Dancing - To Be A Pro, You've Got To Want It

I've been teaching dance for a long time. At this point, for about 38 years. Jazz, tap, musical theatre, modern….choreography, history….you name it, I've done it. And I'm still doing it. Six days a week during the peak season…a bit less in the off-summers.

So this multitude of daily experience I think gives me a valid viewpoint on dancing, class taking, and where a young dancer's training experience will end up. I've seen so much class taking by dancers that is dull, rote, non-productive. Only rarely, do I see class taking that displays a spark, a passion, a portent of future greatness as a dancer. Too many dancers in class are going through the motions, but not bringing a vitality and love that makes the ordinary dance moves become worthy of viewing, communication, and art.

What makes this happen? Well, a boring class can develop bored dancers. So it's up to the teacher to provide leadership and inspiration to get the dancer out of his/her shell, and into a realm of real dance performance.

But after the teacher,
the responsibility lies with the dancer. Its my sincere opinion that it's the dancer's responsibility to bring energy, passion, and vitality to the class taking experience. The teacher can provide the platform, but the dancer has to take the ball and run with it. And that's the point I'm focusing on with this blog post.

First, a disclaimer - there are different levels of students, and different performances based on age and ability. If I teach in NYC, with strong dancers, they have the mindset to push themselves into the realm of real dance performance during the class (not all! but many). Adult beginner classes? Well, those students are still concerned with learning steps, etc, so they do have their minds on progression and remembering vocabulary. Can't expect too much in terms of performance.

The area that is most troublesome is the aspiring advanced dancer, whether in a local dance studio or in a university program. Here we have students who take multiple classes per week, and have expressed the desire to be a performer, or are some way a dancer who is
requesting an audience, requesting to be watched. The ongoing daily regimen of class after class, rehearsal after rehearsal, tends to dull the dancer, just from over saturation. For these students, having access to almost unlimited class taking, class time is not seen as special, or a place to exercise a unique performance personality.

I wonder often about this practice in the customary dancer training program. Too many classes, and not enough attention "per class" in finding excellence in technique and performance. Dancers take a class, then completely forget or wipe out the memory of what was studied in the class. Why? Because there is always another class later that day, tomorrow, or the coming weekend. In other words, the learning dance experience lasts only for the 90 minutes of the class, and then just abandoned. This, to me, is a waste. Of time, money, experience, and progression. We have a multitude of classes that are operating at a lesser productivity. Are there too many, just too much for the dancer's own good?

Here are two suggestions…first, dancers should practice ON THEIR OWN TIME, the new exercises/dance combinations that they learn in class. Oh my god, what a concept! Personal practice. When I was a professor at Western Kentucky University in 1996-99, the program had classes Monday-Thursday, but no classes on Fridays. The dancers were expected to come to the studio on their own time, and review/practice material from that week's classes. What a great idea. Personal practice brings personal learning. And that's the best and most effective type of learning. And its what makes the learning "stick" in the mind and the body. Now, did the WKU students actually take advantage of this program? Sort of, but not as much as they should have. Quite often, the Friday dance practice experience became a circle of friends on the dance floor, lazily stretching, just talking and talking. (Oh yes, college students….). But the dancer MUST be responsible for continuing work on class material, not just turning it off when the class ends.

The other suggestion is that the dancer MUST use regular class taking time as a performance building experience, not just for technique building. It takes a lot of ability to transform a plain dance studio with no lights and costumes into a performance, but if the dancer can do it in that nondescript room, imagine how much better the dancer will be at auditions and in performance?

In my class earlier this week I had to encourage, cajole, beg the teen dancers to GIVE something in their execution of their class adagio and combination. They were tired from a weekend of rehearsals, and now it was Monday. So….tired faces and limp execution all around. With this type of class practice, will the time in class be productive? No. I had to talk and talk, to try to get them out of their funk. And remember, as I said before, its the dancer's responsibility to bring this vitality, not the teacher's. The teacher is not a cheerleader.

I'll close out on this opinion by discussing three dance "performances" in class that revealed the greatness of each dancer. Dancers who can transform a class into a performance, practice their artistry, and achieve greatness.

In jazz dance classes with Michael Owens at Hama's Dance Center in Studio City, California, I was honored to be in class with
A Chorus Line legend Donna McKechnie and also the fine Broadway dancer Natascia Diaz. I can remember Donna, past her dance prime, but still in class and gesturing with one hand and arm. My god, what artistry in a single movement! One three count movement was glorious, mesmerizing. I'll never forget it. That's what the audience pays for. And with Natascia, well she took a combination by Michael, and after watching other dancers in class go through the combo with general class applause, she took over and just blew everyone away. She OWNED that combo, and let her personality be vulnerable and on display. It was remarkable. I couldn't take my eyes off of her, as her uniqueness just made her standout like no other. Now, that's a real performer, giving it all in class.

I'll save the best for last. In the mid 1980s I was in a ballet class with none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov. He just took his corner of the room and pretty much did his own barre during the class. But at one point he joined in with the adagio, which include sous-sus, rising to fifth position, and the standard arm port de bra from prep up to high fifth. Well! My jaw dropped. Really. This simple, very basic movement was glorious, and filled with a passion and artistry that I can't ever see as being equalled. The coordination, the lift, the stretch, and the release of the verticality at the top of the port de bras….I still think back on this very basic class room exercise. In Misha's amazing talent, it was true art. And a lesson for me about what can be done by a true professional who does not settle for boring, rote class work. Wow.

So…those are my points, when I see too much average, dull work in class, as contrasted with the amazing, transformation work of the real professional performer. As a teacher for 38 years..well, I've seen too much of the former, and not enough of the latter. And the latter comes from the dancer's depth of desire- how bad do they want it. Bad enough to find personal practice time? Bad enough to find energy to make class taking into performance building? That's what I'd like to see more of.

More on Jazz Dance in Russia

I posted some thoughts on teaching jazz dance in Russia, and I thought I should add some clarification. I called our American dancers on to the carpet a bit for some less-focused class attitude than a teacher would like to see. Of course there are top American dancers who are on the ball, hard working, and always attentive in the class. Just last night I taught three master classes at the Loudoun School of Ballet in Leesburg, Virginia, to dancers ages 10-16, and they were wonderful - attentive, hard working, smiling, and learning.

The difference between the American and Russian systems is more of the reason why dance is even pursued. In the Eifman Academy, the school exists solely to make dancers for the company and for other professional venues. Its all about making a professional dancer, and its organized from a "top down" mentality. The directors create a program to create professional dancers. That is why the entire organization exits. No recreational dancers here.

Meanwhile, in much of American dance, the studios are independently owned businesses, and the parent (i.e. consumer) purchases the dance experience for their child. Although the studio wants to create the highest level of achievement, it's really the desires of the parent/student/consumer that drives the process. Pleasing the student/parent is high in importance, rather than honoring a tradition of a path to professionalism. So, students in American schools may be taking more for recreation than expectations of a professional career. In fact, many parents spend large sums of money to provide a dance experience for their child, with the result that they achieve excellent skills, but still with the expectation that they will enroll in college and find a different path in life - a non-dancing path.

So maybe therein lies the biggest philosophical difference - the dedication to a tradition and to professionalism as the reason for existence, as opposed to a strong love for dance but still being organized as a business that relies on consumer payments for financial existence.

Just thought I'd add this in!

Jazz Dancing in Russia

Well, I just returned from my fourth time of teaching jazz dance in St Petersburg, Russia. The last two times were dual projects, at the Boris Eifman Dance Academy and the Kannon Dance company. I could write pages on this experience, and maybe someday I will, but for now I'll just put down some impressions.

First - the Russian dancers mean business. Much more so than American dancers and studios. I taught adult dancers at Kannon Dance and they were strong, accomplished, focused, and full of positive energy. They wanted to work and they enjoyed their process of working. Does this happen in the US? Not really. Not to the extent that it happened in Russia. Sorry US, you aren't cutting it. The Russian dancers worked harder and appreciated the class they were getting.

I also taught two levels of younger dancers at the Boris Eifman Dance Academy. This is a more traditional Russian ballet academy where the young dancers are selected by audition, and then have their training provided by the "state." They live at the academy, have their academic classes there, and then have a dedicated program devised to train them to be professional ballet dancers. In this case, to be suitable for the choreography of Boris Eifman and his international company. It's a major undertaking, as the "state" has provided funding for a magnificent seven story building with 13 state of the art dance studios and a fully equipped small theatre. Its a palace, and I'm sorry, the Ailey school in NYC pales in comparison to this Eifman Dance building. The Eifman Academy and building is truly amazing.

To go one further, the "state" has provided funding to build a new full dance theatre adjacent to the dance academy, just for performances of the Eifman full dance company. Does this level of support happen in the US? Of course not. No way.

But the result is that the dancers are so well provided for and trained that they produce a result that would never happen in the normal US suburban dance studio. I taught two levels of younger dancers, ages 11-15, and they were spectacular. Fully stretched, hard working, attentive, focused, and extremely talented. And the dancers didn't talk during the class. They paid attention. What a difference from the young American dancers I teach, who can't go across the floor without breaking into spirited conversation every time they hit the other end of the dance floor.

I asked if they needed a water break, and the response was "What for? We are here to work." No water bottles on the sides of the studio like in America.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. My classes showed remarkable progress in just one week. And they looked stronger and more passionate than the American kids I teach. A big part of it is just paying attention. Not talking. Another big part is a stronger work ethic. The only reason they are at the academy is to dance. They accept everything given to them. They don't have a say in it, and they don't express opinion on what they are getting. They accept their instruction as good and valuable, and there is no such thing as "well, I think I'd to drop dance and do soccer instead." They smile, they work, they get better.

Again, the proof is in the pudding. Just watch these videos, with dancers who have had only five classes/rehearsals…and you'll agree that these young Russian dancers know how to learn. Can American kids make the same claim??

Eifman lyrical jazz dance combo

Kannon Dance adult dancers

Ageism and Jazz Dance - When Is A Teacher Too Old?

I've been involved with jazz dance as a performer, teacher, choreographer, and author for over forty years. That is one long history, and one that exceeds the career lifespan of most professionals in the field. I've found jazz dance to be the right place for my creativity, and my expression. But now, at the age of 61 years, I'm finding that jazz and theatre dance are not that hospitable to me. Or more correctly, that the people in charge of jazz and theatre dance are not that hospitable. Although my powers as a teacher and choreographer are still sharp, and my activity level is superlative (I currently teach six days per week), I'm seeing signs of program directors opting for the youngest (and least experienced) teachers in place of engaging someone like me, a professional with the wisdom of years of experience. It seems that fitting in with the organizational structure is more important than engaging a highly qualified teacher.

I still have support from some directors, who mostly are older and respect my knowledge. Since they ARE older, they have a sense of the quality of what I have to offer, and appreciate that there is still someone out there bringing that level of quality to jazz dance teaching.

The problem lies with younger directors, who aren't knowledgeable of the past, and who bring a different expectation to jazz dance training. They may not be that interested in the highest quality, but more interested in the "flash" of name recognition. Which is perplexing to me, as in the last year alone I've had feature articles and interviews twice in
Dance Studio Life and once in Dance Teacher magazine. I'm still regularly called upon for my experience, by those in the know. But younger directors aren't comfortable with engaging someone older, mostly likely more informed, and who surely knows more about the jazz dance idiom than they - the directors - know.

Some examples? Well, I can point to these:
  • In 2002, 2003, and 2005 I was invited to teach at the Univ of Tampere, Finland, bringing my approach and the Mattox approach to the three year university program. The assistant director, slightly younger than me, highly supported my work and my impact on their dancers was notable. But then a new overall director was appointed, a much younger person, and he favored what was called "show jazz" - meaning flashy commercial work, as opposed to a more serious approach that would require a more depth of study. Needless to say, I haven't been invited back since 2005.
  • I taught at Shenandoah University from 2013-2016, as jazz dance professor and musical theatre dance coordinator. But with a move to "brand" the musical theatre program as primarily developing performers for "rock musicals," I was told that despite being "excellent at all aspects of my work," I was not the "right fit" for the future and told to find other employment. It's not a coincidence that the musical theatre program director was in his late 30s, and was enamored with performers with current Broadway rock musical credits as being instrumental to his branding focus. This I found to be ridiculous, as if there is anyone who has lived through the rock period and knows the dances and influences of those times, it would be me. But…I can't say that I was just in a number of new Broadway shows like Hairspray, Spring Awakening, and Legally Blonde. So that was it for me, and my career at Shenandoah University. (And while were are on the subject of these three shows, lets note that the choreographers Jerry Mitchell and Bill T. Jones are "up" in their years, not exactly just out of grad school. So, why the edict that a new teacher had to be younger?)
  • My most recent incident came with an application for a professorship at a lesser known university program, that asked for a candidate with strong experience in musical theatre dance AND a classic modern dance technique like Graham or Horton. Well, me being highly skilled in musical theatre dance, having been the dance program director at Shenandoah and the head of jazz and musical theatre dance at the Univ of California, Irvine, AND having multiple years of teaching Horton modern dance in universities, AND having more than a dozen impressive videos of musical theatre dance and Horton classwork to show, AND having this year's visibility of three mentions in national magazines - you'd think that I'd be a top candidate for this position. Well….no. Today the email arrived, telling me that my resume was "highly impressive" but that competition was strong and I was no longer under consideration. I was not even interviewed. So, there appears to be at least three others with a resume of experience even more impressive than my twenty year career in university teaching. Think so? Probably not. More likely there were three others who were younger, who fit the university assistant professor mold better than me, and who quite possibly were personally familiar with the deciding powers.

Is there a problem with how I relate to younger directors, causing this impression? Well, possibly, in that I bring so much to the table and that history carries presence. Perhaps a presence that a lesser experienced director cannot handle or just does not want to handle. The SU director told me "I see you as a more traditional choreographer." Why, because of my abilities? I've choreographed everything from golden age musicals to rock/theatre presentations using music by Bruce Springsteen, to avant garde plays, to site specific dance dramas based on race relations. No, I think its more that I'm just the older person, and that in order for this younger person to claim his territory, he has to reduce any competition, and enforce his authority.

The resulting effect on the field of this inequity is that less qualified teachers are now populating dance programs, bringing a lesser quality of training and information to today's students. I'm not afraid to make that statement, as I just don't see how a young musical theatre dance teacher, brought up on
Glee and High School Musical, will know the details of the work of Michael Bennett, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, etc. Program directors do a great disservice to their programs when bypassing teachers with first hand experience in favor of younger, greener teachers. It means that future dancing will suffer. In every single case? No. But in most cases? Yes. That's my opinion.

The real unfortunate aspect of this trend is that it can't be reversed, and that the quality of dancing in the field will just suffer. Will
A Chorus Line ever look as good as it did with dancers from that time period, trained in the jazz dance styles of that decade? Will dancers hired for a bus and truck version of Fosse end up being the new translators of the Fosse style to a future generation? Dancers who did not live through that time period, and who mostly likely only learned the choreography in the limited rehearsal period of the tour?

Yes, this is a rant, but one that I think I have the right to make. Anyone with multiple decades of experience, and who is still viable as a teacher, can make the same claims. Of course if a teacher is stale, or hasn't kept up with a dynamic physicality for later year teaching might incur reduced opportunities. But an active, viable, producing professional, who has the wisdom of the years to offer - much more than a new teacher can offer - should not be denied consideration based on age. It's happening more than we realize, and I do feel that it will severely impact the quality teacher's career, as well as the future of this field of dance.

The Secret to a Successful Dance Career - is it "One" Thing?

How do we learn?  How do we grow?  How do we best learn and grow?

I've been a teacher in a private studio setting for sixteen years, and for over twenty years in many universities, from liberal arts dance programs to conservatory training.  As a teacher of dance now for 37 years, this question has been on my mind more frequently.  I wrestle with how to set up a dance program that will result in the best results - in knowledge and artistry - that will give a dancer the base to build a productive career.

With reflection I've sadly come to the conclusion that the basic premise of today's higher education training does not serve the best interests of the enrolled dancer.  The four year program of rotating classes on a semester basis, along with rotating teachers, complete with the madness of administrating the academic paths of dozens or even hundreds of dancers through individual schedules, just does not develop the highest level of training that a budding artist requires as a springboard to a productive dance career.

Most university dance programs are based in a schedule that changes on a semester basis (basically 15 weeks).  Meaning that a student acquires knowledge for 15 weeks, and then is often sent to a new teacher (and a new approach) in the following semester, or into a different form of dance altogether.  (When I was a professor at the Univ of California, Irvine, we were on a quarter system that broke classes into 10 week sessions!)  The rapidity of this change does not allow the student to learn all that he or she could from a master teacher.  It takes much longer than 10-15 weeks to gain a solid foundation in a movement technique of substance.  The result after four years is a ricochet dance experience, and a dancer who may be
relatively adept at one form but more likely is only moderately adept at nearly all forms that have been studied.

I know from my own experience that I've trained for multiple years, if not decades, with master teachers, and it took THAT long in order to learn, master, and internalize the depth of their wisdom.  One semester with Matt Mattox?  A dancer could not adequately master the information Mattox has coalesced in his full life time of dance in just 15 weeks.  The same could be said of learning Horton technique, Balanchine's approach to ballet, etc.  Or to be mentored as a choreographer...one semester of choreography classes will not allow a dancer to be properly guided by another master of choreography.

An example of what I am saying came this morning, in a Facebook video post by tap dancer Karen Prunzik.  She discussed how she studied with tap dance master
Paul Draper for years and years, often in one on one sessions.  He challenged her and brought her to a level of ability that would not be possible in just 15 weeks with the master.  And then in another video, Karen presented one of her young students, who had been studying with her for eleven years.  And the student was highly skilled.  Would this have happened if the student studied with Karen for one or even two semesters??  Of course not.

Its taken me decades to learn my craft, with masters like Paul Draper, Matt Mattox, Bob Audy, Billy Siegenfeld, and more.  When I say I studied with them, I mean that I spent five, ten, or even over twenty years learning from a master.  I didn't take for a few months, and then state "I've studied with this dance teacher."  But with that extended amount of exposure, I've acquired a large part of their wisdom and now that wisdom informs my own approach in dance and choreography.  Its that level of mentorship, over years and decades, that has given my important tools for success.

To me, the best way to learn is to indenture yourself to a master artist/teacher for many years, taking time to properly learn a significant form of dance.  Not to have rotating semesters with different teachers, and different approaches.

Here is a fun story that I often tell my students.  One that is comic, yet so appropriate.  In the 1980s movie
City Slickers, actor Billy Crystal has signed up for a two week trail drive with a crusty old cowboy named Curly, played by Jack Palance.  Crystal works in the city, has a bad marriage, and shows all of the signs of a mid-life crisis - basically feeling that he does not know where to find happiness.  He rides with Curly, alone in the grasslands, and admires what he perceives of Curly - that Curly has found a purpose in life, and that the purpose has brought him happiness.  Curly asks "Do you know the secret of finding happiness?"  Curly continues by holding up one finger and saying "Just one thing."  Fueled by possibly discovering the secret, Crystal implores "What is the one thing??"  Curly laughs and falls back, saying "Well, you have to figure that out for yourself!"

What I try to impart to my students is that finding ONE thing that you love, and becoming a master at it, and living a life wrapped in that one thing, is a way to finding happiness and satisfaction.  Not trying to do ten things at once, and in the process not mastering one of them.  Rather you should identify something of deep personal importance, and then make that thing a dominant part of your personality and life's work.  To me, that is something of extreme value to dance education, and something that is missing in today's education.  Yes, dancers must be versatile...
but dancers still must be a master of at least ONE significant form of dance.  And to do that, it takes years or even decades of study...not just a college semester or two.  Maybe someday our academic dance programs will include a "mentorship" program, where a student stays with a master teacher for at least two years of technique, repertory, and choreography classes.  I think doing this will produce more accomplished dance artists, and dancers who are happier with their dance career experiences.