September 2014 | On My Mind

A choreographer is working with her students on a competition routine. “Dancers,” she says, “I want seven fouetté turns followed by three pirouettes into a sauté to second, and then this big straddle split—splat!—to the floor, and then get up and grab your foot and stretch it up as high as you can. If that doesn’t impress the judges, I don’t know what will!”

This is an all-too-common scenario. And it’s unfortunate, because dancers can be really, really good without performing a single trick. This kind of dancing is referred to as art.

Photo by Mim Adkins

Photo by Mim Adkins

I understand that teachers need to work on technically challenging feats with their students, but if those are all they’re working on, I start to wonder if they forgot—or never understood—that dance can be stunning, touching, and beautiful even when it doesn’t include a single jump, turn, or “grab the leg and yank it up.”

When you’re creating a dance, be yourself, which is to say be unique. Tap into your soul (and the souls of your dancers) and bring those essences and emotions to the stage. Assume, from the start of every piece of choreography you create, that you are an artist, not someone who strings together a bunch of tricks.

Once you trust that creating art—giving your students a dance they can pour themselves into without fear of failure, and with the confidence that comes from being invested in what they’re dancing—is worth more than a high score, you’ll feel good about seeing your art in motion, creating an emotion. The dancers will feel it, the audience will feel it, you will feel it. If the judges don’t feel it, who cares? You won, the dancers won, and the audience won—because you, and they, experienced your art.

If you’re cool with that, and your dancers (and their parents) know you are, then the act of creating art—not a string of steps—becomes the norm at your school. And I think that makes dance more enjoyable for everyone involved.

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.