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 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.