By Katie Miller
As a co-owner of Plano Dance Theatre and director of our Performance Ensemble, I’ve chosen to encourage the artistry of dance as its own reward. From the time the school opened nine years ago, I knew I did not want competition to be the primary focus. We don’t attend national finals; instead I encourage them to audition for summer intensive programs where they can continue their technical growth and development.
At PDT, classes focus on technique, not rehearsals. We don’t begin choreography for competition until January, and the students are performance-ready by March. Rehearsals for competition are held on Saturdays. In their classes, the dancers work on technique and movement quality all week, every week, which prepares them to come to rehearsals with the tools they need in order to do the various styles of dance they encounter in their competition choreography.
Since PDT is a performing-arts school, we provide our dancers with a wide variety of performance opportunities, including a holiday performance at Christmas, a full musical in the spring, and, at the end of the season, a concert performance of the dances they do at competitions. These original performances involve singing, dancing, acting, and students who study all three; casting depends on each student’s primary focus. By offering a variety of performances, we expose our dancers to many options for their futures as artists. As with the competition dances, rehearsals for these performances are held on Saturdays to keep the weekday classes focused on technique.
Performance Ensemble members are required to take six core classes (two ballet classes plus jazz, contemporary or lyrical, tap, and improvisation); other classes (musical theater, acrobatics, hip-hop, pointe, drama, voice, conditioning, and leaps and turns) are available at no additional charge.
We require improv because it encourages freedom of movement and individual creativity. Without any set choreography to restrict them, the students explore contact and trust exercises that help them relate to other dancers personally, physically, and spatially. Once they are all on the same “wavelength,” they learn to watch and feel for one another’s presence and placement. The bonds that result allow the dancers to connect with one another on a deeper level and build stronger working relationships with one another both on and off the stage.
Some improv sessions are technical, exploring musicality, timing, and rhythms. Others are spent expressing emotion and ideas through movement. These often become therapy sessions for some teens, who share their experiences and thoughts. These are the classes I find most rewarding, I believe because the dancers are free to be themselves, express their thoughts and feelings, and let go of the stress that comes with trying to balance family, school, friends, dance, and other activities and responsibilities.
We emphasize expressiveness, artistry, and technical accomplishment equally. The main reason we require improvisation class is to teach the kids that dance is not a sport but an art form. They learn that dance is a way to communicate their thoughts and feelings without words, to share a message, feeling, or part of themselves with any audience, large or small. As their instructor, I am given the privilege of knowing them on a very personal level, which is one of the best aspects of my career choice.
Our students perform in various kinds of shows to learn the art of stagecraft and to prepare for future performance opportunities. We do competitions because they are fun and provide opportunities for the students to absorb the ideas, talent, and artistry of others who share a love of dance. These varied performance opportunities, along with the focus we place on technique in every class, give our students the learning and motivational tools they need to strive for their own personal greatness.
Katie Miller is the owner and performance ensemble director of The Plano Dance Theater in Texas. She passes along her technical and artistic expertise to students of all ages.