"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.