Dancers have always prized flexibility—and the bendier they can get, the better. But technique has gotten more extreme in recent years, and today’s choreography seems to require a contortionist’s malleability. Young dancers strive to emulate Miko Fogarty’s 180-degree penchés and Maddie Ziegler’s ultra-arched back, while audiences and judges have come to expect show-stopping feats of flexibility. Social media only fuels the frenzy; an online search for “ballet stretch” turns up thousands of eye-popping images of oversplits, curlicue feet, and tilts that lean far past vertical.
I’m noticing a lack of creativity in choreography lately—or maybe it’s people’s inability to think for themselves. At a respected ballet company’s performance, on the competition stage, and on TV, choreographers are creating contemporary work that’s strikingly similar. Yes, the level of technical mastery among dancers is diverse, but there’s a disturbing sameness to the mood, expression, and movement—which typically convey ideas about suffering and tragedy. This dark subject matter combined with moody lighting and zero humor add up to a sad observation: today’s dance productions may be depressing audiences instead of entertaining them.
After years of pink sequins and fairy princesses, you’ve finally snagged a boy for your competition team or teenage ballet class—great! Whether only one boy is enrolled at your studio, or there are several boys who fall singly into various technical levels, having an available male creates new possibilities for choreography, themes, and music choices.
When you’re choreographing, nothing is more frustrating than finding a song you’re excited about, then realizing you can’t use it. If bad words, length, or repetitiveness are obstacles, don’t give up—there are ways to alter any song, by cutting, adding samples, and mixing in other songs. The editing process might seem overwhelming at first, but there are numerous apps and programs on the market that allow you to create your masterpiece even when you’re not an audio or tech expert.
One evening before a rehearsal one of my students said to me, “It must be great to be a dance teacher. You can sleep all day and then show up for a few hours of work at night.” This happened during preparations for a rather large-scale show. Like many studio owners, I was responsible for handling all aspects of the production; I’d started planning months beforehand.
This dancer’s comment made me realize how little students understand about what goes into producing a show. In response, I created Production 101, a class that introduces students to the process of theater and dance production, from concept to performance. I also wanted them to see how they could be involved in dance aside from performing.
The two-hour class, open to advanced students, meets weekly for 16 weeks. I also offer the class as an enrichment course at a private high school for international students—a month-long intensive that meets four days a week for three hours each day. On the fifth day, I take the students offsite for field trips. We have toured theaters, observed rehearsals, attended performances, and spoken with production professionals. I also invite guest speakers to the studio for Q&A sessions. Each program ends with a performance at the studio that is open to our dance families.
“Art Thieves”: Today we see cookie-cutter dances that borrow too heavily from music videos, TV dance shows, and other popular entertainment. And at Dance Studio Life, we hear from studio owners who complain that former employees or teachers at other schools stole their competition or recital choreography. I don’t mean the poachers borrowed a step, or the idea behind a step, or a story or theme that they then morphed into something of their own creation. I mean they stole the dance in its entirety and presented it as theirs. Judging by these school owners’ outrage—and my own experience in having my writing plagiarized—it’s obvious they didn’t feel flattered. They felt violated.
“Tough Times: Choosing the Team”: The lovefest that is recital is over and we meet in a dark corner of a café for the annual agony of choosing dancers for the team.
It’s more difficult than it seems. If it were only about technique it would be a snap. Perhaps we could pass out a test and set the cutoff at 77. Would parents be terribly upset if we put names in a hat? Would we?
Competition dances often present angst-ridden choreography set to lyrics that convey pain or despair. Whether they depict personal suffering or take a bleak perspective on the state of the world, these pieces are dark—and though they can be powerful, they can be difficult to watch, and in some cases, similar to one another, or derivative. What happened to dance as joyful entertainment, we wondered, and is there value in originality? To answer these questions, we asked readers whether such dances have a place on the competition stage, and why. Here’s what they said.
Twenty-seven years ago, Roswell Dance Theatre (RDT), the in-house company of Tolbert Yilmaz School of Dance in Roswell, Georgia, began a program called HUGS from Young Choreographers. HUGS began as an assignment for older students to choreograph a dance for their parents. Over the years the program expanded as word spread about the work being produced, and HUGS is now a public performance for charity with three sold-out shows. It is one of the highlights of the dance year because of the great support given to these 15- to 18-year-old students by all 100 RDT members, proud parents, and the community.
One of the things I loved most about dancing was the feeling of connectedness, as if I were one with my classmates. Now, as a teacher, I help my students experience that by having them dance as partners. Partnering teaches many valuable lessons, and these can be learned with or without boys in the class.
One of the most important habits a dance teacher can acquire is to write down everything and store it in an organized fashion—in other words, make a habit of notation. In the August issue, we tackled one aspect of notation: music. Now it’s time to look at ways to document choreography.
Choreography has become a never-ending task for studio teachers, which means they’re on a relentless quest for quality music and fresh inspiration. They face overwhelming pressure to outdo the previous year’s work and meet the expectations of students and their parents. Choreographers need to acquire a vast amount of music and fill thousands of counts with movement, all while showcasing the specific strengths of their students. Often, these demands lead them to rush the choreographic process.
The traditional cramp roll combination of step, step, heel drop, heel drop in the basic RLRL or LRLR pattern is an important staple in many dance routines. Consider the following ideas to add variety and new challenges for your students.
Recently I met Amanda (not her real name), a dance teacher who broke down while she explained that she had once loved teaching. Now it was nothing but stress. When she started teaching, she said, things were simpler: “All I had were toddlers; they loved class and so did I.” Now, she said, “I have students of all ages who are jealous of each other, and the parents question every move I make. They call or text me because they do not like my choreography or to blast me because they think tuition costs are too high. Almost everything I do is wrong!”
To help students learn to remember choreography, let them become the teachers. This method works with both recreational and competition dancers, though it seems to benefit the latter most because as team members, they must learn their choreography quickly.
A 7-year-old should not dance to “Love to Love You, Baby,” because she doesn’t know how to love him.
The annual recital is unquestionably one of the most important events on a dance school’s calendar. It’s a rite of passage for dancers and a choreography showcase for teachers—and it is one of the biggest and best ways for studio owners to market their schools.
Musical theater class can involve far more than choreography done to Broadway tunes. Here’s your chance to work weekly with your students on one of the most difficult skills to grasp—how to create and sustain emotion and/or character.
During performances the audience looks at the dancers’ faces first, and then moves on to the choreography and technique. To encourage students to explore facial expressiveness without feeling embarrassed, try this between barre exercises: have them close their eyes and then call out expressions for them to try.
“It was a good fit.” And with that pun, Sarah Hall Weaver described the impetus behind a public art and fund-raising project by the National Museum of Dance—24 five-foot-tall pointe shoes, decorated by area artists and sponsored by local businesses, scattered about the tourism town of Saratoga Springs, New York.
A normal week might find Jimmy Locust teaching 20 classes at his studio in Stamford, Connecticut. Or he might be on a plane to Los Angeles or Hawaii to choreograph a music video. Or a camera crew might be following him as he prepares for an upcoming performance with his acclaimed youth performance team, Hip Hop’s Finest. Life keeps the diminutive Locust, who is four feet nine inches tall, on the move.
For 18 years, my studio’s enrollment has remained steady. I have seen students graduate from high school and move on, only to be replaced by little ones now old enough to join Fundamentals of Dance, a class for the youngest dancers. Some students move away while an equal number of dancers change studios and come my way. Yet attracting male students to the school and sustaining their enrollment was like picking apples off a pear tree—until I added hip-hop to the roster.
Do you have any advice about working with competition kids and determining who is in the front row, back row, etc.? These are 7- and 8-year-old kids in their second year of competing. It is only a group of 10, so the majority of times they’re in either the first or second row. I try to rotate them as much as I can, but there are always the stronger ones I need at that age. It bothers me because I always try to make sure they all feel important and a part of the routine. How should I base which dancers are in the front row—do I assess them or give preference to the kids who have been with the studio longer than the others?
My training as a very young child included a step that is seldom done now. A favorite of mine, it was “the horsey step” (pas de cheval, or “step of the horse”). The foot is pointed devant and the arm is extended in front, in line with the foot, palm down, and eyes looking at the hand. The foot is then brought toward the supporting leg in a circular movement to approximately ankle height and returns to the pointed position, and at the same time the wrist and head lift.
Sometimes counts alone are not enough when it comes to finding musicality in a routine. Hip-hop routines are usually beat-heavy and accented, less fluid than lyrical or contemporary.
Transitions, staging, and visuals will enhance your choreography in a big way. Don’t be afraid to get beginner dancers transitioning and moving in their routines instead of standing in one spot for an entire song.
There was a time when the goal of modern dance technique training was to make all dancers look as much alike as possible. That day has passed. Today most choreographers expect dancers to bring themselves to the movement they are given, and in many cases, to participate in the creation of the movement itself.
Dance studios and programs across the country tend to put most of their emphasis on nurturing budding dancers and give little thought to offering training, support, and opportunities for young choreographers, particularly aspiring teenage dancemakers. But look harder and you’ll find that choreographic mentorship is thriving in three North American programs.
I slapped some ice onto my purpling Achilles tendon, but I could tell I was going to have to rest it. So I emailed the director of A Little Night Music, a production for which I was contributing choreography. A string of email brainstorming correspondence followed, and I began to write out instructions, reminders, and notes for the rehearsal in the event that I could not attend. Fortunately, the show was three weeks into rehearsal with staging and choreography already plotted out. But that night was an important run-through of Act 2, which I felt I could not miss. As a joke, I wrote, “Too bad we can’t have a video conference!” To which the assistant director replied that we could—via Skype, so that I could “watch” the run-through.
2 Tips: Be visual and a creative and visual routine starts with creative ideas, a concept first and then the music.
Anyone who has sat through endless hours of repetitive competition numbers knows there’s something exciting about a dance that makes good use of props.
It made No. 4 on TenduTV’s blog listing “APAP Preview: Ten Things the Dance Field Should Be Talking About in 2012,” and I’m sure it has been popping up in your conversations more and more. What is it? The issue of intellectual property rights, otherwise known to dance teachers as “Hey, that’s my choreography!”
How do you decide which of your students get to participate in dance competitions? Your answer reveals a lot about your definition of winning and the reasons why you take your students to competitions.
If you give a dance teacher some music, she’ll want to count it. In fact, even if she doesn’t want to count it, she will anyway, because that’s what dance teachers do.
When you create choreography for your students, be sure that you are creating a work of art featuring what your dancers do best. When dancers can’t execute the movement correctly, they might as well just stand on stage and shout out, “look at what I can’t do!” Have a great . . .
Have you ever browsed YouTube and come across a video of your choreography? Or spotted an excerpt from one of your dance classes on Facebook?
TEACHERS: Great choreography isn’t about emulating the latest trend or the award you may win. Greatness is present in the choreographer who has the ability to make every dancer look good (and feel confident) regardless of the skill level of the students. You accomplish this by creating works in which the audience can’t tell the difference between the strongest and the “not as strong” students because of your genius choreography. Have a great day–Rhee
I have a hip-hop teacher who has become a huge asset to the school. He has created a hip-hop team that performs throughout the area, and he’s a good teacher who takes his responsibility seriously and is always trying to do the right thing for the kids.
Being a dance teacher requires almost constant creative thought, from teaching dance classes to dreaming up shows and performance opportunities for students. Where does all this creativity come from?
Dance Studio Life asked dance competition directors across the United States to share what’s on their minds. Their responses to our questions (some did not answer all questions) appear in alphabetical order by company name (sometimes abbreviated). We thank them all for their participation:
We live in a very small town in Kentucky. For more than 36 years we were the only studio in town. Now a girl from out of town is opening up a studio and my students and their parents are asking all kinds of questions, like “Did you know there is a new studio?” I really don’t know how to respond to them. It’s hard to know whether to have faith in my parents to do the right thing and stay with me or say something now to try to prevent them going. Any advice? I have been up nights worrying about this. Dance dollars are few with the struggling economy, and now having to compete with a new place is causing me great stress. Thanks so much! —Patricia
Every teacher knows the feeling—where to get fresh ideas for music for class or choreography? You’re used to choosing music that you hope will rev up your students or inspire them to new expressive heights, and you’ve got a stash of known successes. But the songs that get you going might prove irresistible to your students too. We asked some dance teachers to tell us what they love to dance to, in hopes that you might find a new favorite among them. Listen up!
“Your fall registration will only be as good as your last recital!” These words were often repeated by my mother, who believed that the quality of a recital had much to do with a school’s success. I think of those words every time the topic of recitals comes up at my seminars.
“You’re an artistic genius! How do you come up with an idea like that?” “Motivated to be different” is the motto of the teacher who choreographed the piece that everyone is raving about. She’s the one who doesn’t want to be like anyone else or follow the current trends in choreography.
Could it be that our life is the greatest piece of choreography that we’ll ever create?
“Saturday in the park, I think it was the Fourth of July… People dancing, people laughing, a man selling ice cream.”
Every time I hear this 1972 hit by Chicago, I start dancing in my heart. Robert Lamm’s exhilarating lyrics speak of summer fun and togetherness. And apparently I am not the only one inspired to motion by “Saturday in the Park.”
Studio owners everywhere can relate to a common struggle: how to remember and record choreography. But Dance Designer, an innovative new multimedia computer program, seeks to help document every aspect of the choreographic process.
Most choreographers aren’t big on talking about their work, preferring to let the movement speak for itself. Still, getting inside a choreographer’s head is fascinating, whether it’s through his or her own words or through someone with intimate knowledge of that person. And that’s what made “The Balanchine Couple” especially riveting. I saw this program by Suzanne Farrell Ballet at UC–Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall last October, presented by Cal Performances. If you’re wondering why an all-duet program, Farrell would have answered your question when she called the pas de deux “the reason for a ballet.”
“I can’t dance.”
I get that disclaimer all the time, from nervous actors and singers trying their best to discourage me from putting them into dance sequences. It is, itself, a little dance. I enjoy it, but it doesn’t work on me. They’ll be dancing soon.
Kids doing choreography? It’s not a standard offering in many dance schools, but I believe that all young dancers should try it. Young people’s minds brim with endless ideas and possibilities, and many kids have no inhibitions and will try anything. As teachers, we can enhance our students’ creativity by offering them the chance to experiment with choreography.