Monthly Archives: November 2011

My Most Common Critiques at Competition (Part 2)

These days, almost all dance competitions provide competing studios with detailed judges’ critiques in various media including on audio CD, video DVD, or on a flashdrive. What is so helpful about these critiques is that the teachers, choreographers, and dancers can listen to or watch their performances and listen to each judge’s voice, giving them a thorough critique throughout the entire duration of the performance. What’s especially great about the voice critiques is that listeners are able to hear the judges’ comments during the exact moment that is being commented on. This new practice of providing critiques is an incredible educational tool compared to the previous system of scrawling quick written notes on a score sheet. Furthermore, detailed critiques also help to explain and justify why you received the numerical scores that you did.

As a competition judge, I find myself quite often saying the same basic critiques over and over again. Here are numbers six through ten!

6. I’m Not Sure What That Was Supposed To Be!

Quite often, I have heard myself say during my critiques, “I’m not sure what that was supposed to be . . .”  I don’t say it in a cruel or frustrated tone, but rather one that is simply straightforward. What I mean when I say this is that I’m left totally uncertain with what that particular piece of choreography was supposed to be. I’m completely fine with experimental choreography, especially in the contemporary or open categories, but in most of those instances, I can tell that a certain maneuver or gesture was intended to be the way it was performed by the dancer. However when I see choreographic ambiguity or awkwardness that is indicated by a lack of clarity of movement on the part of the dancer, I will make a comment stating that I simply don’t know what was intended. This mostly occurs when, for instance, in a ballet or lyrical piece, I can’t tell if a turn was intended to be a pirouette in passé or in coupé because the dancer the position in which the dancer had placed the leg lacked definition and precision. The solution to this problem: be clear, specific, and explicit in both choreography and in execution to avoid a “muddled” performance.

7. Look at Us!

I cannot understate the importance of maintaining eye contact with the judges while you are onstage. When you look the judges in the eye (try to make contact with each one of them throughout your performance), you are creating a human connection with them that draws them more into your dance. This is an extraordinarily easy way to distinguish yourself from other contestants and to make the emotional charge of your piece all the more blatant. Also, since a big chunk of your score is likely to be based upon stage presence or personality, judges are much more likely to score you favorably if you demonstrate the confidence and presence that comes with being bold enough to look them in their eyes and express whatever your piece is intended to.

8. Don’t Let Mistakes Show In Your Face!

We are all human and we all make mistakes, including when we are dancing. Judges understand this. But, if something goes wrong in your dance, the best thing you can do is to just keep going and never let on that it ever happened. Try not to grimace or look upset, but rather maintain the stage face that was intended to be held during the piece. Making sure that your mistake never shows in your face and that you never break character accomplishes two things for you: first, you can minimize your mistake by not drawing any more attention to it at all, and two, you can demonstrate your show-biz professionalism by proving that you can keep it all together and that you have mastered that “show must go on” mentality. Turn your mistake into an opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism!

9. Stay Together!

Whenever you are dealing with more than one person in a dance, togetherness and timing must become high priorities. The only way to master these is the choreographer’s insistence of precise timing during rehearsal and the dancers listening to their music every moment and every time the dance is rehearsed and performed so that the necessary degree of precision becomes second nature. This is particularly essential in tap numbers where the judges are able to not only notice a lack of togetherness with their eyes, but it is reinforced by what they hear with their ears. Hours of drilling the number and correcting timing variances, as well as the dancers constantly using their ears while performing, will help maintain that impressive togetherness.

10. Don’t Look Nervous!

I find myself saying this often with younger dancers, but when a dancer of any age appears nervous or doubtful on stage, it evokes feelings of nervousness and apprehension in the audience and among the judges. We want to feel reassured by your facial expressions and your demeanor onstage. If you appear that you know exactly what you’re doing, most likely, anyone watching you will assume that you do. For the younger dancers, we want to see them having an absolute blast on stage, absorbing all the fabulous attention the audience pours on them for looking so cute! We don’t want to see a dancer onstage who looks like they’re being tortured! So stress with your youngest students to keep up that smile! A huge, exaggerated smile is so much better than the “deer in headlights” look!

There you have it–my ten most common critiques at competition! As always, I wish you the best of luck and look forward to hearing from any interested readers! And send me topic ideas!

Coming up next: Perfect Pirouettes!

My 10 Most Common Critiques at Competition (Part 1)

These days, almost all dance competitions provide competing studios with detailed judges’ critiques in various media including on audio CD, video DVD, or on a flashdrive. What is so helpful about these critiques is that the teachers, choreographers, and dancers can listen to or watch their performances and listen to each judge’s voice, giving them a thorough critique throughout the entire duration of the performance. What’s especially great about the voice critiques is that listeners are able to hear the judges’ comments during the exact moment that is being commented on. This new practice of providing critiques is an incredible educational tool compared to the previous system of scrawling quick written notes on a score sheet. Furthermore, detailed critiques also help to explain and justify why you received the numerical scores that you did.

As a competition judge, I find myself quite often saying the same basic critiques over and over again. In this two-part blog entry, I will share with you ten of the most common thoughts I find myself voicing into the microphone at competitions all over the United States.

1. Sickled Feet

This is probably the most common dance technical error of all time. It’s so easy to relax that foot and let it turn in, making the shape of a sickle. Even on very advanced and accomplished dancers, I catch sickled feet, usually in B+ or during pirouettes. Having consistently sickled feet can be detrimental to your technique score. Try to fix it in the classroom before you ever enter the stage. See my previous blog on Fixing Sickled Feet for some strategies to be rid of this particular mistake.

2. Straight Supporting Leg

I often joke that I should have a button on the laptop at competitions to say this phrase for me since I use it so often during critiques. Probably the biggest impediment to a smooth and flawless turn (pirouettes, attitude, pencil turns, and even fouettés and tours à la seconde) is a bent supporting leg. When you are balancing en relevé in your turn, unless the choreography is expressly contrary, your supporting leg should be absolutely straight with the knee locked. I think the reason that dancers often neglect to ensure the knee is straight is because of the basic human instinct to sink into the floor with bent knees when one feels unbalanced. When balancing in a turn, however, you’ll want to find that instinct, remain lifted and keep the knee locked! Especially in turns that are virtually endless (such as fouettés and tours à la seconde), when you pop back up from the plié portion of the rotation, make sure you straighten that supporting leg! Not straightening that leg all the way will not only throw off your balance, but will actually work against you. Only plié the supporting leg when you intend to smoothly land the turn. If you ever hear me cry “straighten the supporting leg!” into the micrphone, you’ll know what I mean now!

3. Place Weight on the Supporting Leg in Preparation for a Turn

Whenever a dancer prepares for a single-leg turn, especially from the lunge position, they should be placing most (at least 90%) of their weight on the leg that is going to serve as the supporting leg. Since this is the leg that will ultimately be carrying all of your weight, you will have a more stable and effortless lift out of the preparation if most of your weight is already placed on that leg in the first place. I should note that this is a matter of style and personal preference and I do know some teachers who encourage their students to prepare in a fourth position plié (bending both legs). I have found students to have greater success, however, by placing all their weight on the supporting leg (usually the front leg depending upon the preparation) before they lift to begin the turn. Go from a deep plié and pop up onto a straight supporting leg en relevé

4. Don’t Turn on the Heel!

I will usually tell competition dancers in my critiques that it is better to land a smooth, clean single turn rather than to complete a double or triple by dropping back onto the heel. It’s very obvious to the judges and makes your turn much less impressive. Also, you will lose points on your technique score for turning on the heel! It demonstrates to the judges that you haven’t maintained your weight at a point where you can balance all the way around or that you rushed or or were careless in your preparation or execution. If you feel unbalanced, it will be more professional and impressive to cut your losses and land the turn in a smooth and controlled manner before we catch you dropping back onto your heel. It’s a lot to think about all in that one moment, but if you can at all help it, remember, that the judges will be impressed with a perfect single rather than a sloppy, hoppy, double turn spun on your heel.

5. Support Your Arms from Underneath!

Poorly placed or droopy arms are becoming more and more common, it seems. I’m talking about probably the simplest and most common arm position there is: the first position. Arms should be held out away from you and almost straight, with just enough bend to give them that round shape. The tips of your middle fingers should be about two inches apart and directly forward from the belly button and hands should not droop downward. I will tell my students not to have “zombie hands!” The shoulders should be pressed down and back, but the elbows should be lifted, pressing up! Your arms will retain a beautiful shape if you are sure to accomplish these two seemingly contradictory things: the shoulders pressed down, but elbows pressing up. You will feel the tension and effort in your arms, but that’s a good thing! Dance isn’t supposed to be easy! If you can memorize what this tension feels like, your first position arms will be perfect every time. Most importantly, don’t let the elbows sag. One of my most common critiques is “droopy elbows!”

Thanks for bearing with me through these first five of my most most common competition critiques! Stay tuned for the next five!

As always, I adore comments and suggestions for future topics!

Break a leg, dancers!

Age-Appropriate Technical Choreography

This topic was suggested by Kristen DeFrancisco Miller, a teacher at the highly respected Donna Frech School of Dance in Norwich, NY. Thanks, Kristen!

I could write an entire series of blogs on the concept of “age-appropriateness.” Since this is a topic that remains relevant relevant and is constantly debated, I have decided to tackle it one aspect at a time.

Kristen, a teacher I have known for ten years now, suggested I write about appropriateness of choreography. For example, is it appropriate to put a billion unsuccessful fouetté turns into a nine year old’s lyrical solo?

I have come up with one steadfast rule regarding how to negotiate that delicate balance between wanting to challenge your students with more advanced technical choreography and also wanting them to appear confident and their dancing to appear effortless.

Here it is: If it doesn’t look GOOD, don’t put it on stage.

All audiences, whether professional competition judges, the dancer’s parents, or simply interested strangers, are hoping to see the same thing: dancing that looks good. The job of the dance teacher is to make his or her students both look good, and also strive to be even better. Obviously, students need to be challenged, but certainly not in a way that is going to make them look awkward or foolish on stage.

I recall at one competition I was judging, a fellow judge commented during a lunch break that she couldn’t believe how many times she saw young dancers attempting to perform a heel stretch, but were unable to straighten the leg all the way or to get their leg higher than the hip. We agreed that if the leg can’t be straightened or the heel is no higher than at least the shoulder, it should just be left out of the dance!

Although I can certainly understand a teacher’s desire to push a student to perfect a choreographic element, such as a heel stretch, placing it in the student’s routine and taking it to competition serves no purpose other than to highlight and broadcast the student’s technical deficiency, and risks the student suffering undue embarassment or loss of self-confidence. Who would want to do that to an aspiring young dancer?

My advice, then, is a more balanced approach. Privately, in the studio, always push a student to more and more difficult elements of dance. Once that single pirouette is landed smoothly, celebrate for a few seconds, and then ask for the double. Once a student can nicely execute four fouettés, give them a high five and ask for six. But, do not formally place any element in the choreography for a student’s routine until it is perfected.

The audience is looking for what the student does WELL, so use the choreography to show off what the student does WELL. Elements with which the student is struggling or those which they aspire to accomplish in the near future should be worked out in the studio, not onstage. Remember, you want to highlight what the dancer does well, not what they don’t. You want to set the student up to feel successful and encouraged, not deflated and thoroughly disparaged.

Hope you found this helpful! I’m always looking for new blog ideas and I love comments!

Best of luck, dancers!

Technical Mistake #1: Sickled Feet

A sickle, used for harvesting grain crops, is not the shape you want your foot to be in when dancing!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I so appreciate my lovely students, Emily, Sophie, and Irena, for agreeing to model both the incorrect and correct positions for this blog! Thanks, you guys!

This is the first entry in a series of posts on common mistakes in technique. Anyone who has competed in dance knows that a huge chunk of the potential points awarded to you by the judges is in the category of technique. For more on what technique is, check out my blog entry entitled “What is technique, anyway?”

Today’s topic is probably the most common fatal flaw among dancers. Sickled feet are probably one of the ugliest mistakes a dancer can make on stage and, unfortunately for the dancer, it is readily noticed by the judges. To any dance professional, seeing a sickled foot is like hearing fingernails run down the chalkboard.

Emily in a sickled coupe. (I asked her to demonstrate the WRONG thing to do!)

Picture this from the view of a competition judge: A new young dancer takes the stage. She enters with a couple chaînés, and then settles into a B+ to wait for her music to start. If that back foot in the B+ is sickled or turned in or both, she just lost MAJOR points for her technique score and she hasn’t even started dancing yet! If she keeps up the sickling throughout her routine, especially on those steps which are the most sickle-prone (arabesque, tendu, attitude, or on the passé foot in pirouette, she will continue to lose points every single occurrence.

Irena demonstrating an ugly, sickled, tendu (because I asked her to for this blog!)

Not only are sickled feet hideously ugly to dance professionals, but they only act to get in the way of the dancer. Try to imagine dancing pigeon-toed, for instance. You’ll fall all over the place!

So, how do we fix sickled feet in dancers?

I have found that the first step in ridding a dancer of the habit of sickling their feet is to take the time to make sure that the student understands what you mean by “sickling.” Make them do it! Actually make them sickle their feet and then make them correct it. Then, again, make them sickle, and make them correct it so that they can develop a sense of the control they have over their own ankle and foot.

Second, I ask the dancers to stand facing directly to the side of the studio so that they can see themselves in profile in the studio mirrors. I then ask them to place the foot closest to the mirror into sur-le-cou-de-pied at the ankle of the supporting leg. Sur-le-cou-de-pied is a French term translated into English as “at the ankle” (the phrase “cou-de-pied” literally translates as “neck of the foot,” which is the French term for “ankle”). In this position, they place the heal of the working foot directly up against the shin of the supporting leg and then wrap the working foot around the supporting ankle so that the big toe comes to wrest around the back of the ankle with the toes pointed as much as possible.

Sophie in sur-le-cou-de-pied, with her heel in front, toe wrapped around to the back. This is the shape we are striving for.

Emily in sur-le-cou-de-pied

I tell the students to remain in this position for quite a while and ask them to memorize what it feels like to have the heel pressed that far forward and the toes pressing back. Then, from sur-le-cou-de-pied, I have them take that working leg, without moving a single muscle in that foot, and ask them to extend it into tendu, often front, side and back, all the while having the dancer watch themselves in the mirror to make sure that the foot not only doesn’t fatigue and go into a sickle, but also that it stays in that elegant and beautiful “anti-sickle,” as I call or it, or, as I also refer to it, as the sur-le-cou-de-pied foot. Many of my students experienced an “oh wow!” moment the first time I tried this exercise and they commented on how pretty of a shape this is.

Irena in tendu forward, maintaining the heel-forward shape from her sur-le-cou-de-pied.

Sophie, maintaining the sur-le-cou-de-pied shape as she extends in tendu, creating the lovely heel-forward look.

I do this in every technique class, and, once you have a term for the correct shape of the foot that the dancers can recognize, it becomes easier to correct it later on in class. And you MUST insist on them correcting sickled feet whenever they occur. Eventually it will become second-nature and they will begin to experience the nails-on-chalkboard sensation when they notice other dancers sickling their feet!

Let me know how this works out for you!

Best of luck!

How To Be The Ideal Dance Parent

Cathy causes drama at Abby Lee's studio on Lifetime's Dance Moms

As the parent of a dance student, your relationship with the dance teacher is a unique and important one. If you can develop a relationship of mutual respect and trust with the teacher, you are ensuring that your child will have a rewarding and productive experience as a dancer. Here are some tips to help you develop that relationship with your child’s teacher and to make the most of being the client of a dance studio:

1. Remember that the teacher loves dance. And they expect you to, as well.

I’ve yet to meet a dance teacher who isn’t completely passionate about what they do. They do what they do and are willing to put in all the long and exhausting hours, both in the classroom and out of it. They definitely don’t do it for the big bucks, but because, for many of them, dance is their life. I would daresay that dance teachers are most often used to making large and deep sacrifices on behalf of their art. You can rest assured that they will give you everything they’ve got and then some.

As wonderful as that is know about your teacher, don’t forget that that means they are likely to not be understanding with people for whom dance isn’t everything. Those of us who grew up dancing and doing nothing else have missed countless weddings, funerals, birthday parties, and other functions throughout our lives. We completely understand that important things come up in our students’ lives, but we expect the students and their parents to prioritize. By all means, if you have to miss class to take your SAT’s, I will wish you all the luck in the world and insist you prepare for those! However, if you miss something important such as a stage rehearsal, or a final rehearsal before competition, your teacher is unlikely to understand, no matter what the reason is. I had a student once miss the only stage rehearsal for our finale because of a First Communion in her family, and her mother informed me “I’m sorry, family comes before dance.” My response was, “I’m sorry, if she misses the rehearsal, she is not as prepared as the other students and therefore, cannot be in the finale.” Regardless of how good your excuse is, if you’re not there to learn what you need to learn, you’re not going to be able to do it on stage. That’s the reality.

2. Dance is different from most service industries.

Thankfully, I’ve never been confronted with a dance parent stating that “The customer is alright right.” If I were, I think I would respond with, “Well, you were mistaken…” Dance is different from many other service-based industries. In fact, I would think of a studio as an educational institution like a school or college. Yes, you are paying to attend, but by enrolling, you are also making a commitment to perform the work that is expected of you and to follow the rules. After all, how much are you going to get out of your dance education–or any education–if you don’t put any effort into it? If you enroll at a univesity, but refuse to show up for exams or turn in your papers, it doesn’t matter how much you’re paying, they’re going to throw you out. After all, why would you spend all that money to do something you’re not going to take seriously? The same concept is true in dance. Instead of expecting the studio to cater to you because you pay the bills, think of it as if you are paying for a unique opportunity and it is in your own best interest to make the most of it and work as hard as you can. Your educational experience at the studio will be all the better.

3. Follow the rules. Yes, you.

Since young dancers often have the same teacher for years and years, close bonds can form, both between the teacher and student and the teacher and the student’s parents. Hopefully, your studio feels like a big extended family. But, just because you feel close to your teacher and feel they are an important part of your lives, that doesn’t mean the teacher’s rules don’t apply to you. Rules like dress codes, and rules at competitions and recitals, are meant to be followed by EVERYONE. For example, at recital time, teachers agree to follow the rules of the facility where we are holding the show. If they insist on no food or drink inside the theater, that means it becomes OUR duty, if we ever want to hold a recital there again, to enforce those rules. Don’t assume, “Oh, Jesse knows we will be careful.” Don’t risk the entire studio losing their performance venue over Powerade or pizza. The rules are there for a reason. If you are close to your teacher, then the best thing you can do is to set an example for the other dance families.

4. Resist second-guessing the teacher’s artistic choices.

Part of what you’re paying for when taking classes at a dance studio is your teacher’s artistic expertise. Through years of experience and an intimate knowledge of what is expected within the dance world, no one is in a better position to choose music and costumes that would be perfect for a particular dancer than their teacher. Believe me, we as teachers are under immense pressure to make sure all our pieces are appropriate and comparable to what is happening in the dance world at large. You may hear the song “Jar of Hearts” on the radio and think it is just beautiful and perfect for your daughter to compete with. It is then up to your teacher to say, “Yes, I can see why you like it but it’s been used about 8 billion times in the last year, and since she is in the 13-14 solo lyrical category, chances are there will be at least two other girls dancing to the same song. Let’s find something that will be unique and progressive.”

The same applies to costumes. Your teacher will have a very good sense of what is expired and what is over-used. Oftentimes, what a student or parent thinks is just “gorgeous,” actually just isn’t. Remember, the judges at competition are dance professionals, and your teacher is more likely to have a handle on what their opinons might be.

I don’t mean to discourage anyone from offering suggestions to your dance teacher, but if they don’t agree, there is probably a good reason and it is best to just accept it and trust their judgment.

5. Be open and honest with your teacher but choose your battles.

If there is a problem or if a student feels uncomfortable with anything at the studio, I’m sure your teacher or studio owner will want to know. We want the dance experience to be wonderful for everyone! But here are some suggestions. First of all, don’t drag your teacher into studio drama or gossip. If a parent or student comes to me and says “Oh, I can’t be in that class with so-and-so, we don’t get along.” I’m very likely to respond with, “Ya know what, I don’t have time to worry about teen drama, so you’re going to figure out how to get along.” Believe me, we don’t appreciate being dragged into feuds, and we know when we are being played. Trying to turn a teacher against another student (and it happens!) is not going to end well for you.

Be very careful what you “complain” about at the studio. Dance teachers tend to be very confident and strong-willed people and you’re setting yourself up for a bad situation if you begin a conversation with anger or resentment. The best way to approach a dance teacher is carefully and respectfully. Be careful not to become labeled a “problem parent.” If you’re routinely complaining or upset and the teacher begins to dread seeing you come in the door, you may, in fact, be ruining opportunities for your child. Since dance teachers often give up their own time for extra practices, or even to create extra teams or other special projects, and if they consider you a “problem parent,” they are likely to leave your child out of special things. While teachers never want to punish a student because of the actions of a parent, you are more likely to get special opportunities and roles by being a “delightful parent,” rather than a problem one.

6. Don’t freak out!

In moments of crisis and when things go wrong, it’s easy to let the adrenaline take over and lose control. It happens often in the high-stress world of competition dance and during performances when adrenaline is running high anyway. You are more likely to resolve the situation smoothly and avoid any further complication by remaining calm, thinking of a reasonable solution, and professionally executing it. Many relationships between teachers and students have been compromised or soured because of heated moments when things were said without thought. While the fights among parents of Abby Lee’s studio might be entertaining on TV, they actually act only to hurt the students and no one wants that. Stay calm and dignified, no matter what goes wrong.

Clearly, these tips were written from the perspective of a teacher and studio owner, but I want to assure all dance parents that their teacher has their students’ best interests at heart and we want all of them to succeed. These are suggestions that will be sure to make the dance experience the best it can be for everyone involved.

Break a leg!

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