About a year ago (maybe more – time flies!), someone in a dance teachers’ group on Facebook posed an interesting question:
What are the 5 skills that you think are most important for your students to learn?
This was a particularly vexing topic for me, because I had a hard time even deciding what counts as a “skill ,” anyway. Quality dance training imparts so many different benefits: physical, of course, but also social, emotional, creative, cognitive, and even spiritual. To narrow down just 5 things I want my students take away from such a massive range of potential lessons was tricky at best.
But the question has stuck with me, and I think it’s a good one to explore here on the blog. To do so in a more manageable way, I’m going to separate my answers out over a few posts, each looking at a different “category” of skill. This post is about the top 5 movement or technique skills I try to instill in my students. (Check out my lists of social-emotional and artistic skills!)
Throughout my career I’ve taught in a wide range of settings: studios, colleges, K-12 schools, and community programs. I’ve worked with students from age 2-60, some of whom where stepping foot into the studio for the first time in their entire lives, and some of who had been dancing even longer than I have. I’ve led classes for dancers in the midst of their careers, trained students with professional aspirations, and taught novice students who love dance and those who were forced to be in class because of their school curriculum. I’ve taught ballet, pointe, variations, modern dance, contemporary, improvisation, jazz, lyrical, creative dance, pre-ballet and baby tap, and even (cringe) beginner hip-hop class or two.
Reflecting on the question at hand, given the wide range of students and styles in my background, I’ve realized that my answer is basically the same across the board. The essential movement skills are the same, regardless of the teaching/learning environment, the dancers’ age or skill level, or the genre of dance being studied. Of course they’ll be presented and explained in different ways, and my expectations for their understanding, embodiment, and application of the skills will differ based on their age, level, and maturity. There will also be stylistic differences based on the genre being taught. Overall, however, good movement skills are applicable across the board, so without further ado, I humbly present the top 5 technique and movement skills you should be teaching your students – all of them:
1.) Functional Alignment: To put it most simply, all dancers should be working toward an understanding of how their muscles, bones, and joints work together to properly align the body when standing still AND when moving through space on the low, mid, and high levels. Students who have this understanding can move safely (without excessive risk for injury) and efficiently (without excess strain, tension, exertion, or awkwardness), and transition more easily among dance styles, choreographers’ expectations, and the demands of different teachers. It is also the basis for good balance (and therefore good turns!) and proper extension.
- The Challenge: Based on body type, flexibility, strength, joint mobility, prior injury, and a host of different issues, “proper” functional alignment necessarily won’t be the same for everyone. The key is to help students discover their individual best alignment practices an how to maintain and change them as needed while moving. This takes time, practice, and patience – for you and the student!
- My Advice: For beginning students, you need to keep it simple! That was something I didn’t realize until I read Jan Ekert’s beautiful book, Harnessing the Wind: The Art of Teaching Modern Dance. If you walk into a beginning class and start drilling the nuances of engaging the deep rotators to maintain turnout, you will very likely not only confuse the daylights out of most the students, but also steal some of the joy of dancing from them! That doesn’t mean you need to ignore proper alignment completely with beginning or young dancers. There are lots of playful creative movement games that help develop body awareness, and fun metaphors can help get complex ideas across in a simplified way. Here are some of my ideas for a playful approach to ballet for young dancers. As dancers progress, build upon their existing body awareness and knowledge by incorporating somatic practices, such as Bartenieff Fundamentals, Alexander Technique, or even Pilates. Be sure to ask dancers to explain HOW new alignment ideas feel in their own bodies, encourage them to ask questions, and see that they can articulate and demonstrate how these somatic practices translate to their dance practice. For more ideas, see my series on empowering students in the ballet studio.
2.) Fluidity and Stability of the Spine: So much of dance technique and choreography, in all it’s forms, involves subtle articulation and manipulate of the spine. What separates a good dancer from a great one, for me, is often how the dancers find the balance between fluidity and stability in their spine. Can they execute a classic modern dance spiral, luscious ballet epaulment, a stellar contraction and hinge, well-defined rib cage isolations, and sinewy complex contemporary choreography? (And those are just concepts from Western dance forms…) At the same time, can they find their own neutral spine on the floor, sitting, and standing, and maintain it throughout a leggy adagio or tricky petite allegro exercise?
- The Challenge: So much of the way we think about our spines is integrated with hold we think about “holding” or “using” our core muscles. Often we use metaphors for engaging the core that lead to either a tipped or tilted pelvis (therefore whacking the spine out of neutral), or subconsciously encourage dancers to limit their spinal mobility in the name of a “strong” core. How do we find the balance between encouraging our dancers to develop proper core support while also developing more mobility in the spine?
- My Advice: My dancing completely changed the day I was given permission NOT to think about “using” my core. Suddenly, I was relying on skeletal alignment for support, not brute muscular engagement, and I found a new freedom of movement, particularly in my spine. Granted, I had been dancing for over 20 years and was in graduate school, so I had a degree of body maturity that enabled me to work in this way without completely “letting go” of all muscular engagement. However, I have tried to use more skeletal cuing with my dancers since that time. “Lengthen your spine,” “release your tailbone,” and “float your ears above your shoulders” can all work well to help intermediate and advanced students find skeletal support for their dancing, which leads to natural muscular engagement. Check out excerpts of my favorite spine warm-up here.
3.) Use of Weight: If I had to name the two most important “steps” I teach, they would be undercurve and overcurve. These are basically the modern-dance terms for concepts that are utilized in nearly every dance form; ballet dancers and jazzerinas might know them better as chasse and pique. More than anything else, I believe these steps (or concepts, if you’d prefer) help dancers understand the relationship of their body to gravity, allowing them to find groundedness and ballon. Dancers who can drop their weight and connect with the floor in a good undercurve have stronger plie-releves, higher jumps, smoother transitions between movements, and are generally better able to adapt to movement that goes into and out of the floor. Dancers who can shift their weight and transfer their hips over their foot and ankle in an overcurve find more suspension in their movement, can transfer between balance and off-balance movement, and perform most traveling turns (like pique turns) with greater ease. Undercurves and overcurves are truly powerhouse ideas to explore in class if you want your dancers to have a more dynamic use of weight!
- The Challenge: Like many good things in dance (as in life), nailing a proper undercurve or overcurve takes time, repetition, and focus. They can also be very, very boring. How can you keep it fresh for your dancers as they struggle to really find the proper shift of weight with the pelvis, while maintaining good alignment?
- My Advice: Don’t spend too much time on the actual movements themselves, but instead highlight just how prevalent these basic ideas are in just about every aspect of dance technique. I do include an undercurve and overcurve combination in every modern, contemporary, and lyrical class that I teach, and in ballet and jazz I try to include chasse, temps levee, and pique movements into barre or warm-up. But, I also point out where else they show up in class: in triplets or balances, in jumping combinations, any time you chasse into a releve, when stepping up into a balance, in turn preps, etc. I do this verbally, of course, but it’s often more powerful to SHOW it through my personal demonstration, and to have students observe others in class who have “gotten it.” Undercurve and overcurve also make great concepts for improv games. For example: Travel across the floor with a partner, but you always have to be doing the opposite of your partner (so if your partner undercurves, you overcurve).
4.) Articulation of the Feet and Ankles: Can you point, flex, pronate, supinate, find a neutral foot, lift just the toes, lift just the heal, and slide your foot across the floor without socks? Being able to articulate your feet and ankles is not only important as a dancer, it’s also important as a human being. (I’ll let Katy Bowman tell you more…) So often I see dancers who hold excess tension in their feet and ankles, which impacts balance, releve, jumping, weight shift, turning, traveling movement of all kinds, and more. Being able to find a full range of foot articulation (beyond point and flex) is incredibly important for dancers of every genre.
- The Challenge: There is just SO. LITTLE. TIME. in class. Are you now telling me I need to include foot articulation exercises too? Woman, you are out of your mind ….
- My Advice: No need to break out the therabands in every class. While dedicated time for foot stretch and strengthening exercises is lovely and important especially for pre-pointe and pointe students, I have found making better use of the exercises I am already including in class can had a big impact. For example, have your ballet students do tendu and degagge combinations from 6th position (parallel) so that they can really feel the articulation from the whole foot pressing into the ground, to the ball of the foot, to the whole point, then reverse. Include “toe push-ups” or “toe rond de jambes in a tendu combination (Toe Push-up: my silly name for releasing the ball of the foot into the ground so you are standing “on the walk,” then pressing back into to the full point. Toe rond de jambe is the same thing with a circle instead of just a push-up). Have your students deliberately overpronate and oversupinate in a coupe combination not only so that they develop mobility in those directions, but also practice finding finding the correct position. Include ankle circles in a pique combination or while traveling the leg up to retire and back down. Have students in all genres (yes, even ballet) dance barefoot to really feel the foot on the floor from time to time.
5.) General Coordination: I saved the most important for last, in my opinion. So often students can have good technique – nice execution of steps, decent alignment, etc. – but still be lacking that je ne said quoi. In my opinion, that “special something” is often good overall body coordination. I think of body coordination in terms of Laban/Bartenieff Fundamentals, which are also articulated in Anne Green Gilbert’s Brain Dance:
- Breath – Coordinating the movement of the body with the breath
- Sensation – Responding to touch and feeling
- Core-Distal – Connection from center of body out to the extremities and back
- Head-Tail – Connection through the spine
- Upper Body/Lower Body – Being able to isolate, connect, and coordinate the movement of these two halves of the body
- Body-Half (Homolateral Movement) – Being able to isolate, connect, and coordinate the movement of the right side and left side of the body
- Cross-Body (Contralateral Movement) – Being able to cross the midline and coordinate movement from one side through the center of the body to the other side
- Vestibular – Being able to move on and off-balance
A dancer who can demonstrate a deep understanding and embodiment of these principles is often, to me, the most beautiful mover in the room. This level of coordination allows for a deep body awareness that permeates every aspect of dancing and allows for more mature, nuanced, and full movement through space.
- The Challenge: Students (and often times parents) don’t think of coordination as a skill, especially not a “dance skill.” They don’t realize the coordination can improve with time and practice, or that it provides the foundation for truly great dance technique. In their minds, you are either coordinated or not. They want class time to be spent working on “dancing” and not coordination work.
- My Advice: Sneak it in if you have to, baby. In a perfect world, students and parents would trust our judgement, or at least be moved by our testimonies as to the benefits of the work we do in class. But in this imperfect and sometimes cruel world, sometimes you need to mix the medicine in with the ice cream and trust that the benefits outweigh the sugar and calories. Coordination exercises can be “disguised” in barre work, floor stretching, somatic warm-ups, improv exercises, and more. Stay tuned for a future post with more on this …. but for now, learn more about the Brain Dance and find ways to incorporate these ideas into your own classes.