Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers

July 2017 | Tips for Modern & Contemporary Teachers | Contemporary Classroom Etiquette

Contemporary Classroom Etiquette by Jennifer McQuiston Lott Tip 1 Ballet has its history of established etiquette; classic modern techniques such as Graham or Limón follow clear rules of conduct. A typical contemporary class may be more relaxed, but classroom etiquette is still important. Outlining and enforcing a code of behavior will prepare your contemporary students…

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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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