“We have a great product here. We should create our Performance Project elsewhere, take it on the road, maybe to Marin County,” my choreographer colleagues exclaim.
“Your last ballet class was well attended by fine dancers,” one of my students praised me, “Keep this up and you’ll soon have a troupe!”
Success however takes more than talent and enthusiasm. Like preparing for a difficult dance jump, dreams also require careful timing and positioning in order to come true. I learned the concept of positioning years ago, in a workshop for selling health club memberships. “Don’t make the Ask until you’ve positioned the sale.”
Positioning is more than preparing just yourself for success. Your surrounding circumstances must also be prepared, logistics like venue and administrative processes; and even more importantly — people.
The larger the scale or scope of the vision, the more buy-in one needs from other people; and that takes time, a LOT of time. My former dance company had seven departments and a calendar planned a year in advance. The preparation was always more work than that performance.
Still, the dream of a portable dance program, or of directing another local performing troupe is seductive even while it’s daunting. I know good people for collaboration; and my fitness business supports me well enough now to take some risk.
How do you know when it’s time to jump?
What can you recommend?
It’s time to jump… for both me and my students. However, on any given day, there are good reasons for not risking those steps in the air (i.e. age, injury, intimidation, confusion about the jump sequence). That doesn’t mean one abandons the attempt. There are very studied and effective ways to take the jump out of the jump, and still get the most out of the choreography.It’s called “marking”.
This season my students are going to learn how to fully mark steps. Then we’ll have no excuse for giving up, and fading into the back of the studio due to fear or fatigue. Our contemporary culture praises extreme, exhaustive effort. We confuse 100% physical effort with 100% commitment. Wrong.
Mastery comes from coordinating degrees of effort.
How do you know how much, and when, to push yourself?
This season we’ll learn how to properly mark the jumps in order to master six elements of their execution:
- Landings (safe and with clean and clear positions)
- Rhythm (the body mechanics do not match the downbeat of the music)
- Horizontal lift versus traveling distance (for every step)
- Arms (their position and pathway)
- Face (there’s more to it than simply watching oneself in the mirror)
- Accent (for every step) and the dramatic Arch (of the musical or movement phrase)
How’s that for an autumn harvest?
Talent abounds; but there’s only so much time and free rehearsal space available to foster communal creativity. I need to be very efficient with my tribe’s resources!I’ve got one-third of a dance to choreograph for the Autumn Performance Project on Thanksgiving weekend. I wonder if I can reconfigure the petite allegro combination from my ballet class into a popular, gestural sequence that will appeal to novice dancers who may be more comfortable with hip-hop than classical dance. Can I transform one little jump sequence into something-for-everyone? It has to fit Mike Posner’s pop tune,
“Cooler Than Me.”
How do you make your efforts yield their broadest impact?
Maybe I don’t have to come up with the vision of this double-duty dance all by myself. The art salon that I host each month at my fitness studio always begins with a communally created dance. I’ll try giving my problem to my guests, and ask them to transform the ballet pattern.
I teach the same step sequences for an entire quarter, for a season. This allow the students enough time to go beyond rudimentary memorization of steps and mastering coordination of their limbs. By the end of a three month period, we’re able to address what matters most to me — musical phrasing and the options for individual artistic choices, rather than body mechanics.
This is the last week of summer. Time to move on .
As with when doing a dress rehearsal for performance (or for any creative endeavor), there is always a longing for just a little more time, always room for improvement (i.e. In this summer session now ending, we never quite got the hang of that arabesque turn; and the legs are still late to close position in the air for the jumping step called assemble’).
How do you bring a sense of satisfaction to the decision that your work is complete?
Whatever the sequences I weave together for the autumn class, I’ll include those steps in which our mastery is deficient. We may be done with our summer patterns; but the technical challenges continue. Maybe the greatest satisfaction is with our long-term results.
Do you agree?
My current theme for dance class instruction is Entrances & Exits. In the studio we explore the concepts literally; but as metaphor the theme continues to resonate for me long after class.
Examples are everywhere — the greetings that one bothers to make entering a dinner party (or not), or the manner in which one exits a business meeting, are doors to and from experiences, deserving of attention.
Sometimes the periods of one’s life have no defined portal; they’re more like a tunnel or a continuous staircase. My mother’s death earlier this year was clearly an exit for her. The same moment was an entrance for me and my family to a new phase of existence…not so easily defined as Mom’s departure.
How do you recognize and honor a passage?
Sometimes when the season changes with the coloring of leaves, I think that I’ve entered a new period of my life; but its beginning may be only a vague feeling. The presence of a doorway into a new time of life is a matter of interpretation; and yet that interpretation, that recognition that one is entering or exiting, makes a huge difference going forward.
What do you think?
This season, the ballet classes that I teach at two very different health clubs excite me. They’re getting good! I’ve made similar attempts at various clubs over the years, but never with this sense of steady success. Having come late to dance myself, I empathize with adult Beginners.
I enjoy the analysis and explanation of technique, and that “Ah-ha!” moment that lights up a student’s face when a new concept dawns.
Sure, teaching the fundamentals, the same thing over and over again every week, tries my patience. However, it’s only tedious when I arrive at the studio with plans to set a beautiful step sequence that is beyond the capacity of most of those people who happened to join me that day.
How does an instructor let go of their own expectations?
Beginners require a specific format, different from the intermediate students who are already familiar with basic vocabulary. The new folks progress best with a syllabus set in advance that maximizes repetition; and they need breaks to relax their minds; whereas the experienced dancers benefit from the opposite– a sustained focus. In health clubs, they all attend the same class together.
What do you recommend?
However ignoble it may be for a teacher to think of himself this way, ours is a cult of personality. New business, class attendance and private clientele, are best advanced through personal contact. You’ve got to get yourself out there.
I like thinking of my life in blocks of seasons. Perhaps that’s a remnant of my landscape gardening years — just me and a pick-up truck, and sometimes a hunky assistant from the club where I was also employed as a fitness trainer. Planning by season is not just a useful metaphor for a gardener! Less essential for a teacher’s business, the seasons are still romantic and full of ritual. I change the stations of my exercise circuit class on the equinox and solstice; because that dance with the rhythm of the surrounding world somehow blesses the success of all arrangements.
My spring networking effort was going out for after-class drinks with dance students, and organizing group field trips to the Opera House to see the San Francisco Ballet.
Last summer, my self-promotion attempt was to attend a figure drawing salon at an art gallery in my neighborhood, ($20 for 3 hours of live models, meal of appetizers and beer and wine!). I still had to be assertively social. Artists don’t talk much while they work; but , between poses, the appetizer table is ripe with potential introductions, “What do you do?” By participating in the group activity, I didn’t need to push or be disingenuous.
What group activities have intrinsic value to you?
Satisfaction comes from committing to the activities that bring you joy, even if you don’t capture any new business. I like to make such social plans a quarter in advance.
Have you any suggestions?
When I last taught the Tuesday night dance class at the Club, I had only one student, and she was 15 minutes late. I left the club depressed and discouraged. There were other indications that my popularity there had waned. My picture and profile had disappeared from the Pilates staff wall display. My last attempt to produce a Performance Project there failed to generate minimal enrollment, and had to be cancelled. All my suggestions for innovative class formats were ignored.
I have a pattern of continuing to offer my expertise where it is no longer wanted, of overstaying my welcome.
How do you know when it’s time to move on?
I’ve worked for all the major, upscale health clubs in San Francisco. Dissatisfaction forces me to take a second look at the professional teaching terrain and my own, underlying desires. I want to belong to a team, to feel myself part of a faculty. Can I still make that happen in an environment where I’ve become obsolete? The challenge is to find a purposeful alternative in which I believe that I have a clear, creative and collaborative opportunity.
What do you recommend?
I can’t be the only dance teacher working in a health club because his first love won’t pay the rent. In a gym of course, fitness comes first; art second. There, fitness is defined by market forces; and what I want to offer most is not on-trend. The same goes for martial artists, gymnasts, former team sport athletes, yogis — we each hold our own isolated dream, absent our peers in a health club setting as we operate in an environment that does not share our personal priorities.
I revelled in the week that I spent as Ballet Master at a professional dance school last summer; but in the end I lost money doing it. The dance school enrolled only a handful of well-trained teenagers and a dozen amateur adults. The health club, on the other hand, has over 4,000 members.
How do you overcome the resulting mediocrity?
The challenge for a specialist teacher is boredom, as repetition demands that we always teach and stick to the basics, the rudiments of our craft, ever the same. One must calm a rising anxiety about one’s unfulfilled potential. It’s exhausting.
What do you recommend?
A health club member was upset with me this morning, for using the club’s main studio to train one of my private clients (one of her fellow members). I don’t recall having a prior altercation with the woman; and I was surprised by the venom and distain that she voiced for me. “I’ll report you!” she shrieked.
Years ago I would have been personally offended, worried that I might get in trouble with management; and I would have tried to smooth things over. Not today. With my decades of experience comes blissful indifference. “You’re welcome to talk to my supervisor, the Director of Group Exercise” I shrugged, “She knows that I’m using this space, and in fact pays me to do so.” I wasn’t rude or combative. After all, the dispute was really between the two members — not my problem.
How much time and effort should a staff teacher devote to peace keeping?
Conflict resolution, making everybody happy, is a great gift, and one that I happen to have in abundance. As the Pilates Department Coordinator at that same club, I often found myself in the role of mediator. Back then it was part of my job responsibilities. Not today.
Now, at my OWN studio, Volition Fitness, I’ve an entirely different perspective. My partner and I each have a couple of prima donna clients. When the two are forced to share the space, they’re like hissing cats. We take great pains to keep their appointments at separate hours.
How do you handle disputes among clients?