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The Transformative Power of Dance: Part I: Is Dance Important?

Is Dance Important?

If you are a serious devotee of the art of dance in any capacity, you have probably experienced the frustration of discovering at various points in your life that the general public, perhaps even people close to you, might not understand your world or the depth of its importance to you.

It’s common and we all experience it. I recall back in high school being told by an athlete–who was actually trying to be helpful in his own way–“Dude, you gotta do something besides dance.” I remember, very clearly, thinking to myself, “No, this is it for me. This is all I want.”

I’ve also been told, perhaps more offensively, by a dance parent, “Well, we really only want her to dance when she’s little until it’s time to do sports.” At which I smile and set my judgmental thoughts aside (or try to) and realize that they probably didn’t realize how offensive such a statement could be. What I heard was “dance is only supposed to be fun and cute and disposable and something to do before we can do the really impressive and more serious activities.”

Or, perhaps more subtly, I can’t tell you how many times I have been approached by people in social settings who begin the conversation with almost giddy excitement, “Jesse, you’re a dance teacher?! That’s so cool! I’ve been trying to get my boyfriend to do ballroom dance with me. Can we take lessons from you?” Of course, when I reply honestly, “Well…I don’t do ballroom dance.” The look on the person’s face always hovers somewhere in between disappointment and confusion as if they are debating whether not to ask out loud: “Well, then what on earth DO you do at your studio?” As if concert dance, or classical dance, or traditional dance–there really is no completely useful or inclusive title for what we do–is so unheard of that it’s not what they imagined when meeting a dance teacher for the first time.

I’m not enraged by these misunderstandings. . . most of the time. Rather, I just find myself feeling truly astonished that this world of dance–this stunningly beautiful, impossibly demanding, and so satisfying ancient artform doesn’t mean the same thing to the public at large that it might mean to me or to the dance people I love and respect.

When I say with both humility AND pride, “I am a dance teacher,” I imagine all the years I spent spending hours at the studio every day growing up, all those competitions and travels; I imagine all the dreams I’ve held since I were little, acting out the entire Nutcracker by myself in the kitchen after I was given the score on audiotape; I imagine how dance is what I spend my days working on–that I have created and built a business and career on it. I imagine the young students who are just starting to develop enough traction to progress really quickly as a result of my efforts. I imagine all these things and so it feels like a slap in the face when I realized the person with whom I’m speaking didn’t imagine any of those things, but rather thought of someone like Johnny Castle from Dirty Dancing. Of course, I don’t entirely object to that image either! But I’m sure you get my point.Image

So back to my original question. . . Is dance important?

To us it is. And so it is.

Tune in for my next topic: What does dance offer us?

As always, comments are welcome and appreciated 🙂

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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 chaĂ®nĂ©s, 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 passĂ© 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!

Five Competition DON’T’S

As promised, here are my five DON’T’S! This is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to the competition world, but here are some suggestions that might not be as common as you’d think.

Don’t’s:

1. DON’T enter the competition with a “Winning is Everything” philosophy or with defined expectations or hopes. Walk into the competition site confident and excited. There is nothing wrong with hoping to do well, in fact that’s the best attitude to take with you. You never know who else is going to be there to compete and you have no idea what the judges’ preferences or thoughts are going to be. In addition, being intent on “beating” someone else leads to an atmosphere of tension and resentment. Instead, try to beat your own best score from a previous competition or, even better, consider this a chance to land that perfect pirouette you’ve been working so hard on all year.

2.  DON’T resort to “cram rehearsing.” Whether in a ballroom, school, or theater, wherever a dance competition is being held, you will notice corridors and dressing rooms doubling as rehearsal space for last-minute run-throughs of routines. Unless the routine was learned at the very last minute and is in definite need of repeated drilling for the sole purpose of cramming the dancers’ heads with choreography so that they don’t forget it on stage, backstage rehearsing really shouldn’t be necessary after months of intense preparation. Plus, I’ve found such “cram rehearsal” to actually be more anxiety-inducing in the dancers than anything. They are forced to perform their dance in an awkward public space, with no real room to do serious leaps or extended combinations, plenty of distractions, and many times, there is no music other than the teacher’s counts. Spend that time instead stretching, focusing, and envisioning a flawless performance. Maybe try a few pirouettes or fouettĂ©s to feel warmed-up, comfortable and confident. Aside from all that, rehearsing in hallways proves to be an inconvenience to fellow competitors who have to walk around you.

3.  DON’T run off stage if something goes wrong! Crises happen on stage. It’s a fact of life. However, you can turn any crisis into a unique and powerful opportunity to prove yourself to the judges depending on how you handle it. No matter if you totally blank and forget your dance, or part of your costume falls off, or even if you fall off the stage and land face-to-face with the judges (I saw it happen once!), always remember the old adage, “The show must go on.” Just keep going. Smile big, perform your routine with genuine enthusiasm, and tell your audience, “I don’t care that something went wrong, I’m having the time of my life! I love dance!” You just turned your potential tragedy into a MAJOR triumph! Not only will the judges probably forgive the flaw, but they may even reward you for your professionalism and bravery. I’ve seen it happen countless times. The worst thing you can do is just run offstage. Some competitions will not offer you a second chance, and even if they do, judges may refuse to re-score your performance.

4.  DON’T litter the stage with debris if you can at all avoid it. While some errant feathers and sequins will unavoidably find themselves on the floor of the stage, you should resist intentionally making any mess on stage, even if you plan to clean it up after your performance. Not only does that clean-up time delay the competition, but any residual liquid, glitter, rice, etc. poses a danger to others, especially the dancer who must go on next. Remember, the judges are professionals who are going to be impressed with your technique, ability, and stage presence. While you may think “throwing a fistful of glitter in the air” may be beautiful, or you that it would be awesome to re-enact the Flashdance water-chain moment, the judges are looking to be impressed by your DANCING. Save the cool special effects for recital.

5.  DON’T freak or flip out! We all know how stressful the competition season can be. With so many details to worry about, the possibility of things going wrong and people ending up not in the best of moods is inevitable. However, a mere snafu doesn’t need to provoke a dramatic meltdown. Remember, there is a solution to every problem, but you’re not going to find it if you panic or lose control of your emotions. Dance is a dignified artform and if you allow yourself to slip into an angry, explosive state, nothing will get accomplished and you will be setting a bad example for the young people around you. Stay in control, stay pleasant, and work through any issues like a professional. This goes for dancers, parents, and teachers.

Consider some of these suggestions and if you agree, make them a part of your studio’s culture at competitions. Remember, dance competitions should be educational, positive, and productive experiences! Make the most of them! Best of luck this competition season!

Welcome to My World!

Hi there!

Thanks for checking out my new blog. There are a couple reasons that I decided to start this blog and to seriously commit to maintaining it.

First of all, I want to encourage awareness and discussion of topics that seem too often neglected in contemporary society, yet that I see as crucially important. I’m talking about the arts, culture, history, the humanities, and basically just the things that offer you a glimpse of the “sublime.” I’m going to borrow a line that South Africa used for its tourism advertising that I found ten years ago and have never forgotten: “It is when you feel most insignificant that you feel most alive.” These moments of “sublimity” happen when you find yourself standing in the midst of something SO much bigger than yourself. And in the exhilaration of that moment, you find yourself inspired, renewed, energized, and changed in a fundamental way. That’s what I hope we all can share here in this safe and friendly environment.

Second, I want to write about these moments as I experience them so that, first, they are archived. I’ll look at this as something of a journal that I want to share with whoever might be interested. But more importantly, I want to force myself to slow down for a minute and think, reflect, and remember. I want these inspiring and sublime moments to last me forever. I want to always remember the lessons I learned and the visions I’ve gained. By forcing myself to write about them here, they will not be lost.

I hope that “J Culture” as I hope to call this blog, will allow for all these things. Welcome and please share your opinions and views. As long as you’re respectful and thoughtful, I entirely welcome those who disagree with me and will offer me arguments, should they occur to you. I want to learn and grow from this exercise as well.

Thanks for coming! And enjoy yourself here!

Jesse

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