on Intent

Thought creates action. To change the way our students move, we need to help them change how or what they think as they prepare. Too often, we talk about the result (for example, “your shoulders went up when you lifted your arms”) rather than the cause (for example, “you resisted scapulo-humeral rotation as you raised your arms”). By thinking of allowing the humeral head to rotate in the shoulder joint as she raises her arms, the dancer allows her scapulae (shoulder blades) to upwardly rotate and her shoulders will not elevate.

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December 2012 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | The Whole Dancer

In modern dance today, the personal uniqueness of the dancer is more important than ever. Choreographers seek dancers who can bring themselves to the phrase work given in auditions. I try to validate the strengths and qualities of each dancer while helping her or him develop a deeper understanding of the body and movement possibilities.

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November 2012 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Strong and Liquid

Challenge the core. To build students’ core strength in each class, have them do the yoga “plank” with weight on the forearms. Tell them to hollow the abdomen (exhaling to bring the navel closer to the spine) and maintain this form for at least 30 seconds. As they become stronger, encourage them to place one hand at a time behind the back and then to lengthen one leg at a time until the foot leaves the floor. Incorporating these into longer movement phrases with music allows students to experience them as dancing rather than exercises.

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October 2012 | 2 Tips for Modern Teachers | Energy Paths

Yield and Push. By studying developmental movement patterns, which take place in utero and during the early months of life, we have discovered the necessity of yielding to and bonding with gravity and then pushing through every point of contact to the earth. Yielding establishes an active give-and-take relationship with gravity and a readiness to move. Pushing sends energy from the earth along open pathways of flow through the joint centers to the body’s core.

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