7 Things That Take No Talent in Dance That Can Make (or Break) Your Career

Dancer: Maggie Carey
Photo by: Geek With a Lens

So I have seen this list going around the internet for the past few years and I thought how, with few tweaks, it would be perfect for dance, or life in general for that matter.   We have a saying in dance that goes, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’ Talent counts for a lot, but it’s not everything.

1. Being prompt and prepared. You should arrive at least 15 minutes early for class or rehearsal.  Being on time is essential and that’s not just what time you arrive at the studio.  That’s getting in the classroom before you’ve been called, getting out the barres, warming yourself up and calming your mind so it can focus on what it’s about to do.  It’s about making sure you have what you need in your dance bag including shoes, snacks, water, band aids, etc. It’s being in dress code and/or having all parts of your costume.  It’s looking neat and professional from head to foot.  It’s leaving the outside world at the door and bringing all of yourself into class, rehearsal and performance every day.

2. Work Ethic. Students need to put forth 100% effort into everything they do: retaining corrections, learning combinations and executing them full out. Be willing to push yourself beyond what is comfortable and strive for greatness.  A few years ago I had students tell me, ‘Well you know Meghan; she’s just good.’  I answered, ‘She’s not just good.  When I gave her a correction about her pirouette, she went to the back and did it over and over again.  It must have been about 50 times.  Can you remember the last time you did a correction 50 times?  Do you think maybe that’s why she’s good?’ You cannot expect results if you aren’t willing to put in the work it takes to achieve them.

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Prepare Your Child for the Path, Not the Path for Your Child

Claire Bergman

Dancer: Claire Bergman
Photo by: Geek With a Lens

As most of you know, I LOVE quotes.  I came across this wonderful one on Facebook that I thought was most appropriate and poignant:

Your child’s success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are.  But, having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient and tries their best is a direct reflection of your parenting.

Change out sports for dance and I’ve got a new mantra.  In fact, many people have been posting similar things all over the internet of late.  One of my favorite being: http://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/parenting-roles/why-kids-need-mean-moms

I do not have children of my own, but I spend all day every day with children and I believe that this affords me certain knowledge, but also certain objectivity. I can’t help but think, after seeing the results as a teacher that some parents undermine and, in some ways, completely disregard certain lessons and it’s affecting the way their children are in the classroom and in the world at large.

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Grades in Dance

Abby Leithart

Dancer: Abby Leithart
Photo by: Geek With a Lens

A student just tagged me in an article from dance magazine and I just read through it and found it very much worth the reading.  http://dancemagazine.com/inside-dm/magazine/why-grade-dance/  My student asked for my opinion about what I read.  It is funny for this article to come out at this time considering I’m in the process of reviewing and altering my syllabi for my college performance classes for the new year and am thinking about very similar things.

I like to think of a syllabus as a contract between my dancers and myself as the instructor.  I try to be very clear about my expectations as well as how I’m going to figure out their final grade.  Attendance is a huge part of it as is following the dress code, the etiquette, the artistry, concentration, interest in learning, having a good attitude and completion of the papers and tests.  What do I really look to on determining final grades though?  One answer and that’s improvement.

I really analyze the dancers during their first classes of a semester.  Where are they technically and artistically?  At the end of the semester, I look for progress.  Has the dancer fixed the corrections that I have given her?  Is his alignment better?  What about her muscle control?  Are her in-between steps cleaner?  Is he picking up combinations more quickly and accurately?  Does she have more stamina? Is he continuing to push himself and ask more and more of his body?

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Dancing with Joy and Inspiration

Dancer: Maggie Carey Photo by: Geek With a Lens

Dancer: Maggie Carey
Photo by: Geek With a Lens

I don’t know about everyone else, but lately it seems like I have been surrounded by negativity.  It’s coming from everywhere: parents, colleagues, students, and the world in general. One day a younger colleague and I were discussing this latest disturbing trend that seemed to be making its way into our classrooms at an alarming rate.  When I asked her where she felt it was coming from, her answer was social media.  She laughed and told me,

‘I guess before Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter, we knew we had opinions, but we were certain no one cared about what they were.  Now, everyone has all these outlets and it makes them feel overly self-important, entitled and that everyone wants to know what they are thinking and feeling when really the opposite is true.  Negativity is like a cancer; it’s contagious and it grows and it steals their joy as well as those around them. I was very negative when I was a teenager and one day I woke up and realized, I was miserable and I was the one making myself that way.  I made a decision to change and I wish my students could learn from my experience.’

Pretty astute observation from such an inspiring young colleague.

Her answer really gave me a wakeup call that was long overdue.  It’s funny, but I guess I have gotten too used to this glass half empty mentality to the point where I have become anesthetized to it.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t let grumpy students have their way, quite the opposite, but I realized I had given up on trying to change their attitudes and just told myself this was now the new norm.  In this way, I’m failing my students. It doesn’t have to be this way and it shouldn’t be this way.  Something has to change and it starts with me. As a teacher, it’s my job to help them to break this cycle and focus on the positives and it starts now.  I’m turning over a new leaf and here are some of my thoughts of what I’m going to do to accomplish it.

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Understanding Understudying

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Dancer : Amy Holihan
Photo by : Geek With a Lens

I remember the thrill of being asked to understudy Snowflakes in The Nutcracker at the age of twelve in the small, pre-professional company in which I grew up.   I also remember the terror of realizing that one doesn’t have to just know the steps, but the floor patterns as well.  The first time I went in, I almost took out three older dancers because I wasn’t sure of the paths to take.  Lesson learned.   I was also asked at thirteen to understudy the lead in one of our major ballets because the choreographer wanted a ‘little girl’ that the guest male dancer could practice lifts with easily.  I was on cloud nine being able to understudy such a role and under a dancer I really admired.  Three years later when we danced the ballet again, I got the opportunity to perform that lead role.  I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt when I remembered how technically difficult it had been for me just three years earlier and now how much fun I could have with developing the character instead of just worrying about the steps. It showed me how far I had come, not only in my technique, but as an artist.

As I got older, the definition and role of understudy didn’t change, but the connotation did.  Being told that I was an understudy as I aged suddenly stopped meaning, ‘I believe in you and so I’m going to give you this opportunity,’ but rather, ‘you’re good, but still not good enough.’  I remember the frustration that came with this change.  I know my teachers felt this and tried to bolster us with stories of how understudying is really just an opportunity in disguise.  I specifically remember two stories, one from Melinda Jones Howe about Tina LeBlanc, a former student of hers that ended her professional career as a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and still works there on staff, and Jeri Mcburney-Rodgers about Paul Gibson, an alumni of our school who ended his professional career as principal dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet and who is still working as their Ballet Master today.    The stories were basically the same.  As young dancers in professional companies, they would watch the rehearsals of the more advanced dancers in the company instead of going home early or taking a break.  When those advanced dancers got injured, the artistic director asked who knew their roles and felt sure they could perform them.  Both of them knew the roles even though they weren’t official understudies for them and it helped to launch their careers.  Because I knew these people and admired them, it helped and I stopped getting that hopeless feeling when I’d see a cast list posted with my name in the understudy column.   It also inspired me to ask to understudy roles that I wanted and to learn solos of every work I was in even if I wasn’t chosen as the official understudy.   

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When Your Child’s Abilities Don’t Meet Your Expectations

When Your Child’s Abilities Don’t Meet Your Expectations
(And What You Can Do About It)

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Every year at about this time, I find myself having the same discussion with many parents.  Every time casting goes up, every time certain dancers get pointe shoes and others do not, every time level placements come out, I receive the same phone calls from distraught and disgruntled parents.  Their child is mortified and so disappointed.  All his or her friends got better roles, got moved up or got pointe shoes and now he or she is feeling left behind and left out.  Everyone has experienced disappointment and everyone has wanted something very much that they couldn’t yet achieve and it never gets any easier.  What I find after talking more than five minutes with some of these parents is that yes, their child is disappointed, but the parents themselves are sometimes even more so.

I find myself using a line from a dear friend of mine, Diane Cypher, who also owns a studio, ‘I am so sorry your child’s abilities don’t meet your expectations.’  The point being, it is important to celebrate your child’s strengths, but to also be aware of their weaknesses and be realistic with your expectations so your child can be realistic with his or hers.

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10 Secrets to a Successful Dance Audition

GWL_0290-EditThe New Year is not the only thing that’s fast approaching, so is audition season.  Summer programs, college programs and companies alike are making ready to tour throughout the United States and will be looking at some of the best dancers in the country.  How can a dancer stand out amongst the scores of other dancers vying for the same opportunities and positions?  Well, here are some helpful hints as you all venture out on the sometimes scary, sometimes exhilarating, audition trail.

1.  Arrive early. This gives you time to relax and stretch and mentally prepare yourself for the work ahead.  It also gives you a lower number which can increase the chances of you being seen in an audition that can have hundreds of people in it.

2. Dress appropriately and professionally.  Over the years, certain things have changed.  Years ago when you went to a ballet summer program or company audition, it was black leotards only, but now dancers are using colored leotards to stand out. (Beware, some auditioners like this trend and some of the more old fashioned ones do not.  Your best bet might be a black leotard with an interesting back and maybe something in your hair like a yellow flower.)  At Broadway auditions, people recommend ‘dressing the role.’  If it’s a Fosse show you’re going for, you are going to dress a certain way.  The biggest thing is to be neatly dressed: clean tights with no holes or runs, a clean leotard that maybe has a special back to it, ribbons and strings on your shoes tucked in, hair neat, slicked and professional looking, no gaudy jewelry and no finger nail or toe nail polish.

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Lessons Learned From Injury

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Dancer : Alexis Krueger
Photo by : Geek With a Lens

It always amazes me to say this, but I’ve been dancing and teaching for over 30 years now.  I teach 24 classes a week.  I teach 9 classes at the University, 4 classes at the Community College, once a week for the local professional modern company and 10 classes a week for the studio I co-own as well as help run the rehearsals and choreograph for our many productions; we just finished mounting our Nutcracker production.  Through all of it, I have never had a major injury.  That is, until about a month and a half ago.

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Bones versus Muscles

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Dancer : Maggie Carey
Photo by : Geek With a Lens

As a teacher, I’m always looking at different ways of saying the same thing.  We all know as teachers that what resonates with one dancer might not resonate with another.  Recently, I have been getting tired of finding different ways to talk about what I, in my mind, refer to as the ‘fabulous four’ of dance:  turnout muscles (the external rotators), inner thigh muscles (the adductors), the hamstrings and the abdominal muscles.  If a dancer can master all of these, their body placement, their level of bodily control and therefore their successful execution of ballet or any other form of dance, goes up exponentially. So how do you get your students to understand these complicated and sometimes deeply located muscles and harness their power?  I have been finding it difficult lately, so I decided to switch gears.

A few months ago I was reading an article on teaching that mentioned abstract versus concrete concepts.   That’s when it hit me that for most students, as odd as it might seem to me, muscles might be an abstract concept.  What if I switched gears and talked about bones rather than muscles? Would bone structure be more of a concrete concept to them? I figured it was worth a shot. I found that for many of my students, I was finally seeing those light bulb moments that I’ve been waiting for months to see and, in some cases, years.

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Is There Such a Thing as a Stupid Question?

Being Smart Dancers (and Helping to Create Them)

DCDC_William_Mem-498There are many ways to be a smart dancer, but one of the biggest factors is, surprisingly enough, actually asking fewer questions and making sure the questions you do ask are intelligent ones.

Let me start by saying this article has little to do with my younger students.  The youngest age I teach is six, but even with them, they know that we only ask questions about ballet in ballet class.  I love to hear about their day and what they think and how they feel, but they have to talk to me before or after class.  Every time they raise their hand during class, I ask, ‘Does this have to do with ballet?’  Nine times out of ten, they then put their hand down.  I laugh and tell them to tell me all about it after class.  This article, however, has to do with my students ten years of age and up.

Some teachers and parents today tell children that there is no such thing as a stupid question, but I beg to differ.  I think this type of teaching has weakened children’s deductive reasoning and their ability to critically think and problem solve for themselves. It also has lessened their observation and listening skills, both of which are essential when it comes to picking up movement and choreography.

I love when a student asks questions about a complicated concept like rotators or inner thigh muscles.  I love when they ask me to clarify or reword a correction.  I even love when the younger ones ask me the stories of the great ballets and we have story time while we stretch.  These are all good questions and help them further their body awareness and understanding of their art form.

So what am I talking about when I say stupid questions?  I mean asking the question I just answered when I demonstrated, but they didn’t hear or see because they one, weren’t paying attention, or two, had their hand up in the air thinking about the question they were going to ask instead of listening when I was explaining what I wanted.  I mean asking the same question someone asked a few minutes before, but the student was too busy talking or staring out the window and so didn’t hear the answer.   I mean asking about details when, if they had watched closely during the three plus times I demonstrated the combination, he or she would have known.  I mean asking a question that, if they had thought about it for 60 seconds, the student could have answered for themselves with the information that had already been given to them.

It’s gotten to the point with some students and classes that every time I see their hand up, I have to ask, ‘Have you thought about your question and tried to answer it yourself?’   Nine times out of ten, they think about it, laugh, nod and then put their hand down.  They can figure it out themselves, but they are so used to some teachers and parents doing the thinking for them, that they find it easier to just ask and get the answer rather than to think for themselves.

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