Category Archives: Teaching Dance
Whether you are a dance teacher, a professional dancer, or a dance student, you are likely–at one point or another–to wonder if what you do is important. Despite the seriousness with which we take ourselves and our chosen art, we can’t help but wonder if what we do matters. After all, we are not performing surgery to save lives, or rescuing people from burning buildings, or negotiating world peace. It doesn’t help either that as dancers, we are hopelessly prone to self-doubt and insecurity. We constantly question ourselves and the quality of our work, so it’s no wonder that we are likely to perpetually feel the need to justify what we do and who we are to the people in our lives and to the world as a whole.
Certainly, our work is less urgent than some others. Our problems and challenges are not matters of life and death–although they may feel like it at times. But our work and our achievements do not have to be urgent to be important. We are in the business of pursuing excellence, of incessantly aspiring to reach our next goal, of attempting desperately to move, touch, and hopefully transform our students and our audiences. I believe that we inspire and motivate–we remind the world of its own beauty. And we remind ourselves of ours. We explore what it means to be human. We make life a richer, more fulfilling experience for both ourselves and for others. And that is something certainly worth doing.
We don’t study dance simply because we love the act of dancing, although the joy we get from it may be reason enough. We study dance because of the deep wealth of experience, wisdom, and humanity that it gives us. I’d like to share with you some of the powerful and transformative lessons that dance has taught me and that I hope I somehow impart to my students.
Aspiration: Always reaching for new heights
Dance is a gateway art form. When a young person begins studying dance, they are immediately exposed to the brilliant and scintillating world of not only the arts, but all of human achievement. Dance is the perfect point of departure for limitless discovery. I owe my lifelong affinity for French language and culture to my first exposure to the French terminology used in my dance classes. The dance world is only a step away from drama, music, musical theatre, opera, and every form of performance imaginable. Dance can provide access to cultural exploration, broadening horizons and contributing to the development of a young person’s vision and perspective. Young people who grow up in the dance world tend to be comfortable around those who are different and maintain a worldly and open view of the world.
Discipline: Mastering oneself
I tell my students that they are so lucky to have the nicest dance teacher in the world! While they don’t believe it’s true, my point is that dance teachers are notoriously demanding and no-nonsense educators. They tend to be serious and driven perfectionists who are as hard on their students as they are on themselves. Dance teachers are a special breed who don’t mess around and command respect without ever having to ask for it. As a result, dance students grow up with a sense of respect–both for their teachers and themselves. This respect and unique brand of classroom decorum translates into young dancers who are disciplined, mature, and eager to learn. I learned from my teacher to always view class as a special opportunity to learn and that we should eagerly march to the front of the room and take full advantage of what the teacher can offer us. This active and grateful approach to learning is one of the fundamentally unique aspects of dance education. Dancers grow to be active learners, which can only be beneficial in their educational futures.
Commitment: Achieving growth over the long term
Everyone agrees that the demand for instant gratification has become a hallmark of life in the twenty-first century. Today’s young people have grown up with media on-demand. Television, movies, music, games, information, and communication are available consistently and instantaneously. Dancers, however, learn the value of seeing one’s own growth and progress over the course of the long term. Since there is no such instant gratification available in mastering fouetté turns or executing a flawless grand jeté, dance students learn the value of patience, persistence, and dedication. Dancers spend months in class and rehearsal to develop their skills and polish their routines to spend a mere few minutes on the stage. It is those few minutes on stage, however, that make the tedious and repetitive drills and rehearsals worthwhile. Dancers learn this lesson early on and understand the value of committing to a goal even if the resulting accomplishment is months or years away.
Confidence: Dealing with doubt and being your best
We so often think of being nervous as a bad thing–something unpleasant that we should talk ourselves out of. Dancers learn from a young age to embrace their nerves and their fears. If you are nervous, if you are afraid of not performing well, then that means you truly care–you desire deeply to be at your best because the experience of performance and the act of sharing your talent with others is such an important achievement. When you’re a dancer, you know that those nerves will remain with you throughout your life . In fact, you actually HOPE that they do because once the nerves are gone, it may be because you no longer care about doing your best. Anyone who knows me knows I spend a lot of time being nervous. I get nervous about speaking on stage, I get nervous for my dancers, I get nervous before important meetings, and I get nervous when I travel. In fact, I even get nervous if I’m NOT nervous. It’s unpleasant at times, but those nerves remind me that what I’m being asked to do really matters and it’s important to me to do it well. I’m grateful that I know what I do is important enough that I feel that pressure.
Passion: Loving what you do
I have never met a dancer or dance professional who wasn’t madly in love with what they do. Ours is not a profession people unhappily fall into on the way to something else. The amount of work, discipline, and skill that are required to survive, yet alone thrive, in our world preclude anyone from success except those who are driven by what I consider to be the greatest gift of all: a profound love for what you do. Passion for our art is the motivator that makes the discipline and hard work a joy rather than a chore. This is not to say that dance is without sacrifice, exhaustion, frustration, discouragement, or other unpleasantness. But it is our passionate love for what we do that sustains us through the difficult times. To many of us, giving up is simply not an option; it is a preposterous absurdity. Dancers tend to be wholly invested: mind, body, and soul. We work because we must. And that work gives us everything. As a result, dancers tend to demand that joy from everything else they might encounter in life. We know what it is to perform a labor of love and we know that that is us at our best.
As always, please feel free to comment or write to me! I’d appreciate your thoughts, questions, and dance topic ideas!
With much dance love,
The following is an article that I wrote but never published on judging special awards at dance competition. The excitement of getting ready to judge at Sophisticated’s Nationals back in July of 2014 inspired me to share my thoughts. I absolutely love what I do–can you tell? Please feel free to share your thoughts!
It occurred to me to share my thoughts as I get increasingly excited about traveling to Wildwood, NJ next week to judge Sophisticated Productions’ National Dance Competition. The reason why I am so thrilled and can hardly contain my excitement is that this will be my first time judging special awards at the Nationals, although I have judged specials at dozens of competitions before. I have often joked–but still with a lot of seriousness–that my purpose in life is to do special awards at dance competitions. It is, in all honestly, those moments doing my awards that I feel I am fulfilling my highest potential as a human being and I’d love to tell you why.
I have found specials to hold the potential to transform lives and I wanted to take a moment to tell you about their impact on me and about their potential impact on the world of competitive dance.
Sophisticated does its specials a little differently than many competitions. First, there is an entire fourth judge dedicated to the sole purpose of special awards. I don’t score or speak into the microphone to give critiques. My sole purpose is to watch and enjoy every entry that performs and look for what those young dancers do well. I often have no problem finding significant achievements in young dancers that I want to bring attention to and sometimes I will give as many as 25 separate awards during a competition segment of around 60 numbers. During each awards ceremony, the crew knows to give me around 20 minutes just to complete my special awards before moving on to the adjudicated awards and high scores. Despite the jokes among all the competition staff about how much time my awards take, they know that it’s something that holds the audience’s attention and those special moments onstage are more than worth the time it takes. I’d like to explain to you the personal philosophy that makes my awards–as one experienced dance mom once said to me–”unlike anything I have ever seen at a dance competition before.”
While many lament the rise of competitive dance and associate it with increased pressure, hostility, and drama–both in real life and on TV, of course, I believe that Special Awards (especially if done the way I do them) offer a unique and powerful antidote to the negativity that can sometimes prevail in the competitive dance world. I view my job as being charged with the very serious and important task of observing, acknowledging, and encouraging the special personal achievements of the dancers I have the opportunity to judge.
There is no science to what I do. No formula or quantitative standard dictates what awards I will give or to whom. My awards don’t favor the highest scoring competitors, nor do they favor the lowest, although dancers from both of those categories do receive awards. Rather, I seek to reward what, in my judgment, might be the most special quality or potentiality offered by a particular dancer. Or I might notice what a particular dancer or choreographer might be the most proud of–perhaps their biggest achievement of that dance year. Giving them that acknowledgment and articulating to them on stage what made that piece so powerful to me and everyone else watching is not only a great delight for me, but oftentimes I hear that such a moment was just the kind of encouragement or validation that a certain dancer, teacher, or choreographer needed during whatever challenges they may be facing. This is what I like to think of as the transformative potential of the special award.
I’d love to give some examples of awards I have given. I recall giving an award to a dancer in Philadelphia who had extremely well developed technique and I knew would have a high enough score to probably be in the running for winning an overall title. During my awards, I called her up onstage with a smile and as she stood next to me I told her, “We got the chance to watch three of your solos today, which were all absolutely wonderful and so impressive, but I wanted to talk about about your contemporary piece. You were so committed, so emotionally invested in your movements, that you were able to elicit such strong and complex emotional responses in each of us. I think we all felt touched and enriched by watching you. What made this piece so special for you?” She answered, eyes welling, “it’s the one I choreographed myself.”
There are many lighthearted moments as well. What became my signature trademark this season was my vividly colored hair. In Springfield, Massachusetts my hair was dyed pink and on the second day of competition, an 11 year-old-boy came onstage for his solo with his hair temporarily colored pink in an obvious reference to my own. The audience went nuts and my recognizing him up on stage made his day and was surely remembered both by his family and the entire audience.
I also recall once judging in Houston, Texas. A man in cowboy boots stopped me in the hallway after the competition had ended. I will always hear his calm Texan drawl in my memory as I reflect on what he said: “I used to think that a man that didn’t work in the oil industry didn’t have a really important job. But you made my granddaughter feel like a million bucks today. You, sir, are excellent at what you do.” I was moved beyond belief because I knew that this was probably the biggest compliment he could give someone and I was so glad that he took the time to stop and give it to me.
This year, in Bristol, CT a studio from Sandy Hook, CT gave me perhaps the most humbling gift of all. They gave me a small rubber ducky with the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School and told me how, in the wake of the terrible tragedy that happened in December 2012, students who went to school there will bestow one of the ducks to a special person who made a positive difference in their lives. They told me to take the duck with me on my travels and that I would always be safe. I have taken the duck to every competition with me, where it sits on the judging table and watches the dances with me. I will be taking my Sandy Hook duck to Nationals with me and sending a picture back to the kids in Connecticut.
In another instance, in Springfield this April, I called a girl up on stage and she came up so excited that she was practically jumping up and down. I don’t recall what score she received–it didn’t even matter to me. But her passion for performing and her effervescent personality made me think this kid was absolute dynamite. I said to her, “Wow! You seem so I excited! I love that!” Her response I will remember forever–”I’ve been coming to this competition for four years and this year I said I don’t care what kind of trophy I get at all, I’m just going to try really hard to get a special award from Jesse and now I got one!!” I was so touched, I couldn’t help but simply beam and hold back tears of my own and we gave her mom a chance to take a picture of us together onstage.
I was so touched that I had factored into her competition hopes, but more importantly, her reaction crystallized for me one very important realization: special awards and that unique chance to give a dancer acknowledgment and validation invariably make a bigger, deeper, and more memorable impact on a young person than any silver/gold/platinum/titanium trophy or place in a top ten list ever could.
As I always like to remind the dancers, “someone else doing well takes nothing away from you.”
I believe that special awards offer a unique possibility within the competition world: they remind us all of what dance really is–an artform that is meant to allow us to communicate deep, complex, and beautiful feelings with our audiences, affirming that we are all indeed more similar than different as human beings. And furthermore, the power of special awards also reminds everyone of what our purpose at competition should be: to educate, to strengthen, and to inspire the talents of young people. The skills they learn here and the esteem and self-love that I hope is developed within them will carry them far, regardless of what their dreams might be.
I must admit that I really sought to “hit it out of the park” this year with regard to doing my special awards. Shortly before the competition travel season started, I watched an interview with Maya Angelou in which she offered a piece of her legendary wisdom that I have carried with me since. She said “When I step up on the stage, I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me.” I decided to always take a moment before I am announced to do my awards to think of people who have been kind to me and who would want me to do this job well. I thought of my dance teacher, my own parents, my dancers back at home, the competition owner Melissa Tessier who thought I would be good at this, my late grandmother, all my loving dance teacher friends, even the nice lady at the hotel breakfast that morning. Everyone who ever wished me well, I imagined them coming up there with me and I was able to relax, be so totally myself, to feel so loved, and to share that power and that sheer joy with all those kids sitting up on that stage.
This year I shared that Maya Angelou quote in every city that I traveled to and dared the kids to do the same thing before they performed. I wanted them to imagine all the people who had ever been kind to them and to do what Maya Angelou suggested: offer an invitation to those kind people, “Come with me….I’m going on the stage. Come with me; I need you now.” Don’t think about dancing “against” anyone–imagine the people you are dancing FOR. A few dancers took the time to come up to me and say that this thinking allowed them to give the best performance of their lives. I absolutely beamed. . . and I knew exactly what they meant.
Sadly, after the competition season ended, Maya Angelou passed away right before my recital. In less than a week, I put together a tap solo for myself (it has been years since I actually danced in one of my recitals but I felt it was important this time) to perform in the recital as a tribute to her. It was to a song that she had recorded in 1957 during her career as a singer. On the first page of our programs, I dedicated the performance to Dr Angelou’s memory and included her quote which has become a mantra for me everyday, “When I step up on the stage, I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me.”
Next week at Nationals, I will be using that advice and sharing it every time I step up on that stage. My hope is that at the final awards banquet at the end of the week, when I take the podium for the last time, everyone in the banquet hall will be able to recite that line along with me and take its wisdom with them wherever they go from there.
Thank you for your time in listening to me and allowing me to share with you a little bit about how special awards, especially those done with depth, enthusiasm, and sincerity can change and shape lives. I have had the opportunity to keep in touch with many of the dancers and choreographers to whom I have given awards and have many more stories about the impact that such awards can have.
In the dance competition world, I’m what’s called a “Special Awards” Judge. There are usually at least three judges at competitions who give their critiques of dancers’ performances and issue numeric scores and sometimes I’m assigned to do that, but usually I am the fourth judge who is tasked with the job of watching the dancers for something special that deserves an award of its own. I am so proud that I have been a special awards judge for five years now at Sophisticated Productions, a competition which places unique emphasis on special awards to encourage young dancers and also happened to have seen enough potential in me to think I might be good at giving special awards.
Once all the dancers during a particular segment of a competition have performed, I am called onstage to give the special awards before the adjudicated and title awards are announced. The Emcee (Master of Ceremonies) introduces me and hands me the microphone as I approach the podium with a basket of the awards I have decided to give for that segment. The awards are ribbons that hang from a card on which I have written the name of the entry, the title of the award, and the time and place I gave it.
On a typical competition day that may last around fifteen hours, there may be as many as three segments (each about 60 entries long–solos, duets, trios, groups, line productions, etc.) and I find myself giving about 20-30 special awards per segment. No one tells me what awards I have to give or to whom they should go; it is entirely up to me. So I set one simple rule for myself–enjoy yourself that day watching all those amazing dancers and when something just strikes you in a particularly good way, give it an award and acknowledge it onstage.
Here are three examples of awards that I have given while onstage:
Jesse: Could I please meet Sarah who performed number 173, “Brave”? [Sarah comes up to the podium] You look so nervous! Am I that scary?
Sarah: No, I just don’t know what you’re going to say!
Jesse: Well, no worries, because I LOVED your dance! You entered the stage with so much confidence that I sat up a little straighter because I wanted to see what you were going to do. You were so expressive, you poured your heart out on that stage, you held my attention and never let me go and even when you were done, I didn’t want you to leave us. Beautiful expression. Gorgeous fouettés and I gasped out loud when you opened that fouetté up into an illusion–beautiful! I’m giving you an award called “BEAUTIFUL” because there’s no more perfect word to express what I thought of your dance. I got goosebumps and I was reminded of why I love teaching this art form. I feel so lucky I had the chance to see you dance today. Thank you so much for that!
Sarah: [with tears in eyes] Thank you so much!
Jesse: You’re welcome; you inspired me!
Jesse: Could I see those two little divas who did “Baby” up here??? You guys were awesome! How old are you?
Boy: Four and a half
Jesse: I LOVED LOVED LOVED your dance! And ya know what?! This audience out here just LOVED your dance, didn’t they?! [audience applauds] But what I want to know is if you guys always get along when you’re working in dance class!!
Jesse: Do you guys fight with each other??
Jesse: Well, let me tell ya, I ALWAYS fought with my sister when we were dancing and she blamed me for everything that went wrong! [audience laughs] But watching your dance, I would never ever know that you didn’t get along in rehearsal. It was so adorable, you were so cute, the audience loved you, you guys are getting the “Oh 2 Cute Award” for your duet! Congratulations!
Jesse: I want to see the little boy who did “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy!” … You were amazing! Did you hear how loud that audience was when they were cheering for you!?
Jesse: I have NEVER in my life seen a boy do an arabesque on a John Deere tractor onstage. Or anyone, actually! That was great! Did that take a lot of work?
Jesse: Oh, it was easy? You certainly made it look easy! Do you love dance?
Boy: Yeah, a lot!
Jesse: I can tell–in fact, this whole audience could tell! We LOVED watching your dance and ya know what?! I think that you’re gonna be famous if you keep doing what you love doing! Do you promise me you’ll always work really hard at what you want to do?
Boy: Ok, I promise.
Jesse: Aww, well, then I’m going to give you the John Deere Daring Dancer Award for what you did today. I thought it was great!!
Boy: Thank you!
Jesse: You’re welcome!
Those were a few examples of actual awards I have given. I feel so fortunate to, first of all, have the chance to sit at the judging table and watch dance after dance in some city and whenever I see something beyond the ordinary for whatever reason, I get to bring those dancers up on stage and talk to them and tell them what I thought.
I feel like I’m fulfilling my highest potential when I’m doing special awards because I get to watch and dissect dances, think about them, and then tell the whole audience what I thought or felt or was inspired by.
And the most beautiful part is that I really mean it. I did get those goosebumps. I was moved to tears. I was inspired to go home and work to put my own reaction into words, into movements, into choreography. I find myself also so humbled when I see work that is performed by dancers with so much more talent than I was given, or when I see work choreographed by minds so much smarter than mine. I see it, I notice it, I’m awed by it, and I just have to tell you and everyone else how much I love it. The moments when that happens are the moments when I feel like that excellence has in turn elicited the utmost excellence from me.
I remember, one moment in particular, when I had judged special awards in Houston, Texas in 2010. The competition was over and I was walking across the convention center lobby when a group of people stopped me. “Sir?” a man in a cowboy hat asked to get my attention.
“Hi,” I said, uncertain.
“I just wanted to shake your hand and tell you that most of my life, I thought that if a man didn’t work for the oil industry, he didn’t have a real job, but you, sir, you are amazing at what you do. You gave an award to my granddaughter and she and her mother are just beside themselves and taking pictures. We’re all so proud. You certainly made our day. It’s New York you come from?”
“Well, I can’t thank you enough. You made us all very happy today.”
“Thank you so much; I’m glad. She really deserved it. She’s a beautiful dancer.”
And I’ll never forget his parting words, “It was a pleasure, son. Have a safe trip back.”
“Thank you, very much.” That was the moment I decided that I wanted to do this forever. I wanted to watch dancers and tell them what particular things made them so beautiful. I like to think, somehow, that my special awards help somehow to inspire dancers to keep working and to keep being themselves.
Actually, I wish the whole world took the time to point out and acknowledge what it is that we all do well. Sometimes it’s just knowing that someone noticed that makes all the difference…
Yesterday, I had a dream come true as I traveled with my mom into New York City to meet up with my sister Katrina, who, as a fantastically thoughtful Christmas gift, treated us to a performance of New York City Ballet performing George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at NYCB’s permanent home–The David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
The Nutcracker, as a ballet, has always meant so much to me ever since I was cast simply as a boy at the party in Act I when my dance studio staged the ballet when I was eight years old. The next year I was thrilled to have graduated to the role of Fritz, as well as a soldier, and then as a clown in Act II. Once I had opened my own studio, I also founded a nonprofit performance company and we staged the ballet in Deposit, NY in December of 2010. All of these experiences culminated in The Nutcracker always invoking in me a sense of warmth, joy, and deeply affirming nostalgia.
Seeing The Nutcracker performed by New York City Ballet was even more significant, as NYCB is my favorite company on this planet. The famed company’s co-founder and first Ballet Master, George Balanchine, is a god in the history of dance, and he is arguably credited as the founder of the phenomenon that is American ballet. His technique is that which I grew up learning and studied more seriously academically as I grew up. His brilliant choreography is characteristically expressive, ethereal, and energetic. His work possesses deep classical roots, ever so perfectly spiced by the import of modern aesthetic sensibilities–a sacred regard for the textbook that somehow still forgives deviance as long as it’s for the sake of exquisite beauty and touching human expression. It’s that fusion of deep tradition to an ever-so-slight experimentation with technical transgression–a serious art form that allows itself a half of a dip into the “bad-ass”–that makes Balanchine’s artistic identity so distinctly American. Which, after all, was his inspired vision.
The Nutcracker I saw yesterday was impressive and entertaining. I love to see The Nutcracker performed with so many children as their inclusion helps remind the viewer that this is indeed a children’s ballet, both in the sense that it was intended to entertain all ages as well as to provide the chance for young ballet students to be given important performance opportunities. I say “Bravi” to the young dancers for showing such discipline and professionalism. I hope they had the time of their lives up on stage.
I do have to admit that my favorite act of the ballet was the second, in which there was less pantomime and more technique. Truth be told, for me the second act was comprised of surreal moment after surreal moment, eliciting wave after wave of goosebumps and tempting me multiple times to let the tears of inspiration roll down my cheeks no matter how much I might get ridiculed for it!
Some highlights for me were:
The pas de deux danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Chevalier. Balanchine was particularly gifted at arranging and choreographing complex pas de deux sequences that appeared effortless, seamless, and rendered the female dancer with a lighter-than-air ethereal quality. I could watch his pas de deux work all day long.
The Arabian dancer provided an exotic interlude, which I believe to be Mr. Balanchine’s nod to The Nutcracker’s historically “orientalist” preoccupation. Completely breaking with tradition, the Arabian displays her midriff, slides down to the floor, and meddles in contortion. In contrast to the ballet’s overwhelmingly family-friendly atmosphere, she momentarily conjures an aura of mystic sensuality from which the viewer must “snap out” following her exit.
One aspect of this particular performance of NYCB’s The Nutcracker that left me a bit disturbed was the behavior of the audience. I realize that far from most of the audience members were dance professionals or had any degree of dance education, but I did experience just a twinge of dismay when, during the first act, we witnessed a triple pirouette gorgeously executed by the candy cane that seemed to remain unacknowledged by the audience. Also ignored was the Sugar Plum Fairy’s fouetté turn. This same audience then erupted with astonished applause when they watched the mechanical marvel of the Christmas tree’s growth from twelve feet to forty feet. Of course the company’s technical crew and engineers deserve recognition for their work, but I wanted to ask “Really?! This is what the audience is applauding? An inanimate object that doesn’t even know whether it’s acknowledged or not?”
I felt similarly toward the end of the entire ballet when I was once again brought to new heights of artistic inspiration by the final coda, feeling so humbled and yet so alive to be in the presence of so many immensely talented and brilliant dancers. I wanted to applaud them and never stop. The rest of the audience applauded loudly, though, when the sleigh took flight above the stage. I don’t mean to take anything away from the mechanical triumphs of the performance, but I just wish the audience had had the education or the elevated taste to be so dramatically moved by the artistic and technical achievements of the dancers–who, by the way, are some of the very best in world!
I will be thinking about this ballet for a long time as I left feeling inspired, alive, and newly re-dedicated to this brilliant art form. *sigh* 🙂