Training Thinking Dancers
Rehearsals had begun for my new musical theater competition number, but nothing was working. These girls had been with me for years—they trusted my “nobody’s gonna get this” themes, solved the puzzle of my patterns, could ace any acting improv. They were ready for a real challenge—or so I thought.
I explained the piece’s theme, setting, and mood, then put on the music and set them free. “Create,” I said. “Move as it moves you, but stay in character. Let me see what you have.”
Turns out they didn’t have much. Dancers who think nothing of wearing mime makeup or Gladys Kravitz–style wigs were suddenly self-conscious and awkward. I rephrased, re-explained, reevaluated. I demonstrated. I begged. Nothing.
Over the next week, I worked out movement themes and patterns for all 19 dancers that would (I hoped) resemble random, pedestrian movement, and set it to specific counts. My “non-choreography choreography” took forever to teach, but it worked.
Why had my initial approach been such a flop? Did the fault lie with me or them, global warming or not enough vitamin C? An article by JoAnna Mendl Shaw in a Dance/USA e-journal (“An Unconventional Perspective From Stables to Studios,” From the Green Room, October 15, 2015) holds one answer. Shaw writes of her work choreographing and training horses and dancers for performances. Phrases were taught, but the dancers who led the horses had to be adaptable, use their own brains, problem-solve. This work with the horses led to her discovery that “technique classes structured around repetitive, memorized warm-up sequences and phrases based on a set lexicon of steps are not training a thinking dancer,” she writes.
This is Shaw’s kicker: “How we train dancers to make decisions is, to some extent, linked to how we treat them as human beings.” Aha! I’d asked my dancers to paint me a picture, and when they didn’t immediately respond with the artistry of Picasso, I threw everything out and did it myself. I reverted to Shaw’s memorized sequences and steps. I became the parent who does the homework.
Lesson learned: I need to provide my dancers with more opportunities to struggle, not fewer. And maybe introduce a few horses into the act.
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.
When Helping Hurts
Above, Karen says, “I became the parent who does the homework.” This mentality—the determination to not let a child fail in ways that are necessary for learning to be a responsible adult—is prevalent and nothing new. But it’s gaining ground in new ways.
The other day I heard an editorial on NPR (I don’t know which show or I’d credit it) in which a woman talked about the frightening ways parents refuse to let their children grow up. The most horrific ones: parents who installed a videocamera in their son’s college dorm room so that they could wake him every morning, and parents of working adults who contacted their children’s employers to complain about subpar performance reviews. Say what?
All parents want to see their children succeed, but protecting them from small failures—like not doing homework, being late for class, or receiving less-than-glowing evaluations—isn’t helpful; it’s hurtful. These young people aren’t learning from their mistakes (one of the most effective learning tools), because they’re not being allowed to make mistakes. Or if they do err, they face no consequences.
In a recent discussion among our editorial staff, we noted that dance teachers engage in this protective behavior too. Schools have rules and policies that teachers, or even owners, don’t enforce. Instructors worry that insisting on a code of behavior in the studio will leach the fun from dance, or that not letting a student perform because of consistent tardiness or missed rehearsals will send her running to another school. There are business ramifications at play, of course, and there can be a fine line between standing your ground and giving a kid a break. But I’d argue that if dance teachers want to claim, as many do, that they teach life lessons along with dance, then they need to stand their ground.
Expect more on this topic in the future—it’s a complex issue that’s likely to get lots of people fired up.
—Cheryl A. Ossola
DSL editor in chief Cheryl A. Ossola, a former associate editor at Dance Magazine, is a writer for San Francisco Ballet and a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. She holds an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco.