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Hometown Heroes: Ed Swartwout

The first person I’d like to honor with my Hometown Heroes Series is my high school gym teacher, Mr Edwin Swartwout (I know…I know…it’s “physical education”). I’m sure that many–even people who know me very well–are shocked that Mr Jesse-Who-Hates-Sports would choose his high school gym (ok, ok…PE) teacher among his heroes, but here it is and indeed deserved.

I first met Mr Swartwout when he was a long-term substitute for about six weeks when I was in fifth grade. I remember him as being a nice, warm, and dedicated teacher. In fact, even though he had been studying to become a PE (see? I got it!) teacher, he saw that all of us 10-11 year olds were struggling with reducing fractions, so he went back into his old college textbooks and prepared a lesson for us on how to tell when a fraction could no longer be further reduced. It worked and it helped us. More importantly, it showed on his part that he was always thinking about his students and trying to help us understand. His lesson worked and I never forgot it, not even 18 years later (wow, can that really be?!).

But perhaps more importantly, Mr Swartwout was hired as the permanent high school phys ed (is that what they call it?) teacher when I was in eighth grade. I felt comfortable with him since he had been our long-term sub three years prior, so PE was no longer something I dreaded as a horrible class full of personal embarrassments as a result of my athletic aversion and indisposition. Rather, Mr Swarwout, focused on assessing us in terms of our “attitude,” our willingness to TRY. And at that, I was quite good. I tried everything and I did so happily. I even had a few good times. I was good at riding a bike. I was more flexible than most guys in my class. And I won at darts! I never gave him a hard time and I never appeared reluctant. If I had been assigned any other teacher, I probably wouldn’t have been as inspired. But, Mr Swartwout had the gift of being an educator who knew how to get the best out of his students. I’ll always remember one day when he–probably unknowingly–revealed his ultimate philosophy: “I just really enjoy people.” I believe him and I decided that day that I was going to live according to that philosophy, too.

Mr Swartwout was also a beloved softball coach, a position that I believe was his dream come true. He loves athletics, he loves teaching and coaching, and my sister, a dedicated athlete, loved being coached by him. He played a major role in many of her successes. And, perhaps, one of the most interesting and extraordinary things about Mr Swartwout is that he knew both my sister and myself. One was a gifted athlete and one was a “princess dancer.” I’m sure you can guess which of us was which! He treated us both extremely well, and I always felt like he valued us for our unique talents and on our own terms. Certainly, such a rare and undervalued characteristic, but one that this world would benefit from.

Years later, when I was elected to the Board of Education, I was again impressed many times over by Mr Swartwout’s genuine devotion and commitment to the position to which he had risen by that time: athletic director. He always fought for opportunities for kids and remained steadfastly committed to the notion that athletics are important because of what they can offer to young people. I supported him the best that I could, and I made it a point to praise him for his efforts, by which I was extremely impressed. Mr Swartwout is one of those people who was born with certain interests and certain abilities and who found his true calling. I admire him for finding the unique path that led him to fulfill his potential as a person–the same path that has bettered the lives of countless youths in our community.

Mr Swartwout stands out in my memory as someone who was always kind, always understanding, and took the time to figure me out. He knew sports weren’t my thing, but he made me feel like that was okay. And because he did that, I was able to grow and learn from him.

Who is the miraculous person that could actually inspire Jesse Katen to actually try at sports? Only Mr Edwin Swartwout, “Coach,” could do that. 🙂

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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 passĂ© or in coupĂ© 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!

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 fouettĂ© 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 fouettĂ©s, 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!

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