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The Life Lessons I Learned From Dance

teaching-nationals

Here I am teaching a technique class at Sophisticated Productions’ Nationals in Sturbridge, MA in July 2015.

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.

teaching-syracuse

Here I am as a guest teacher at a studio in Syracuse, NY. I’m fortunate enough to love what I do.

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,
Jesse

Why I Love Judging Special Awards at Dance Competitions

Dancers onstage at the awards ceremony in New Hampshire when I was doing special awards.

Dancers onstage at the awards ceremony in New Hampshire when I was doing special awards.

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?
Girl: Four
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!!
Girl: Yes
Boy: No!!
Jesse: Do you guys fight with each other??
Both: Yes!
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!?
Boy: Yes.
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?
Boy: No.
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?”

“Yes, upstate.”

“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…

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!

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