Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Challenges and Rewards of Being a Collge Dance Major

It's almost time to begin a new school year. In high school, you spend countless hours brushing up on your technique—and maybe even dreaming of the perfect college dance program. But as much as your studio has prepared you for the next step, dance in college is very different from what most dancers experience at home. Even if you whiz through your dream school’s audition and nab a scholarship, you’ll find it takes more than stunning technique to succeed as a dance major. Here are the top five challenges college freshmen encounter and how to handle each one. 

1.  Meeting New Expectations

Becoming a dance major is a lot like starting your first professional job. That’s because in order to best prepare you for the demands of the real dance world, college programs simulate them in a safe environment where you can learn from your mistakes.

Though your studio may have been relaxed about occasional tardiness or missing a class, college is a no-excuses atmosphere. You’re expected to act like a professional. Show up early in appropriate dancewear; keep personal drama out of the studio; learn what extra training your body needs, and do it outside of class; and attend every class and rehearsal. “You have to be really responsible,” says Elizabeth Price, associate director of the School of Dance at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Since you’ll likely be living without your parents for the first time, it’ll be up to you to stay organized and motivated. “There are a lot of distractions in college, and you learn that it really is up to you to make yourself get up and go to class,” says Elizabeth Ernst, a dance major at University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music (CCM).

2. Finding the Courage to Stumble

So much of the college experience is about taking creative risks, like auditioning for your school’s company, trying new styles and presenting your own choreography. You’ll learn how to deal with success, disappointment and everything in between—just like you would in the professional dance world. College dance programs are designed to get you out of your comfort zone and into a place where you’re really growing.

“Sometimes, dancers come into the program and feel they need to prove their ability or value in some way,” says Barry Finkel, co-chair of the dance department at American Musical and Dramatic Academy College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in L.A. “It can be a sort of trap. If they get caught up in it, that can shut off their receptors to new information.”

It’s important to be willing to reevaluate your technique from its core, even if that means retraining yourself to do a basic plié. “We might ask students to approach something in a completely new way, or take a note that they’ve never received before,” says Marina Benedict, who co-chairs AMDA’s dance department with Finkel. “Sometimes, that can feel like taking a step back.” Knowing that you’re being graded might make you nervous about easing off more advanced steps to rethink the basics, but as long as you’re giving everything you’ve got, showing that you’re eager to learn and following the teacher’s instructions, there’s usually no need to worry about grades.

3. Finding Space to Grow

“I knew I was a big fish in high school, but I understood that when I went to college it wouldn’t be that way,” says Sarah Haggerty, a recent dance graduate from the University of Florida. If you’ve spent years as the best dancer at your home studio, entering an environment with dancers who were also the best at their studios can be a big adjustment. But all it takes to make the transition is a little humility and a willingness to grow.

When Sarah arrived at the University of Florida, she was happy to find that the dance department was a close-knit, welcoming environment, even though the larger university had tens of thousands of students. Instead of feeling she needed to compete with other dancers, she was able to focus on opening up and becoming a unique artist. “In high school, dancing was all about technique,” says Sarah. “I was never asked to find my individuality or explore who I was as a dancer and a person. When I got to college, I needed to shift my view of dance and open my mind to know that I could be in a vulnerable place and be OK.” And at CCM, Elizabeth spends even more time with her fellow dancers than when she was in high school, since they also live, eat and spend weekends with one another.

4. Surviving The Day-to-Day

Even if you’re used to dancing several hours a day, the physical demands of being a dance major are often more intense than what dancers experience in high school. That was the case for Sarah, who turned to massaging her muscles with tennis balls and taking long showers to combat the tightness caused by increased hours in the studio. At schools like George Mason, dancers go through a full athletic screening to find weaknesses that could lead to later injuries, and many universities have an athletic trainer on hand who can work with dancers as they adjust to the heavy workload.

5. Expanding Your Definition of Dance

Almost any college faculty member will tell you that two of the most important qualities of successful dance majors are open-mindedness and eagerness to try new ideas. “The ability to shift the way you’ve been viewing dance is a necessity,” says Sarah. You’ll dive into new dance styles you may not have much experience in, and you’ll study dance-based academics like dance history, anatomy and choreographic theory. During the process, you might find that you not only become a different dancer, but also develop new ideas about what dance is and why you do it.

“Throughout college, you’re going to be constantly exposed to new things,” says Price. “That’s actually the point of college—expanding your mind and body. You may not be able to do everything well at first. But over time, you will."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Importance of Emotional Intelligence and Using Dance to Develop It

Conventional wisdom says that there is a direct connection between our IQ and our ability to succeed in life. In school, we are ranked by our GPA. At certain points in grade school, students are given standardized test that ranks them with other students around the country. Schools are obsessed with how their students rank compared with others. A requirement for most colleges is a satisfactory score on the SAT or ACT exam. These tests are basic IQ tests, designed to test our math and reading comprehension.

But there have been many studies that show IQ only accounts for about 20% of our success in any field. The major attributes of success are our social and emotional intelligence. Yet there is very little emphasis put on emotional intelligence. Only a handful of schools have any formal programs that address emotional intelligence.

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says, "People with well-developed emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of the mind that foster their own productivity; people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought."

We have an emotional mind and a rational mind. In large part, our emotional mind developed to help us survive. When man first wandered the earth anytime he encountered some new experience, he needed to make instant decisions about whether the encounter involved something that he could eat or something that might try and eat him. To rely on the rational mind, which works much slower than the emotional mind, might have meant the end of mankind. The emotional mind springs into action much quicker than the rational mind. But unless we learn to control the emotional mind, we will make lots of bad decisions and poor choices.

It is more focused on how a person understands, recognizes, and chooses his values. It shows how good a person is in understanding others, and how good he is in making decisions. It is how good a person can apply what he learned to be happy, how a person can love and interact with others.

Studies show that it is not the IQ or Intelligence Quotient of a person which is responsible in attaining success in life. EQ or Emotional Quotient is the main factor responsible for a person's success in all aspects of life.

Unlike Intelligence Quotient, Emotional Quotient is present to everyone. It only needs to be developed. Developing Emotional Quotient can help in decision-making, and in building good relationships with other people. It focuses more in attaining intangible success in life. Success is attaining by knowing how to deal with emotions, feelings, and interactions with others.

It has been proven that attaining material success does not promise personal contentment. Success is defined as being contented, happy and satisfied in life. In 1990, Emotional Quotient was introduced in the world market, affirming that a person's ability to handle relationships and his ability to use the appropriate emotions in every interaction are much more important than a person's intelligence quotient.

A person who has a high emotional quotient score is expected to be more positive in life. Emotional Quotient gives a person courage to stand again after a fall. Emotional Quotient gives person strength to face fear. Being worried, always in doubt, accepting mistakes, and admitting mistakes are just some of the challenges people in any field of work or life face.

And what about our bodies? They are as intelligent  as our minds. I think the question worth asking is, "Do people give their bodies the same opportunities to smarten up?" We know bodies can think and feel. In fact, our bodies go beyond both cognition and emotion. They are highly expressive, they remember often what our brains don't, and they know things out of sheer instinct before we do.

Even body language is well researched and understood. But again, it comes from a cognitive point of view as it explains nonverbal communication with others. What about when your body is trying to speak to you? Do you listen? I mean, really listen. Without thinking, without emotion, do you know what your body wants, needs, or has to say? Or, put differently, what kind of relationship do you have with your body? When considering that it has the power to provide the greatest pleasures and impose unbearable pain, one would think that answering this question would be a top priority. But sadly, it is not.

The body requires as much respect in order to be "smart" as the brain needs "exercise" to be strong. You just have to keep moving.... and listen. In this respect, dancing is a way of allowing our bodies express our feelings and talking to us in the process.

At its simplest, emotional intelligence encompasses five competencies:

1. Self-awareness: Recognizing your emotions and their effects; knowing your strengths and limitations; and having a strong sense of your capabilities and self-worth.

2. Self-regulation: Managing your moods by keeping disruptive emotions and impulses in check; and channeling your feelings and resources to enhance your performance and productivity.

3. Self-motivation: Knowing how to use your emotions to propel yourself into action toward a desired goal and to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks.

4. Empathy: Your ability to sense others' feelings and perspectives; read and understand the dynamics of relationships; and anticipate, recognize and meet key constituents' needs.

5. Social skills: Your adeptness at inducing desirable responses in others through communication, collaboration, influence and relationship-building.

Unlike IQ, which is pretty much established at birth, EQ can be learned, implemented and improved upon at any age. In fact, studies show our emotional intelligence increases as we get older -- peaking between 50 and 59.

What's the best way to raise your EQ, short of hiring a personal coach?

Psychologist Dr. Hendrie Weisinger, author of "Emotional Intelligence at Work" and "The Emotionally Intelligent Financial Advisor," advocates increasing your self-awareness. Since dancing deals with self awareness, emotions and motivation, it can be used to develop EQ.

He advises taking a reading of your emotions several times throughout the day and keeping a journal. After a week, access what you're feeling, how you're channeling your feelings and how it affects your workday.

If you're sending yourself negative messages, plant positive ones in their place. For example, if you find you're telling yourself "I'm stupid" after making a mistake, replace that message with "What can I do differently next time?"

Commit to responsibilities. This drives a person not to give up. It is also a way of earning other people's trust.

Take personal accountability. Being accountable is being dependable.

Identify comfort zones. Trying to escape these comfort zones can make a person explore other things.

Identify fears and try facing them. Doing this can develop self-confidence. It can attain assurances that anything can be overcome.

Practice being humble. Accepting mistakes in life attains high self-esteem.

It also helps to have an EQ role model. Identify people you know who excel as individuals and also maximize a team's potential through building bonds, collaboration and creating group synergy in pursuit of collective goals.

Watch how they sell their ideas, handle criticism from others, and deal with setbacks. Then apply those skills in your own life and see what a difference it makes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dealing With the Inner Dance of Pefection

When you look at some of the most successful people in life, you’ll often spot perfectionistic tendencies . It’s to be expected. After all, if you aim high, work hard and deliver you’ll be rewarded, right? I see it all the time. On talk shows, in interviews and in songs.

“They always tell me nobody’s working as hard as you

And even though I laugh it off man, it’s probably true

Cause while all my closest friends out partying

I’m just here making all the music that they party to”

- Light Up by Drake

It must be great to be a perfectionist! Some even boast of their perfectionism. They wear it like a badge of honor. But part of perfectionism is keeping up with appearances. Take it from a perfectionist; behind the masquerade there is a very dark side to it all.

In a way,dancers are like magicians. They create an illusion of complete effortless, visual athletic beauty for our audience and yet behind the scenes our feet bleed and our bodies ache. However, their success depends on how much they transcend such pain and show godliness on the stage at all times, no matter what. They become conditioned to perfectionism in their craft and are praised for it professionally, but what can happen when perfectionism seeps into our other areas of life?

Perfectionism has both positive and negative aspects. However, when we require our life to be “perfect” like the illusions we create on the stage, we can set ourselves up for inflexibility in our thinking. When an ideal outcome is not achieved we can change our perception, creatively respond and change our approach, alter our expectations or shift direction and adapt to the situation at hand which is a positive approach for both our mental health and well being. However, if we are inflexible in our thinking and perceive an intended outcome in a black and white fashion, then we can suffer mentally, physically and creatively when our ideals are not met. In some cases this can lead to depression, anxiety and other mentally and emotionally limiting states of experience.

What Is Perfectionism?

The essence of perfectionism is the need for achievement of exceptionally high standards to maintain or raise one’s self-esteem. This means that a person will have very high standards for himself and that whether he lives up to these standards or not determines whether he feels good or bad about himself.

This attitude might pertain to all or only specific aspects of a person’s life. For example, some guys feel that they absolutely must be their team’s top scorer or else they are worthless, but put them in a class room or office and they are pretty relaxed. Then there’s the other type of guy who’s determined to graduate with honors, work at a top company in his field, have a model for a girlfriend and be part of the in-crowd. And on top off all that he has to be his team’s top scorer of course.

Another telltale sign is black-and-white self evaluation. When judging themselves perfectionists tend to see no gradations of grey. So when it’s not good, it’s just plain bad.

Where Does Perfectionism Come From?

People learn perfectionism in childhood from their parents. In most cases, the parents are perfectionists themselves. Children learn to be the same in two ways. First off, the children copy their parents, it’s as simple as that. If Timmy sees Daddy beating himself up over forgetting a item on his errand list, Timmy will soon beat himself up over forgetting an item on his English test. Secondly, children try to live up to their parents’ expectations. In case of these parents the expectation is perfection.

The way this works is that most parents give affection when their child acts how they want it to and/or take it away when it doesn’t. Most parents do this, it’s common practice and considered totally normal, acceptable and desirable even. But what it teaches a child is that his worthiness of love, his esteem, depends on his behavior and performance. This leads to a constant seeking for approval.

Now what sets the perfectionists apart from other parents is that in addition to this common practice, their standards are exceptionally high. Only the best will do. So not only will the child be rewarded with affection and punished with taking it away, it will take more to be rewarded and/or less to be punished. Again, this teaches a child that his esteem depends on his behavior and performance and on top of that those need to be exceptional.

Problems With Perfectionism

Perfectionism might seem like a very powerful motivator and sometimes it is. However, failure is a inevitable part of life. And unrealistically high standards only make failure more likely. Add in a decline of self-esteem upon failure and you have a recipe for psychological and emotional disaster. Too many or too big a failure will cause a big drop in self-esteem. Once this happens it is likely that a person will experience depression, hopelessness, inertia and isolation.

A perfectionist will go through this many times in life. This makes failure something to be feared. And a natural response to fear is avoidance. Instead of going through the trauma of failure perfectionist will do about anything to avoid failure. This might actually push some people towards success. But most of the time fear is a bad motivator. Probably the most common response is procrastination. People grab onto about every distraction not to get down to business. This is because they want to put the whole matter out of their mind. They have another coffee with classmates and try not to think of the books that are waiting for them in the library. Or they try to provide themselves with an excuse in case of failure. Yes, the dance performance was terrible but it was only because they had to clean their house and this left them with no time for rehearsals. Others resort to cheating. Just ask Lance how far some are willing to take it to win. In extreme cases the fear leads to people convincing themselves they don’t want it anymore and quitting. All because people are terrified to death of failing.

Even in case of success problems will arise. Most importantly, no matter how full your trophy case gets, there will always be missing something. The thing is, life is not just about prizes and goal lists. Life is also about relationships and perfectionism undermines relationships. See, as long as you’re upholding your perfect image you are not sharing your true self. You are not showing your little quirks, your pain and your fears. This disables you from truly connecting with another person, because no one ever truly knows you and this will make you feel alone. Alone and unhappy.

Then there’s the danger of an unbalanced lifestyle. Especially when perfectionism is exclusive to a certain aspect of life. You see this with athletes a lot. They train 5 days a week, twice daily. Go to bed early and drink no alcohol (a.k.a. no parties). They live a life of dedication and sacrifice. As a consequence they aren’t able to invest in other aspects of their life. This won’t necessarily be a problem as long as they are able get a lot out of their primary life focus. However, problems will start arising when for whatever reason the primary life focus isn’t an option anymore. The retiring athlete falling into a void comes to mind.

What To Do About It?

Ideally, parents raise their children in a way that they feel appreciated and loved regardless of their behavior or performance. Of course, what’s done is done, you can’t change your upbringing. But that doesn’t mean you have to be stuck being a perfectionist forever. Just remember that change is a process.

Most important is learning unconditional self acceptance. You come to terms with the fact that you are just a human being, forever flawed and imperfect. Your perfectionism itself is a flaw! But that’s okay, everybody else is flawed too. And you start believing that you are worthy no matter what you do, think or feel. None of it matters. Whether you just won a championship or whether you are crying because your life is a mess, it makes no difference, it doesn’t make you better or worse as a person.

Alongside self acceptance one must learn to be autonomous. Stop doing things because you think it will win you approval from others, be it parents, friends, girls, boys or strangers. Alternatively, no matter how hard, try to disregard the disapproval or disappointment from those same people. Start thinking about what you want. What are the things that you want to do, either because you enjoy them or because they are important to you. This might mean stop playing football though you know it would kill you dad, and start fixing old race bikes. This isn’t easy, you have to work up the courage to break with expectations and at the same time you have to invest in finding what you like and think is important.

5 Tips to Ensure a Healthy Mind for the Perfectionist

1. It’s not personal. Learning to separate your craft from who you are is healthy. You are not what you do. Therefore receiving feedback about your dance should be done in an objective fashion with the premise always being that YOU are not what you do. Learning some basic meditation and breathing exercises for relaxation and letting go will be a great help.
2. Accept people for who they are instead of what you wish they were (this does not mean accepting disrespectful behavior) understanding that everyone is different and that often we have to adapt to those differences if we want a relationship with them
3. Accept that not everything will happen overnight and your way. Create goals that are congruent to your values and be sure to include realistic time-frames. Goals that are created in too short a time frame can create unnecessary anxiety and even burnout.
4. Pat yourself on the back and write down all the positive achievements in your life so far. To you they may not seem brilliant, but believe me, they are! Perfectionists are much more critical of themselves, so we need to remember to enjoy the ride.
5. Take up a hobby or recreational exercise that is for enjoyment purposes only.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Can Musicality be Acquired? Some Dance Pros Weigh In

There is an essential interconnectedness between music and dance. the poet Ezra Pound wrote, "Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance." It's easy to take music for granted, or to treat it merely as a means of keeping time. Music inspires, it motivates, and it actually helps you to dance better.

Being "on the music" means that you reach the correct position on the appropriate count. Being "late" or "behind the music" means that you're not getting where you must be on time. Musicality, however, is more than just being on the music. It's the ability to hear subtle qualities and structures within the music and then communicate them through your dancing. It’s how a dancer expresses music in his or her body. “Musicality is understanding music on a technical level, and then dropping all of that knowledge so you can sit deep inside the music,” says choreographer and “So You Think You Can Dance” regular Wade Robson. “It’s dancing inside the music, as opposed to floating on top of it.” Can this be learned? I would say yes.

Mastering Musicality

Put a musical dancer and a nonmusical dancer side by side and you’ll see why it’s so important to be attuned to the rhythm, melody and mood of a song. Dancers without a keen connection to the music might seem stiff or disconnected—often, they’re hard to watch, even though technically, they can be almost perfect because they’re unable to transmit the emotion of the music.

Musical dancers, on the other hand, might not have superior technique, but never disregard the music to fit in more tricks. “You can see the effort in a nonmusical dancer—they are often step-driven,” says NYC ballet teacher Deborah Wingert. “Musical dancers don’t just turn until they stop. They turn until they have to move on to the next point in the music. Musical dancers never get so caught up in steps that they ignore the music.”

It’s important to understand that musicality comes in many forms, and there is no right or wrong way to interpret a score. Some choreographers create entire dances before they choose the music, while others may start with a piece of music before they create a single step. As a dancer, you must be ready for any approach they use.

For example, Wingert remembers that when she danced for New York City Ballet, George Balanchine and resident choreographer Jerome Robbins had very different musical sensibilities. “Balanchine wanted us to be right on top of the music. We anticipated the music so when we were in the air, we hit the height of the note at the height of the jump,” she explains. “Jerome Robbins wanted his dancers to be under the music, a little more weighted, rather than right on the beat.”

To start working on your musicality, “do your barre work in a musically accurate way,” says Oregon Ballet Theatre principal Anne Mueller. “It starts from the moment you begin dancing. Don’t slide through the music in tendu combinations, for instance. Making sure that you’re clear in your execution will give you more options because you’ll be able to take advantage of the still space; musicality can be as much about when you’re not moving as when you are.”

Phrasing Philosophies

If you’ve ever discussed musicality with a teacher or other dancers, you’ve probably heard a lot about “phrasing.” But do you know what it is? Musical phrasing is the way music is organized within measures. Where are the syncopations? The cadences? The accents? Choreographic phrasing is similar—it’s how steps are organized within a musical phrase. Which steps hit on the beat, and which move through the rhythm? Should one step be performed quickly so another can be stretched out?

Sometimes choreographers will specify the way their steps should be phrased, but when it’s allowed, experimenting with phrasing can give you multiple ways to dance a piece. In fact, the better you know a score or song, the more you’ll be able to play with the dynamics and timing of the steps—instead of always dancing right on a square beat, which can make you look repetitive and boring. Find ways to put your own spin on a routine, like adding an extra step or turn - something that is uniquely your own. “A dancer must have an excellent sense of rhythm to hold the audience’s attention,” says Feijóo. “Without getting off the beat, find where you can balance longer or fit one more turn. This is how you translate the mood the music gives you into the steps.”

Listen to Music

Dancers who are trained to play instruments—like Robson and Feijóo, who both studied the piano—have a head start when it comes to developing musical sensitivity. But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed if you don’t know the difference between a treble clef and a bass clef. NYC choreographer Stephen Petronio, for instance, doesn’t read music and never learned to play an instrument, but he’s known for creating intensely musical work. Since he started making dance 25 years ago, Petronio has choreographed to composers like Stravinsky and collaborated with artists like Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed and, most recently, Nico Muhly. “I can know within the first 15 seconds of listening to a piece if I can move to it,” Petronio explains. “The hair stands up on my arms, and I have to dance.”

So how did he hone his musicality if he had no formal training? With a little bit of natural intuition and a whole lot of practice. Petronio spends hours listening to many genres of music. He even chooses to choreograph to music that challenges him. Follow his lead and seek out complex scores—don’t be intimidated. Thorny, syncopated music will force you to listen more carefully, exercising your brain’s musicality muscle.

Consider formally studying an instrument whose sound moves you. If that’s beyond your budget, attend concerts. Many cities offer free performances in public parks. Check out your town’s event calendar and tap into the local music scene. You should also take a look at your playlists. Do you gravitate toward one genre? To expand your horizons, try exploring other types of music, especially jazz and classical.

Learning to differentiate instruments will help you translate what you hear into movement, which will, in turn, give your dancing shade and texture. If you don’t know the difference between a clarinet and an oboe, start with musical works like Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, both of which break down each instrument in a symphony so you can learn to distinguish sounds. Another way to hone your ear is to listen to recordings of the same score with different conductors and identify the differences between them.

Robson swears by this exercise, which he picked up from his days dancing with Michael Jackson: Find a song you like and listen to it as you normally would. “Just take it in,” Robson says. Then play it again, but listen only to the drum. Block out every other sound and follow the drum through the entire piece. Does it change? Does it stay the same? Play the song a third time, focusing on another instrument, like the piano. Repeat this exercise until you’ve followed every instrument in the song.

“You might have to listen 20 times, depending on the complexity of the song,” Robson says. “The last time you listen, take in the whole song again. You’ll be able to hear both the instruments individually and the tune as a whole. And you’ll be able to freestyle and dance to rhythms you never heard before. It will change your life as a dancer.”


When you’re breaking down a piece of music, do you find yourself counting it out or just listening to the general flow of the song? Dancers often have strong feelings about counting, and they don’t always agree. Sometimes counting is necessary, especially in corps work or when working with complicated scores. But fixating on counts can make your dancing seem mechanical.

Some choreographers may not count at all. If you find yourself struggling not to count, look for other musical cues to help guide you. For example, does a turn finish at the height of a crescendo? Does the choreography follow the bass line instead of the melody?

The more comfortable you become with the music, the easier it will be not to count, so make it your goal to learn the music well enough to stop counting. “Some ballets you might need to count at first, but after you’re secure, you won’t need that anymore,” Feijóo says. “And that will give you freedom to interpret, because you aren’t just following the beat or the melody.”

Musical training and learning to read music can only help you as a dancer; at minimum, listen to music outside of class to improve your musicality. You can train yourself to identify rhythm by allowing your hand to beat gently along with the music. It will automatically accent the downbeat, enabling you to distinguish between a march, which is in 4/4 time, and a waltz, which is in 3/4 time. Take "Waltz of the Flowers" and listen for the "one two three one two three" rhythm. then try "Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights from Romeo and Juliet and listen for the heavy "one two one two one two" of its rhythm.

Musicality also helps solve problems. When a turn isn't working, or you're behind in a speedy combination, listen to the rhythm and accent of the music. You may turn better by changing your rhythm, or jump quicker by changing the accent. Music can give you the push you need to get through a long, tough combination.

Music educators know that movement is a great tool in teaching music theory. Dance educators and dancers can learn and expand their knowledge and musicality with just a bit of what these musicians put into practice in their classrooms. As Balanchine once said, "Dance is music made visible." He phrased it perfectly.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Battle Within: How Dance Helps Victims of War

By Abigail Rasminsky

In the spring of 2001, I sat in a room at the VA Hospital in New York City, surrounded by five war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

I was a member of Tamar Rogoff Performance Projects, and we were working on a dance-theater piece about the psychological effects of war. These men told us stories about dropping bombs over Vietnam and being held in POW camps during World War II.

I was terrified. What did I—a 23-year-old dancer—have in common with them, and how could I gain their trust?

The process wasn’t easy, and the veterans were occasionally resistant. But over nine months of get-togethers and interviews, I became very close with John McCarthy, the WWII veteran I was “paired” with. He told me about being blown out of a plane and being held over a cliff by an enemy soldier, stories he had told almost no one. And while the piece wasn’t meant to be therapeutic, it was healing for both the veterans and the dancers. John died a year later, and his nephew asked me to dance at his funeral. Never had I felt the transformational power of dance so strongly.

For decades, choreographers have been making work with—or about—victims of disease or war; and teachers and dance therapists have been using dance to help people heal from trauma, torture, and abuse. I spoke with three choreographers who have worked, respectively, with children living in post-war Bosnia and Rwanda; survivors of domestic abuse; and ex–child soldiers in Sierra Leone. While the three have very different approaches, they all agree on a few points: Know why you want to work with a specific population, what you have to offer, and why you think dance would be of service. Educate yourself before entering a community: What have these people been through and what are they facing now? It helps to be guided by social workers and/or an elder in the community. And lastly: Be flexible. That said, all three concur that this kind of work is tremendously challenging and rewarding.

Rebecca Davis became interested in teaching children in war-torn areas after choreographing a work about Darfur for her company, the Philadelphia-based Rebecca Davis Dance Company. “When I made Darfur, it was very fulfilling to see an issue that I cared about transform the dancers and audience,” she says. “But I wanted to understand on a deeper level how genocide can come about.”

In 2008, she traveled to Rwanda with Global Youth Connect, a human rights organization that held seminars for the volunteers before they worked with them.

Davis taught jazz dance to boys who lived in a child-headed household. (All of the childrens’ parents had been killed in the 1994 genocide.) Twenty boys, ages 10 to 17, were living under one roof. Despite the tragedy of the situation, Davis says, “What’s so shocking and powerful and optimistic is that you walk in and see these kids—some are Tutsi and some are Hutu—being forced to live together, because it’s their only chance. No one will take care of them.”

Davis admits that they were surprised to see a white woman put on jazz shoes and lead them in a warm-up (women do traditional dances in Rwanda but not contemporary styles) but says the boys loved it. “You put on music and everyone starts moving,” Davis explains. “It’s how they’re able to handle their aggression and channel their emotions. Dance is a part of their culture.”

A master’s student in international relations with a concentration in peacekeeping at the online American Public University System, Davis says she “gained an understanding of how important dance is in post-conflict countries. Working with these boys, I learned that dance is what they do: They go to school and then they dance.”

The trip inspired her to go to Brcko, Bosnia, last summer, where she developed a program for students 4 to 18. Fourteen years after the war, ethnic tensions are still high, and Serbs, Croats and Muslims rarely interact beyond what is required. But Davis found that the two best dancers in her teens class were a Serb and a Muslim. The girls had to dance together so much that they became friends. At the end of the workshop, the Serbian girl asked the Muslim girl to celebrate Christmas with her family.

Gina Gibney and her company, Gibney Dance, have been providing movement workshops to survivors of domestic violence in shelters for over 10 years. But Gibney was very clear from the get-go that they were not doing movement therapy. “My interest has been to take what dancers are naturally good at,” she explains, “and apply it in a broader more inclusive context.”

Gibney developed a program in conjunction with Sanctuary for Families, which assists survivors of domestic abuse and their children. “We identify the women’s needs and issues,” Gibney says, “and figure out how those dovetail with the skills that are intuitive to dancers.” The company members go through a rigorous training program, learning everything from what these women have faced to what life is like in a shelter.
Once trained, each company member travels alone to undisclosed locations around New York City. Most of the time the dancer works with a support group that has a trained mental health professional on-hand to address anything serious that comes up.

“The class gives the women tools to open and inhabit their bodies and to overcome resistance they have from being physically traumatized,” Gibney says. It starts with a gentle warm-up, which helps the women uncover where they are tense. “It gives them a chance to think about their own lives—where they’ve been and where they want their feet to take them.” It also gives the women a sense of self-worth: “These women have been told the worst possible things about themselves,” Gibney reports, “so to hear a room full of women shout what is great about them is an unbelievable experience.”

For most of the 15 years that David Alan Harris was dancing and choreographing in New York City, he also worked as a writer for Human Rights Watch, a national group dedicated to protecting human rights. “I remember sitting at my desk one day, and having the idea to become a dance movement therapist to work with torture survivors,” Harris says. He imagined that dance could be healing to survivors because they often undergo a mind/body “split.” When a torturer inflicts bodily pain in order to gain access to the victim’s mind—and thus gain control over him—the pain is often so unbearable that the victim will divorce himself from his body (what clinicians call “dissociating”). “The task of healing for torture survivors is reintegration,” he explains. “I intuited from years of focusing on my own body and working improvisationally, that reintegration would mean working at the body level as well as the psychic level.”

While pursuing his degree in creative arts therapy at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, he worked with a group of resettled “lost boys” from Sudan. He asked them to teach him their traditional dances. “I put them in the role of expert and me in the role of recipient,” he explains. “It helps to undo the stigma.”

Four years later, he traveled to Sierra Leone and worked with ex–child soldiers. “These teenage boys had lived in a unit under a commando where if they did the wrong thing, they’d be shot,” Harris says.

Harris began the session in a circle, with Sierra Leonean hip hop playing on a little battery-operated stereo. He asked the boys to follow his movements. As the warm-up progressed, leadership would change hands organically, encouraging the boys to stay attuned to the group and trust each other, which is particularly difficult for ex–child soldiers.

“In the first session, we found ourselves on our stomachs looking around,” Harris recalls. “I said, ‘What are we doing?’ Somebody replied, ‘We’re hiding from our enemies.’ This is five years after the war! These kids are orphans—they’ve been shunned and they live on streets. But they found a way to symbolically reenact the central conflicts of their existence. I believe that in doing so, they find a way to tolerate their memories.”

Harris worked with the boys for several months. Although the emphasis was on process (and healing), the boys decided they wanted to perform for the commu­nity. Most of the village watched the boys reenact the roles they had played in the war; they even depicted a scene in which a boy is ordered to shoot a gun into the corpse of his father and sister. “One boy who had been forced to kill his parents went to the village elder and asked to be welcomed back into the community,” Harris says. “At the end of the perfor­mance, the elders stood one after the other and welcomed the boys back. People who had feared these guys said they weren’t afraid anymore. It was the most amazing thing that’s ever happened in my life.”

Harris feels that this work required everything of him—in the same way that dancing once did. “It involves the integration of mind and body, passion, spirituality. It’s holistic. It gives me a sense of hope, of creatively building a new future.”

Abigail Rasminsky is an MFA student in writing at Columbia University.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

When the Shoe Doesn't Fit - Dancing Barefoot


 At Right - Members of the Isadora Duncan Dance Company perform barefooted.

When you’re sporting a pair of jazz shoes or ballet slippers, you can throw off strings of chaînés and multiple turns without a problem. But when you shed your footwear for modern class, everything changes. Your feet get sweaty and stick to the floor, making your movements jerky and uncomfortable. And those triples you can pull off in ballet shoes? Not the same.

Learning to dance barefoot like a pro takes time and patience. But for aspiring modern and contemporary dancers, the ability to move seamlessly without shoes is essential. And even ballerinas and commercial dancers can benefit from having this skill up their sleeves; you never know when a choreographer will ask you to shed your shoes.

Feeling the Floor, Then and Now

The history of barefoot dancing in the U.S. begins with Isadora Duncan, who shocked early-20th-century audiences by refusing to wear shoes when she performed. Duncan’s bare feet were a rebellious act, representing her desire to push dance beyond the rigid confines of classical ballet.

But there’s another side to this story, too. Some modern dance innovators, including Martha Graham, actually adopted the practice of dancing barefoot for practical reasons: Without shoes, Graham’s dancers could maintain better balance and stability. Emily D’Angelo, a current member of Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Dance Company, enjoys working barefoot for the same reasons. “When you’re barefoot, you have a larger area of contact with the floor, which makes balancing easier,” she says. “Your feet can widen into the floor and use their natural moisture to make a connection.” Next time you’re feeling frustrated in modern class, remember this: While your pirouettes may be suffering, your balance has probably never been better.

Making the Transition

While D’Angelo grew up dancing barefoot, most dancers don’t begin to do so until later in their training. Taylor 2 dancer Madelyn Ho had never danced shoeless until her first college modern class. “It was so weird not having anything on my feet,” she remembers. To get used to dancing barefoot, Ho recommends dancers take the time to break down challenging steps, like turns and slides, moment by moment. Practicing movements slowly can help you figure out the places where your bare feet will stick or slip naturally. Instead of trying to work against the traction your feet feel on the floor, learn how you can work with it. “Once I learned to stay grounded while turning,” says Ho, “pirouettes without shoes came more naturally.”

Toughening Up

When you’re just beginning to dance barefoot, it doesn’t only feel strange—it’s often painful, too. Blisters, floor burns and split skin are no fun. But don’t worry: You’ll begin to build protective calluses on the toes and balls of your feet quickly. According to Dr. Donald J. Rose, director of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, you can accelerate the process by soaking your feet in black tea, which helps prevent skin damage. “The tannic acid in black tea helps harden the skin,” he says.

If you do experience a particularly bad split or blister, proper care is important. (Studio floors are dirty.) “Clean raw and open wounds to keep them from getting infected,” Rose advises. “Cover them while you dance with elastic athletic tape, but make sure to remove it at night to allow the wounds to heal.” Your calluses need a little TLC, too. “Thick calluses are likely to split or tear from underlying skin layers,” Rose warns. “Use a pumice stone to gently exfoliate calluses if they grow too dense.”

Practice Makes Perfect

As with most elements of dance, regular practice is the only tried-and-true way to get comfortable dancing shoeless. Don’t be tempted to “save your feet” by rehearsing a barefoot piece in socks or shoes—even if your choreographer allows it. You’ll only set yourself up for more challenges when it’s finally time to perform. Instead, advises Ho, relax and enjoy the experience. “I actually feel better when I’m barefoot,” she says. “It makes my dancing so much freer.”

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Tell Me Your Story: Expressing Your True Self Through Choreography

Ever wonder what kind of choreography makes a competition judge sit up and take notice? Just when you think you've seen it all,  a dance hits the stage that is truly innovative, fresh, and engaging.  How do you achieve this?

Peel Back the Layers

The following are some examples of unique, wonderful dances with a common thread: Each dance tells a story in an original, exciting way. 

My grandmother enjoyed taking familiar sentiments and twisting them for the sake of irony. She would often say things like, “A picture can tell a story, but reality is another matter entirely.” I never thought a grandmother’s casual words could provide the engine for a dance piece until I saw Behind the Scenes by Tina Finkelman of JAM Dance and Fitness in Bellmore, NY. 

This modern piece featured dancers representing a family, plus a large, empty picture frame. The idea was simple: When the characters posed within the frame, they appeared to be a happy family. But outside of the confines of the frame, their relationships fell into turmoil.

I am still struck by the astonishing impact of the central idea. The dance illuminated how relations between family members can be complicated and emotionally charged. Showing the happy poses first and then revealing the “hidden” drama outside the frame made the audience feel like we were invading this family’s privacy and eavesdropping as it fell apart at the seams. What family ever wants to reveal those private dramas? We want the outside world to think we’re perfect and happy. And aren’t all families that way? It was impossible not to identify with the piece.
Behind the Scenes wasn’t just a great example of powerful storytelling, it also featured an innovative use of a prop—the picture frame. The dancers held it, passed it around, moved through it, hung from it, stood on it, and even used it to lift each other. The frame itself became an additional character in the dance.

Behind the Scenes illuminated a familiar facet of human nature: We too often put a happy face on things, when the real story is the opposite.

Make ’Em Laugh

Most performers, directors, choreographers and writers agree that there’s nothing harder to do well than comedy. . Comedy in dance takes a particular brand of genius to pull off. I guess that’s why they call it the “gift” of humor.
I saw a  hilarious piece called She’s Talkin’ Again by Diane Gudat for The Dance Company, Inc. in Indianapolis. In this story dance, we follow a couple on a date. Things start out well, but the man soon makes a horrifying discovery about the woman he’s with: She talks nonstop. Trapped, he desperately (and hilariously) searches for ways to escape.

The piece takes us on an epic journey to a restaurant, a baseball game, the movies, a picnic, a bike ride (where he deliberately crashes his bike), a rowboat (which he dives out of, hoping to drown himself), various car rides, and home again, where he finally sneaks away—while she’s still talking. It’s the world’s longest date, torture for him but comic bliss for the audience.

In the recorded song, a female voice blathers on at a frantic pace for 3 minutes straight. This inspired the choreographer to make a risky choice: She instructed her female dancer to lip-synch every word in the recording. Normally I frown on lip-synching in dances; I find it confusing because I can’t comprehend why the voice of, say, Barbra Streisand is coming out of a 14-year-old’s mouth. But in this case, the choice was the right one. It was so relentlessly fast and constant that the lip-synching became another source of humor and suspense.

The dancing in this piece was atypical for competition dances—no pirouettes, grand jetés, or battements anywhere. Yet this was certainly a dance, full of detailed and specific character movement that, though difficult, looked deceptively simple. And it was presented with the sparest of elements: two stools, two terrific young actor-dancers, and the audience’s imagination. She’s Talkin’ Again was a great reminder that competition dances do not have to be loaded with rhinestones and fouettés to be entertaining.

Take a Novel Approach

It takes ambition, ingenuity, and chutzpah to turn a great literary work into a 10-minute dance. You can’t put the whole novel on a competition stage, so which parts of the story do you feature? Do you eliminate characters? Which ones? And how on earth do you turn an author’s words into a dance in the first place? 

One of the most successful examples of a literary adaptation I’ve seen in dance competition was a modern production number called Animal Farm. It was based on the novel of the same name by George Orwell, and choreographed and designed by Michael Perkins of the Amber Perkins School of the Arts in Norwich, NY.

It was a lavish production, with a stage full of beautiful scenery and clever costuming. Most important, the choreography and character work captured the tone, themes, and spirit of Orwell’s famous novel. It can’t be easy to adapt, in dance form, literature’s most famous satirical allegory of Soviet totalitarianism. But there it was, live onstage, and it worked.
The piece was impeccably researched. Each dancer developed his or her character in great detail, and the story was streamlined in a way that made the short dance feel like the full novel. The dance utilized the unique artistic vocabulary of the choreographer/designer. He trusted his instincts and his performers’ inspiration to tell this famous story in his own language. I bet George Orwell would have found the adaptation fascinating. I certainly did.

Simplify and Electrify

There’s no denying that a stage full of scenery, a huge cast of dancers, and a dramatic story are a treat for any audience. Animal Farm worked wonderfully as a full-scale production number. But there are other ways to adapt a classic novel into a dance.

The Scarlet Letter by Michele Cuccaro of JAM Dance and Fitness took Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great work and gave it the minimalist treatment. No town square, no prison, no church. Nothing but a small group of dancers in simple black costumes on an empty stage, and one small, red appliqué in the shape of the letter A.

How did they take a big book and make it a small dance without sacrificing the power of the original story? They distilled Hawthorne’s work down to its most fundamental plot point (a community ostracizes one of its own), and built the choreography around that core action. They kept only a handful of the central characters and developed movement evocative of their relationships, then stripped away everything else. Basically, they kept it basic.
What they eliminated in scale and stuff they more than made up for in passionate, character-based performances. At every moment the story was clear, concise, and dramatic. The dance built to a crescendo that felt as dramatic and thrilling as the novel’s.

The Scarlet Letter was a terrific reminder that sometimes less truly is more. You don’t need big production values to tell a big story—you just need an idea that can act as an engine for your story. How you tell it is up to you.

Got Issues?

As dancemakers, we work hard to come up with original ideas. It’s ironic that we take such pains to search in obscure places for the next unique concept when the best inspiration is often right in front of our noses. Perhaps we take for granted the issues that confront families daily. But we shouldn’t, because they might inspire the next truly original dance. Such was the case with Missing,by Lisa Pilato for Lisa Pilato Dance Center in Dracut, MA.

The piece took on the subject of kidnapping, which might seem like dangerous territory in the context of a youth dance competition. Yet this dance was a fine example of how to treat an emotionally charged issue with respect and good taste.

It was a large-scale, contemporary production piece with clearly defined characters and a theatrical approach. The dance was intense but not scary, educational but not patronizing or dumbed down. It was set to a clever blend of existing music and original voice-overs written and recorded by the choreographer and her team.

The piece featured a brilliantly versatile piece of scenery—a two-story, three-dimensional house with a working door, windows, and pitched roof. As the drama escalated, the house rotated and transformed into a massive replica of that familiar icon we’ve come to associate with missing children: a large milk carton with a picture of the child on it. It was one of the most stunning moments I’ve ever seen in a dance competition.

In a stroke of theatrical inspiration, the choreographer took advantage of the unique opportunity only live performance offers: At a key point in the piece, dancers approached the judges and handed us flyers with information about the missing girl. They looked exactly like the flyers you see attached to telephone poles. That bold, breathtaking moment has stayed with me ever since I saw the piece, years ago.

Missing was an original and creative dance production. But most important, it reminded parents of how vital it is to talk to their kids about an issue that confronts them daily. Missing engaged us—it made us think and act. What could be better?

Inspiration in Unlikely Sources

One of the most thrilling competition dances I’ve ever seen happened to be set to one of the most thrilling speeches ever given by an actor in a movie. The dance was called Inches, choreographed by Vlad for Vlad’s Dance Company in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada, and performed by four male dancers representing a team of football players. The “music” was a recording of the famous motivational speech given by Al Pacino as the football coach in the movie Any Given Sunday.

Audiences crave stories.The sound clip from Inches yanked the audience smack into the middle of a football stadium at the most crucial do-or-die moment of the biggest game of the players’ lives.

By choosing that emotionally charged monologue, the choreographer gave himself an instant story and an opportunity for a dance drama to unfold. But music isn’t enough and great drama doesn’t happen on its own. The dancer/players used the sound as inspiration and built on it by performing stunning football-inspired movements and moments—running plays, tackling, huddles, and one astonishing moment when they ran a pattern right off the front of the stage and back on again.

The dance celebrated a uniquely male spirit. It’s pretty rare when every dad and brother in the audience is talking about how great a dance is, with a little tear in his eye. For me, Inches wins the award as the Most Awesome Male Bonding Experience Ever to Appear at a Dance Competition. Booyah!

Trust Yourself

I had a teacher who stated  "“I don’t care about these dance steps. They can easily be replaced with other steps. It’s the ideas that are important.”  Today, I always think about her wise words as I look at dances and look for inspiration to create my own. These days many competition dances are replete with look-alike steps—but they’re slim on ideas. So many dances resemble so many others that it is difficult to tell them apart. Judges often sit there wondering, “What do you think we want to see?” Here’s the answer: You.  Judges and audiences want to see you. Trust yourself, do your own thing, and tell your story.

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