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.