Sunday, April 13, 2014

Weighty Matters: Talking to Dance Studnts About Their Bodies

Maintaining a healthy physique—not too heavy but not dangerously thin—is a reality of going pro as a dancer, and helping students commit to that ideal is one of a teacher’s many jobs. An offhand comment from a teacher such as, “Gained a little weight?” can leave its mark on a young dancer. “A physically toned and sculpted body is a part of a dancer’s package, just like turnout, extension, and elevation,” says Patricia Rozow, chair of the dance program at Cincinnati’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts. But the subject of losing (or gaining) weight to achieve that aesthetic can be extremely sensitive, particularly during the emotional minefield of the teen years, when the body is in flux and body image more vulnerable than ever. So what’s the best way to talk to students about their weight, without causing undue emotional, psychological, or physical harm?

At Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy, you won’t find teachers making sly “slim down” comments at the barre. Shelly Power, associate director of the school, insists that teachers concerned about a dancer’s weight come to her first. At least three teachers need to bring up the same concern before Power calls for a one-on-one conversation with the student, which she does only with parental consent and notification. “We want to make sure it’s not just one person’s opinion,” she says. “These situations are best handled as a team, when the student knows they have support and access to resources that can help them make a change. That can’t happen with a remark in a hallway.”

Age and emotional maturity are other factors to consider. “I almost never bring up the subject with a child before the age of 15,” says Margaret Tracey, associate director of Boston Ballet School. “The body needs time to settle in. And if the discussion isn’t completely necessary, it’s not worth the trauma.” She also thinks about a dancer’s professional goals. “If I know they’re going on to a university to pursue another career, it just doesn’t make sense to start that conversation.” Like Power, Tracey keeps parents in the loop. “I need to know that the child is in a supportive environment,” she says. “Without that piece, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Once she has decided to meet with a student, Tracey chooses her language carefully. She steers clear of the words “weight” or “fat” and never mentions a specific number of pounds to be gained or lost. Instead, she frames the conversation around being in the best shape possible. “I talk about dance being a visual art. You will be presenting yourself, so let’s figure out how you can be at your best,” she says. “And I never draw comparisons to other dancers. That can be very destructive.” Similarly, Power focuses on “physicality” (rather than “weight”) as “part of a larger set of requirements” for a dance career. She stresses the demands of partnering, and the aesthetic preferences of different choreographers, as reasons to stay fit. “It’s not just about getting skinny,” she says.

Helping dancers reach an acceptable weight means educating them about nutrition. Both Tracey and Power arrange for students who need assistance to work one on one with a nutritionist. “They learn to keep a food journal and receive an individualized eating plan, while not entirely giving up their favorite foods,” says Power. “What we give them isn’t a diet but a life-long strategy for health.” At Boston Ballet and Houston Ballet, group nutrition classes are also a regular offering for all students.

In contemporary dance, the pressure to look long and lean may be less intense, but staying sculpted and toned is just as necessary. As Denise Jefferson, director of The Ailey School, explains, “You’ll see all kinds of bodies in our two companies, but the fitness level is extremely high.” The school’s nutritionist, Marie Scioscia, offers a seven-week health and nutrition workshop for freshmen in the Ailey/Fordham BFA program and students dealing with weight issues, as well as in-depth one-on-one sessions. Her classes debunk common myths like low-carb diets. “Carbs are a dancer’s fuel,” she says. “Without them the body craves sugar. We also address portion size and timing of meals, to minimize nighttime eating.”

At the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Rozow often talks about healthy eating during technique class. She also offers student-parent workshops taught by former dancer Judy Vogel. “We encourage parents to prepare healthy snacks,” she says. “When I see kids toting around a box of cereal all day, I get worried. I also stress that a diet isn’t what you eat to lose weight, but what you do to be physically and mentally fit.”

Staying in shape does not mean wasting away. A too-thin dancer requires immediate attention due to the long-term risks of eating disorders. “My alarm bells ring louder in this potentially dangerous situation,” says Tracey. “A dancer needs to know that their health is more important than being in class. We don’t take it lightly, and require a doctor’s note to return.” When Jefferson has concerns about a student rapidly losing weight, she either asks permission to call their parents, or, if less urgent, places them in wellness workshops.

A dancer usually knows when she needs to work on her body. “Sometimes it’s almost a relief to have it out in the open,” says Tracey. "The student might decide not to make this their battle and pursue another career." Jefferson remembers a student who, after a long struggle with her weight, chose to study physical therapy. "We can't force students to make changes," she says. "Some will find ways to continue dancing where their weight is not an issue; those possibiities exist."

Whether it leads them forward in dance or into another field, grappling with a weight problem compels dancers to ask, "Can I do this? Do I want to do this?" Whatever they decide, the teacher's role is to guide and support them, not bring them down. Tracey sums up one of her goals: "I want them to come through this with their self-esteem intact."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

America's Future: Why It Needs the Arts

With the hoopla that surrounded the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy's assassination last November, not much was made over his involvement with the Arts. It struck me that the nation could benefit from a return to that involvement.

"American artists have for three years looked to the White House with unaccustomed confidence and warmth," Leonard Bernstein said at a memorial service in Nov. 1963. "We loved him(Kennedy) for the honor in which he held art, in which he held every creative impulse of the human mind, whether it was expressed in words, or notes, or paints, or mathematical symbols."

Taking advantage of artists to inspire national optimism, the Kennedy White House made art glamorous. In return, art became a crucial factor. But this aspect of the Kennedy administration's legacy is being overlooked.

To a certain extent, the arts have flourished in America since, with performing arts centers and museums built by the hundreds. The National Endowment for the Arts was established under Johnson in 1965, thanks to the Kennedy legacy. But with Vietnam raging, artists hated LBJ. These days, we all know what a political liability supporting the NEA has become for any national politician.

Despite an unprecedented explosion of the arts in America over the last half-century, artists have never again been afforded such national prominence. Washington has become so nervous about and impervious toward art that it seems like fantasy to recall a moment in this country when artists powerfully influenced how Americans felt about America, its identity and future. America needs the arts, as this following list from Randy Cohen at ArtsBlog  shows.

1. Creativity - The arts are fundamental to our humanity. They ennoble and inspire us—fostering creativity, goodness, and beauty. The arts help us express our values, build bridges between cultures, and bring us together regardless of ethnicity, religion, or age. When times are tough, art is salve for the ache.

2. Improved Academic Performance - Students with an education rich in the arts have higher GPAs and standardized test scores, lower drop-out rates, and even better attitudes about community service—benefits reaped by students regardless of socio-economic status. Students with four years of arts or music in high school average 100 points better on their SAT scores than students with one-half year or less.

3. Arts Are an Industry - Arts organizations are responsible businesses, employers, and consumers. Nonprofit arts organizations generate big money in economic activity annually. Investment in the arts supports jobs, generates tax revenues, promotes tourism, and advances our creativity-based economy.

4. Arts are Good for Local Merchants - People who attend art events pay for tickets, meals, parking, even babysitters. Attendees who live outside the county in which the arts event takes place spend twice as much as their local counterparts. This is valuable revenue for local businesses and the community.

5. Arts are the Cornerstone of Tourism - Arts travelers are ideal tourists—they stay longer and spend more. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that the percentage of international travelers including museum visits on their trip has increased from 17 to 23 percent since 2003, while the share attending concerts and theater performances increased from 13 to 16 percent (only 7 percent include a sports event).

6. Arts are an Export Industry - U.S. exports of arts goods (e.g., movies, paintings, jewelry) grew to $64 billion in 2010, while imports were just $23 billion—a $41 billion arts trade surplus in 2010.

7. Building the 21st Century Workforce - Reports by the Conference Board show creativity is among the top 5 applied skills sought by business leaders—with 72 percent saying creativity is of high importance when hiring. The biggest creativity indicator? A college arts degree. Their Ready to Innovate report concludes, “…the arts—music, creative writing, drawing, dance—provide skills sought by employers of the 3rd millennium.”

8. Healthcare - Nearly one-half of the nation’s healthcare institutions provide arts programming for patients, families, and even staff. 78 percent deliver these programs because of their healing benefits to patients—shorter hospital stays, better pain management, and less medication.

9. Stronger Communities - University of Pennsylvania researchers have demonstrated that a high concentration of the arts in a city leads to higher civic engagement, more social cohesion, higher child welfare, and lower poverty rates. A vibrant arts community ensures that young people are not left to be raised solely in a pop culture and tabloid marketplace.

10. Creative Industries - The Creative Industries are arts businesses that range from nonprofit museums, symphonies, and theaters to for-profit film, architecture, and design companies. An analysis of Dun & Bradstreet data counts 905,689 businesses in the U.S. involved in the creation or distribution of the arts that employ 3.35 million people—representing 4.4 percent of all businesses and 2.2 percent of all employees, respectively.

What Parents Can Do

Advocate to your local school board to keep the arts in your school system. Volunteer to share your own arts skills in your child’s classroom.

Seek out opportunities to learn more about the arts—particularly those that may be less familiar to your family. Many communities offer low-cost and free arts events intended to introduce families to the arts. 
Do you sing or play your favorite music around the house? Do you doodle? Do you dance while you vacuum? Share these moments of artistic expression with your kids. Maybe they'll even dust.

Lots of kids and teens are finding media to be an artistic outlet. Whether it is the camera on your cell phone or music editing software on the family PC, technology is an increasingly important tool for young artists. Twenty-first century skills embrace the need for media literacy and many student artists are leading the charge.

Put your kids to work on a family media project. Make a film of family stories to share at the holidays. Is the fridge covered in your kids’ art? Create a family online gallery to showcase their drawings and videos. 

Take time to model problem-solving, cooperation, and collaboration at home. When your child completes an art work or a performance, reflect with them on how they worked through the challenges involved in the process. This will help them identify what they learned and what they can now do.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Drug Abuse: Coping Within the Dance World

By phone from Europe, where she now performs with a major ballet company, a 24-year-old dancer, “Claire”, recalls the moment she realized cocaine would ruin her life if she kept doing it. She was 19 and training at a renowned ballet academy in New York City. “I’d been living on my own for four years and had met some interesting characters. I knew a dealer who would deliver cocaine to my apartment, like it was pizza.” She fell asleep—and awoke to the sound of one of her roommates screaming. “My nose was gushing blood. My sinus had basically collapsed on one side.” The cocaine Claire’s dealer brought had been cut with dry bleach cleaner, possibly Ajax.“That was the turning point,” she says. “It wasn’t an overdose, technically, but it was a realization for me.”

Cocaine has a long history in the ballet world that started in the drug’s heyday in the 1980s. Most famously, Gelsey Kirkland wrote about her addiction in her memoir Dancing on My Grave. Many in the dance community got a wake-up call when American Ballet Theatre dancer Patrick Bissell died from an overdose in 1987. Yet cocaine remains a chronic problem, a seemingly easy “solution” to many of the pressures dancers face. Dancers, addiction specialists and psychologists explore why this problem seems to periodically step back into the spotlight.

It’s an urgent question because cocaine abuse comes with serious consequences: Long-term users can experience heart and respiratory problems, headaches, irritability, even paranoid psychosis. And at upwards of $100 per gram, it can quickly drain a bank account.

Despite these risks, ballet’s high-pressure environment can make the drug’s effects—temporary feelings of euphoria, increased alertness and energy, a stifled appetite—seem appealing. A dancer’s job demands sustained focus at levels far beyond the 9-to-5 norm. The job also lends itself to waves of emotion: The rush of a performance may be followed by a crash.

Ballet dancers begin their careers in an addiction-friendly age range as well. “About 70 to 80 percent of people who have a serious problem start using cocaine in their teenage years, definitely a vulnerable time,” says Dr. Andrew Saxon, who directs the Addiction Psychiatry Residency Program at the University of Washington and has researched cocaine use for 26 years. Compounding matters, many dancers leave home at an early age to train or join a company, and have little contact with people outside of the dance world. Claire, for example, lived unsupervised in New York while she trained. Few adults were paying attention to anything other than her technique. “I was throwing parties at 17 that people still ask me about.”

At midsized ballet companies like the one with which “David,” 21, performs, members get few if any performances off. A run of The Nutcracker might require an entire month in the theater. The resulting stress can drive some dancers to see cocaine as an escape, despite its detrimental consequnces, says Dr. Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist in private practice who is also New York City Ballet’s wellness consultant. The harder a dancer works and the heavier his workload, the easier it is to justify partying hard. “There’s less guilt,” says David. “If you’re doing fine at work, you might feel you can burn the candle at both ends.”

Losing weight as a result of cocaine use can be a side effect. It can also be the point. Claire didn’t develop her habit trying to stay thin and, initially, she never got high during work hours. But she became close with a dancer who used cocaine as an appetite suppressant. They began getting high together to replace meals. “I saw muscles I’d never seen before and started to get obsessive about it,” Claire remembers. “Everyone, my whole life, had told me I needed to lose weight. I got a very positive response from all of my teachers.” Within a year, cocaine became a staple of Claire’s “diet,” as she calls it. “I’d do a couple of lines every few hours, all day, and at night I smoked weed and drank to come down.”

Many dancers interviewed said if drug use isn’t directly affecting classes, rehearsals or performances, directors tend to turn a blind eye. Often, however, the artistic staff doesn’t ever see any symptoms. Dancers are trained to conceal flaws and problems, and the field attracts people who have high standards and are self-critical. These same qualities that help them succeed in ballet can be used to keep problems like drug abuse a secret.

The danger escalates when an after-show party habit leads to getting high more frequently and needing more of the drug to experience the same effects. Many dancers feel trapped, too scared or embarrassed to seek help. Claire’s parents still don’t know that she ever had a problem. It’s possible to find treatment and support, however. There are even resources that addicts can contact anonymously. (See the sidebar below.)

Not everyone who tries the drug will get hooked. But “the people who are genetically primed for addiction can’t get over that sense of how good it makes them feel,” says Saxon. “They want to experience it again and again, and will keep using even after the body and brain develop a tolerance to its effects.” Saxon identifies two main risk factors for addiction. The first is genetic predisposition: Some people’s genes have multiple mutations which, when combined, increase the likelihood that the first line they snort won’t be their last. The second factor is circumstantial, “meaning your environment, your day-to-day life and the things that happen to you,” Saxon explains. For addicts, everything from a drug’s alleged benefits to working in an exceptionally stressful environment can be used to justify their habit.

Hamilton says that the ballet world has come a long way toward embracing all-around dancer wellness, but she would like to see it go further. Abuse of cocaine and other hard drugs, as well as eating disorders, raise red flags that the industry should not ignore. “The bigger issue is, how do we help dancers deal with stress?” she asks. Artists, administrators, choreographers and teachers “should all be on the same page. We may inadvertently give dancers mixed messages: ‘We’ll provide this wellness workshop but we won’t give you an easier day before an opening-night performance.’ We’re neglecting to give any TLC.”

Claire, like half of all addicts in the rehabilitation program that Saxon directs—beat her cocaine habit. Another 30 percent gain some control but don’t stop using the drug. The rest, says Saxon, become mentally and/or physically disabled, or even die as a result of their drug abuse.

“I had to find my love for dance again after quitting cocaine,” Claire says. “It can give you energy like nothing else except for your own motivation. I had to go back to when I first saw Swan Lake. I had to make myself love myself and my dancing.”

How Teachers Can Help

How can a teacher or artistic director maintain a healthy, drug-free dance studio? The best way to combat the problem is to equip young students with the tools they need to resist the pressure to experiment or turn to drugs. Whether one runs a small ballet studio or teaches at a large performing arts school, it’s important to create a caring environment where everyone feels valued, worthy, and part of a team.

Dance teachers should look out for signs that students are experimenting with drugs and/or pressuring other students to experiment. Sometimes they can be difficult to spot, especially when the substances being consumed are over-the-counter. “I don’t know if you could call Advil a painkiller, but that is really overused and I think makes it easier for people to think its okay to take things like Vicodin and drugs like that,” reveals Bergstrom.

But drug use is not the only problem to look out for. According to dancers like Bergstrom, alcohol abuse is fairly common in the professional realm. “I think it’s easy to feel like its OK to abuse alcohol, only because it’s obviously more socially acceptable,” she explains. “After a long day, your body is killing you, and you just want to sit on the couch with a big glass of red wine. I think it’s easy to get into a cycle of drinking on a daily basis as a way to unwind and numb the body. It’s like a painkiller in a sense.”

Ballet dancers are extreme perfectionists, which is what drives them to soar beyond expectations. But sometimes, the need for perfection can drive them to unknowingly sacrifice the health of their bodies for the perfect silhouette or the perfect arabesque. The best thing a teacher can do is to educate his or her students about taking proper care of themselves, and above all, loving and respecting their bodies. Creating an open line of communication will show your students you can be trusted and that you truly care about their health and well-being.

But sometimes, it’s better and more effective for students to hear the advice from an outsider. Bringing in a professional nutritionist for one-on-one meetings or group discussions is a great way to get students involved in the dialogue. At SAB, for example, students are required to attend “Finding Your Way” programs in Alcohol & Drug Education, Nutrition & Wellness, which are designed to give them a well-rounded educational experience.

Zero tolerance drug and alcohol policies are the best way to keep your studio substance free. For example, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s substance abuse policy states: “Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s forbids the possession, consumption, sale, or storage of any alcoholic beverages or illegal drugs on School property or School sponsored events. Students face immediate dismissal from the School, and will be referred to the proper authorities, should they be involved in any of the above activities.”
The best thing a teacher can do, above and beyond setting and adhering to rules, is to create an environment based on positive encouragement. “Being a dancer is incredibly taxing, both physically and emotionally. You spend all day standing in front of a mirror, judging, perfecting, and picking apart every aspect of yourself,” says Bergstrom. “For most of the young dancers, you start your career aiming to please. That is all you want to do. A smile, a nod, anything! And when you’re that young, you need it.”

The good news is that dancers these days are smarter than ever before and are taking the initiative to make better choices. They have learned from the painful stories of Gelsey Kirkland, Patrick Bissell and others. “It’s different than it was in the 80s,” says Bergstrom. “For the most part, dancers want to take care of their bodies and stay healthy.” And that is certainly half the battle.

Where To Find Help

Cocaine Anonymous
Take a self-test for cocaine addiction and find local meetings.

Cocaine Helpline
Connect with a counselor 24/7 for free help with your own addiction and to get referrals for local rehab centers, or to learn about the warning signs in others.

National Cocaine Hotline
800-COCAINE (262-2463)
Connect with a trained professional 24/7 for free information, help with crisis intervention and referrals for local rehab centers.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Healing the Body and Nourishing Creaivity: The Qi Gong Technique

After years of dancing and trapeze work with Joan Skinner and Robert Davidson, Seattle resident Mark Lynd was tired. He had chronic aching in his shoulders, lower back, and arms. His energy was low and his creativity was stifled. Then he discovered Qi Gong.

The Chinese believe the entire universe and everything in it is made up of Qi (energy). When disease or any ailment occurs it's due to blocked or imbalanced Qi. Healing is possible when the electromagnetic energy of your body is in harmony.

Gong means to work, or to gain skill through practice. “It’s a method of cultivating and moving the life force throughout the body to open up the meridians and the energy centers,” says Lynd, who started studying it in 1989. “It improves your health, your awareness, and will get you in touch with the spiritual side of yourself.”

Qi Gong (also spelled QiGong, Qigong, or chi kung) has existed as part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years, along with herbs, acupuncture, and massage. It works to rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit through a variety of physical postures, movement sequences, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques. Lynd, who is an ongoing student as well as a teacher at the Ling Gui International Healing Qigong School in Seattle, feels this practice can be particularly helpful to dancers, who naturally have a lot of qi.

A former STREB dancer and current teacher of Dragon’s Way Qi Gong in New York City, Christine McQuade agrees. She also had chronic pain in her muscles and joints after five years of performing STREB’s “pop action” technique, which involved running into walls and spinning upside down in gravity-defying contraptions. Now, after practicing Qi Gong for seven years, she has never felt better. “It was like I went from seeing in black and white to seeing in color,” she says.

McQuade is convinced that the entire dance world would be revolutionized if more dancers experienced Qi Gong. Not only is this ancient practice capable of healing the body, but she believes it can also serve as a source of creative inspiration.

There is no typical Qi Gong class because there are several types of Qi Gong and the practice is tailored to an individual’s needs. Someone who suffers from lethargy, for example, may be instructed to jump up and down or do vigorous breathing exercises. Someone who is hyperactive may be encouraged to sit in a chair for an hour and focus on slowing the breath. There are often opportunities for improvisation, allowing the body to move instinctively. Sessions can be taken privately or in a group.

Here are some of the ways Qi Gong can benefit dancers.

Easing Aches and Pains

Dancers are often taught to move in ways that are not intuitive or natural to the body. The result is tight muscles and joints that block the energy flow, which can eventually lead to chronic pain and fatigue. Qi Gong helps you reconnect with the way your body wants to move in order to release tension, allowing the body to heal itself.

Deepening Healthy Breathing

Certain types of Qi Gong emphasize breathing exercises more than others. But they all acknowledge the connection between a person’s quality of breath and their state of physical and mental health. Slowing down and breathing consciously, for example, relaxes the mind and body, which can be helpful when attempting to center yourself before a performance.

Increasing Endurance

Since Qi Gong is all about the cultivation of energy, says McQuade, it “puts more fuel in your tank.” For those dancers who take multiple classes a day followed by a rehearsal or a performance, it would be invaluable to tap into a profound, natural source of long-lasting energy.

Inspiring Creativity

Lynd and McQuade both say that Qi Gong has allowed them to improvise and choreograph in more genuine ways than before. “Sometimes when you’re dancing you can fall into a rut,” says Lynd. “With Qi Gong you get to that really still place inside of yourself and then the movement flows right out of you. You’re not thinking, you’re just moving. You’re not dancing, you are being danced.”

Turning a Good Performance Into a Great Performance

Many dancers have excellent technique, but few have that extra something that draws eyes to them like a magnet. Qi Gong helps dancers integrate mind, body, and spirit so that they are completely present onstage. “Qi Gong allows dancers to trust their bodies to go beyond pure technique and tap into their inner power and beauty,” says McQuade. “Then the movements become larger than the sum of the parts of the choreography.”

McQuade warns that dancers may dismiss Qi Gong as being too simple for them at first, since many of the exercises involve moving very slowly or not at all. “I was so used to judging the value of movement by how complicated it is from the outside,” McQuade says. “But the more I started slowing down, the more I discovered all of the incredible movement that happens on the inside.”

Best Qigong Healing DVDs For Beginners

Instructional videos are an excellent way to begin your mind body journey through Qigong healing. Francesco and Daisy Lee Garripoli Qigong instructional videos with Gaiam are one of the best series for beginners just starting out. In their Qigong for Cleansing video the husband-and-wife duo breaks down the basics of Qigong and demonstrates qigong exercises to detoxify and cleanse every organ in the body. The slow pace tranquil music and visualization techniques combine to give beginners a well-rounded routine to master.

The Qigong for Beginners DVD set is another exceptional instructional series. The two disc DVD set includes the Garripoli's Qigong for Healing and Qigong for Energy videos. Both are loaded with practical lessons and tips for mastering this powerful form of Chinese medicine. Qigong exercises should be practiced regularly. This healing method is safe enough to practice multiple times a day. Always start out slow and increase the length or difficulty of your session with time.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Dance, Sports, Extracurriculars: When Your Child Wants to Quit

Your 10-year-old daughter decides she doesn't want to take ballet anymore after you've invested in years of lessons and the spring recital is right around the corner. Your 12-year-old son wants to quit the cello but begs to take up the guitar. And you're wondering when is it right to push your child to press on or agree to let him quit?

While there's no one answer that's right for every child, there are several factors to consider regardless of your child's activity. The following experts — a music education professor, a physical education specialist, a swim school director and a ballet school director — all agree: When your child begins an activity, create a supportive environment at home. This may help to keep his interest from lagging.

When it comes down to quitting or pressing on, the decision will depend on the child, her level of talent, the length of time she's been involved in the activity and her reasons for wanting to quit.

"Musical children are not born — they are raised," says Robert Cutietta, author of Raising Musical Kids and professor of music education at the University of Southern California. It all begins by creating a "musical environment" at home. He suggests exposing children from an early age to different kinds of music, and getting them to focus by asking age-appropriate questions, such as "What does that sound like to you? Does it sound like a bird, a tree swaying in the wind?" If you play a musical instrument yourself, let your child see you playing and express your love for music. "Kids see what parents value," says Cutietta. "If music is a part of your life and you value it, they will see that."

For most children who start playing an instrument, there's a honeymoon period when they are excited and anxious to play at every opportunity. "Parents are often tricked into thinking their child loves the instrument," notes Cutietta, "but actually it's just a new toy to them. From the beginning, parents need to prepare for the time when their child is no longer in love with the instrument. They should not take the child's interest for granted. They should set realistic goals, which should not be time-goals like 'practice for a half-hour each day' but rather music goals like 'play four measures of this piece.'" If you wait to put goals in place as your child starts to lose interest, it may be too late.

Set a Regular Practice Time.

Cutietta also suggests having a set time for practice each day to avoid arguing with your child who might say, "I don't feel like it now; I'll do it later." If your child knows that at 4 p.m. everyday he is supposed to practice, there will be less need to nag. "It's also OK to acknowledge that practice is not always a lot of fun," says Cutietta. "Music is not all fun. It's hard work and there's nothing wrong with that."

Cutietta doesn't advise reminding your child about the spring concert as a way to keep him engaged. "That could be light-years away, as far as your child is concerned," he says. "It's much better to have more immediate, easy-to-achieve performance goals." He suggests organizing a mini-recital where your child can perform in front of a few family members and friends. This can be easy to arrange and becomes both a goal and a reward.

"Letting a child switch instruments is really smart so long as they don't switch every few months," advises Cutietta. "It's good for a child to start on piano or violin but it's OK to explore different ones and some schools allow for that, too." Chase Nelson, now a 24-year-old in California and an accomplished violinist, adds this about his own music training, "My parents didn't compromise regarding my quitting but I always had the option of switching instruments. I moved from guitar to drums (the cool instruments) before returning to violin, an instrument with which I had accomplished quite a bit. I couldn't be more thankful that my parents kept me in music. A video of myself playing violin was what eventually got me accepted at my college of choice."

Sports and Children

"There are no right or wrong answers about giving up a sport," says Amy Kaiser, GreatSchools teacher consultant and 2005 Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year in Minnesota. But she offers a few pointers to make the decision easier:

Talk with your child before signing them up for a sport or activity. Do they want to participate? What are their goals for the season? Do they understand the time commitment and cost?
Try to see the season through. Some early practices are tough, or new coaches or situations are uncomfortable because they are different. Help your child to work through problems and try to keep the commitment for the season. Teammates, coaches and schedules are counting on a full season. After the season is over is a good time to discuss pros and cons and decide if they would like to continue the next season. Sticking out a tough season is a good character-builder and helps reinforce good work ethics.

If your child insists on quitting, find out all the reasons why. Maybe a discussion with the coach or with the team will solve conflicts or calm fears. Know your child, keep communication open and help them make the best decision with the most information.

Communication is Key.

When you start to see signs that interest in an activity is waning, communication with your child is key, according to Carmela Peter, artistic director of the Professional Ballet School and Young Artists Ballet Theatre in Belmont, Calif. "If your child is miserable and doesn't want to go back to the dance school, it could be any number of things. It could be that she would just rather be playing or it could be that someone said something that wasn't nice in the dressing room," notes Peter. "The bottom line is if they don't want to go, find out why. If it's because you don't agree with the philosophy of the school, you can always switch to a different school."

What is the School or Program's Philosophy?

Peter also suggests finding out about the philosophy of the program before signing your child up for lessons. Although her school does train students who are interested in advancing to a professional level, they also train everyone, and treat students with respect by giving them correction and attention. They realize that not all students will become professional dancers but they think all students should be happy, learn, enjoy themselves and make progress.

Peter also suggests giving a child extra encouragement if you notice her interest waning. "Tell her 'the more you do, the better you'll get and the more fun you'll have,'" she says. "You really can't force them but you should encourage them to finish out the year and make it through the end-of-year recital before quitting."

Give Your Child Experience With Different Activities.

"If you give your child a library of experiences from an early age, you will easily know what they are good at," says Irene Kolbisen, co-owner of the La Petite Baleen Swim School in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and charter member of the U.S. Swim School Association and World Aquatic Baby Congress.

"You'll want to uncover their talents and let them blossom. Observe what they are good at and what they are struggling with. Pay attention to their learning styles: Are they auditory or kinesthetic (movement-oriented) learners? Do they get a challenge and want to immediately run away from it?" In that case, she notes, establishing a minimum period of time commitment might be a good way to encourage your child to meet the challenge. "Tell your child that you made an agreement that he was going to do this for X amount of time but after that period of time, you will reevaluate."

Kolbisen suggests being aware of your child's tendencies when she starts to complain: Does she have a valid concern or does she have a tendency to crumble when something becomes more difficult? Be sure to keep your own bias out of the picture and try not to invest too much in your belief in your child's talents. "Don't get hooked by your ego and say things like,'when I was your age...' Think about who comes first - your child or your athlete," adds Kolbisen. "In the end, you hope the activity is a way for kids to have fun and find some joy."

Conflicting Activities

Sometimes a child loses interest in an activity because there are too many conflicting demands on his time: soccer, tennis, cello, schoolwork - it can get overwhelming trying to fit it all in. Several of our experts agreed that when it comes down to eliminating one or more activities, it should be the child's choice what to eliminate, unless it involves a team sport, in which case, it's advisable to encourage your child to finish out the season and honor his commitment to his coach and teammates. "Don't decide on just one activity until age 10, or until you can determine what your child is good at," recommends Kolbisen.

At Some Point, You May Just Have to Let Them Quit.

Quitting may be the right choice for your child's health, particularly if your child struggles to meet the challenges associated with the activity. Canadian researchers Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch discovered that "people who can disengage from unattainable goals enjoy better well-being... and experience fewer symptoms of everyday illness than do people who have difficulty disengaging from unattainable goals." They found that teenage girls in particular who were unable to disengage from hard-to-reach goals had an increased level of an inflammatory molecule known as C-reactive protein (C.R.P.), which in adults is linked to diabetes, heart disease and early aging.

"There's a point when it becomes cruel to force a child to continue," says Cutietta. "Later on, you may wish they had continued, but it all comes down to goal-setting and family support from the beginning." Kolbisen adds, "When it's your gut feeling that your child is right about wanting to quit, then it's time to talk to the instructor or coach and have good closure with grace."

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Flying High: Increasing Popularity of Aerial Dance

A2D2 Aerial Dance Circus Company. Photo by Chris Ricker

 Traditional tango moves are stretched, expanded and turned upside down as a pair of dancers attached to bungees skim across the surface of the floor—without touching it. She walks up his legs and down his arms, and he holds her in lifts impossible without the aid of the apparatus. Aerial dance, which relies on equipment to lift dancers, is known for its ability to add dimensions to choreography impossible to achieve in conventional dance.

Aerial dance is one of most dynamic and exciting genres of dance.  From Cirque de Soleil to cruise ships to Broadway musicals, trained aerial dancers are in demand.

Aerial dance originated in the 1960s when postmodern dancers like Alwin Nikolais and Trisha Brown started experimenting with taking dance from the horizontal to the vertical realm in order to extend the possibilities of the modern dance vocabulary. Nearly 50 years after those first explorations, there are aerial dance companies, international aerial dance festivals and schools devoted to teaching the genre.

“The aesthetic is like any other dance form,” says Nancy Smith, artistic director of Frequent Flyers Productions based in Boulder, CO, “but you can go much higher, cover space to a much greater degree and elongate and draw things out like you wouldn’t be able to do without the use of apparatus.”

High Accessibility

“As long as you have a moderate level of physical fitness, you’re ready to give it a try,” says Chloe Jensen, co-director of Ameba Acrobatic and Aerial Dance in Chicago. “Aerial takes a significant amount of upper body and core strength, but a dancer can develop those things through the study of aerial dance techniques,” she adds. While Jensen’s company teaches students as young as 5, Smith and Jayne Bernasconi, artistic director of Air Dance Bernasconi in Baltimore, co-authors of the book Aerial Dance, think 10 is an ideal age to start. Before then, kids can be too reckless with their bodies. “They don’t have a sense of fear yet,” explains Bernasconi.

A sense of fear is one thing, but what about a fear of heights? Professionals say that shouldn’t be a deterrent. Much of aerial dance has nothing to do with being up high. “It’s about using the equipment to discover new possibilities of movement,” Jensen says.

Each apparatus can be hung high or low. “You can stay low and do swings under the bar,” explains Bernasconi. “You can grab the bar and run underneath it, kick off and bring your feet off the floor. You can bring your toes up to the bar and stand up or climb up the ropes to the ceiling. It all depends on where you want to take it.”

What to Expect

Expect to work progressively, working your way up in space. “A beginner starts with her feet on the ground touching the bar at the low-flying trapeze and then progresses to hanging, to sitting, to swinging and to going upside down,” says Smith.

Bernasconi’s warm-up begins with arm-strengthening, shoulder-rotation exercises and core stability work. “The stronger your core is, the less strain aerial work will have on your shoulders because the shoulders are really what takes the brunt of the stress,” she says. Then she introduces students to the single-point trapeze with an exercise she calls pulling taffy. “You’re still on the floor, but you fall into space holding the trapeze,” she says. “It warms up your hands as well your body and helps you to trust the equipment.”

It’s not uncommon for students to experience motion sickness. “You’re off the ground and upside down and the movement and spinning can create vertigo,” says Smith. Expect to get bruised and sore in ways that you don’t from traditional dance forms. You can also get calluses on your hands and the backs of your knees, and shoulder injuries are common.

While there’s obviously a certain amount of risk involved with aerial dance, a reputable instructor will work to minimize that risk with safe rigging. “We run about eight classes a week and 15 hours a week of company rehearsals,” says Jensen. “We have never seen a serious injury.” When looking for an instructor, insist that he or she take the time to explain the rigging system and teach you how to check it yourself. “It’s like packing a parachute when you’re jumping out of an airplane,” says Bernasconi. “You probably want to be the one to pack that parachute so you know exactly what’s going on.”

Prep Talk

Since the equipment used in aerial dance is unpredictable, improvisation is an important part of the work. “You may go to grab the apparatus and it’s not where it was every other time in rehearsal,” explains Smith. You have to be prepared for sudden changes.

In preparation for your first class, hang off playground equipment to gain familiarity with being upside down. “In choreography, you have to know where your body is in space when you’re not touching the ground,” says Smith. Hang on the monkey bars. Practice pushups with your hands underneath your shoulders and your elbows close to your side. “This way you’re building your back muscles and abdominals,” says Bernasconi.

Once you’ve prepped yourself for using muscles you didn’t know you had, assumed the risk and psyched yourself up for being suspended in mid-air, Smith suggests freeing your mind in order to reap all the benefits of the genre. “Aerial is a very liberating art form, and it spurs people’s creativity,” she says.

Studying Arial Dance

There are college programs that allow a student to concentrate on Aerial Dance. At the University of Colorado, courses in the Aerial Dance Track are offered for those students who have a serious interest in aerial dance and it’s application to dance training, performance and/or teacher training. Students can work towards the completion of the Professional Training Program at Frequent Flyers while simultaneously pursuing their MFA degree. The Professional Training Program must be successfully completed before the MFA degree will be awarded.

MFA students have two options in the Aerial Dance Track:

1.) Intensive Aerial Study – No previous aerial dance experience is required. Students would study at Frequent Flyers and written and choreographic projects would be designed in collaboration with Nicole Predki, Frequent Flyers Education Director and Nada Diachenko.
2.) Teacher Training in the Frequent Flyers Method  – This option is designed for students who have significant aerial dance experience and would like to teach the specific Frequent Flyers Method created by Frequent Flyers Founder, Nancy Smith.

The University of New Hamshire is the first liberal arts university to offer aerial dance as part of an undergraduate dance program. Along with classes, Aerial elements are choreographed into an annual UNH Dance Company concert on a variety of apparatus allowing the dancers to gain a multi-dimensional aerial dance experience.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Happy Ending for Romeo and Juliet? Prokofiev’s Original Score


At Right - Sergei Prokofiev

It is the greatest tragic love story of all time, the blueprint for doomed romances for almost half a millennium. But in 1935, Sergei Prokofiev boldly set out to rewrite the script of Romeo and Juliet, granting the star-cross'd lovers in his ballet score a happy ending in which they pirouette, hand-in-hand into a glorious future.

It was only thanks to the disapproval of Josef Stalin and his assorted cultural henchmen that Shakespeare's original heart-rending denouement was reinstated and Prokofiev's lyrical masterpiece as we know it today was born.

73 years after it was first composed, Prokofiev's original work – complete with cheery conclusion – received its world premiere at the Bard Summescape festival outside New York in July, 2008. Mark Morris choreographed a new ballet for the piece performed by the American Symphony Orchestra.

"Strangely, the score that is known and loved is the Stalin-approved version," says Simon Morrison, a professor of music at Princeton University who found the original manuscript hidden in a Moscow archive.

Morrison was researching Prokofiev for a book about the composer's Soviet period when he came across 10 pages of meticulous notes for the scenario of the ballet, the first version of the score and various letters regarding the work, including one revealing the work's full title, Romeo and Juliet: On Motifs of Shakespeare, and a memo signed by Stalin, granting his approval for a performance of the heavily revised work at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1946.

In fact, Morrison uncovered 20 minutes of previously unheard music, six new dances – including an exotic group number, a playful pantomime involving Mercutio and the Nurse and, most importantly, the two elaborate concluding pas de deux in which Romeo and Juliet celebrate their blissful love. This ending begins conventionally enough with a sombre funeral theme as Romeo arrives at the tomb, believing Juliet to be dead. He is then, crucially, intercepted by Friar Lawrence who explains the effects of the sleeping potion. At this, the magical, Rimsky-Korsakov-style tinkling of a glockenspiel heralds the breaking of the spell while Juliet's breathing is played out by slowly pulsing harp and strings. Her awakening is followed by a joyful passage in which the various characters reconcile and give praise for a tragedy averted. Finally, the two lovers reappear to dance their duet which climaxes with a ringing succession of positive C Major chords.

So what possessed Prokofiev to rewrite one of the most famous endings in literature? The composer's own, rather pragmatic explanation was that "living people can dance, the dead cannot". There is also the little-known fact of Prokofiev's deeply held Christian Science beliefs, according to which death does not exist. In Prokofiev's vision, the love of Romeo and Juliet is infinite, transcending all earthly boundaries and existing in a paradise-like realm. "The question of whether they live or die becomes moot. They step outside it all. She wakes up and they embrace but the texture is of a magic spell," explains Morrison. "If they have died, their love lives on. If they live, they're in another realm. They've walked away from the problems that surround them into paradise."

In 1935, Prokofiev was still living in Paris but Stalin was increasingly keen to woo him back to the Soviet Union as an emblem of its cultural credibility. As an enticement they offered him a commission to write the ballet of Romeo and Juliet for the Bolshoi Theatre. He accepted, moved back to Moscow permanently and started work with the dramatist Sergei Radlov on a scenario. Theirs was a radical reimagining of the story along proto-revolutionary lines, in which the ancient rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets was played down and replaced by the struggle between the old feudal order, embodied by the parents and the young, progressive types who fight for the freedom to love. "They actually thought they were doing the politically correct thing," says Morrison. And for a time, they were. The general director of the Bolshoi, Vladimir Mutnykh, approved the work and scheduled it for the 1935/1936 season.

But 1936 ushered in a new wave of bloody repressions, including the creation of a Committee on Arts Affairs to enforce ideological policy in the cultural sphere. Its chairman, Platon Kerzhentsev's first move was to denounce Shostakovich and ban his latest opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; his second was to liquidate the entire administration of the Bolshoi, including Mutnykh, who was later executed in the purges. The ballet was rescheduled for the following season, but 1937 brought the 20th anniversary of the revolution. The idea of producing a work commissioned by someone who had been officially declared an enemy of the people in this landmark year was unthinkable.

The ballet remained on the shelf with Prokofiev salvaging some of the work in two orchestral suites. In 1938, a theater in Brno in the Czech Republic was granted permission to stage the ballet which led to an invitation from the Kirov in Leningrad to produce it in their 1940 season – on the proviso that Prokofiev "traditionalized" his score. "His version would have worked very well in the 1920s but by the 1930s and 1940s things were far more conservative," says Morrison. "Messing with Shakespeare was the equivalent to messing with Pushkin. You just didn't do it."

Along with the new, traditional tragic ending in which there was no doubt about the deathly fate of the young lovers, Prokofiev was forced into a raft of changes, additions and reordering. Finally, Prokofiev thickened the orchestration to give the work a more monumental, Socialist-realist feel. "Prokofiev was literally powerless at this point," says Morrison. "But faced with the prospect of not ever having the ballet performed, he acquiesced."

The Russian premiere went ahead but the ballet had yet to reach the glittering showcase of the Bolshoi stage. For that the nod had to come from the very top. Eventually, convinced that Prokofiev had shed all possible poisonous Western influences, Stalin signed off a letter approving the score. In 1946 it was staged at the Bolshoi in a politically-motivated, post-war performance designed to send a signal to Winston Churchill about the USSR's fertile relationship with Great Britain and its precious Bard.

"Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score," says Morrison. "It became the defining version, a reorganized, torn-up work. It's a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it."

Prokofiev never recovered from this artistic setback. In 1948, his health rapidly declining in a series of strokes, he was denounced by the regime. His works were removed from the repertoire and his wife was sent to the Gulag for eight years. He died on 5 March, 1953, the same day as Stalin.

Despite Prokofiev's original reservations, his music has certainly stood the test of time. It has been used in productions all over the world, and is one of the most iconic pieces of ballet music. And who's to say what the final ending was for Romeo and Juliet? Perhaps they found that "Somewhere" that West Side Story hints at. It is the wondering and "what if" that appeals.

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