February 2017 | On My Mind

On My Mind: Words from the publisher

Ashley and Hannah—dance teachers who work at schools with differing philosophies and priorities—each create more than 40 pieces of choreography annually.

Under pressure from her students and their parents, Ashley consistently creates work with the latest and greatest tricks and trends. If the music suggests three clean pirouettes but the dancers can do five, then five it is. She and her clients believe that good choreography is about turning more, jumping higher, and how far a dancer can stretch her leg behind her head. For Ashley, non-trick dance work is filler and the music is background noise.

Photo by Mim Adkins

Hannah takes a different approach. She trains her dancers to do some wonderful technical feats but when choreographing she believes that the music should dictate the movement. In her mind it is a partnership—she and the music collaborate to create a masterpiece. The music and the emotions it generates for Hannah guide her to where she might choreograph a turn or a jump but also to places to set a beautiful port de bras or a simple walk. Sometimes the music even guides Hannah to incorporate breaks and pauses with no movement at all—she understands that stillness can be dramatic and impactful on its own or as a way to highlight the movement that precedes or follows it.

Hannah believes that there must be a reason for the choreography. She asks herself what her kids will learn from the experience. She talks with her dancers about the choreography, what it means, and what she wants them to gain from it. Sometimes she has the dancers research the choreography’s subject matter so that they are even more invested in the experience.

Both Ashley and Hannah are successful, but Ashley feels more stress and she experiences considerably less loyalty from her clients, who move from one school to another in pursuit of the teacher who will offer more—and flashier—tricks. Hannah, on the other hand, rarely loses a student to another school because she uses dance and choreography to offer life lessons that go far beyond the movement. The parents of Hannah’s students have a great deal of respect for her; they have not become accustomed to tricks being the priority and they have no expectations beyond the educational side of their children’s dance training.

Creating choreography is an opportunity to be an artist, to make a statement, or to entertain. An audience, except perhaps for dance teachers or judges, isn’t generally impressed with spectacular feats; the average audience member doesn’t even know the difficulty of a given move. However, an audience always responds positively to performances that elicit an emotional response or provoke thought.

There are many teachers like Ashley who are missing the chance to educate and to be an artist. Life would be easier and less stressful for these teachers if they recognized that when they show and teach what they value, students and parents come to value these things too. Make your teaching about the art, and your clients will get it.

Enjoy the journey!

DSL publisher Rhee Gold has owned a dance competition, presided over national dance teaching organizations, and founded Project Motivate. His book, The Complete Guide to Teaching Dance, is in its second printing.