Suggestions for making your dances sparkle and shine
Cleaning dances. It’s a dirty job, but we all have to do it! Whether students will be performing in a recital, spring showcase, or competition, you don’t want them going anywhere near a stage until you’ve wiped away all the sloppy steps, crooked lines, and cringe-worthy counts.
How do you clean your dances? Do you employ some sort of game? Seek out a second set of eyes? Or just plow right through? Dance Studio Life asked some veteran educators to share how they tackle this annual undertaking.
“The slow motion camera on my phone is a great tool, and helps me catch any detail I might have missed during the cleaning process.” —Michael Susten
Full Out or Get Out game. Once we have worked on the choreography and technique for a piece, I move along to the performance aspect. Dancers run through the dance as if they were performing onstage. I point to dancers who make mistakes; they immediately remove themselves from the dance and sit off to the side. A mistake might be adjusting hair or clothes, lack of energy, no facials, forgetting choreography, looking down, dancing off the music, etc. My students generally beg to play three or four rotations. Any dancer who survives until the end without sitting once is crowned dance queen or king of the day. They love this game, and it makes them more cognizant of what makes a great performance. —Lakeisha Sharpley, dance department teacher/Fine Arts Department chair, Horace Mann Arts and Science Magnet Middle School, Little Rock, Arkansas
Don’t Stop the Music game. I challenge the dancers to get through the entire routine without me stopping the music, which I will do for choreography errors, sloppy formations, timing issues, lack of performance quality, and such. If the music stops, the dancers have to start the routine over. If they make it all the way through, I’ll typically reward them with candy. The younger kids look forward to the game. The teens usually groan, but they also work really hard so they don’t have to keep starting over.
Usually the instructor is responsible for stopping the music, but if an injured dancer is sitting out (or there is a dancer present who is not in that piece), she could be recruited to be in charge of the music. Funny thing—dancers are usually tougher than the instructors! —Karen Daniels, A Step Ahead Dance Center, Baltimore
Repetition. When cleaning pieces for performances or competitions I always have my kids start at the beginning of the dance, no matter what section needs work. I find that the repetition, with notes given after each run, sets into their muscle memory and allows them to focus on new feedback more quickly. I also have a “no yelling” rule for myself. I am not a yeller by nature, but I never yell at my kids in rehearsal (or in class). I find that the most effective means of getting my point across is to speak to them with respect, the same way I want them to show me respect. We end up with a cleaner piece because they want it to be that way, too. —Emily Bufferd, independent choreographer; Joffrey Ballet School and Broadway Dance Center teacher, New York City
Freeze Dance. My competition dancers are 5 to 9 years old, so fun is the name of the game when it comes to cleaning. First I break the dance into small sections. Next I take one section and review counts, match lines, and talk performing skills with my dancers. Then we play Freeze Dance. We run the section again, and if the dancers are in unison when the music stops—and all the corrections have been made—we consider that section clean and move on to the next one. For older dancers I will also speed up or slow down the music as we run sections. —Tessa Buys, Hawkins School of Performing Arts, Folsom, California
Tickets, please. I start teaching spring concert pieces to my youngest ballerinas (ages 3 to 7) in January. They are completed by March. With little ones it’s very hard to run dances over and over—they have short attention spans, and to be honest, it’s just not fun for anyone. That’s when it’s time for Miss Kim’s Imagination Station, a game that makes them excited to practice their dance and gives them a sense of pride.
After practicing our piece, I hand out special pink tickets that I print in advance. I make a big deal of opening my classroom door and announcing to everyone in the lobby that we have a special performance, and all audience members will need a pink ticket. My little ballerinas jump up and down as they hand their tickets to the parents or grandparents coming into the classroom to see the dance. I encourage the parents to record the performance so that their children can practice at home.
The following week, we invite the “big girl ballerinas” into our class to watch our dance. These practice performances reinforce the dancers’ memory of the routines, and give me the opportunity to remind them to point their feet in tendu, stand in first position, fix their arabesque arms, etc.
Spring concert is such a special time, and I know it is something that these little ballerinas and their parents will cherish for years to come. That is the joy of being a ballerina maker. —Kim Black, Burlington [NC] Dance Center
Three-step series. When cleaning recital pieces, I use a three-step series that the kids absolutely love. During the first class we spend half the class marathoning the piece—running it over and over without comment—which helps the kids with their recall of the choreography. The next class I go over all the corrections, both in general and directed toward individuals. We then run the dance, but as soon as one person makes a mistake—I never point out who!—we begin the piece all over again from the beginning. At the next class, I ask half of the students to sit out and watch the others as they run the dance. Then the students switch places and we run it again. This allows all students to see the importance of the corrections. It also gives them all a chance to perform in front of their classmates. —Valerie Brunetti, le studio danse, Mansfield, Massachusetts
Divide and conquer. I always wondered why the beginnings of my dances were cleaner than the ends. Within the last two years I realized that I always run my dances from the top, even if I just cleaned a section that appears later in the dance. Now I divide my dances into four or so sections, and name each section. After we concentrate on cleaning a specific section and it’s time to run the choreography, I’ll start the music at that point in the dance rather than the top.
Other things I’ve learned: video is king. There is nothing like being able to stop the video and make a critique or dole out praise. I also send the videos to my students and ask them to write down comments in two columns: positive points, and things they’d like to improve.
As for students who won’t take corrections, as a last resort, I ask them to sit down during class until they can show me they are ready to work. This isn’t for students who lack understanding, but for students who lack focus, feel a sense of entitlement, or are just lazy. —Nuala De George, Stage Door School of Dance, East Patchogue, New York
Timing and detail. When cleaning dance routines for competition or a showcase I always start with the messy part—usually the dance break. I approach the section’s timing issues, and then focus on details. I like to clean the timing first because once you see the group moving together, it’s easier to spot details that may be off. I make sure that I am 100-percent confident with the counts, and then I break the section down in slow motion with the dancers. As they get it, I speed up the tempo.
During the last few attempts I ask the dancers to count out loud. I like when they emphasize a certain count with their voices when that step has a harder physical accent. I play the music and have them run the section over and over. If one person is off, I stop the music and start again, rather than letting them get through it incorrectly. I believe repetition is key.
Once the timing is perfect, we go back to step one and walk through the movements. I break each piece of movement up into individual pictures to make sure every detail, from focus to fingertips, is in unison. Then we speed it up and eventually add the music.
The slow motion camera on my phone is a great tool, and helps me catch any detail I might have missed during the cleaning process. Once I feel great about the routine, I bring in another set of eyes to see if I’ve missed anything. —Michael Susten, Prestige Academy of Dance, Fairfield, New Jersey