Here is my latest article for Dance Advantage. Enjoy!
Tag Archives: dance training
Discipline in the arts is usually one of the major “gains” in training and one of the reasons many parents choose to enroll their child.
Discipline in pre-professional dance, for me, was what separated those that wanted to succeed and those that did.
Discipline in professional dance takes on a different perspective in response to the nature of one’s success. For those with company success, discipline may still be dedication to their craft, daily technique class and the commitment involved. For those without consistent work it can mean carving out the time and money to maintain one’s technique and conditioning and challenging one’s self to stay engaged at the fullest level.
But when all is said and done, discipline can have a dark side. The cape donned in the thrill of physical prowess and being at the top of one’s game can lead, in other scenarios, to a mask of re-hashing and obsession over improvement with less healthy side effects.
This is where I sometimes find myself now. I have come to the opinion that, in teaching as well as other aspects of life, reflection is what separates those that want to be successful and those that are. But there is a precipice where success can fall into obsession the longer one dwells. From the outside things may still look very successful, and they are, but the inside graphs another story.
I have mentioned before that the last twelve months have been challenging. For all the positives, I tend to focus extensively on the areas in need of work. There is my challenge.
Here’s an example: rather than simply rejoicing in the fact we have a 9 month old baby, a bright and active 4 year old boy, a nice home, seemingly stable jobs, a challenging new teaching environment, new and interesting problems to solve, satisfying side projects, and opportunities on the horizon,…
…I find myself dwelling on whether or not my baby has as much of my attention as my son did at her age and what I can do about it, if my son is in the right learning environment and what the arrangements should be made for him next year (whether he starts school or not and where), the dust and the cleaning that is so sub-par based on my pre-children standards and the related shame whenever anyone comes over, the overwhelming awareness of judgement (positive or negative) when working in a new place, with new people, new students, and new curriculum, how to balance what is artistically satisfying with what I do and how I have to do it, what I need to do to maintain my artistic, educational, online, friendly, and familial reputations, and so on.
Instead of material goods, the Joneses that I am trying to keep up with are the top of their fields no matter where they are working: at home, in the classroom, in academia or online. In my mind, I find myself competing with the moms that stay home focusing most exclusively on the family and the home, the teachers that dedicate themselves and many extra hours/days to supporting their curriculum, to the professors that balance teaching and publishing and presenting, and the internet gurus who seem to be able to seamlessly document their lives or their creations (I visit a lot of craft-based lifestyle blogs).
Has my profession taught me to always feel I can’t quite measure up and there is always more work to be done?
Has the sheer number of times as dancers we’ve been told, “there is always a replacement” elicited a feeling that you can’t possibly be less than super-human if you still want to be good at what you do? In all that you do?
Has the emphasis placed on cross-training and generalist approaches to dance academics seasoned me for eXtreme multi-tasking and over-achieving and thinking it is”normal”?
Or is it all personal?
Which aspect of my personality does this reflect most- the artist or the perfectionist? Can they be separated? Or which came first? Is one a product of the other or the inspiration?
Often, people seek my advice in teaching, or balancing professional and personal lives, or both. But now, perhaps it is me that needs the advice.
In truth, I do rejoice in our kids and family life, love my job and my opportunities, and all that go with it. Yet….
What do you do when you can’t find anything to let go of…… When life demands that you have your hat in many rings and your personality and/or your conditioning doesn’t allow you to be second rate in any of them….
Or am I the only one?
Here’s my November article for Dance Advantage.
As a sophomore in college I had the distinct honor of dancing Lar Lubovitch’s Marimba. John Dayger, long time Lubovitch rehearsal director and dancer, set the work in a number of marathon weekends- a process that proved to be my first REAL introduction to professional dance.
I entered college from a dance studio owned by a couple of ‘adagio’ dancers. I studied ballet, pointe, jazz, and tap. I taught classes to children. I dabbled in a little choreography. Dance notation to me, meant the notebooks filled with either stick-figures with counts or short-hand representing choreography that the studio owners created and I was to teach my classes. Choreography simply meant an assembling movement together and that movement was intended to demonstrate the skills we’d hopefully developed throughout the year.
When I interviewed for entrance into the dance major program and interviewed for a scholarship, my future mentor asked me my favorite choreographers. Having had zero dance history education apart from what I read in Dance Magazine and a book my first ballet teacher gave me, I listed Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and…Lar Lubovitch.
At this point you might think to yourself, “huh?! These are the three she lists? Kelly (mainstream), Astaire (mainstream), and…..Lubovitch (NOT mainstream for a girl growing up in a rural town in Michigan.).” The thought strikes me as odd, too.
The thing is, my dad likes to arrive places early. And I mean EARLY (especially when he’s anxious). So, I had about an hour and half to kill in the hallways of the dance department before another auditionee arrived. There was still probably another half hour before check-in. During this time, I read every article on every bulletin board I could find. Since Lubovitch had been in residence the year prior, his company performing and teaching several master classes, there were a lot of articles about the company’s presence and about Lar Lubovitch himself. I recognized his name. Honestly. Remember, I was an avid reader of Dance Magazine. And I thought I had seen some of his work on PBS. (To this day I am not sure that is true). Yet in my mind, in the span of two hours, he’d come to be one of my favorite choreographers.
Magically, I was cast in Marimba during my sophomore year. It was the most intense dance experience I’d ever had. In fact, I think that was the most intense dance experience I have EVER had but mainly due to my age and level of training at that point. Here are some of the things that challenged everything I thought I knew about dance at that time.
Counting: Mostly 8’s. Sometimes 5’s or 7’s. Always consistant.
Lubovitch: 11, 12, 7, 5, 13, 9, 9,…..it was alllll over the place and actually had to be counted out loud by the group in order to keep track. Skipping 6 and 7 of course because the sound resonates into the house.
Composition tools: they exist
Lubovitch: they are complex, beautiful ideas that shift movement into meaningful visual pictures and contextual ideas. They may also make you want to stab your eyes with forks because they can be that complex and relentless.
Cast: the people that co-exist with you in Time and Space
Lubovitch: No man is an island and without these people, you are sunk. They are your life-line. And if someone happens to make a mistake in the fifth of a twenty-two minute piece that impacts the entire cast and the success of the entire piece, well….you better find acceptance and forgiveness because: 1. sooner or later that person will be YOU and 2. there is going to be another run of the piece in 5 minutes and anger will just get in the way.
Conditioning: there is this thing called your “center”
Lubovitch: nothing helps you find your center like running in plie for a 7 hour rehearsal on Saturday and doing it again on Sunday for 5. (Not to mention the 3 hours on Friday night). Weekend after weekend after weekend. (Which follow weeks of dancing 6 hours minimum per day). That kind of knowledge gets you through your 5 hour dance day when still moving (dancing) in the 9th month of your second pregnancy.
Dancer’s tools: shoes, mostly and then calluses
Lubovitch: Elastoplast® is the greatest invention in the world. Second only to gaff tape (maybe).
RETURN to current day…..
So, this has all come up because yesterday during dinner I had a very powerful movement memory of a section from this piece. Sadly, I cannot remember the full name of the section….it was something like Big Turns, Fast Turns, Sudden Death. It is my favorite movement I’ve ever danced, mainly because I love turns, speed, and being off-center. Then, when you divide movement by half each time it is repeated it becomes a wonderful, death-defying movement puzzle that keeps you engaged for…..umm….over a decade. Yikes!!
I dance, for most of the year, every single day. But this is the dancing I miss. The kind in which every cell of your being is engaged because your life, or the life you have dared to imagine for yourself, depends on it.
As I have matured, I have come to realize that for me to be happiest, I need a balance between physicality and intellectual stimulation separate from, or rather complimentary to, physical intelligence. Most glaringly, these usually come down in the following ways: heavy dancing/heavy writing, work hard/play hard, professional checks and balances/ family focus. Similarly, the more creative work I am doing professionally, the more structured and organized the work in my teaching must become and vice versa. Once upon a time, I prided myself on not being routine-oriented, and to this day I revel in being able to think on my feet. Yet, I have also come to realize that this ability is dependent upon the over-preparation I have done in quiet times versus the storm.
I live in layers.
Everything I do is layered with intent, meaning, and relevance to the rest of my world or the world I am seeking to create for my students. I love symbolism. I love relationship. I love color and texture. This is true of my choreography, my lesson plans, and my overall approach to life. I am not sure which came first- this attention within my creative work or the mere application of these qualities that were already naturally present. Is it dance education teaching me about life or real life informing my dance experience? I think it is a toss up.
Most excitingly, I also recognize that often the layering is a discovery and not pre-planned. Sure, this tends to enable my talent for over-analyzing. But isn’t it important to turn a weakness into a strength? Take “fat pants” for example. In most instances, the pants worn in heavier episodes of life cover some degree of embarrassment and potentially shame. But, post-baby, being able to fit into those same pants days after delivery may just make that same woman feel like a million bucks. I’m just sayin’.
My body’s form.
For years, I have spent grueling hours trying to perfect the instrument I inhabit. I don’t have the “ideal” dancer’s body, but I generally like the one I have. I like what it has been able to do, and again, as I’ve matured I have especially liked its limitations. I have spent years upon years trying to imitate others’ bodies, teach my own to look and play the part, and finally sought to train my body to recreate the intent and movement of others’ bodies but with my own reflection and inflection.
Among the most drastic bodily changes I have encountered over the years (weight, injury, etc.) the most profound have been my two pregnancies. My first was at 31, not long after completing graduate school in which I was dancing and performing heavily followed by teaching in the public schools in which the change of program philosophy demanded that I demonstrate a lot and thus danced my classes in addition to teaching them. The latter half of that pregnancy was spent directing the dance program at the college level and thus the frequency of classes and rehearsals lessened. During that pregnancy, I performed at 7 months and taught/danced up until 3 days before the delivery of my son. While pregnant with my daughter at 34, I returned to teaching at the high school and found myself again needing to dance/teach 5 hours per day. I also found that the students were leery of a pregnant instructor and were heavily concerned with what this meant for their own movement experiences. Thankfully, I had another smooth pregnancy and was able to keep dancing right up until the end, again until 3 days before delivery. Thankfully, I also have a lot of experience teaching in many different formats and don’t need to demonstrate everything in order to be effective. Many of these students have only had instructors that dance and don’t always get around to teaching. But that is beside the point. This experience was punctuated with comments from students such as, “I always forget that you’re pregnant” and “There she goes….still kicking and rolling and dancing all over the place.” High praise, indeed, and from tough critics.
My body’s function.
Of course the creation of human life is a miracle and a unique function of the female form. What has struck me as interesting during both pregnancies, have been attitudes toward the female body and its capabilities during particularly “female” experiences.
I often hear from students that they “can’t dance today” because they are on their periods, or have severe cramps, or in some instances, are pregnant. I am always a little surprised when parents write me excuse notes attempting to relieve their daughter of her academic responsibility due to cramps. Unless a medical note is included, I usually spend a few minutes mentally composing a humorous retort followed by a real response explaining that as a woman, I understand their daughter’s situation but do not excuse lack of participation for such reasons. It was extra fun when occasionally I’d meet the parents while being visibly pregnant and obviously still dancing. But I digress….
The part that has been most thought-provoking and the revealed layer of relevance, has been the opportunity to redefine the image of being a woman, for many of these kids. Pregnancy, usually an intensely private journey became a very public demonstration and subject to great discussion in my classes and I suspect in some homes.
For many, my identity as a dancer may not have been clearly understood as many parents and community members don’t necessarily ‘get’ what takes place in a dance class within a public school setting. Being new (ish) to the school, my role as a woman and that of a mother facilitated relationships to a degree that may not have been achieved as quickly had I just been the dance teacher. Being pregnant has offered some unexpected common ground. Who knew that my physical form would take on the function of community building? It fostered personal investment and the sharing of personal stories in a way that proved to be invaluable in class dynamics and community development. I think it helped me be perceived as accessible in a way that highly trained dancers in community dance settings tend not to be considered, no matter how nice they are.
Pedagogically speaking, it encouraged line/imitation-oriented students to use their imaginations to finish the movement puzzle. They were not provided with the visual answer but had to take control of completing the picture. Different students took on different leadership roles based on their success at these tasks. In some ways, it helped level the playing field from what the students had experienced before and reinforced my strategies for these lessons in a truly efficient way. They took these lessons differently than if I’d simply presented the material and then obviously withdrew from completing the work for them. They arrived at that ownership organically and more effectively. They accepted my pregnancy as a fact and not a hindrance. So did I.
This journey culminated, obviously, in the birth of my daughter last week. On day 2 of recovery, I was on my assigned hall-walk when I saw one of my students in the “pantry” of the maternity ward. Texting. Naturally. (I may not have recognized her otherwise). She was there helping her mom who had just given birth to twins the day prior. We were sincerely excited to see each other and she eagerly returned to my room with me in order to hold my daughter. It was really nice. This is a student that is in my class for the electives credit. She is not a dancer’s dancer. She is not even that fired up about dance. She has had some exciting “light bulb” moments this semester that I can clearly recall. In time, however, those recollections will fade. We spent quite a bit of time comparing pregnancy notes between her mother and me. It was a nice and quick way to get to know her background, preferences, and personal attitudes which supported my approach to teaching her. Now, however, she’s burned in my memory forever. We have shared valuable experiences together in and out of the classroom. Enduringly, though, we have shared a personal story through a connection made possible by dance. I hope it was half as meaningful to her.
If you are interesting in more personal connections through dance, check out the link to DanceBloggers.com.
My mother painted birds. My English mother came to the US with her English husband and two small English children, a passion for art, and raw skill. One Christmas, my father bought her a set of paints and she set to work. She was drawn to nature and specialized in birds and flowers. Watercolor was her medium of choice. The most striking element of her work is the detail in the feathers and, to me, the dew drops on the flowers. She received a fair amount of local notoriety for her art and instilled in us- her two English born and one American born kids- a love of art that has continued long after she has passed away.
I am the American born child of this arts-loving English couple. I have letters from my Nana, my mother’s mother, referring to me as the “American doll.” As a kid, I was often aware of the difference in my upbringing because I used words that the other kids thought were funny. For example, we said it was “spitting” out instead of “sprinkling” and I wore “knickers” instead of “underpants”. But then there were the words that my creative father made up and passed off as common language, which I later found out didn’t exist in either English or American English. Being from Merseyside, he also told me he went to school with the Beatles but didn’t know why they stopped calling him. (My mother did watch the Beatles at the Cavern Club, probably around the Pete Best era). And I got my own back….after seeing Ringo in Rockefeller Center while I was living in NYC, I called my Dad and told him that I saw Uncle Ringo but he acted as if he had no idea who I was. My dad rolled and rolled in laughter.
Where am I going with this? Art making: specifically, my mother’s attention to detail and my father’s creativity. I find it fascinating how or where people place value on a ‘finished’ product.
It seems to me that dancers that are trained from an external perspective- those taught to imitate line and shape instead of re-creating it for themselves, place importance on synchronicity and clarity of execution. There is value placed on the cleanliness of the group rather than the detail of an individual movement and the opportunity to see this movement become unique as performed my multiple bodies. I am all for clean dancing. I am all for pretty pictures. Yet, I find art making to be in the exploration of these possibilities and not necessarily the drilled, machine-like demonstration of skill. I once had a student that watched Paul Taylor’s Promethean Fire and commented that she thought it was messy and should have been cleaned before they taped the performance. I think my mouth may have fell open. I realize not every dance speaks to every person but I was surprised that she had not been moved by the music, the movement, and relationship between dancers due to some discrepancy in degrees angles of the arms, and so on. In considering her background and resulting aesthetic preferences, her comment should not have surprised me. And, had we had more time to work together, I hope her view of ‘quality’ dance would have expanded.
When dancers are encouraged to shed this initial regimented impression of the creative process and are invited to explore movement, detail can be just as clear but with potentially more meaning. Even when working in a line-concentrated medium (say, jazz or ballet), the approach to the movement and the nuance found within is what brings the choreography to life. Sometimes we need to momentarily leave behind what we’ve been taught and focus on what we can create, even if it defies our personal definitions of dance. Then, if needed, we can marry these two concepts and find brilliance in what may ordinarily be ordinary dance. In my view, this is the source of artistry.
This is precisely why I feel improvisation should be used in all kinds of dance classes, especially dance technique classes offered through private studios and in public schools. If not allowed to ‘create’ movement, it is difficult for budding dancers to claim movement as their own and can be more difficult for audiences to connect with them as performers beyond the admiration of physical skill. Dance is an incredible physical discipline that can feature athleticism but we need a distinction between sport and dance. This is expression and communication. How can we cultivate new voices if never allowing these young artists to figuratively clear their throats?
As educators, we need young dancers to understand how their bodies work. I think it is a shame that by the time they get to college, a dancer may be able to whip off multiple pirouettes but cannot balance on one leg. They may expend way more energy than should be required because they have no sense of true placement and need to adjust position before entering a movement. They’ve been taught to imitate and not re-create.
As I have said before, I like to work conceptually first and physically second yet that hasn’t always been the case. As I develop as an educator, I embrace the abstract and move to fill in the detail. We need to shift weight before we may dance.
My life is full of the abstract and preparation for detail as we expect our second child to arrive this April. As she moves and rolls, bumps and delivers quick jabs to my ribs, she moves from an abstract idea of “having a girl” to distinct ideas of what her personality may be like. I feel our identities taking shape. I am eager to share with her our family history, in creativity and detail. She’s our little bird and she’s a work in progress. Though, aren’t we all?