When Visions of Sugarplums are Taken Away: Teaching Dancers to Deal with Disappointment

            “The getting back up is so much more important than the getting knocked down.” – David Dorfman on A Chance to Dance

            The school year has started, dance classes are now in full swing, and dance schools have begun to hold auditions for annual Nutcracker productions.  Students crowd into studios vying for coveted roles, knowing that there are many more parts for corps dancers than there are for soloists.  The auditions end, and the dancers go home and wait to find out which role or roles they will be dancing in this year’s production.

            Some students will be lucky and be given the roles they have pined for while others will be disappointed, and in some cases devastated, to learn that they will be dancing a corps part or a part they may have danced previously.
            Dance teaches much more than simply technique.  Dance teaches lessons of discipline, dedication, and responsibility, and dance teaches that sometimes life is not fair.  It is difficult for students to imagine that sometimes roles are not cast on the basis of talent or skill level.  Casting is quite often determined by available costumes, the number of students auditioning, dancers’ heights, and the amount of time necessary for costume changes.  Selecting a cast for large productions is often more a matter of logistics than skill levels.

            When the cast list is posted, there are going to be students who are disappointed.  Disappointment exists in dance and in life.  As the students get older, there will be bigger disappointments in their lives.  They will apply for scholarships that they do not receive, they will apply to colleges that do not accept them, they will have friends that prove to be disloyal, and there will be interviews or auditions for jobs they do not get.

            American psychoanalyst, teacher, and scholar, Heinz Kohut, believed that disappointment promotes growth because it motivates people to work harder and fight back.  Those who always receive what they want and hope for will be satisfied with the status quo and may not push themselves to improve, while those who are disappointed tend to push themselves harder, reach beyond previous boundaries, and grow as people.

            As logical and promising as that theory sounds, disappointment is still a very difficult part of life for both dance students and their parents.  A parent’s first reaction is to protect his or her child and try to speak with the director in an effort to “fix” the problem.  Intervening will not help build the child’s coping skills and will make the child believe that every disappointment can be fixed.
            It is important for the student and his or her parents to acknowledge the disappointment and talk about it.  There will undoubtedly be feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration, which are all understandable.  Experiencing these feelings and working through them will help the students learn to cope with disappointments and setbacks in the future and make them stronger individuals.  After dealing with the initial feelings of disappointment, it is also important that the parent help the child focus upon his or her strengths and refocus the child’s energy on working toward future goals in dance.

            Not being cast in a coveted role is hard to accept, it is upsetting and frustrating, and it hurts.  However, standing back up, continuing to take pride in one’s dancing and working harder than before is how dancers grow and prepare themselves to be productive, mature adults who will persevere in spite of life’s obstacles.

A Chance to Dance Offers A Chance to Learn

"Enjoying success requires the ability to adapt.  Only by being open to change will you have a true opportunity to get the most from your talent.” – Nolan Ryan

            Television shows featuring dance and dancers are rapidly gaining popularity during prime time viewing slots.  DancingWith the Stars pairs professional dancers with celebrities in a competition, So You Think You Can Dance pits dancers of various styles and skill levels against each other, Breaking Pointe followed seven company members of Ballet West for six weeks, and A Chance To Dance invites viewers into the audition process.

            All of these shows have engaged a large part of the general viewing audience who might now have a better appreciation for the work dancers do.  The questions that remain unanswered are whether dancers are as eager to watch these shows and if there is anything they can learn from watching them.

            The episode of A Chance to Dance that aired on September 14, showcased the skill levels that each dancer brought to the audition and provided an important lesson for today’s dancers and dance educators.

            The show centers on dancers who have been recruited by Michael Nunn and Billy Trevitt, who have been asked to form a company for Nigel Lythgoe.  This group of twenty-four recruits must be whittled down to a dozen dancers, who will be given “a chance to dance” in the company.  In this episode, Allison Holker from So You Think You Can Dance and David Dorfman, artistic director of David Dorfman Dance, have been asked to work with and continue to audition the dancers.

            The dancers all have various levels of training and technical backgrounds.  Kaitlin describes herself as a “classical dancer”, Shepherd has specialized in hip-hop, and Patrick and Bayli are described as technical dancers.

            Allison’s and David’s approaches are different for many of the dancers.  The dancers are asked to take part in improvisation, to let their bodies dictate how to transition between phrases, to show emotion through their dancing, and to choreograph.  Laura’s statement, “I’ve never had a teacher or a class like that before where you’re just like so free with your body,” after David’s class, gives the audience a clear picture of her background and training.  She is not alone in feeling this way, and many of the dancers struggle with being too technical and feeling uncomfortable emoting through movement and choreographing, or with being too specialized and unable to adapt to different styles of dance.

            A Chance To Dance creates a picture of the demands placed upon today’s dancers and underscores the need for all dancers to study, or at the very least be exposed to, other styles and techniques of dance.  The classically trained dancers lacked the ability to move freely and seemed emotionally detached from their dancing while dancers like Shepherd, whose specialty was hip-hop, needed to be “more rounded”.  Fewer and fewer companies seem to be looking for specialized dancers.  Today modern choreographers like Twyla Tharp and Jessica Lang are being brought in to choreograph for ballet companies, urging dancers to take ballet off-balance and to listen to the music differently.  Even ballet choreographers have begun to infuse their dances with some contemporary elements.

            Dancers who wish to specialize in one technique need to be proficient in others to satisfy the demand of today’s directors and choreographers.  Dance students, regardless of what technique they are studying, need the opportunity to choreograph phrases and learn different choreographic techniques that can be used.  These same dancers also need to be taught how to perform and use dance as a vehicle to relate to their audiences.  The most famous dancers of the past are those whose dancing was technically sound and whose ability to emote through dance was well developed.

            Lastly, today’s dancers need to have anatomical knowledge in order to adapt to the various demands of different dance forms.  Adapting requires strong dancers, healthy dancers and dancers that are comfortable in their own bodies.  One of David Dorfman’s critiques of Chase was that he did not have “the knowledge in the joints”.  By encouraging cross training in dancers, educators help decrease muscular imbalances that are common in specialized dancers, create stronger dancers, and give their students an educated awareness of their bodies.  This awareness is necessary in today’s demanding dance world.

            Unless dance educators encourage exposure to other techniques, provide opportunities for creativity and using movement to communicate, and encourage cross-training to meet today’s rigorous demands, very few dancers will be able to work effectively with today’s artistic directors and choreographers.

            A Chance To Dance illustrates these points to both the general public and to dancers, providing both a realistic view of the dance world and an educational experience for all of those lucky enough to watch.


Dance Studio Etiquette - Part 2

“Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot.” – Clarence Thomas

            Last week’s post focused upon the etiquette that should be followed before class begins.  This week’s post will focus upon expected behavior during the actual dance class.

            The learning that occurs in dance class is largely based upon observation.  It is important to pay attention to and carefully observe each detail as a teacher demonstrates combinations and ask as few questions as possible.  Dance is mainly visual, and students need to train themselves to carefully watch and internalize combinations.

            It is for this reason that dancers must remain focused in class.  Talking during class disturbs the necessary focus, and since someone is always dancing in class, talking is considered to be rude.  Those who are not dancing are expected to act as audience members and watch their peers.  A large part of learning in class can, and should, occur while watching others dance and observing their successes and any difficulties they may be having with the combinations. 

            Respect for others is paramount in class, and it is illustrated by where the dancer stands in class and how he or she moves through the space.  When standing at a barre that accommodates dancers on both sides, dancers should place their hands pinky to pinky with those on the opposite side of the barre.  This formation allows dancers on either side of the barre to freely move their arms forward during exercises that require weight transfers without hitting each other.

            When standing in the center, dancers who are in front during a combination should rotate to the back of the room when the combination is repeated, offering those who were in the back a chance to move to the front of the studio.

            When performing combinations that travel across the floor, dancers need to be ready to begin when it is their turn.  It is not acceptable to stand at the front of the line but not begin.  This behavior is unfair to the other dancers who are waiting and forces them to either continue to wait or jump in at the last minute.  If a dancer is unsure of a combination, it is best to move to the end of the line and watch other dancers go first.  It is also often helpful to dance in a group with someone else who knows the combination well.  If a dancer makes a mistake or gets confused when going across the floor, he or she must never stop in the middle of the floor.  Other groups will have started moving across the floor and a collision will likely occur.  The confused dancer should simply keep moving across the space, trying to jump back into the phrase.  The same should occur if a dancer falls.  As long as he or she is not injured, the dancer should stand back up and rejoin the dancers.

            When entering the floor before a combination or exiting after a combination is completed, dancers should move quickly so no time is wasted.  Dancers should never turn and walk backwards through other dancers who are moving but should instead exit the floor by moving forwards and to either side of the space.  Dancers should also make every effort not to cross in front of the teacher while he or she is watching another dancer.

            It is never permissible for a dancer to sit during class.  Sitting implies that a dancer is too tired to be in class and also relaxes the muscles and body in a way that signals the brain that movement is coming to an end.

            Dance class often involves some waiting while the teacher demonstrates a combination, discusses a correction or other groups are dancing.  Those who are not dancing should never treat these times as an opportunity to relax.  Just as a dancer who is posed on stage must keep performing, a dancer in class must keep working.  When a teacher is demonstrating, the students should be “marking” the combination along with her or him.  Although while marking the phrase legs do not have to be held at full height and jumps and turns do not have to be fully executed, arm and head movements should be performed completely.  When dancers are waiting for another group to do a combination, they should be watching and learning from the other dancers and working on parts of the combination that they are finding difficult.

            When it is the dancer’s turn to perform a combination, he or she must always put forth his or her best effort and dance full out.  The worst thing that a dancer could do is to hold back while dancing in class.  Class for a dancer is equivalent to a practice for an athlete.  It is in class that new skills are learned, practiced and mastered, but that cannot happen if a dancer approaches combinations hesitantly or tentatively.  Dancers make mistakes and fall all of the time and that is the purpose of class.  Working in the studio allows the dancers to perfect their skills for the stage.

            When a mistake is made, it gives the teacher the opportunity to give a correction and help the dancer grow.  Corrections are compliments as was discussed in my post, Correction: Compliment or Insult?  When a dancer is corrected, he or she should thank the teacher and try the exercise again immediately while implementing the correction.  This action helps the teacher be certain the student understands the correction and gives the student the opportunity to internalize it.

            At the end of every class, the students should applaud and either curtsey or bow to the teacher and the accompanist if there is one.  Dance etiquette also requires that each student walk up to the teacher individually to verbally thank him or her when the class is finished.

            Etiquette is a large and necessary part of any dance class.  It shows respect for the art form, the teacher and the other dancers and is part of the discipline required to keep dancers safe when they are all moving together in the same space.

Dance Studio Etiquette - Part 1

“Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot.” – Clarence Thomas

            As the dance year begins, teachers will welcome students while poised and ready to teach technique.  Dance technique can only be learned in a disciplined classroom, and in order to maintain that discipline, dancers everywhere need to follow proper dance etiquette.

            Etiquets, or signs, were used in France in the 1700’s to remind aristocrats not to walk through King Louis XIV’s gardens by forcing them to stay within the boundaries of the étiquets.  In the years following, etiquettes, or tickets, were used to invite people to social functions in the court and remind them where to stand and how to behave.

            Dance classes have similar rules regarding how to behave and where to stand in the studio and are passed down, sometimes silently.  Dance educators need to remember that teaching dance etiquette to students is as important as teaching technique, since it helps maintain order in the studio and helps ensure dancers’ safety when many bodies are moving at once in the same space.

            Dancers are expected to arrive early for class and begin to warm up on their own through cardiovascular movements.  Students that arrive after class has begun should stand in the doorway until the combination is completed and wait for a signal from the teacher acknowledging the right to enter the studio.  The student should then inconspicuously move to a spot in the room or at the barre to blend in with the class.  A student arriving late to class should never walk to the front of the room or barre and force others who were on time for class to move.  Students arriving more than ten minutes late to class will have missed a portion of the warm-up and will be at risk for injury if allowed to take class.  These students should not expect to dance but should understand they must watch class.  When watching, they should do so silently and remain focused throughout the class.  Much can be learned from observing a dance class, and it can be a valuable experience if treated as one.

            Students should arrive prepared to dance.  They should be in the required attire with hair pulled back and without jewelry.  The importance of following a dress code was discussed in last week’s post, Is A Dress Code ReallyNecessary?.  Dance clothes should be clean and washed after every class, and dancers should be certain to use deodorant.  Dancers stand very close to each other and sweat a great deal when dancing.  Proper hygiene makes class a pleasant experience for everyone.  Jewelry should not be worn to class because it can be a hazard to both the dancer and his or her classmates.  As an arm accidentally collides with someone’s face, a watch can cause a great deal of pain, and a leotard strap or a finger that catches in an earring can tear an earlobe.

            Dancers should leave cellphones in their bags in the dressing area and be sure to silence them while in class so no one will be disturbed.

            Dancers should be certain to use the bathroom before class and make an effort not to leave class to use the restroom.  If absolutely necessary, the student should wait until the break between the warm-up and center floor work to ask permission to use the bathroom.

            Dancers need to be mindful about how they enter the dance studio and do so in a proud and respectful manner.  Running into the space, wrestling with another student, or schlepping into the studio implies a lack of respect for the space, the other dancers, and the teacher and suggests that the dancer does not want to be in class.  Many schools that conduct auditions say that they know immediately whom they will consider or choose based upon how the dancers enter the space.

            It is important that the dancers stand as the teacher enters the room and move to the place in the room where they will begin class.  If class normally begins at the barre, dancers should be sure to stand near the barre but never hang on it, since that implies that one is too tired to be in class.

            If a dancer has, or is recovering from, an injury, he or she should speak with the teacher before class begins.  The teacher must be aware of any injuries to ensure that more harm is not done and to understand why a student may be modifying certain exercises.  Additionally, if a student must leave class early, he or she must request the teacher’s permission to do so before class begins.  It is never acceptable for a student to interrupt class to tell a teacher that he or she is leaving or to make a big deal of it.  When the time comes for the student to leave, he or she should simply catch the teacher’s eye and quickly curtsey or bow before quietly exiting the space.

            All of these rules of etiquette can be observed in a dance studio even before class begins.  Next week’s post will focus on the rules of dance etiquette that should be followed during the actual class.